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The Backyard Astronomer's Guide

The Backyard Astronomer's Guide

4.4 5
by Terence Dickinson, Alan Dyer

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What type of telescope is best for beginners? Can I use my camera to take photographs through a telescope? How good are the new computerized telescope mounts? What charts, books, software and other references do I need? These questions are asked time and again by enthusiastic new amateurs as they take up recreational astronomy.

But accurate, objective and


What type of telescope is best for beginners? Can I use my camera to take photographs through a telescope? How good are the new computerized telescope mounts? What charts, books, software and other references do I need? These questions are asked time and again by enthusiastic new amateurs as they take up recreational astronomy.

But accurate, objective and up-to-date information can be hard to find. Throughout the 1990s, the first edition of The Backyard Astronomer's Guide established itself as the indispensable reference to the equipment and techniques used by the modern recreational stargazer. Now, authors Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer have produced an expanded and completely updated edition that again sets the standard for accessible and reliable information on one of the world's most popular hobbies.

Dickinson and Dyer — both full-time astronomy writers — bring decades of experience to their task. They explain why telescopes often perform much differently from what the novice expects. They recommend the accessories that will enhance the observing experience and advise what not to buy until you become more familiar with your equipment. They name brands and sources and compare value so that you can be armed with the latest practical information when deciding on your next purchase. Sections on astrophotography, daytime and twilight observing, binocular observing and planetary and deep-sky observing round out this comprehensive guide to personal exploration of the universe. Dickinson and Dyer's elegant yet straightforward approach to a complex subject makes this book an invaluable resource for astronomers throughout North America.

With morethan 500 color photographs and illustrations, The Backyard Astronomer's Guide is also one of the most beautiful — and user-friendly — astronomy books ever produced.

About the author:

Terence Dickinson is the author of the best-selling guidebook NightWatch and 13 other books, among them The Universe and Beyond, Splendors of the Universe, Summer Stargazing and Exploring the Night Sky. He is also editor of the Canadian astronomy magazine SkyNews and is an astronomy commentator for Discovery Channel Canada.

Alan Dyer is program producer at the Calgary Science Centre Planetarium and a contributing editor to Sky & Telescope magazine. He is widely regarded as an authority on commercial telescopes, and his evaluations of astronomical equipment appear regularly in major North American astronomy magazines.

