It is time to view the stars with a friend or loved one who has their eye on a brand new telescope to bring the heavens closer to home. But, when you log into the B&H Photo website, the sheer number of telescopes—not to mention their different configurations, dizzying specifications, and wildly different prices—leaves you with more questions than answers. In this guide, we will attempt to boil things down to a few recommended beginner telescopes (plus other optical options) to simplify your search.
What Should a “Beginner” Telescope Do?
When purchasing a telescope for the first time, it might be best to keep things relatively inexpensive and simple so that you don’t invest in something that starts collecting dust after a single outing or two. This brings us to the category of “beginner” telescopes. Expensive telescopes can be so complex and challenging that they turn off many novice stargazers.
A beginner telescope should do the following:
Provide awesome views of the moon, nearby planets, comets, and maybe some deep sky objects like nebulae or galaxies
Be easy to operate
Come with all the accessories—tripod/support, eyepieces, etc.—that you need to start viewing as soon as it comes out of the box
Not be a budget-breaking investment
Should you buy the cheapest scope available? No. The danger of starting to stargaze at the very lowest price point is that the viewing experience can be a bit underwhelming, preventing further inspiration or interest. However, the good news is that a decent beginner telescope won’t break the proverbial bank, nor cause a loss of too much sleep if the recipient isn’t bitten by the astro bug after a few nights of use.
The below recommendations stay within gift-friendly budgetary limits, yet are quality scopes that will allow exciting viewing of planets, the moon, comets, and brighter deep sky objects.
Before we begin, let’s cover some telescope basics, because it is impossible to give recommendations without providing some basic information first.
If you’ve come across this article but wish to do your own research into what type of telescope you’d like to give as a gift (or buy for yourself), then look no further than Chris Witt’s informative article Everything You Need to Know Before Buying a Telescope. In that article, Chris takes you on a deep dive into telescopes and telescope viewing that will leave little room for questions or confusion—aside from, “Now that I know everything there is to know, what do I buy?”
There are several types of telescopes on the market today, but the basics are refractor, reflector, and catadioptric scopes. Refractors are what most people think about when imagining a telescope—a long tube that you look through with lenses at each end. The reflector is what most people think of when visualizing larger telescopes—a wide tube with mirrors inside that project an image out of the side of the tube. Catadioptric telescopes are refractor-like, and send the view through the back of the telescope.
These three configurations have their pros and cons, but for those just getting into the telescope market, refractors and reflectors are going to be less expensive than catadioptric scopes, with plenty of entry-level options.
Because the planet is round and rotating, the stars, planets, and other deep sky objects are in constant motion above our heads. Basic telescope mounts—usually called Alt-Azimuth (Alt-Az) mounts—allow you to point the scope at an object, but will not track the object—causing it to eventually leave the scope’s field of view unless the scope is repositioned. This is not a negative thing, it’s just something you deal with without a tracking mount, and usually fine for casual viewing.
German Equatorial (GE) mounts will track sky objects, which is a huge benefit, but the drawback is that they need to be properly aligned and set up—a complicated process for many.
There are electronic motorized versions of both Alt-Az and GE mounts. This motorization has allowed for computer-controlled mounts that can locate and track objects programmed into extensive databases.
Suggested Beginner Telescopes
Celestron PowerSeeker 60 60mm f/12 AZ Refractor Telescope
Great for viewing the moon and planets, the PowerSeeker has a 90° diagonal prism that “corrects” the image so that it is not inverted. A 3x Barlow lens (like a teleconverter) offers increased magnification when desired. A smaller 50mm version and larger 70mm and 80mm versions are available, as well.
Carson JC-1000 2.4"/60mm Refractor Telescope Kit
This scope from Carson comes with a diagonal, a pair of eyepieces, a finder scope, and tripod. The tripod tray accommodates your accessories, and you can add eyepieces down the road.
Celestron Travel Scope DX 70mm f/6 AZ Refractor Telescope
This Celestron has similar specs to the PowerSeeker, but it is designed for portability―an included backpack holds the scope, tripod, and included accessories. The scope includes a smartphone adapter to allow you to share what you see with friends and the entire Internet. The tripod can be used on a tabletop or as a full-sized support. As with the PowerSeeker, the smaller 60mm and a larger 80mm are available. There are other Travel Scope’s available with similar specs sans phone adapter.
Celestron FirstScope 76mm f/4 Alt-Az Reflector Telescope
Available in the Standard, Cometron, and Signature Series Moon Edition, this tabletop-mounted Newtonian reflector telescope has a 300mm focal length and built-in finder scope—great for viewing the planets, moon, comets, and more.
Celestron PowerSeeker 114EQ 114mm f/8 Reflector Telescope
A step up from the tabletop Newtonian is this larger, more traditional reflector from Celestron. It comes with two eyepieces and a 3x Barlow. The tripod features slow-motion control cables to help you track objects while viewing.
Gifting a Telescope to an Enthusiast—Non-Beginner Telescopes
Here is where I “punt” a bit in the buying guide—giving telescopes to those who have already been bitten by the stargazing bug.
