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Published 3rd June 2010 by

Binoculars play a big part in astronomy for beginners and experienced amateurs alike. They are generally cheaper and much easier to use than telescopes and offer a broad range of what's on offer in the night's sky.
Observational Astronomy Series
  1. A Beginner's Guide To Stargazing
  2. Dark Eye Adaption - How We See In the Dark
  3. Light Pollution
  4. Using Star Charts and Measuring Distance
  5. Top Tips for Binocular Astronomy
  6. Moon Watching - How to Observe the Moon
  7. Buying Your First Telescope
  8. Your First Night With Your First Telescope
  9. Sky Orientation through a Telescope
  10. Polar Alignment of an Equatorial Telescope Mount
  11. All About Telescope Eyepieces
  12. Useful Astronomy Filters for Astrophotography
  13. How to Photograph Constellations

In many ways it's one of the purest forms of astronomy - without fiddling around with optics, computerised GOTO mounts and polar alignments, you can just pick up a pair of binoculars and look. What you find is a sky rich in fuzzy nebulae, spiral galaxies, binary stars, planets and of course the craters on the moon. Binoculars are simple to use, yet the rewards they bring are glorious.

Binoculars provide a lightweight and mobile way to view the sky.

Binoculars provide a lightweight and mobile way to view the sky.

A quick browse through various astronomy shopping websites will quickly show a wide range of good quality telescopic equipment available to purchase. For the beginner setting out to explore the sky for the first time and faced with this daunting choice, perhaps the best option before taking the plunge is to start small, or better still, learn one's way around the sky with a pair of binoculars before moving onto a larger, more powerful instrument. Even if you do invest in a large aperture telescope, a pair of binoculars still comes in handy for low magnification reconnaissance of deep sky targets before bringing the telescope to bear.

Portability is a big factor in binoculars favour. It's easy to move to a dark unobstructed spot for a view of something low down with binoculars - a good deal less so with a large reflector! For trips away from home binoculars are ideal and can be carried as hand luggage.

Binocular Astronomy

The choice of binoculars for astronomy is fairly straightforward. Binoculars are described in terms of magnification and aperture. For example, 10x50 binoculars have a magnification of 10 times and the main lens (objective lens) has a diameter (aperture) of 50mm. Aperture determines the light gathering ability of any optical instrument. A larger aperture means more light captured.

With an aperture of 50mm, under ideal conditions, the faintest stars will be of magnitude +11.2 so a pair of 10x50's should be able to show you all 109 deep sky objects in the Messier Catalogue.

Keep it Steady

Some binoculars such as 8x40's or 10x50's are comparability lightweight and can be hand-held during observing for several minutes at a time. To get a steady comfortable view it's a good idea to prop elbows on a convenient wall or fence or observe from a garden recliner where your arms can be given a bit of extra support. For longer sessions, binoculars should ideally be mounted and one of the simplest methods is to attach them to a camera tripod. Most photographic stores will sell an adaptor and some higher magnification binoculars may even come with an adaptor.

A tripod is a useful accessory to have when viewing binoculars. It eliminates shake and gives your arms a rest!

A tripod is a useful accessory to have when viewing binoculars. It eliminates shake and gives your arms a rest!

With a steady mount, you are more likely to see fainter stars and deep sky objects and resolve finer lunar detail than you would by the handheld route. By the time we get to the realm of larger binoculars like 15x80, weight considerations make tripod mounting essential.

Optics and Mechanics

Like telescopes, binoculars come in a variety of configurations, each of which uses prisms to fold the optical path into short tubes. The most common are Porro prisms in which the eyepieces will appear slightly offset behind the objective lens. Roof prism models have a more straight through layout. Focusing is often done via a central knob and good binoculars will allow independent focusing for either eyepiece - essential for everybody with less than 20/20 vision.

With binoculars (and everything else) you get what you pay for. Top end binoculars will have ED glass optics and high transmission coatings and some may even have image stabilisation built in, but these cost a pretty penny. You can also pick up a decent low magnification pair for less than £20 at the supermarket.

The Binocular Sky

The Moon is a wonderful Binocular target

The Moon is a wonderful Binocular target

The Moon is the obvious starting point here. It's close, bright and large. Binoculars will clearly show the outlines of the dark Maria against the lighter highlands. At full moon, the binoculars are excellent for viewing the bright ray systems emanating from craters such as Tycho or Copernicus. The waxing and waning moons show lots of details in the craters and when the moon is a narrow crescent; binoculars will show the ghostly outline of the moon illuminated by Earthshine.

More powerful binoculars (mine are 15x70) can resolve the larger moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn and the phases of Venus. You can't make out any surface detail or the ring divisions, but even so, it's still a great sight. Even the large asteroids Vesta, Ceres, Iris and Flora are visible in 10x50's with some patient observation.

Beyond our solar system, there are still more sights to see. Wide-field views are important for variable star observing and there are numerous wide double stars that can be split by binoculars. A good example if the colourful omicron cygni located on Cygnus' upper wing where you can see the orange and green components separated by four arcminutes.

A deep-sky exposure of the Pleiades star cluster by amateur astronomer Robert Gendler.

A deep-sky exposure of the Pleiades star cluster by amateur astronomer Robert Gendler.


Messier objects are good targets as well. M45 Pleiades is a prime target, as is the star cluster M24. M42 The great Orion nebula is a favourite of mine and does not disappoint on a dark night. Even galaxies are visible with binoculars. The Andromeda Galaxy (another favourite of mine) puts on a good show during the autumn months and can be easier to see in binoculars than a telescope.

Tutorial Series

This post is part of the series Observational Astronomy. Use the links below to advance to the next tutorial in the couse, or go back and see the previous in the tutorial series.

One thought on “Top Tips for Binocular Astronomy
  • Gary
    25th October 2016 at 12:00 am

    Hi Tim,

    Thanks for the ideas and reviews. Any suggestions for a mount/tripod for large binoculars? (Sorry, I haven't read everything you've written. Maybe you covered this elsewhere.)


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