These the best telescopes for astrophotography right now. There are plenty of great telescopes available to the amateur astronomer, but if you want to take pictures of what you see in the night sky (aka astrophotography), figuring out the right tools for the task can be trickier.
When choosing the best telescope for astrophotography, we are spoiled for choice nowadays. There are telescopes of almost every shape and size to choose from, ranging from budget telescopes for the beginner to highly advanced large telescopes for the experienced astronomer.
There are a number of features to look out for, however, so here's a guide to some of the jargon, what it means and why it matters.
Astrophotography features to look for
• Motorized mount: This will track the motion of the sky over time. The Earth’s rotation means celestial objects appear to slowly progress across the sky from east to west, at roughly the apparent diameter of the full moon, every two minutes. If you use a telescopes that doesn't have a motorized mount, objects will appear to drift out of the field of view of the telescope, and you'll constantly have to manually re-centre the target object. This means you’ll be limited to shooting short-exposure photos of the Sun, Moon and planets. A telescope with a motorized mount that tracks the sky means you'll also be able to try your hand at long-exposure astrophotography.
• Equatorial mount: These are like regular pan and tilt tripods, but with the pan axis tilted to match the tilt of the earth. This means that you can follow stars and planets across the sky by moving your telescope on a single axis, motorized or otherwise.
• Focal length: This means the same in astrophotography as it does in regular photography. The longer the focal length, the narrower the angle of view and the greater the magnification. You should choose the focal length according to the size of the objects you are interested in.
• Aperture or lens size: The aperture of the telescope, or the size of its objective lens if it's a refracting type, is important. The larger a telescope's aperture, the more light it collects and the finer detail it can resolve. In general it is not worth considering a refracting telescope with a lens smaller than 75mm. 'Aperture' here does not mean the same as 'aperture' in photography. In astrophotography, what photographers call 'aperture' would be called the 'focal ratio'.
• Refracting telescope: This is the design familiar to most people, using optical lenses to focus on celestial objects. They are essentially like supertelephoto lenses, but designed for stargazing. These are the simplest type to set up and use.
• Newtonian reflector: These are shorter and fatter and use a parabolic mirror to reflect the image back up the tube to an angled mirror near the front. Mirror designs are more compact and often more affordable, but may require calibration or 'collimation'.
• Maksutov-Cassegrain reflector: These use mirrors too, but the secondary mirror at the front bounces the image back down the tube and through a hole in the main mirror at the rear to an eyepiece or a camera adaptor at the back. These are like the 'mirror lenses' once popular (and still made) for cameras.
• Telescope camera adaptor: You will usually need an adaptor to mount a camera on the telescope.
The best telescopes in 2020
The Celestron Inspire Refractor is the best telescope for astrophotography for those just getting started out, or if you're on a on a limited budget. Though its mount is a basic un-driven alt-azimuth design, it will still enable you to get some impressive images of the lunar surface – which is by far the best initial target to try photographing. This telescope comes with an integrated smartphone adapter, which means you can mount your phone to the eyepiece to take photos. You could also easily mount a digital SLR to the telescope with a low cost adapter (available separately.)
If you're after the best telescope for astrophotography and serious stargazine, we recommend the Celestron Astromaster 130EQ, which offers a great package for the slightly more experienced amateur astronomer. It comes with a tracking equatorial mount which allows the user to try their hand at longer exposure astrophotography, and its larger aperture will start to show more detail in all manner of different objects. Its optical system – a Newtonian reflector – will require collimating to perform to its potential. This process can be tricky for beginners, but with practice it's easily achieved. The overall package here would make a sound choice as a first serious telescope for astrophotography, and with practice and patience offers potential to produce some impressive images.
The Skywatcher Startravel-120 is a great telescope for the price. Not only do you get a decent-sized refracting telescope at 120mm aperture, but it comes with a highly-respected EQ3-2 equatorial mount. It is easy to set up and use, giving you speedy access to a wide range of targets. The mount also has a DSLR shutter release port for camera control. The telescope itself is well suited to general observation and photography, but perhaps best for lunar and planetary photography.
This telescope is a good example of one that is well suited to a particular area of astrophotography: due to its long focal length (1500mm), it is best for observing and photographing the Moon and planets. The telescope also comes with a Barlow lens to increase the focal length for higher power photography and observing. The whole package would be a great choice for those interested in specifically observing the Moon and planets, and its aperture is large enough to easily reveal features such as Jupiter’s Great Red Spot or clear views of Saturn’s ring system. However, it's not well suited to long-exposure photography of nebulae or galaxies. Can be found sold with and without its Go-To mount.
The Meade ETX90 is a well-established, multi-purpose telescope aimed at astrophotography beginners. It offers GoTo and tracking capability in a high quality compact package. The telescope's rather long focal length gears it more toward photography of the Moon and planets, but it can be used to photograph the brighter nebulae and galaxies. It is also equipped with an AudioStar hand box with over 30,000 objects in its database built-in speaker. The telescope tube can be detached from the mount if you wish to use the scope on another tripod. There are also a wide range of different accessories available for the Meade ETX range.
The Skywatcher Explorer 150P would serve as a great choice for those looking to upgrade from the beginner-level telescopes. Its larger 150mm aperture will allow detailed images of planetary targets, as well as a wide range of nebulae and galaxies. It also comes with a proper equatorial GoTo mount designed for longer exposure astrophotography – although this mount and the Newtonian design do mean setup is more complex. The telescope comes equipped with a range of useful accessories, such as a polar scope to make polar alignment quick and easy.
The Schmidt Cassegrain telescope is a very popular among amateur astronomers worldwide, thanks to its user-friendly design. The Celestron Nexstar 5SE is an entry-level system into this type of telescope. This well-designed telescope is suitable for most types of astrophotography, although perhaps best suited to lunar and planetary astrophotography as opposed to nebulae and galaxies, due to its longer focal length. There are also a wide range of accessories available, such as a device to allow automatic alignment with the night sky.
Once upon a time a telescope like the Skywatcher Evostar 120 EQ5 Pro was in the remit of advanced amateur astronomers only. Today, much lower prices have made such instruments available to many more astrophotography enthusiasts. A larger aperture, refracting telescope like this will provide a lifetime of both visual and photographic use. It is ideal for almost any area of astrophotography. Its optional advanced equatorial GoTo mount will give great results in almost any facet of astrophotography, from planetary to long exposure deep sky photography; it can also be bought in OTA (optical tube assembly) form, allowing you to pair it with a mount of your choice.
The final entry in our roundup of the best telescopes for astrophotography is the Celestron Advanced VX 8” Edge HD, which gives a flavour of the kind of telescope available to those with a larger budget. It represents an advanced amateur telescope capable of pretty much any task you’d care to give it. With superb quality optics and an excellent, accurate mount it offers a high performance level in almost every area of astrophotography. It also has the added bonus of offering a superbly user-friendly system. A telescope like this will provide a lifetime of observing pleasure to all but the most demanding observers.
The Sky-Watcher Heritage 114P telescope, though a small package, offers some great features for those wanting a small telescope to use for astrophotography. The mount provides a stable observing platform and will also track night-sky objects once located. The telescope can be slewed automatically in both axes, at five different speeds, via the mount's electronic keypad. Another cool feature is the Freedom-Find dual-encoder technology, which enables the telescope to be moved manually in either axis without losing its alignment or positional information. This is enormously convenient and offers great flexibility during observing sessions. The telescope also includes a Canon-D electronic shutter release cable, enabling automatic DSLR control at up to six preset positions. The smaller 90mm Sky-Watcher Heritage 90P is also worth considering.
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