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The Ultimate Beginner's Guide to Telescopes and Amateur Astronomy

Dec 26

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12/26/2013 8:37 AM  RssIcon

There are plenty of "how to" astronomy guides out there. Some are long and confusing; others short and unhelpful. This beginner astronomy guide takes the viewer/reader through the most important aspects of getting up to speed on amateur astronomy by covering telescope basics and stargazing basics. The beginner amateur astronomer will learn about equatorial mounts, the types of telescopes, all about the basic accessories, calculating magnification, and most importantly, three videos that help you learn how to find one's way around the night sky.

At the end, there is a list of some of the best apps / software / books for those starting out, and tips on improving planetary and deep sky object detail at the eyepiece - all in a little over an hour's time. In short, this is the...

Ultimate Beginner's Guide to Telescopes & Amateur Astronomy. 


First, if you have alt-az mount (up/down / spins like a photographic tripod), skip these first two videos. If you have an equatorial mount, those things look confusing don't they?!? So then learning how to align it with the celestial pole will help you use it much more easily - watch this next video to learn how to set up your equatorial mount telescope.

However, once aligned, some people are confused on how to use an eq mount; the video just below here will help.  Do this during the day first, to learn how to manipulate your mount so it is easier to do when the sky is dark and you cannot see the mount as well.

Eyes on the Sky is more than just a "How to get started in amateur astronomy" page. On the homepage is a new astronomy video every week for finding an object - or objects - in the night sky, plus free star charts, DIY telescope improvement ideas, astronomy equipment reviews, and a blog with more detailed info on starhopping and light pollution reduction. But feel free to continue with the "Ultimate Beginner's Guide to Telescopes and Amateur Astronomy" below too. 

All about telescopes

Here's an overview of the basic types of amateur telescopes. This will help you understand what you have, and what the advantages and disadvantages are compared to other types of telescopes, as well as a basic tutorial on how they focus light.

The next step during the day is to align the finderscope.

Then there are a few things to calculate. "What, math?" Yes, but it's *easy* math. Begin with determining the focal length of your telescope; that is usually listed somewhere near the nameplate by the focuser. It may be listed under "F" or "F/L" or something similar. The other number, if one is listed (perhaps with a "D" or "A"), will be the aperture of your telescope in diameter.

With the focal length, you can determine magnification based on the eyepieces you have. Those should also list a focal length on them, usually on the top or sides. Divide the focal length of the telescope by the focal length of the eyepiece to determine the magnification each eyepiece will provide you.


It helps to know the field of view that your eyepiece will provide to you. Unfortunately not all telescope manufacturers tell you the apparent field of view or eyepiece type in order to determine this. You can probably estimate it though; this video can help you learn how.

Your telescope may have come with a barlow lens. To be frank, most "included" barlow lenses that arrive with telescopes are either of poor quality or provide more magnification than the telescope can realistically handle. 

You can calculate magnification with the addition of a barlow by multiplying your previously calculated magnifications by the barlow multiplier. So if you get 50x from a given eyepiece, and your barlow is a 3x, then you would get 150x from that eyepiece with the barlow inserted into the telescope optical system as your instructions guide you to do.

But most any telescope has a maximum practical magnification; on the very best nights of atmospheric seeing, you can push your telescope to 50x per inch of magnification. So a 4.5" telescope can practically be pushed to 225x magnification, but no additional detail will be seen beyond that, and likely the image will just get fuzzy anyway. 

However, no matter the size of the telescope, on many nights, 150x is the maximum magnification no matter what, First Light Guides by Eyes on the Skydue to the cells of air above our heads distorting the view. For more information on viewing planets and lots of detailed info on telescopes, there is an excellent treatise here that is well worth reading.

Eyes on the Sky is more than just a "How to get started in amateur astronomy" page. This site now has the First Light Guides - a tour of the best objects in the night sky for beginners to find and observe. But feel free to continue with the "Ultimate Beginner's Guide to Telescopes and Amateur Astronomy" below too. 

Learning the sky

Now you'll need to learn the sky, and how to find things in it. Understanding the basic directions and locations of places in the night sky will help you find the planets and other objects. Even for those not using a telescope, this is a useful video for learning where to look.

Knowing how the magnitude scale works will help with identifying one star from another when looking for different brightness between them.

But one area beginners often have some difficulty comparing is the relatively small distance between stars on a star chart, and how the stars appear in the sky. So learning to measure distance in the sky will help you find dimmer objects more easily from brighter ones.