Editorial Reviews

Chronicle-Journal (Thunder Bay) - Linda Turk
Here's the ultimate resource for anyone who's thought of following up on an interest in astronomy.... A valuable addition to the amateur astronomer's bookshelf, "The Backyard Astronomer's Guide" brings distant object to our everyday lives.
Lunar an Lunar and Planetary Information Bulletin
With over 500 color photographs and illustrations, this book is a valuable, beautiful and user-friendly astronomy reference.
Anchorage Daily News - Tracey Pitch
One of the best books to guide amateurs.
One-Minute Astronomer.com
A comprehensive guide for the amateur astronomer on buying and using equipment, including telescopes, mounts, eyepieces, and accessories. If you're bewildered by the choice of astronomy equipment out there, this book will help immensely.
Library Journal
Despite the book's title, there is very little about astronomy here, i.e., lists of constellations, star charts, night sky maps, or details about planets, stars, and galaxies. However, there is a wealth of information about the equipment used in astronomy, including prices, consumer-type information, advice on when to use and when not to use binoculars, telescopes, cameras, film, lenses, filters, and other items for the amateur astronomer. Four chapters, though, concern the observation of the solar system and deep space objects. There are also several chapters discussing the photographing of all types of astronomical phenomena. Though cost may deter small-to-medium-sized libraries, there is much information here for the experienced amateur, and some useful information for the beginner as well. (Illustrations and index not seen.)-- Robert Ellis Potter, Dunedin P.L., Fla.
American Reference Books Annual, Volume 35 - Mark Wilson
[Review of earlier edition:] Lively, accessible style; is comprehensive; and is lavishly illustrated with hundreds of photographs, diagrams, and charts... highly recommended for any library.
Science News
[Review of earlier edition:] This all-encompassing reference provides practical advice.
Monday Magazine - Russ Francis
[Review of earlier edition:] If an amateur astronomer could afford one book, this would be the one to get ... one of the most attractive practical astronomy works ever produced.
E-Streams, Vol. 6, No. 4 - Ursula Ellis
[Review of earlier edition:] Excellent introductory text ... completely revised... it is lushly illustrated in color throughout.
American Scientist
[Review of earlier edition:] Few books capture the spirit of the hobby so well — the pleasures and the pitfalls of the equipment you might need, and the simple joy of watching the universe go by.
Choice - A.R. Upgren
[Review of earlier edition:] Recommended for all libraries and for experienced or inexperienced amateur astronomers.
Sky and Telescope - David Aguilar
[Review of earlier edition:] Big colorful user-friendly book ... I recommend this book for anyone who is contemplating buying a telescope, has one but does not quite know how to use it, or wants to learn more about accessories and fun activities to supplement his or her stargazing. If you teach observational astronomy, run a public observatory, or conduct community stargazing classes, put this magazine down and order it right now ... This book is your passport to the stars.
Canadian Camera - Pierre R. Gauthier
[Review of earlier edition:] This book is an indispensable tool for any serious naturalist who wants to understand and experience the full expanse of the world and universe around us.
Astronomy - Craig Tupper
[Review of earlier edition:] Crammed with practical information that should help you become a better observer, and have fun doing it.
Halifax Chronicle-Herald - John McPhee
[Review of earlier edition:] Besides its practical benefits, this book is a real treat for the eyes. It's loaded with colorful photographs, graphics and information boxes.
Science Books and Films - John O. Christensen
[Review of earlier edition:] I highly recommend this volume for most amateur astronomers and all libraries. I wish I had read it before I purchased my first telescope.
[Review of earlier edition:] More than any other guide to backyard observing, this excellent book focuses on equipment.
Lunar and Planetary Information Bulletin
With over 500 color photographs and illustrations, this book is a valuable, beautiful and user-friendly astronomy reference.
American Reference Book Annual - Denise A. Garofalo
A magnificently illustrated and superb guide to astronomy is contained in the newest edition of The Backyard Astronomer's Guide.... Overall, this title is a beautiful and informative resource for the amateur astronomer, both the beginner and the experienced.
Sky and Telescope - Sean Walker
I fondly remember haunting my favorite bookstore as a college student in the early 1990s, ogling the big, full-color astronomy texts, when I happened upon The Backyard Astronomer's Guide. It wasn't as flashy as the other books, but I was quickly taken by its practical information, covering all the subjects I was interested in as a fledgling amateur. Now in its third edition, Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer have completely rewritten large sections to keep in lockstep with the evolving trends. Like an old friend who has grown wiser over time, this compendium has become better with age. It's good-looking too—though chock-full of useful information, none of the full-color layouts appear cramped or confused. Immediately from the first chapter the authors' fluid writing style draws you in, casually introducing you to the pursuit of the night sky. As in previous editions, the flow comfortably builds with each page, easing you into progressively challenging subjects without missing a step.
The text builds though each successive chapter, describing today's plethora of binoculars, telescopes, mounts, eyepieces, and other accessories. We then move on to delve deeply into everything of interest in the sky, from the planets to deep-sky objects. The detailed yet accessible explanation of celestial mechanics should be required reading for everyone. The third part introduces digital astrophotography. Yes, digital—it starts out by stating that film is dead. This new section covers everything you need to get started taking pictures, including some useful parts of Adobe Photoshop. The Backyard Astronomer's Guide closes with a set of beautifully rendered charts of the Milky Way by Glenn LeDrew. Opposing pages display a color version and a labeled, black-on-white version plotted to magnitude 9. Dickinson and Dyer have brought their excellent guide further into the 21st century. I can't recommend it highly enough.
Simcoe.com - Glenn Perrett
Dickinson and Dyer provide considerable information that amateur astronomers will appreciate... Complementing the informative text are hundreds of colour photographs and illustrations as well as a 20-page, full-colour atlas of the Milky Way that includes 10 charts. This revised and expanded third edition will be of interest to serious amateur astronomers.
Shelf Life
The Backyard Astronomer's Guide continues to impress, offering a little something for everyone. If you have never seen this book before, now is the time to add it to your collection. It is one book you will never tire of opening, always finding something of interest in the world of astronomy.