Most astronomers who are serious about stargazing are familiar with the different options on the market and probably have their eye on a specific model with options that will meet their viewing or astrophotography needs.
How do you get them the telescope they want without revealing your surprise gift? Easy! Get them a B&H Gift Card that will allow them (or help them) to get the telescope of their stargazing dreams!
The New Wave—Digital Telescopes
Far from the price point of a beginner telescope, but intriguing as a gift option, is a type of telescope that has recently entered the market—the digital telescope. These scopes are fully automated and are designed to capture digital images of objects in the night sky—some models are for digital viewing only, with no eyepiece to see what the scope is seeing. Although they are expensive, their technology and automation makes them worth mentioning here, since they are not as complex as traditional scopes and mounts.
Versatile Optical Alternatives to the Telescope—Binoculars
While the telescope is the default night-sky-observing tool, binoculars and spotting scopes should not be overlooked.
Binoculars have long been a top choice among serious stargazers—check out my 3-part article Binoculars for Astronomy and Stargazing. They are generally more portable than a telescope, easier to use, and more versatile. Binoculars render a wider view of the cosmos (you’ll be looking through two larger soda straws) and, because of this, you can enjoy expansive views of star fields and meteor showers. A good pair of binoculars that you’d use for birding, hunting, or viewing wildlife can make a great pair of stargazing binos!
Nikon 8x42 Monarch M5 Binoculars
Likely representing the very best value in modern binoculars, Nikon’s Monarch series gives you premium optics and features at non-premium prices. These binoculars could be not only your entry into the world of stargazing (and birding and general viewing), but they could also be a lifetime purchase. If you want more power, the 10x version is available, as well.
Celestron 8x56 SkyMaster DX Binoculars
With a magnification level friendly to handholding and the large light-gathering capabilities of a 56mm objective lens, these Celestrons make for a great entry point to night sky viewing with both eyes. You can also easily use these binos for birding, hunting, boating, and more.
Celestron 20x80 SkyMaster Binoculars
The big brother to the DX SkyMaster binoculars, these big stargazing glasses need to be tripod mounted for steady views of the night sky. Unlike the smaller pair, these are of limited use for general binocular use, but can, when mounted on a tripod, be also used during the daytime.
Versatile Optical Alternatives to the Telescope—Spotting Scopes
Spotting scopes are very similar in design to a telescope, but they are usually much more rugged, smaller, and easier to use. I dive deep in my article Spotting Scopes vs. Telescopes for Beginner Astronomers.
Because they are designed primarily for terrestrial observations, you can use them to view birds and wildlife during the day and then stars, planets, and comets at night. This versatility alone gives them an edge over the telescope when it comes to someone who might not always be into checking out the night sky.
Celestron Ultima 80 20-60X80mm Spotting Scope Kit (Angled Viewing)
For beginning stargazing with a spotting scope, and for amazing daytime views of wildlife and landscapes, look no further than the Ultima 80 spotting scope. The scopes are waterproof and easy to use and come with a lifetime warranty. You can grab one with a smartphone adapter, as well, to start sharing images right out of the box.
There are a few things to consider before diving into the world of astronomy and, even with the recommendations above, it is important to mention and discuss them here.
Where Do You Live?
Light pollution is bad. The closer you live to the bright lights of a city, the less you can see in the night sky—even with a telescope. If you live in Brooklyn, New York, your telescope will be able to see the brightest stars, the six nearest planets, and, of course, the moon. Deep sky objects are only going to be available to those in darker sky areas.
What Will You See?
Not long ago, especially in astronomical terms, the best views of the night sky were had through ground-based optical telescopes. Today we have intrepid space probes, orbiting observatories, and ultra-powerful ground based digital telescopes—plus an Internet full of incredible images—that have made us accustomed to spectacular views of the cosmos.
As amazing an instrument a good backyard telescope is, you will not be soaking up the same views that you are familiar with on your astronomy-heavy Instagram feed.
However, there is really something amazing in seeing the moon, planets, comets, and other night sky objects with your very own eyes!
No matter where you live, there is likely an astronomy club that hosts star parties on a regular basis. At these events, you will likely be able to check out many different types of telescopes and mounts, as well as ask “locals” what kind of gear they prefer—and what they recommend staying away from. You can always read reviews online but getting real-world viewing and handling experience is great before you make an investment.
B&H Explora has a host of in-depth articles on telescopes for those looking to go beyond the beginner scope as a gift. Please feel free to browse these articles and contact us if you have questions about purchasing a telescope, binoculars, or spotting scope.
Everything You Need to Know Before Buying a Telescope
Telescopes to Help You Touch the Stars
5 Reasons Why Astronomy Is Popular
Telescope Filters Buying Guide
Spotting Scopes vs. Telescopes for Beginner Astronomers
Binoculars for Astronomy and Stargazing
Do you have questions about the beginner scopes mentioned above or stargazing in general? Let us know in the Comments section, below!