One thing that beginners can do is download the free monthly Skymaps.com star charts. Use a ruler with millimeters to estimate degrees (the maps are 180 degrees across), then convert that to the sky using the techniques from the measuring distance link above. The objects listed there are often the best ones for beginners to view - start with those. Some people prefer to use a smartphone; if so, get one (or more) of these:

For a PC or laptop, download the free software Stellarium. Prefer to read a good book instead? No problem; here are some excellent beginner references:

There are also weekly videos right here on the homepage of Eyes on the Sky that detail how to find great objects to see in small telescopes.

How to see more in a small telescope

If you're still not seeing objects with as much detail as you thought was possible, there may be some ways to enhance your view at the eyepiece for both planets, and for deep sky objects (deep sky generally refers to objects like galaxies, nebula, and star clusters).

DIY improvements

Some beginner and even intermediate telescopes are not as solid or well-made as they should be. They kept the telescope within a reasonable cost for you (or whomever purchased it), but some corners may have been cut in design or manufacturing to keep the price low. That means there may be some inherent problems like vibration or poor eyepieces, etc. But the good news is this: There are ways to improve many small telescopes.

First, if you have a small, tabletop telescope - but no suitable table - then a Super Simple Tripod 2x4 may just be the ticket for you. It is easy to build, and very solid.

For other telescopes, there are many ideas for area(s) your scope may benefit from improvement, such as tripod stability, eyepieces, finder, focuser, among other things.

Keep your eyes on the sky

All that should help you get more out of your new telescope and a lot more enjoyment of the night sky. Be sure to aim or shield your lights down (or turn them off entirely if they spill light upwards), as this reduces light pollution that makes seeing objects in the sky more difficult. 

First Light Guides by Eyes on the SkyThere are many knowledgeable people at  several online forums such as cloudynights.com, astronomyforum.net and stargazerslounge.com that can answer more detailed questions on particular telescope models should you require that assistance.  

Eyes on the Sky is more than just a "How to get started in amateur astronomy" page. This site now has the First Light Guides - a tour ofthe best objects in the night sky for beginners to find and observe. There are also free star chartsDIY telescope improvement ideasastronomy equipment reviews, and a blog with more detailed info on starhopping and light pollution reduction

5 comment(s) so far...


Re: The Ultimate Beginner's Guide to Telescopes and Amateur Astronomy

This is maybe one of the best guides I've ever read. It can get so confusing starting out as a new telescope owner with so many people posting advanced stuff. It's easy to feel like your drowning trying to sort all the information out, but not this one. I'll certainly be pointing people towards this post!

By Matt on   1/10/2014 3:35 PM

Re: The Ultimate Beginner's Guide to Telescopes and Amateur Astronomy

At 75yr old I just got my first scope, a SKYWATCHER 130P and was having nightmares on how to set it up and actually use it. I found your site and after watching the videos I now feel at ease with it and confident that I will be able to get the pleasure from it that I was looking forward to. I would just like to say thank you very much and I will be forever grateful. Tomorrow I will put it all together and hope for clear sky's.

By Doug Stanley on   1/21/2015 8:59 AM

Re: The Ultimate Beginner's Guide to Telescopes and Amateur Astronomy

A wonderful guide to the beginner who wants to understand and get to the backyard.
Thank you

By earl on   5/17/2015 8:31 AM

Re: The Ultimate Beginner's Guide to Telescopes and Amateur Astronomy

I'm new to astromony and the guide to setting up the telescope more quickly helped no end WELL DONE. The NEW look also helpful to find my way around, As a beginner I need the help

By Trevor on   8/31/2015 3:37 PM

Re: The Ultimate Beginner's Guide to Telescopes and Amateur Astronomy

Truly amazing... I just joined the Texas Astronomical Society (TAS), David your work is of hi quality and very useful... I was thinking it would be useful to have links to your site from the TAS website... I found you by looking around Youtube... but it is difficult to navigate your videos in YouTube, but I like watching them on the SmartTV... anyway keep at it... and isn't ther a section where you tell us more about yourself...

Marco (stage name Jonathan Archer)

By skysniper on   2/6/2015 8:13 PM

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The Nightlight

This blog includes what to see in the night and daytime skies, thoughts on telescopes, binoculars, and other astronomy observing accessories and equipment, plus my own occasional notes on objects I've seen and observed. Oh, and the random theater or other "my take on life" post. In other words, there is always something interesting. Check it out.