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Taking pictures of celestial objects such as stars, moons, planets, and galaxies, or astrophotography, is something many of us have seen or been interested in without even knowing. Do you have a calendar with pictures of the Moon, stars, or constellations? Have you ever seen an image from the Hubble or James Webb Space Telescope? If so, you have seen astrophotography.
Whether you are new to the art of taking pictures of space or are an old pro, having the right equipment helps make your images better and makes the experience more enjoyable. Picking out the best telescope for astrophotography depends on a few things, including the type of photography, budget, and your level of expertise.
The good news is that you don’t need a special telescope to take astronomical pictures, but there are a few things to look for when purchasing one specifically for this purpose. I will discuss the difference between refractor and reflector telescopes, including which is better for capturing images, and detail some of the best telescopes for astrophotography. Let’s get into it!
|Sky Watcher Skymax
|Celestron NexStar 127
|DWARFLAB Dwarf II
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Refractor vs Reflector: Which Is Better For Astrophotography?
There are two main types of telescopes that amateur and professional astrophotographers can pick from. These are refractors and reflectors. Both can work for space photography, but you won’t see the same type of pictures.
Refractor telescopes use lenses crafted to capture and focus light to create images. These usually have two lenses. An objective lens focuses the light coming into the tube. The eyepiece lens focuses the light so that you can view the image.
These telescopes tend to be smaller. The larger the objective lens, the longer the tube is needed. That means that larger refractors become extremely expensive and hard to maneuver.
Smaller model refractors are very popular because you can easily take them from the backyard to the mountaintop. Refractors with double lenses can have chromatic aberration or color fringing. Chromatic aberration happens when different wavelengths of light are refracted by the same lens at differing angles. Color fringing causes a noticeable color difference around the edge of an object. Triple lens refractors eliminate this problem.
For astrophotography, refractors offer higher contrast views. They provide higher-quality images and are a good fit for taking pictures of deeper space, galaxies, and nebulae. A compact apochromatic (APO) refractor scope is preferable as they are easy to move and helps eliminate chromatic aberration. These are perfect for wide-field deep-space astrophotography.
Reflector telescopes use mirrors to reflect light and create images. These have a primary and secondary mirror, which work together to capture and reflect the image to the eyepiece for viewing. Reflectors cost less because they don’t use glass lenses, and they don’t have the same color fringing issue. Images from reflector scopes are usually upside down by default, requiring more precision to line up.
Reflectors can be good for viewing planets and dim objects in the night sky. They tend to be heavier and are less portable, so they are often better in a more permanent setup. Reflectors are better for capturing brighter celestial objects like the Moon and planets. They capture less detail and less vibrant colors.
Schmidt-Cassegrain And Maksutov-Cassegrain
These are a third type of telescope, referred to as compound or catadioptric telescopes, a hybrid of the reflector and refractor. Compound scopes have both mirrors and lenses. Though they can be very useful for taking celestial photographs, they can be expensive.
You can use all three types of telescopes for astrophotography. Reflectors are more complicated to use, so they may not be a top pick if you’re a beginner, but all can capture incredible celestial images.
Keep in mind that the best astrophotography telescope may differ from the one you would pick for visual observation. Contrary to widely held belief, the largest and most powerful telescope is not always the best selection for astrophotography.
5 Features To Consider
1. Focal Ratio
When considering telescopes for astrophotography, the focal ratio (f-ratio, f-stop) is one of the most significant factors. The higher the f-ratio, the dimmer and larger an object appears.
The lower the f-ratio, the faster a scope gathers light. Faster scopes are good for deep-sky photography. Faster scopes have an f-ratio of f/5 or below. Slower telescopes have an f-ratio of f/8 and higher. Scopes with f/11 and larger are often found in more powerful scopes and are better for planets, lunar, star, celestial viewing, and photography.
