Wednesday October 18th 2017

Binocular Astronomy – Part I: How Do I Start?

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I consider myself to have been an amateur astronomer for a large part of my life now. It is a hobby that often seems lost on many people or as my friends daughter said “this takes too long!”

True, astronomy is a slow hobby. You have to wait for the right conditions, the right time of year, the right time of night, etc…, but the rewards more than make up for it.

Astronomy equipment is more powerful and affordable than it ever was before, but if you are not familiar with the night sky, don’t rush out and buy the most expensive piece of technology money can buy. A telescope is very exact and very unforgiving. In order to find a celestial body, you have to know exactly where and when to look.

In order to help you familiarize yourself with this journey, you need to have the right tools that you’ll find even the most seasoned astronomers own.  Your first piece of equipment is simple, a good pair of what’s known as “spotter” binoculars. You need these in order to quickly zoom in on areas of the night sky and see the general area, but remember one basic rule – higher magnification (and price) does not equal satisfaction. I have a few binoculars, but my favorite set is in the 7 x 50 Porro range of magnification. Amazon has a few in stock, but the Celestron 7×50 Porro Binocular is from a trusted name and at a reasonable price. I have some other recommendations below the post, but be careful over paying for name rather than quality. The average price for a simple spotter set like this should be between $30-$60.

Anything in this magnification range is perfect for quick spotting of the night sky and easy identification. The higher the magnification, the harder it will be to hold your image steady without a tripod. Even the moon will shift out of frame quicker than you realize. Higher magnification also means your image landscape will be smaller so you can’t enjoy the breadth and the depth of our own Milky Way Galaxy.

Binoculars are really the perfect way to introduce yourself or a younger generation to astronomy but before buying a set to use as astronomical equipment you need to understand what the magnification on the box means.

Let’s break down my recommendation so you know what to look for when choosing your own. The 7×50 indicates that 7 is the magnification and 50 is the aperture (aka: diameter or width) of the objective lens. I’ve found that a magnification higher than 10 tends to shake a lot after a few moments as your hands get tired. The aperture is important for all binoculars and telescopes because the wider the aperture, the more light that is collected. The more light that is collected, the sharper your image at night (once your eyes adjust), but just like the magnification, if the aperture is too large, it will be hard (or heavy) to hold and stabilize. I find an aperture of 35-50 to be the best and more than enough for areas that are not completely dark.

There are other factors to consider of course, such as lens coating to reduce glare, prism type (i.e. porro prisms vs roof prisms), quality of overall unit (i.e. rubber, weatherized, plastic, glass lenses, etc), but this all leans more towards financial preference. Roof prisms are great, but a good set will cost you more. The more options you buy, generally the better your view, but again, you should try to keep within or below the 10×50 boundary. I have a 16×50 that is great, but almost impossible to steady and I have 2 zoom binoculars with a 75 aperture that are horrible when it comes to viewing the night sky. I’d really recommend you stay away from zoom binoculars, they are expensive and rarely live up to the hype.  The old adage “if it seems too good to be true, it probably is”, is especially true with binoculars and telescopes.

Other than this you just need a relatively dark spot, a small red or blue lens capped flashlight (not laser pointer) to help you see in the dark (one bright light and you’ll be sitting out of observing for about 15 mins), a sky (star) chart, and a basic knowledge of astronomical events such as eclipses, meteor showers, etc.

Click here to read Binocular Astronomy – Part II Tips & Resources

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