Binoculars for Stargazing and Comet Watching
If you're like me, you 've often noticed bright stars, formations of stars,
and when away from city lights, the breathtaking Milky Way. For some of us, the
wonder of the sights sticks, and we want to see more. Of course, while naked
eye astronomy is enjoyable, putting some kind of lens between your eye and the
stars enhances the experience considerably. And a good solution may already be
in your closet. I'm speaking of that pair of binoculars you haven't used in
awhile. Stargazing with binoculars is perhaps the easiest way to get active in
Yes, it's true, you can enjoy a lot of astronomy with nothing more than a
pair of binoculars. In fact, if you're new to the astronomy hobby, binoculars
is definitely the least expensive way to get started. If you want a guide on
how to get into binocular astronomy, consider Touring
the Universe through Binoculars: A Complete Astronomer's Guidebook (Wiley
Science Editions). This book will give you a big nudge in the right
direction. Add a pair of binoculars, and you're on your way. If you don't
have a pair of binoculars lurking in your closet, consider the inexpensive
Celestron 71198 Cometron 7x50 Binoculars (Black) as a way to get started.
I essentially started years ago with binocular astronomy (well -- monocular
astronomy). I was probably not yet in high school when my parents bought a
little 7 power, 50mm diameter telescope on a table-top stand. I think it was
called a Moon Watch telescope. It was modest in size, but the optics in it were
That little instrument was my first telescope, and I went out often to look
at the Moon, Jupiter, and rich star fields.
The Moon was tantalizing, with a few prominent craters and mountain ranges
visible, and many details just beyond reach. Jupiter was just a bright object,
but the tiny Galilean moons could be easily seen.
And sweeping the little telescope through the Milky Way was always an
adventure. I could actually see the Milky Way with my naked eye in those days
from my small town backyard. The little monocular revealed clusters and rich
star fields aplenty.
That little telescope was basically 1/2 of a pair of 7x50 binoculars,
yet it kept me spellbound for a year of two. It eventually became a finder
scope on an 8" Dobsonian telescope.
A good piece of equipment to begin your astronomical journey would be a
quality pair of 50mm binoculars. There are many binocular brands from which
to choose, but I personally would likely be wary of department store binoculars,
though Bushnell distributes some nice optics in such outlets. Barska is
another inexpensive brand that has adequate binocular optics for stargazing.
Celestron and likely some other telescope providers sell binoculars, often
rebranded from major binocular manufacturers.
For astronomical use, you need to know a bit about binocular magnification.
If you intend to hand-hold your binoculars, then the binocular magnification
should not exceed more than 10 power. A good example is this Bushnell
PowerView 10x50 Wide Angle Binocular. Above 10 power magnification,
binoculars present jiggly images that more frustrate than inspire.
However, you can mount binoculars on rather inexpensive mounts, often a
typical camera tripod, with just a simple adapter. I commonly use a pair of
15x70 binoculars, much like the Celestron
SkyMaster Giant 15x70 Binoculars in this way. Hand-held, the 15x70
binoculars are a bit much, but on a tripod, they give wonderful and rich-field
Binoculars are basically two telescopes mounted side by side, and aligned so
that one can look at a distant object with both eyes. Binoculars use prisms
in both barrels to deliver an upright image to the user.
The most common binoculars use what's called porro prisms, and lead to a
binocular with objectives offset from the eyepieces. Roof prism binoculars,
more compact, look literally like two straight through telescopes mounted side
by side. The Bushnell
138005 H2O Waterproof/Fogproof Compact Roof Prism Binocular, 8 x 25-mm,
Black are a good example of the more compact roof prism
Compact is nice, particularly for much daytime observing. But just as with
telescopes, binoculars with bigger diameter lens show more.
What to Look for in Binoculars
Shown in the above image are two pair of 50mm binoculars. That means the
business end of each instrument (pointing at you in the image) has objective
lenses of 50mm diameter.
While these two binoculars look virtually the same size, they are actually
somewhat different. The one on the left is a pair of 7x50s, and the other is a
pair of 16x50s. The higher power ones are virtually the same size, but use
eyepieces that magnify more.
