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Buying Your First Binoculars
Hi, I’m Alice Enevoldsen, coming to you today from Alice’s AstroInfo headquartered in cloudy Seattle, Washington. Today we’re talking about purchasing a first pair of binoculars instead of a first telescope.
The two most common questions asked of those of us who host or teach stargazing are: “Hey! I saw this thing last night, what was it?” and “What should I buy for my daughter/ nephew/ friend/ self as his or her first telescope?”
The second question is an exciting one, because it means we’ve succeeded: you want more! Unfortunately, my answer is disappointing. Like most other amateur astronomers, I will tell you to skip the first telescope and start with binoculars. I have a few back pocket “first scope” recommendations, but they’re more expensive than you really want for an introduction. You really should start with binoculars, because they’ll allow you to learn the sky quickly and cheaply, and know what you want more of.
So here I’m going to help you choose a pair of binoculars, because that’s the part of the conversation we usually end up skipping.
First question: do you currently own a pair of binoculars? If the answer is yes, then those are probably the ones you should start with.
The reason you’re starting with binoculars is because they’re wide-field and easier to move, so you can slowly begin learn the magnified sky. After several hours or a few nights with binoculars and patience you’ll know what things you want to see in more detail, and where they are. This knowledge will help you choose the best telescope for you.
If you answered no to the first question, then you’re looking at buying your first pair of binoculars. Get a general, affordable pair from a brand name you’ve heard before – because that brand name paying attention to the quality of their glass optics. If you want to get into numbers, I recommend a 7×50 or 10×50 pair. This is a little lower magnification than what are usually called “astronomical” binoculars, but you need to start at lower magnification in order to get the wide-field that makes it quicker to learn the basics of the night sky.
The second question is: do your binoculars have a tripod mount socket or adapter? If so, you’re in luck, but none of my binoculars do. Often the tripod mount socket is hidden at the end of the joint between the binocular tubes. Even if your binocs don’t have a socket, get yourself a tripod – any camera store will have one, choose one you like and feel like you can manipulate. One that has a quick-release plate is slightly easier to use.
On my website I have directions for how to build a tripod-adapter for any pair of binoculars, but the gist of it is that you’ll screw a thin board about as long as your binoculars are wide to the tripod or quick-release plate, and then use zip-ties, long twist-ties, string, or duct-tape to secure the binoculars to the board solidly but temporarily. There is just one trick: adjust the binocs for your eyes before attaching them to the board, and be sure not to tighten the zip ties so much that you mess up your adjustment.
Having the binoculars mounted to a tripod will let you see much smaller and dimmer objects, better than the cheapest telescopes out there, and almost as well as other beginner scopes … again usually better. This will also let you share your enthusiasm with your younger friends as well. Elementary schoolers and younger are unlikely to have the arm strength and steadiness needed to do astronomical observing with an unmounted pair of binoculars. Even preschoolers and toddlers can get in the fun when the binocs are mounted on a tripod.
So, if you don’t already have a pair of binoculars, go out and grab yourself some 7x50s or 10x50s and enjoy exploring the sky. This time of year look for Jupiter (its moons which are easily visible through binocs), Saturn (it’s moon Titan is also easy to find), and … let me just choose a random binocular favorite of mine…. h and χ Persei, also known as the Double Cluster over between Perseus and Casseiopeia. It should be visible most times of year in a lot of the Northern Hemisphere. I’m choosing this one because it is the first thing I was really able to find after the Moon and the planets, so there’s a special place in my heart for h and χ.
Once again, I’m Alice Enevoldsen of Alice’s AstroInfo. You can find me online at alicesastroinfo.com, no punctuation, on Facebook at facebook.com/FollowAlicesAstroInfo and on Twitter as Alice’s AstroInfo.
Have a wonderful summer and keep your eyes high!
~ A l i c e !