2. Focal Length
For observing objects like planets, a longer focal length is better. However, for capturing images in deeper space like comets and nebulae, you need a telescope with a wider field of view and a shorter focal length. A longer focal length will give you a larger, dimmer image. A shorter focal length gives you a smaller yet brighter image.
Typically, telescopes with a focal length between 800mm and 1,200mm are suitable for capturing deep-space celestial images. Between 500mm and 800mm is good for general and amateur photography. Those below 400mm are considered wide-field, meaning they are good for capturing longer exposure pictures and observing more detail over a wider field of view.
3. Ease Of Use
How easy a telescope is to set up, focus, and use is important. Are you planning to use this at home or on the go? If you are taking pictures, you will need a camera and the proper mount to fit your camera, phone, or other device. If you plan to explore Earthside to find the best astronomical picture-taking spot, you want a portable, light, and quick scope to set up.
4. Additional Features
The specific features of the scope, such as focusers, finderscopes, laser focus, size, light-gathering capability, optics, and design, are all considerations.
Some scopes come with a mount, while others do not. If you are entirely new to stargazing and celestial picture-taking, you may not have another mount or tripod to use. Additionally, scopes only sometimes come with cameras or phone mounts. These often must be bought separately and may be specific to your type of camera. Keep this in mind when purchasing your scope. A motorized scope is preferable with astrophotography as it helps the telescope move as the Earth does.
Best Telescopes For Astrophotography
I recommend these five astrophotography telescopes based on several factors, including performance, ease of use, pricing, and more. If you are totally new to astronomy, check out our guide on the best telescopes for beginners, or if you need a refresher on telescope features and what they mean, jump to my terminology guide to learn more.
Best Overall Astrophotography Telescope: Explore Scientific ED 127 Review
The Explore Scientific ED 127 is a powerful air-spaced, triplet refractor scope with a focal length of 952mm. It is an apochromatic scope with diffraction-limited optics, providing images with remarkable and crisp detail. It can show deep-space images of celestial sights such as the Pillars of Creation and the Pinwheel and Sombrero Galaxies in high contrast and with outstanding detail.
The Explore Scientific ED 127 comes with several other features that help capture celestial photography. It features built-in handles on the cradle rings, which help handle the scope. Additionally, a slotted section on the handle connects a bolt and DSLR camera. It also comes with an Explore Scientific two-in-one Finder Scope base installed. It also has tilt and centering adjustments to help get that perfect view.
|Clear, crisp images
|No dust collection on lenses
|Apochromatic triple lens refractor
|Easy to set up
|Some customers say customer service is hard to reach
|Retractable dew shield
|Good for planetary and lunar images
Price & Tech Specs
- Dimensions: 40.5″D x 11.5″W x 11″H
- Weight: 18 pounds (assembled)
- Focal Length: 952mm
- Focal Ratio: f/7.5
- Resolution: .9 arc seconds
- Clear Aperture: 127mm
Best Compound Telescope For Astrophotography: Sky-Watcher Skymax 180mm Maksutov-Cassegrain Review
The Sky-Watcher Skymax Maksutov-Cassegrain is a large compound scope that is a top performer when it comes to images of the deep sky and solar system. It offers a long focal length and high-contrast imaging. The scope comes with autofocus to make lining up with celestial objects easier. It is designed to be compact and move about without difficulty.
This scope could be better for wide-field views but shows great planetary detail. The Skymax 180 has a corrector plate and signature Metallic High Transmission Coatings to eliminate chromatic aberration. The longer focal lengths allow you to see sharp details from a very compact scope. You can add a solar filter to try your hand at solar images. The kit has a two-inch 28mm eyepiece, a 9×50 finder scope, a V-style dovetail, and a two-inch diagonal. You must purchase a mount, as this kit does not include one.