Binoculars are commonly listed by their magnification, then their diameter.
So the 7x50 left pair magnifies 7 times, and has objectives of 50mm diameter.
The pair on the right (16x50) magnify 16 times, and are also 50mm in
"Which is best?" you are probably asking. In truth, for hand-held
astronomy the 7x50s are better. Why? Because as mentioned before it is quite
difficult to hold anything magnifying 10 times or over steady enough to useful.
So I can easily hand hold the 7x50s, but the 16x50s really need to be tripod
I show these because I recommend that for astronomy, you start with a pair
of 7x50s. It's really incredible what you can see with them. It turnes out
there is some advantage to being able to view with two eyes instead of one.
Some astronomers suggest that you can get a significant increase in
light sensitivity when looking through two eyes instead of one. So binoculars
of 50mm offer much more than a low power telescope of the same diameter.
If you have something smaller, say 35mm or 40mm diameter ones, by all means
give them a try. You'll be surprised by what you can see. But you can see
dimmer objects with 7x50s, and they are can be had for less than $100. You can
certainly pay more and get better quality to boot. But even moderately
inexpensive ones perform very well. Just avoid the least expensive unless you
can actually look through them before buying.
Bigger is Better?
This image shows the 7x50s beside a much bigger 15x70 pair of binoculars.
Recall that 15x70 means the binoculars magnify 15 times, and have objectives of
70mm (nearly 3 inches).
I must tell you that when I first saw the 15x70s, they made my mouth water.
And when pointing them to the sky, I wasn't disappointed. The Moon is rather
spectacular through the 15x70s. The Andromeda galaxy is better viewed with
them than with my telescopes. The
Celestron SkyMaster Giant 15x70 Binoculars with Tripod Adapter binoculars are
essentially the same as my Barska optics.
But recall that anything over 10 power simply doesn't provide steady views
when hand held. I've tried propping my elbows on the cab of my pickup, leaning
against the corner of my workshop, all manner of bracing. In the end, the
15x70s really only work well when on a tripod.
So what am I saying? I guess that while I love those 15x70s, I really
wouldn't suggest that you start with something that large.
The Big Binocular Tradeoff
Here's another view of the 7x50s and the 15x70s. In this view, you can
clearly see the considerable difference in their sizes.
Now you can get a hint of the increased fatigue you'd get swinging a
large pair of binoculars around for a couple of hours, versus a more
manageable pair of 7x50s.
What Can You See with Binoculars?
So, what can you see with binoculars?
The answer: A lot!
With a moderate sized pair of binoculars you can see some of the
major features of the Moon.
In fact, a pair of binoculars is a wonderful way to watch a lunar eclipse.
NOT solar eclipse -- NEVER LOOK AT THE SUN WITH BINOCULARS. Next time
the Moon passes into the Earth's shadow, plan to watch it with your binoculars.
You'll see the Earth's shadow creep along the face of the Moon, notice features
that were clear as a bell minutes before virtually fade away. Then, if you stay
with it, you'll see those features re-emerge later in the evening (or early in
You can see most of the Messier objects, though admittedly many will look
like just another star. But some of the galaxies, a few nebula, and most open
clusters will be very enjoyable. There are also many similar objects listed in
other star catalogs such as the Caldwell catalog and the Hershel 400, so the
total number of targets is in the hundreds.
I particularly like the Pleiades and the double cluster in Perseus through
binoculars. The Beehive cluster is another impressive binocular target. And my
best views of comets is usually through binoculars.
Celestial events, especially involving the moon, are wonderful through
binoculars. As the moon moves through the night sky each evening, it often
passes near or through some heavily populated star fields. These events are
You'll be able to check on Jupiter's 4 biggest moons and see their relative
positions change night to night. At times you'll see less than 4 as those not
seen are either behind the planet or lost in the planet's glare.
Sweeping through the Milky Way, you'll find many rich star fields that
are dazzling. In fact, I like to take my binoculars out with me even when
I'm star observing with my telescope. A look with the binoculars will let
me easily find the object of interest, and make it easier to see where to
point the telescope.