Product Details

Firefly Books, Limited
Publication date:
Edition description:
Second Edition
Product dimensions:
9.00(w) x 11.00(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: Amateur Astronomy Comes of Age

There is something deeply compelling about the starry night sky. Those fragile flickering points of light in the blackness beckon to the inquisitive mind. So it was in antiquity, and so it remains today.

But only in the past decade have large numbers of people decided to delve into stargazing — recreational astronomy — as a leisure activity. Today, more than half a million people in North America call themselves amateur astronomers.

The magic moment when you know you're hooked usually comes with your eye at a telescope eyepiece. It often takes just one exposure to Saturn's stunningly alien, yet serenely beautiful ring system or a steady view of an ancient lunar crater frozen in time on the edge of a rumpled, airless plain.

Naturalists of the Night

19th-century poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote: "The man on the street does not know a star in the sky." Of course, he was right then and now. Well, almost. In recent years, a growing number of people want to become acquainted with the stars. Sales of astronomy books, telescopes and astronomy software have reached all-time highs. More people than ever before are enrolling in the astronomy courses offered by colleges, universities and planetariums. Summer weekend gatherings of astronomy enthusiasts for telescope viewing and informative talks (known among the participants as "star parties") now attract thousands of fans. There is no mistaking the signals: Astronomy has come of age as a mainstream interest and recreational activity.

Not coincidentally, the growth of interest in astronomy has paralleled the rise in our awareness of the environment. The realization that we live on a planet with finite resources and dwindling access to wilderness areas has generated a sharp increase in activities which involve observing and appreciating nature: birding, nature walks, hiking, scenic drives, camping and nature photography. Recreational astronomy is in this category too. Amateur astronomers are naturalists of the night, captivated by the mystique of the vast universe that is accessible only under a dark sky.

In recent decades, the darkness that astronomy enthusiasts seek has been beaten back by the ever-growing domes of artificial light over cities and towns and by the increased use of security lighting everywhere. In many places, the luster of the Milky Way arching across a star-studded sky has been obliterated forever. Yet amateur astronomy flourishes as never before. Why? Perhaps it is an example of that well-known human tendency to ignore the historic or acclaimed tourist sights in one's own neighborhood while attempting to see everything when traveling to distant lands. Most people now perceive a starry sky as foreign and enchanting rather than something that can be seen from any sidewalk, as it was when our grandparents were young.

That is certainly part of the answer, but consider how amateur astronomy has changed in two generations. The typical 1960s amateur astronomer was usually male and a loner, with a strong interest in physics, mathematics and optics. In high school, he spent his weekends grinding a 6-inch f/8 Newtonian telescope mirror from a kit sold by Edmund Scientific, in accordance with the instructions in Scientfic American telescope-making books. The four-foot-long telescope was mounted on what was affectionately called a plumber's nightmare — an equatorial mount made of pipe fittings. In some cases, it was necessary to keep the telescope out of sight to be brought out only under cover of darkness to avoid derisive commentary from the neighbors.

Practical reference material was almost nonexistent in the 1960s. Most of what there was came from England, and virtually all of it was written by one man, Patrick Moore. Amateur astronomy was like a secret religion — so secret, it was almost unknown.

Thankfully, that is all history. Current astronomy hobbyists represent a complete cross section of society, encompassing men and women of all ages, occupations and levels of education. Amateur astronomy has finally come into its own as a legitimate recreational activity, not the pastime of perceived lab-coated rocket scientists and oddballs. Indeed, it has emerged as a leisure activity with a certain prestige. Unlike some hobbies, it is not possible to buy your way into astronomy. Astronomical knowledge and experience take time to accumulate. But be forewarned: Once you gain that knowledge and experience, astronomy can be addictive.

Amateur Astronomy Today

Amateur astronomy has become incredibly diversified. No individual can master the field entirely. It is simply too large; it has too many activities and choices. In general, though, amateur astronomers divide fairly easily into three groups: the observers, the techno-enthusiasts and the armchair astronomers. The last category refers to people who pursue the hobby mainly vicariously — through books, magazines, lectures, discussion groups or conversations with other aficionados. Armchair astronomers are often self-taught experts on nonobservational aspects of the subject, such as cosmology or astronomical history.

The techno-enthusiast category includes telescope makers and those fascinated by the technical side of the hobby, especially the application of computers to astronomical imaging and telescope use and the application of technological innovations related to amateur-astronomy equipment. It can also involve crafting optics, though this type of telescope making is less prevalent than it was a few decades ago. With the vast array of commercial equipment available today, "rolling your own" is not the common activity it once was.

