Binoculars and telescopes both have the same job – magnifying faraway objects so you can observe them in more detail. Despite their similarities, there are certain situations where one optic will perform the job more effectively.
If you’re in the market for a new optic and want help settling the binoculars vs telescope debate, we’re here to help. We’ve broken down the basics for you, including the pros and cons of each type of optic. By the end of this article, you’ll have a better understanding of what each optic does well, so you can make an informed decision about which will work best for you.
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The Low-Down on Binoculars
Binoculars are handheld optical devices that are basically two telescopes mounted to a single frame. The design allows you to use both eyes to see distant objects. Because binos use both eyes, they are more natural and comfortable to use than a single telescope.
Each tube in a pair of binoculars uses a pair of reflecting prisms, which re-invert an inverted image so you see a true-to-life upright view. The prisms also fold light waves in such a way that shortens the necessary length of the optic, making binoculars practical, compact, and relatively lightweight.
J.P. Lumiere developed the first set of binoculars in 1825. Today, there are two main types of binoculars – Porro prism binoculars and roof prism binoculars. Although both use prisms, the inside configuration of the prisms is slightly different.
The prims in Porro prism binoculars (named after their inventor, Ignazio Porro) are arranged in a zig-zag pattern. The objective lenses of this type of binoculars are offset from the eyepiece. The design produces a clearer, deeper image and a wider field of view.
Roof prism binoculars have closely overlapping prisms, which give the optic its signature “H” shape. The objective lenses line up directly behind the eyepieces. Roof prism binoculars are sleek, lightweight, compact, and generally more durable than Porro prism binos.
Advantages of Binoculars
- Thanks to their lightweight, compact design, binoculars are conveniently portable. Some models are small enough to fit right in your pocket.
- Unlike a telescope, when you look through a good set of binoculars, you will see a three-dimensional image. This helps you understand how objects in the field of view relate to each other.
- Because binoculars usually have lower magnification, you don’t necessarily need a tripod (although using one minimizes the shake problem). That means one less thing to lug around on your adventures. Some modern binos even have image stabilizing features, which minimize shake; no tripod is necessary.
- In general, binoculars are cheaper than telescopes. You can purchase a pair of top-of-the-line binos for about the same price as a budget-priced telescope.
Disadvantages of Binoculars
Because of their convenient handheld design, binoculars only offer limited magnification, usually somewhere between 7x and 12x, although some astronomy binos will have up to 30x.
The Low-Down on Telescopes
A telescope is an optical device that uses a series of mirrors and lenses to magnify distant objects.
Although Galileo Galilei is typically given credit for inventing the telescope, Dutch inventor Hans Lippershey was the first person to submit a patent for a refracting telescope. He filed for that patent in 1608, a year before Galileo filed for his 3x version.
The reflector telescope (also called the Newtonian telescope) was invented by Sir Isaac Newton in 1668. Newton’s more compact design also provided better image clarity than Galileo’s refracting design. The configuration of Newton’s reflecting telescope also allows for more magnification in a smaller package, making these telescopes perfect for stargazing.
The catadioptric telescope uses a combination of mirrors and lenses to fold the optics and form a viewable image. There are several different types of catadioptric telescopes, but the two most popular designs are the Schmidt-Cassegrain and the Maksutov-Cassegrain. These versatile optics work just as well for viewing the landscape as they do for observing deep space objects.
Advantages of the Telescope
Because telescopes provide more generous magnification than binos, they are a great tool for viewing objects at extreme distances. Telescopes are perfect for getting an up-close view of celestial objects, including the moon, planets, and distant stars.
Disadvantages of the Telescope
- Telescopes are big. Even the smallest models are longer, heavier, and less portable than the largest binoculars on the market.
- With a much smaller field of view, telescopes can make scanning for objects, whether in the sky or across the landscape, more difficult. They also aren’t practical for tracking moving objects such as birds and other wildlife.
- Because telescopes use a single series of lenses or prisms, they provide only a flat, two-dimensional image.
- Most telescopes require a tripod or rocker bottom for stable viewing.
- The images seen through most telescopes are either upside down, flipped backward, or both. You can correct this problem by adding a star diagonal to the eyepiece, which is an added expense to these already pricey optics.
- Although there are some economy telescopes on the market, they usually have poor optical quality, which can be frustrating, especially to new users. If you want a crisp, clear, bright viewing experience, be prepared to fork over some serious cash.
Binoculars vs Telescope – Final Thoughts
Now that you have a basic understanding of how telescopes and binoculars work, knowing which will work best for you should be a no-brainer. If exploring the heavens is your main goal, a quality telescope is probably your best bet. Binoculars are usually the better choice for birdwatching, whale watching, hiking, hunting, golfing, sporting events, and concerts.