Last Update July 2015
I'm often asked about buying a telescope, what would I recommend, usually by someone just getting interested in astronomy. While this may seem like a simple question, there most assuredly is no simple answer.
First, by far the best thing to do would be to join a local astronomy club, and attend an observing event with the club. This is a great way to see a variety of equipment first hand. Second, a lot of people are intrigued by computerized goto telescopes that can find targets for you. My experience has been that these are more challenging to set up and get working than you might think. Often people get frustrated and give up before they even look at anything. They also are more expensive than "find it yourself" alternatives. If you want to start by looking at some planets and the moon, you don't need a goto scope.
Here's a recommendation to a fellow interested in buying a telescope for his father for Christmas with a budget of ~$200. (Note I would recommend you plan to spend much more than this, but...) Many of the points apply to anyone. Below that, see additional links.
I'd recommend establishing a budget and going from there. You also need to consider your father's ability to carry, set up, and use whatever you buy him.
You can get a decent new telescope for around $200. I'd recommend something simple like a ShortTube™ 80mm Refractor (go to Orion and search for "shorttube 80") or similar; sometimes these can be found for $170 new, and they include two EPs (sorry, "Eye Pieces" for those new to astronomy.) This scope would need a tripod, but "any old" camera tripod would do. These have been coming down in price over the years, and you may not be able to find a used one that's cheaper than a new...
If you can't spend at least $150, my opinion is that it will be difficult to buy a new, usable telescope at that price. You might want to consider binoculars.
As far as used scopes, someone already suggested astromart.com, though astromart scopes tend to be mid- to high-end equipment more than budget stuff. This would be more of a place to look for your second or third telescope, not your first usually.
Here are some good links, one to Sky and Telescope's "How to" site, and another to Orion, a vendor with a good selection of budget stuff.
Update: I really like my new Astro-Tech 66mm scope, though it's probably a bit small to recommend as a first telescope: Astronomy Technologies AT66ED Refractor - Dick Locke's Review
Here are several excellent sources of information, explained better than I would be able to ;-)
Orion, a good source of info and entry-level astronomy gear
If you're in Houston, stop in at "Land Sea and Sky" to talk to the experts there and see actual equipment.
Buying a camera? Old, but nuggets of good advice:
2004, December: Buying a digital camera (letter to a friend interested in buying a digicam especially for indoor gym sports shots)
First, and I hate to do this, I'm going to suggest you seriously consider getting a real digital SLR camera instead of a "digicam." The DSLR's have interchangeable lenses, and may well be the last camera you would ever buy. Should last 10 to 20 years, or more. Of course, that bad news is that you're north of $1000 for a Nikon D70 and lens, and you're at around $850 with a Canon Digital Rebel with lens. Note that digital SLRs have a magnification factor of 1.5, so that if you get the Nikon D70 with the 18-70mm lens, the "35mm film camera" equivalent focal length is 27mm-140mm. 140mm would actually be enough magnification for your needs, especially since you'll get an outstanding image that you can seriously crop and still print at a large size if you want. Also note that a D70 can be used with any Nikon lens ever made, though if it isn't auto focus you have to focus manually and use manual exposure. (I do that at church a lot, and have done it at plays for example with great results.)
Seriously, consider it.
Next, digicams (these have fixed lenses.) First, budget about $100 to $150 over the cost of the camera for required accessories such as batteries and extra "digital film." Things to consider include:
- shutter lag
- lens speed (f number)
- noise at higher ISOs (you'll want 800, or at least 400, for basketball shots)
Shutter lag is this: you point the camera at the subject, maybe even press the shutter button halfway down to autofocus, and then press the shutter button all the way down to take the shot. The camera then thinks about it for a whiles, and takes the shot maybe 1/2 to 1 second *after* you press the lens. Needless to say, if you were trying to capture the "decisive moment" you missed. My digicam was very frustrating to use to try to capture cheerleaders doing a pyramid, for example, because of this problem. If you do get a digicam try to check it out in the stores or see what the reviews say about shutter lag.
Lens speed and noise: since you want to shoot indoors without flash there isn't enough light. You'll want the fastest lens at the telephoto end (lowest f number) and the ability to shoot at ISO 800 with good digital noise in the images. Check the reviews on this.
Brands: I always recommend Canon, Nikon, or Olympus. Fuji, Kodak, and Sony are also making usable digicams these days. I wouln't buy any other brand, no matter how good the price.
Things that don't matter: 1) Don't go for the bargain, which may be last year's model or an old model. Cameras are improving so rapidly that the new model is always better and cheaper than the old model. The old models are not a bargain.
2) Megapixels don't matter. Anything you buy is going to have enough megapixels. Seriously.
3) Don't buy any bullshit filter kits or whatever. You don't need them. Whatever you need is cheaper on line. Talk to me first
Things that do matter:
1) Power. You need batteries. Cameras that use AA batteries are good, but you really need nickel metal-hydride batteries (NIMH) that are rechargable. These produce more current than regular batteries (so recharge the flash faster if you're flashing). They last thousands of charge cycles. Some cameras have proprietary batteries. If so, you *need* a spare, and they'll often be $50 or more. (The Nikon N70, OTOH, comes with a lithium rechargeable and lasts forever; you'd only really need one).
2) Memory cards. I feel a camera that uses compact flash is best; these cards are quite cheap now. A lot of cameras other cards that can be expensive. Oh, and you probably want to avoid buying extra batteries and memory cards at a local retailer. They can be had much cheaper on line. Your best buys and circuit cities make huge profits on the accessories.
Keep in mind that if the digicam breaks, or if you scratch or damage the lens, it most likely will not be cost-effective to repair it.
p.s. And whatever you buy, you'll want to read the manual and take practice shots before shooting anything you really care about.
p.p.s. Another radical idea would be to get a modern autofocus film camera, such as a Nikon N80, and shoot 800 film. That should would very well for indoor basketball. If you want digital images, any drug store now will include a CD with development for a very modest cost. Then as DSLRs come down in cost, you could get a DSLR body in a few years and still use the lenses.
Stores: Camera prices do no vary much from store to store, so buy locally or from a reputable internet dealer like adorama or BHphotovideo.com (I always buy my stuff from B&H).
"HOPE THIS HELPS"
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