Binoculars vs Telescope – What’s best for beginners?

If you’re first starting out with astronomy, then you’ll want to know what the best equipment is for you to invest in. Whilst telescopes have always been the first thing that many people invest in, recently binoculars have become more of a popular choice for astronomy. This is especially true for beginners, who seem to have gravitated towards using binoculars instead. But is there a reason for this, or should new users be sticking to telescopes?

Both binoculars and telescopes can be an awesome choice for beginners who are just getting into astronomy. Personally, binoculars are a good idea for the sheer ease of use. Though, you’re not going to get the in depth viewing that you can get with a telescope. If you can afford both, then getting a combination of cheap binoculars with a high aperture telescope is an awesome idea.

Of course, this isn’t a possibility for some people and you might be trying to narrow it down to just one of the two. So, we’re going to have a look through some of the benefits of both binoculars and telescopes and compare the two.

Binoculars vs Telescope

First, we need to understand how both a set of binoculars and a telescope works. We generally divide the viewing mechanisms in which they work into different categories, depending on the way that they form an image.

With telescopes, the most commonly used styles are;

  • Reflectors – Reflectors are, well, like they sound. They reflect the light that’s entered into the telescope from one primary mirror onto a smaller secondary mirror, which gives a view through the eyepiece. They are the best option (in my opinion) for beginners, usually because of their low cost in comparison to other models. The most common form of reflector is a Newtonian, invented by Isaac Newton himself – the Dobsonian is a Newtonian reflector on an altazimuth mount.
  • Refractors – Refracting telescopes are one of the most popular choices, they’re especially useful as astrophotography telescopes. Refracting telescopes work by using a lens, which ‘refracts’ light through the lens to convey an image through the eyepiece.
  • Catadioptric – Whereas refracting telescopes use lenses to project and image and reflecting telescopes use mirrors, catadioptric telescopes use a combination of both methods. If you want a more depth explanation of the three different types of telescopes, have a look at my telescope type comparison page.

With binoculars, they generally convey an image through two different types of mechanisms;

  • Roof prisms – Roof prism binoculars are particularly popular nowadays, with the majority of high end binoculars using roof prisms as opposed to porro prisms. Roof prisms binoculars work by letting light through the optical lens, which then passed through two adjacent prisms.
  • Porro prisms – Porro prisms are the most cost efficient of the two, and you’re going to find them in the majority of budget friendly binoculars. Check out my binocular guide if you want more detail on how these types of prisms work.

Clearly, these do not work in the same way as each other, though they are designed to do the same thing – to gather and focus light.

Pros of a telescope

No matter how good your binoculars are, there are always some reasons that a telescope is going to be a better option.

  • Long range – The truth is that you’re not going to get the same in depth view with a set of binoculars as you can with a telescope. If you want to look at planets and deep sky objects, then you’ll need to get a telescope.
  • Stability – Although you can us binoculars with a tripod, that kind of eliminates some of their ease of use benefit. With telescopes, you need to use a mount to ensure that you have perfect stability. This can help reduce blur in your vision.
  • More room to upgrade – For entry level astronomers, neither of these are a bad choice. But with binoculars, it comes to the level where no matter how much you upgrade, you aren’t going to get the magnification that you can get with a telescope.

Pros of binoculars

Although telescopes are by far the more popular choice for astronomy, that doesn’t mean to say that you should overlook binoculars entirely. There are some reasons that you might prefer to opt for binoculars as opposed to a telescope.

  • Multi use – Although many astronomy binoculars are designed to be used for astronomy, you can still use them for a variety of other things. Binoculars function in the same way, so the same pair of binoculars you use for stargazing can also be used for birding and other hobbies.
  • Compact – Of course, one of the major benefits about opting for a set of binoculars as opposed to a telescope is that you’re not going to have to worry about portability. Many of the better telescopes around are ridiculously heavy. It’s not unusual for a telescope to weigh 20kg. Obviously if you’re planning to carry this with you, you won’t be wanting to go any long distances. With binoculars, you don’t need to worry about this, as they’re small enough to fit around your neck.
  • Cost – Telescopes are getting cheaper and cheaper in price. You can find some relatively good budget telescopes online nowadays. But from a cost perspective, a cheap set of binoculars is likely to be less than the same equivalent of telescope.
  • Both eyes – Although I’ve never had an issue using a telescope myself, there are those that prefer to have the usage of both eyes for stargazing. Of course if this is you, binoculars will be a better option.

Conclusion

Overall, it’s difficult to compare a set of binoculars and telescopes to each other. This is because they are each used for similar purposes, but each of them excel in their own way. Whilst telescopes are obviously an excellent choice for long range viewing of planets and galaxies (not all telescopes work well for viewing galaxies and DSO’s, so you have to pick the right one), binoculars are better suited to shorter ranges. That doesn’t rule out using them for astronomy, however.

If you’re just getting into astronomy and can only pick one of the two, I’d advise that you get a telescope. This is because you’re going to be able to get a better idea of how astronomy works. With telescopes, there’s more of a room for upgrading. Plus, you’re going to get a better, more in depth view of the sky. Sure, hunting celestial objects with a telescope is harder than with a set of binoculars – but that’s part of the fun!

In conclusion, if you want to look at objects in the sky – the moon and planets, get yourself a telescope. But if you just want to look at the sky itself, get yourself a pair of binoculars.

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