The telescope vs binoculars battle is the Alien Vs Predator of the stargazing world, only with more violence. If you've come here because you want to explore the mysteries of the universe in greater detail than the naked eye can provide, you're probably thinking that grabbing anyone of the best telescopes is the best option...
After all, Hubble is a telescope. James Webb is a telescope. The imaginatively named Very Large Telescope is a...you get the idea.
Obviously, those are not your everyday telescopes, and they are designed for very specific scientific purposes. But even if you aren't trying to buy a multi-billion dollar space telescope, even the best budget telescopes can be the perfect tool for gazing into space. However, in some cases, you may actually find that a pair of highly rated binoculars will do the same job just as well. Or perhaps even better.
What's going to be best for you will depend on a range of factors - budget, how you intend to use it, and what you actually want to look at. We'll run you through some of the key things to think about, to help you figure out whether telescopes or binoculars will suit you best. As Arnie said to The Predator: stick around.
Telescope vs Binoculars: Key Differences
While this may seem blindingly obvious, one of the main points of difference between the two is that telescopes have a single eyepiece, while binoculars have two. Why does this matter? Well, we have evolved binocular vision. It's how our brain makes sense of the world, by using input from both eyes.
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Using a pair of binoculars will make it a little easier for your brain to focus on what you are trying to look at. Binoculars also tend to be smaller, lighter and more portable. They are often designed with outdoor use in mind, so will frequently have water resistance and in-built anti-fogging. Binoculars usually have magnification ranging between 6x, up to around 40x.
Telescopes, in contrast, tend to offer higher magnification, longer focal lengths and big apertures. They are designed very specifically for stargazing. Most modern telescopes will start with magnification at 30x, and beyond. They often come with added features to aid photography as well. This might include a connection to your smartphone, for example.
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Telescopes, because of their size, will require a mount or tripod to hold it in place. These are often available with software that allows you to easily zero in on specific points of interest in the night sky.
Can Binoculars Work Like a Telescope?
Telescopes and binoculars do, in a sense, exactly the same job. Both are designed to make an object that is far away easier to see. But in terms of how they do it, there are some big differences.
Telescopes collect much more light than a typical pair of binoculars, and usually offer much greater magnification options, for objects much, much further away, or fainter. But this specialism does come at a cost, as the field of view is significantly smaller than that of a pair of binoculars. This makes it harder to manually spot something with a telescope.
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In addition, because of the prisms and mirrors in a telescope, the image it presents to your can often appear to be upside down, or backwards. While binoculars present the image as your brain would expect it to be.
Why Do People Use Telescopes Instead of Binoculars?
When presented in those terms, people may wonder why we bother using telescopes at all. The answer is because telescopes are designed to perform a specific task. Essentially, gather as much light as they can, and provide the clearest, sharpest images possible. The greater magnification that telescopes offer mean that more distant objects can be viewed more clearly.
It's also easier to capture good images through a telescope. So if celestial photography is something you are interested in, you'll normally find that capturing images through a telescope provide better results than trying to merge two images from a pair of binoculars.
Telescope vs Binoculars: Lenses
We could probably write an entire article all about this. But we know you're busy people, so we'll try to summarize it as succinctly as possible.
With binoculars, there are three main types: Galilean, Roof prism and Porro prism. The basic principle is that they use convex lenses to magnify the image. Porro and roof prims both then 'flip' the image so it's the right way up when it reaches your eye.
Galilean binoculars don't have a prism, and their magnification options are limited to about 4x. Roof prism binoculars allow for more compact and lighter design than Porro prism.
The prisms themselves can come in one of two categories: BaK-4 and BK-7. BaK-4 allows more light from the periphery of the field of view. This makes the edges of the image brighter. BK-7 tends to be more expensive, but can actually be more suitable for stargazing.
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Telescopes tend to fall under one of two categories: Reflector and Refractor. There is another type, called Catadioptric. Refractors use lenses, while reflectors use mirrors. As a rule of thumb, refractor telescopes will usually offer sharper images. But check out our guide for a more in-depth discussion of the differences. Catadioptric will normally give you a better image than either of the other two. But these are typically more expensive as well.
Telescopes will usually offer far greater magnification, but this then requires a tripod or mount to keep the telescope completely still.
Telescope vs Binoculars: Price
Generally speaking, telescopes tend to be more expensive than binoculars. And that's before considering any additional equipment you might need, such as a tripod, or a computerised scope. A basic pair of binoculars might cost you less than $50-100. While a beginner's telescope might be nudging closer to $200.
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But it's not as straightforward as saying binoculars are always cheaper. Some models can easily cost as much as a basic telescope. This is especially true as you start moving into higher price brackets.
As is so often the case, the more you're willing to spend, the more you will get in terms of features and quality. Better quality lenses and more powerful magnification, which will in turn provide cleaner and clearer images.
Telescopes vs Binoculars: Pros and Cons
As you've probably figures out by now, telescopes and binoculars each have their strengths and weaknesses. Let's start with telescopes.
Telescopes are extremely specialised. They are designed to do one job, namely magnify objects in space and make them as clear and visible as possible. And they do this very well. They are great for looking at specific objects in space.
They also offer the best chance of capturing great images, and the software many of them now come with makes it easier than ever to track and photograph a specific object in the night sky. And they usually come with more powerful magnification options than binoculars.
But as we mentioned earlier, that specialism comes at a cost. They are bigger and heavier, and far less portable than binoculars. They are also remarkably sensitive to movement, so will always need to be mounted on a tripod before they can be used.
Images can also be harder to identify for a beginner, even going so far as to be upside down or back to front. And they aren't typically designed for use in the great outdoors.
Binoculars on the other hand, are much more versatile. Lightweight and portable, and can be used without the aid of a mount or tripod. They offer a wider field of vision, so it's easier to spot objects.
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The image is also more familiar to your brain. They are often designed to be used in the great outdoors. And they can be used with other purposes in mind, rather than being a single-purpose item.
Magnification is usually more limited though, so you won't get as clear an image for more distant objects. They won't be as easy to use if you intend to capture images. They aren't really designed with that in mind. And because they are usually hand-held, you will notice much more shake when you're at high-magnification, compared to using a telescope.
Telescope vs Binoculars: Which Is Best For Stargazing?
If you hadn't already guessed, there isn't necessarily an easy answer to this question. But there are a few things to consider, which may help you make a decision.
Firstly, do you want to use it for anything other than stargazing? Do you, for example, want to be able to go outdoors and take it with you on a hike? If so, binoculars will offer greater versatility and flexibility. And perhaps most importantly, weather-proofing.
But if you intend to set up in one spot in your house, and only use it for stargazing, then a telescope may be a better bet. A telescope will usually offer greater magnification range than binoculars can, so bear this in mind if you are keen to see objects that are really distant. A telescope will also be more suitable if you want to capture images, and they often come with software to make this even easier for you.
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Overall, the 'best' option will come down to your specific needs and wants. Binoculars may be best if you want flexibility and versatility. A telescope meanwhile, will be more suitable if you only want to use it for a single purpose.