This book is written primarily for the third kind of amateur astronomer, the observer, one whose dominant interest in astronomy is to explore the visible universe with eye and telescope. Observing, we believe, is what it is all about. The exhilaration of exploring the sky, of seeing for yourself the remote planets, galaxies, clusters and nebulas — real objects of enormous dimensions at immense distances — is the essence of backyard astronomy.

Getting in Deeper

Amateur astronomy can range from an occasional pleasant diversion to a full-time obsession. Some amateur astronomers spend more time and energy on the hobby than do all but the most dedicated research astronomers at mountaintop observatories. Such "professional amateurs" are the exception, but they are indeed the true amateur astronomers — that is, they have selected an area which professional astronomers, either by choice or through lack of human resources, have neglected. They are, in the purest sense, amateurs: unpaid researchers.

In the past, such impassioned individuals were often independently wealthy and able to devote much time and effort to a single-minded pursuit. This is seldom the case anymore. For instance, Australian Robert Evans is a pastor of three churches, has a family with four daughters and is by no means a man of wealth or leisure. Yet he has spent almost every clear night since 1980 searching for supernovas in galaxies up to 100 million light-years away. He discovered 18 within a decade — more than were found during the same period by a team of university researchers using equipment designed exclusively for that purpose.

Similarly, most bright comets in recent years have been found by committed amateur astronomers. However, the persistent supernova or comet hunter represents just a tiny fraction of those who call themselves amateur astronomers. The vast majority — at least 99 percent — are more accurately described as recreational backyard astronomers. Although this term has not gained wide usage, it more precisely describes what most amateur astronomers do. They are out enjoying themselves under the stars, engaging in a personal exploration of the universe that has no scientific purpose beyond self-edification. It's challenging and

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The Best Skygazer's Guide You Can Buy

Meet the Author

Terence Dickinson is the author of Night Watch and 13 other astronomy books, among them The Universe and Beyond, Summer Stargazing and Exploring the Night Sky. He is also editor of SkyNews.

Alan Dyer is program producer at the Calgary Science Centre Planetarium and a contributing editor to Sky and Telescope magazine. An authority on commercial telescopes, his reviews of astronomical equipment appear regularly in major astronomy magazines.

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The Backyard Astronomer's Guide 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Anyone interested in what goes on 'out there' -- and that includes most of us -- should read 'Backyard Astronomer's Guide' before plunking down any money on binoculars, telescopes, eyepieces, or surplus Saturn V rockets. The proud papa of a new telescope, I had about 50 questions that were apparently unanswerable, such as, How much magnification can I get with my 'scope, and how do I increase the optical power without degrading the image quality; Why do stars look twinkly and fuzzy, instead of the prescribed pinpoint of light; How do you decide on a good set of binoculars; and, how do I test and fine-tune the optics of my telescope? And then I found this book. 'Backyard' answers all those questions and more. Messieurs Dickinson and Dyer apparently felt that there were enough star guides and atlases; what was needed was something that would tell people in practical terms how to choose, use and care for the equipment necessary to see all that stuff out there. That's a huge order, and it would have been easy to become bogged down in details that would have rendered the book obsolete before it even went to press. Astro-technology is like everything else, moving at almost the speed of light. But by focusing on the core principles and basics, while periodically revising and updating hardware specs and models, the authors have dodged the technology trap and created a book that will remain a valuable guide for many years to come. The book immediately saved me a wad of cash: I had been thinking about buying a good zoom eyepiece. 'Backyard' states emphatically that the words 'good' and 'zoom eyepiece' don't go together. 'Nuff said. With its comparative tables on everything from magnitude scale to eyepieces and filters, its richly detailed explanations of how equipment works and how to work it, and its huge number of photos, charts and drawings, 'The Backyard Astronomer's Guide' is truly the Boy Scout Handbook of amateur astronomy. It is one of my most prized books on astronomy.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Great for all types of observing of the night sky. A much more advanced version of nightwatch. I use it when I am out with my 8 inch telescope.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I learned a lot from this book! It's full of info that's written in an easily understood fashion. I benefitted greatly from the section on setting circles, R.A. and declination and other confusing topics novice astronomers face. It's worth the dough, folks.