|High-performing compound scope
|Must purchase mount separately
|Some users upgrade the eyepieces
|Good for planetary images
|Not easy to use for beginners
|Longer focal length
Price & Tech Specs
- Dimensions: 30″D x 12″W x 14″H
- Weight: 19 pounds (assembled)
- Focal Length: 2,700mm
- Focal Ratio: f/15
- Resolution: .64 arc seconds
- Clear Aperture: 180mm
Best For Beginners: Celestron NexStar 127 SLT Computerized Telescope Review
The Celestron NexStar 127 LT is a Maksutov-Cassegrain Optical Design with computerized hand control. The scope has a 127mm aperture and produces stunning images, including the craters on the Moon, the rings of Saturn, Jupiter’s clouds, and more. The compact design makes it easy to move, so you can search for celestial objects from the backyard, your building’s roof, or when camping out in the middle of nowhere. It is also relatively easy to set up and use without much adjusting.
This scope comes with a pre-assembled, adjustable steel tripod and is relatively compact, making it easy to move about. It uses a five-inch primary mirror to capture lunar and solar images in vibrant color and detail. The Celestron NexStar also comes with access to a database of over 40,000 stars, nebula, galaxies, and other celestial objects.
You tell the telescope what you want to see, and it will find it for you and even track it through the night sky as the object moves. This telescope is perfect for beginners and seasoned pros. The ease of use is unbeatable, making it a top pick for families and beginners. You may not get perfect deep-space pictures, but it is a great pick for capturing lunar, solar, and planetary photography.
|Includes a two-year warranty
|Not as long as a refractor
|Comes with bonus Starry Night Special Edition software download
|You may want to upgrade the eyepiece kit for a wider field view
|Computerized hand control
|Computerized tripod mount
|The closed tube keeps dust out
Price & Tech Specs
- Dimensions: 40″D x 19″W x 11″H
- Weight: 18.1 pounds (assembled)
- Focal Length: 1,500mm
- Focal Ratio: f/12
- Resolution: .91 arc seconds
- Clear Aperture: 127mm
Best Value Telescope For Astrophotography: SVBONY SV550 APO Triplet Refractor, 80mm Review
This APO triplet refractor apochromatic objective design is a powerful telescope for both visual viewing and astrophotography. The triplet apochromatic optics structure improves image quality and reduces edge dispersion and color distortion. It also has four extinction light bars inside the lens barrel to help eliminate light interference.
This telescope is small and light but very powerful. The triple-lens design provides high contrast and bright visuals. More experienced astrophotographers will appreciate the 2.5-inch magnesium alloy, dual-speed toothed focus mount. This scope is ideally suited for taking stunning deep sky, lunar astrophotography images, and visual observation.
|Triple lens design
|Does not come with a mount
|Low-dispersion ED glass and correction glass lenses
|2.5-inch magnesium alloy dual-speed focus mount
|Great for travel
Price & Tech Specs
- Dimensions: 13.78″D x 7.09″W x 6.89″H
- Weight: 6.31 pounds (assembled)
- Focal Length: 480mm
- Focal Ratio: f/6
- Resolution: 1.45 arc seconds
- Clear Aperture: 80mm
Best Smart Telescope For Astrophotography: DWARFLAB Dwarf II Review
The DWARFLAB Dwarf II is a multi-functional smart telescope with a refractor finderscope designed to help you view and capture the universe’s wonders and explore gorgeous natural landscapes on Earth. The DWARFLAB Dwarf II is a small, portable, easy-to-use all-in-one tool.
Incredibly lightweight and compact, you can use this just about anywhere. The scope is designed to help you take amazing celestial pictures. Simply choose a target, set your parameters, and allow the telescope to align itself automatically, track your target, and auto-stretch your image. The periscope design makes it easy to use from just about anywhere.
