A Few Mistakes I've Made
Many amateur astronomers have a mental laundry list of equipment they'd eventually like to get, and the rest of us are glad to help others spend their money by offering advice born of experience. Having been an amateur astronomer for over fifty years, I've made my share of wrong turns, so can share a few thoughts that might deter others from making similar mistakes.
Light Pollution Filters - Light pollution in the Lake County area is bad ... really bad. So anyone hoping to do some observing from their back yard may be tempted by the holy grail of so-called "light pollution blocking" filters. I bought one of these when they first came out in the early 80's. They're even more widely available today. My advice: don't waste your money. Remember that all filters to some extent block the light of objects we observe, and with their wide pass bands, LPB filters simply block some of the light emitted by artificial illumination. But they don't enhance the view of deep sky objects very well. A better choice is a UHC or UltraBlock filter which have narrower pass bands and really do improve the view of nebulae. There is no filter that helps with galaxies or star clusters.
Stinting on Eyepieces - When Tele Vue first came out with its wide field eyepieces, I couldn't understand why anyone would pay such an exorbitant price for those things. So I soldiered along with tried and true Erfles, Plossls, and Orthoscopics. But I eventually realized what I was missing in terms of wide fields, image quality, and comfortable eye positioning. Most of my old eyepieces are long gone, replaced by Tele Vue and Pentax oculars. My advice: stick with whatever eyepieces you have now until you can afford some top quality replacements. Small incremental improvements are only temporary. Top-notch eyepieces are a lifetime investment that will save you money in the long run. If you choke at the prospect of spending as much on eyepieces as on a telescope, then consider something like Baader Hyperions or Orion Ultrascopics - their performance is just a notch below the premium oculars.
Aperture Rules - Several years ago I invested in a 6" apochromatic refractor that gives wonderful views of Solar System objects, which were the only things worth observing from the light polluted area where I lived at the time. I was so enamored with the APO that I didn't touch my old 10" Newtonian even once for about three years. When I finally did turn the 10" to the sky again, I realized how much I had been missing in terms of resolution and light gathering ability. I can't label the 6" APO as a mistake - it's a great telescope. If I were heavily into astrophotography it would be my primary scope. But I'm basically a visual observer. It's still only a 6" telescope that takes longer and is more complicated to set up than my current 12" Dobsonian, which I now use more often. Based on how I currently observe, a large refractor was not the best investment. But my 4" APO is very convenient for shorter observing sessions.
Early Adoption of Technology - Every now and then a brand new piece of equipment is introduced that seems to be just what you can use. The problem with jumping on the bandwagon early is that there may be unforeseen drawbacks. To some extent, this was the case with the first Nagler eyepieces that suffered from blackout problems - later versions corrected this. In my case, I just had to have the Collins I3 electronic image intensifier eyepiece, which promised the ability to enhance the view of deep sky objects. It does work as specified and if it were cheaper it would be worthwhile. Though it indeed shows objects you would have missed otherwise, the background "noise" (scintillation on the phosphor screen) masks subtle details in objects, and that destroys the aesthetic appeal of deep sky observing. I hardly ever use the I3 anymore, and wish I had waited for more thorough reviews before jumping on it. The old adage applies: "Be not the first by whom the new is tried nor last to lay the old aside".
Conclusions - Each of us has to distinguish between what equipment we need for our observing agenda versus what we merely want. In other words, based on your budget, what will pay the biggest dividends? For example, a dew zapper isn't as inspiring as a new eyepiece, but it can prevent fogging of optics that results in a premature end to your observing session. (I wish I had bought one sooner.) The Internet today provides a great source of information from people who are actually using various equipment. Not all the reviews are unbiased, but if you read enough of them, a pattern emerges and you learn whose comments you can trust. Finally, with the current pace of innovation, new and better equipment will always be coming out. So while you might have buyer's remorse when a newer version than yours is introduced, accept the fact that this will always be the case. While it's good to be judicious, don't fall victim to "paralysis by analysis" - constantly seeking reassurance or waiting for something better while failing to grasp an item that will enhance your enjoyment of astronomy today and well into the future.Published in the April 2009 issue of the NightTimes