An Easy Binocular Tripod Adaptor
If you decide to get a larger pair of binoculars, 60mm or bigger, you'll
probably need to have some kind of tripod mount for them. Since I'm primarily a
telescope user, I'm not interested in a binocular mount that takes more time to
set up than my telescope. But here's a very simple mount you can make using
your camera tripod.
It's a simple L bracket, available at the hardware store. One with legs
about 4" long would be sufficient. Mount one leg to the tripod, the other
to the front of the binoculars. If the tripod is a decent one, this apparatus
will work well, but kind of kinks the neck if you're trying to look at high
There are more elaborate solutions for those who really enjoy binocular
astronomy. A common solution is the parallelogram mount, like the Orion
5379 Paragon-Plus Binocular Mount and Tripod. This not only holds the binoculars steady, but lets
the user easily point and even raise and lower the binoculars with ease. An
added feature is that when raising or lowering the binoculars, the binoculars
stay pointed at the target. These mounts are great if you're out observing with
another person and sharing views, even if the other person is a different
height (like a child). If you peruse the web, you can find examples of how to
build such a mount.
Binoculars on Tripod
Here you see the 15x70 binoculars mounted to the tripod via the L bracket.
The center post of the binoculars usually has a cap that can be removed,
revealing a 1/4" screw thread. This is easy to use with the L bracket to
make a simple and inexpensive tripod mount for your huskier set of
I usually have the L bracket mounted so that the vertical component is
nearest the tripod handle. These brings the binoculars toward me, and the
tripod interferes less with observing.
Bincoulars on a mirror mount
If you want the ultimate binocular observing experience, you might consider
making or buying a mirror mount like this one.
In operation I mount this apparatus on my camera tripod, adjust the height
of the tripod to put the binoculars at a comfortable observing position, and
observe in complete comfort (except, perhaps, for the cold).
To move in azimuth, I just rotate the tripod head and roll my rollable
observing stool around the tripod. To move in elevation, I just change the
tilt of the mirror. With this simple apparatus, I can be looking at the
Andromeda galaxy directly overhead with no discomfort.
Here's a picture of the mirror mount with binoculars removed and the mirror
covered. Notice the familiar L bracket for mounting the binoculars.
The mirror in this image, which must be a quality first surface mirror to
give good results, is covered with a simple cover made from plastic coated foam
board. The pieces were cut with a craft knife and glued together to make a
tight fitting cover. The cover rests on the pivot verticals, not on the mirror
ou can make one as I did from the excellent plans at Binocular
Mirror Mount Plans.
At the plans site, the author also lists a source for the mirror, which is
in the $60 dollar range. If that link no longer works, you can usually also
find suitable 1st surface mirrors at Surplus
Shed. If you can't find precisely the size of mirror used by the author of
the Mirror Mount Plans, you may have to alter dimensions of your mount
Some Personal Comments
Here's a few comments from my personal experience. While I mentioned that
moderate priced binoculars can be good performers, I'll give some examples
of what you'll find.
My 7x50 binoculars have the brand name Compass. I'm not sure you can find
them anymore, and that might have been a store-brand name put on binoculars
manufactured by someone else. None-the-less, they've always worked very well,
delivering crisp images.
My 16x50's are Bushnell binoculars. They are rugged, very easy to quickly
focus, and generally I'm happy with them. The right-side set of lenses,
however, don't give as precise an image as the left. A more expensive pair
would not likely have that problem.
The 15x70's are Barska binoculars. That's an inexpensive Chinese import. The
first pair were poorly aligned, and the left barrel delivered a pretty poor
image. I found a site online that described how to align them, and able to
rectify that problem. Still, the left barrel focused poorly.
I sent them back to Barska and received in return a new pair. Both barrels
focus crisply. But the new pair also had poor alignment. Having been through it
before, I did the alignment process. Now, I can't complain. For little money
(less then $100) I have a pair of good performing 70mm binoculars.