The Dwarf II also comes with a time-lapse photography feature, which allows you to take fantastic nature shots and time-lapse photography of the night sky. Because the scope is so versatile, it is also an excellent pick for your budget. It works well for stargazing, astrophotography, bird watching, and amazing nature photography. I recommend the deluxe edition for all the extra features and accessories that come with it. The DWARFLAB app controls the scope and enables AI-powered object tracking.
|Not a traditional telescope
|Multi-functional and programmable
|Some users would like more detailed instructions
|Compact size and lightweight
|4K high-definition telephoto lens
|Automatic alignment, live stacking, and stretching of images
|Excellent for astrophotography, landscapes, and wildlife
|Doubles as a full HD time-lapse camera
Price & Tech Specs
- Dimensions: 7.87″D x 1.96″W x 5.11″H
- Weight: 2.64 pounds (assembled)
- Focal Length: 675 mm (Tele), 48 mm (Wide)
Important Telescope Terminology
There are some terms to get familiar with if you plan to use a telescope. If you are totally new to astronomy, check out our guide on the best telescopes for beginners to learn more. Below I cover a few of the basics terms you’ll need to know.
- Aperture – The aperture, or objective, is the diameter of the primary lens or light-gathering mirror. Aperture is usually measured in millimeters, though some scopes use inches. The larger the aperture, the more fine detail you can see. That said, a larger aperture will always give you a more striking view.
- Astrograph – An astrograph, or astrographic camera, is designed only to take pictures. These are not the same as a telescope and cannot be used to observe visually. Do not buy an astrograph unless you are experienced and know how to use it. None of the scopes I review are astrographs.
- Eyepiece – This is the part of the telescope you look through and an essential part of the machine. It focuses the captured light and uses it to magnify the image. The smaller the eyepiece (10mm or 20mm, for example), the higher the magnification. For more magnification, add an eyepiece with higher magnification, like 6mm or 8mm.
- Finderscope – A smaller scope that helps you sight and line up objects to view. Many use a red dot to help you locate objects you wish to view.
- Focal length – Focal length is the distance, in millimeters, between a telescope’s primary mirror or lens and the point where the light rays become connected and focused. A good rule to remember is that a long focal length creates a narrower field of view with higher magnification, and a shorter focal length creates a wider field of view with lower magnification. If you want wider views, go with a shorter focal length. If you want more details but a smaller view, pick a longer focal length.
- Focal ratio – Focal ratio is found by dividing the focal length by the aperture. It refers to the speed and light-gathering ability a telescope has. The smaller the focal ratio, the lower the magnification a scope has. As the f-ratio increases, the images appear larger but dimmer.
- Magnification – This is the ratio between the observed size of an object and its actual size. Magnification is also referred to as power in some cases.
- Magnitude – Magnitude is a measure of a celestial object’s brightness. The lower the magnitude, the brighter an object.
- Manual – Manual telescopes don’t have electronic components and must be fully adjusted and focused by hand.
- Mount – The structure that supports a telescope. It holds the scope and allows you to move it and point it in specific places. These can be manual or motorized, like the GoTo mount.
- Light pollution – Intrusive light that impacts your ability to view the sky.
- Objective – The objective is the primary light-gathering component, either a lens or a mirror, or in the case of compound scopes, both.
- Resolution – Resolution refers to the resolving power a scope has and how well it can separate objects that are close together so you can see them. This translates to how much detail you can see. Resolution can be measured in arcseconds. The lower the arcsecond, the higher the resolution. Higher resolution means more detail can be seen. So, look for a lower arcsecond number to get a more precise picture.
Other Ways To Explore
Astrophotography is something everyone can do from anywhere. If you’ve ever snapped a picture of the Moon and stars from your phone, you are already an amateur astrophotographer. This hobby takes time and practice to perfect, but you can spend countless hours of enjoyable time exploring the universe in the process. A telescope is a helpful tool, along with your phone or camera, to capture and preserve amazing celestial images. Learn more about telescopes in our article about the best general-use scopes.
Have you ever taken a memorable celestial photograph? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
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Danielle is an experienced researcher and educator. She spends a good deal of time exploring the world and learning more about the things around her. Danielle has loved observing and learning about the stars and space since she was a young child. She has been lucky enough to witness several celestial events, including Haley’s Comet and Comet NEOWISE, as well as multiple solar and lunar eclipses.Tagged With: Comparison, Telescopes