To paraphrase Sally Field, “I like dobs. I really like dobs!”* Some readers of this blog who follow my posts in various Facebook astronomy groups (like this one, and this one), would think that I have a vehement hatred of dobs, as if one slept with my wife, ran over my dog, or owes me money. Just like any country song you can think of. And that this hatred comes out especially when it comes to making telescope recommendations to beginners. It’s not true, I tell ya! Hopefully, this blog post will correct that false impression.
In terms of making telescope recommendations to beginners, I find that one of the key considerations for most people getting into the hobby is price. As I’ve said in before in my joint telescope buying guide, you have to spend a minimum of $200 to get a decent beginner’s scope. Once you get to $400, the universe of telescopes (pun intended) available to you opens very wide indeed.
Unfortunately, a significant number of people simply do not want to spend what is necessary to buy a decent first scope. Instead of spending that $200 on, say, a Meade Infinity 102, or an AWB One Sky (or one of its various clones), they desperately want to save the fifty bucks. They end up with an absolutely awful Celestron Astromaster 114 or Powerseeker 127, both of which are Bird-Jones scopes, and both of which are guaranteed to disappoint. Beginners who cannot afford to spend the bare minimum of $200 on a scope should instead either save up for a little longer until they can, or be steered toward buying binoculars, usually 10x50s, for between $50 and $100.
One of the most useless questions I’ve found in dealing with beginners is to ask beginners what they want to see. The answer is usually that they don’t know, or they want to see “everything”, or – and I’m not trying to be a jerk – even if they do “know”, that “knowledge” changes just as soon as they actually get the scope out and start observing. I find the “what do you want to observe” question to be next to useless.
That being said as background, lets turn to the real subject of this rant: dobs. Dobs are simply not for everyone. There are significant portions of beginning amateur astronomers for whom dobs are the WRONG choice. Unfortunately, beginners ask the all-too-simple and all-too-common question, “What scope should I get?” and the “experts” automatically and immediately jump right to the “get a dob” recommendation, in four-part harmony, with full orchestration, and a complete backing chorus, without ever asking ANY questions about that person’s particular situation.
That’s just not right. That’s a disservice to the beginner asking the question. You can’t just give a quick, flip answer to someone who is really looking for some thoughtful consideration. I know that these recommendations are being made on Facebook, which lends itself to giving a canned answer of 20 words or less, but if someone has asked the question, and you’ve decided to jump in and answer the question, and give advice, then you have to probe. You have to ask questions to see if the dob is appropriate for the person asking the question.
These are the particular questions that I wish people would ask before making a telescope recommendation to a beginner:
1a) Do you have any physical limitations that would impede your ability to carry a scope from where you would keep it to where you would observe; or,
1b) Do you have a long way to carry your scope from where you would keep it to where you would observe; or,
1c) Do you have a number of flights of stairs to negotiate to take the telescope out, i.e., do you live in an apartment building without an elevator; or,
1d) Are you under 12 or over 65, so that it might be physically difficult for you to take a large and unwieldy scope out all by yourself?
If any of the answers to these questions – which is obviously and essentially the same question asked in four different ways – is “yes”, then the standard recommendation of “get a dob” is entirely inappropriate.
There are a few additional questions, too:
2) Do you feel handy enough and comfortable with performing some minor maintenance on your telescope every few weeks, which isn’t overly hard, but which no one can perform on your scope but you?
3) Even if you answered “yes” to the previous question, meaning that you CAN perform this periodic maintenance, do you want to, or would you prefer not to?
If the answers to either of these two questions – which obviously refer to collimation – are “no”, then again, a dob is not right for this person. Collimation is periodic maintenance that you have to perform on a dob every few weeks or months, depending on how you use the scope. Collimation is the act of getting all of the optical components in perfect alignment with each other. Before buying a dob, do yourself a favor, take 15 minutes, go to Youtube and watch a couple videos on newtonian collimation. See if it’s for you.
All of this may make me sound like I am vehemently anti-dob. I’m not. I’m just not. A dob is absolutely, hands down, the best value in terms of the aperture you get per dollar over any other type of scope out there. Dobs gulp down the photons while being on terrific, stable mounts which are dead easy to use, all the while being capable of providing some nice wide-field views, at least in comparison to other scopes of similar aperture but different design <cough>Mak<cough>SCT<cough>. Pardon me, I may be developing a bit of a cold.
Now, of course, a beginner has no idea what the answer to this question is. But you can get their location, take a look at a dark sky map for them, and as opposed to asking them what they want to see, tell them what it’s possible for them to see. One of the first things you generally need to do with a beginner is to disabuse them of their expectation for Hubble-like views through a consumer scope.
For someone living deep in the heart of a big city – and I’m talking about BIG cities like New York, Philly, Chicago, the heart of LA or Vegas, etc. – they’re going to be limited to seeing the moon and planets, solar, and just a couple dozen or so of the very brightest DSOs. And hauling out an 8 or 10-inch dob just to see those things doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when something like my 5-inch Mak or a 6-inch SCT will be easier to take out – and therefore used more – and be able to show pretty much the same ting. If they’re in a smaller city – like Denver – or observe away from the city center – like I do – then the light pollution will be a bit less, and they’ll be able to see a bit more, and then a dob might be worthwhile.
Mind you, I saw about 40 Messiers and about 100 NGCs from my Manhattan rooftop with my 5-inch Mak. However, the operative word in that sentence is “saw”. Unless you’re able to get your scope far out of the light-polluted large city and to darker skies, the views of DSOs from the big city are going to disappoint, especially under skies that would only let me get to magnitude 3.0 visually. And part of the advice you’re giving should be to include deflating a beginner’s wildly optimistic expectations.
Wow, I was just reading over what I wrote here, and it sounds like such a downer! It’s just that I think it’s better for a newbie to be properly informed about what to expect – both in terms of their scope and the skies – than it is for them to be disappointed later, so that they can make a proper decision in the first place. Get the bad stuff out of the way first so they can get to all the good stuff.
Now, having said all this, dobs are for people who are in decent enough shape, who don’t mind a little tinkering now and then, who have easy access from where the dob is kept to their observing spot. And you know what? That is actually true for the vast majority of people. If someone passes all of the questions on my list, then I am more than happy to recommend that that person buy a dob, and an 8-inch one, to be sure. An 8-inch dob can be a lifetime scope for just $400. And if they don’t mind carting around a bit more weight, I will even recommend a 10-inch dob – although not to a beginner, because that extra weight and size can be quite unwieldy for some.
As ambassadors for the hobby, we old guard have to look out for the newbies. We don’t want some newb, for whom some or all of those things just aren’t true, to buy a dob just to then have it then collect dust in the corner. I think the worst thing we can do is to recommend equipment to people for whom it is not appropriate. My self-appointed role in this hobby is to do whatever I can (within truth and reason, of course <cough>stupidmoon<cough>) to encourage people to get out under the night sky and get observing. So, onward and upward!
* Even though we all specifically remember Sally as saying “You like me! You really like me!”, that’s not what she said at all. Click on the blue link at the top of the post to see what she really, actually said. Bizarre, right?