14 Different Types of Telescope Mounts Explained

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telescope mount types

Ask pretty much any astronomer or astrophotographer and they’ll tell you that your mount is as important as your telescope.

However, it can be hard to get your head around all the different mount types and to understand the terminology around them.

Here we have written our guide to all the different types of telescope mounts that you can buy and outlined what each type is best suited for.

If imaging is your thing, feel free to hop straight over to the best mounts for astrophotography.

What is a Telescope Mount?

A telescope mount is a piece of equipment that sits between your tripod and your telescope and is used to operate where your telescope is pointing. This may mean it moves for you, or just allows you to move it yourself.

Mounts will often come packaged with the tripod included, but not always. If being sold without a tripod then it will be referred to as a “mount head” or “mounting head”.

Many off-the-shelf telescope packages come with the telescope tube (OTA), mount, tripod, and any other accessories included. In these cases, it is worth exploring what mount is included as this will have a bearing on how suitable it is for astronomy vs astrophotography, as well as how practical it may be for your circumstances.

The most common mount types are alt-azimuth and equatorial. In general, alt-az mounts are good for astronomy and equatorial mounts are good for astrophotography, but there is some nuance to this. Read on to understand more.

Types of Telescope Mount

Whilst there is much overlap, we believe that there are 14 types of telescope mount:

  1. Altitude-Azimuth Mounts
  2. Equatorial Mounts
  3. German Equatorial Mounts
  4. Center-Balanced Equatorial Mounts
  5. Hybrid Mounts
  6. Star Trackers
  7. Dobsonian Mounts
  8. Single Arm Mounts
  9. Fork Mounts
  10. U Mounts
  11. Direct Drive Mounts
  12. Harmonic Mounts
  13. Friction Drive Mounts
  14. English Yoke Mounts

Read on for detail on what each of these is.

Alt-Azimuth Telescope Mounts (Alt-Az)

An Alt-Azimuth mount – also known as an Alt-Az, an altazimuth, or an altitude-azimuth mount – is one of the two main categories of telescope mount, alongside equatorial mounts.

The name comes from combining the words altitude and azimuth. This refers to how the mount works:

  • altitude meaning it moves up and down, and
  • azimuth meaning it moves left and right.

Whilst there are more advanced mounts that are within the Alt-Az categorization, they are most commonly the simplest type of mount and are what comes with most basic telescope packages, especially smaller refractor telescopes.

These mounts are operated by hand and allow you to simply point your telescope where you want to look with the up/down, left/right operation.

Alt-Azimuth mounts are most suitable for astronomy and observing, rather than for astrophotography. This is because with astrophotography you usually take long exposures (or a series of multiple images in the case of planetary photography) and so you need to smoothly track the astronomical object you are imaging. Alt-Az mounts do not suit this with the inherent up/down, left/right movement.

However, for telescope beginners they are easy to operate and make it easy to take the first steps into backyard astronomy.

Alt-Az mount advantages:

  • Simple to use
  • Easy to setup – doesn’t need any alignment
  • Small and light – requires no counterweights

Alt-Az mount disadvantages:

  • Require you to manually locate and track anything you want to view
  • Not suited to astrophotography

Equatorial Telescope Mounts (EQ)

Equatorial mounts – or EQ mounts – are the other main category of mount alongside Alt-Az. They are different in that they allow movement in any direction, rather than just up and down, left and right.

This means that they can smoothly track objects in the night sky and this makes them suitable for astrophotography, where you will take long exposures and need to stay focused on an astronomical object for a long period.

There are a number of types of mounts that fit within the category of Equatorial. In fact, any mount that can track astronomical objects by turning a single axis is an equatorial mount. This then encompasses star trackers, and also fork or even alt-az mounts that use an equatorial wedge.

Most commonly though, if people are talking about EQ mounts they are referring to German Equatorial Mounts (see below).

Equatorial mount advantages:

  • Best for astrophotography

Equatorial mount disadvantages:

  • Harder to use – need to be aligned and balanced correctly to set up
  • Heavier – they usually use counterweights and so are less portable
  • Bulkier – harder to pack up and store

There are a number of different types of mount that fit within the EQ category and these are explained below.

German Equatorial Telescope Mounts (GEM)

German Equatorial Mounts, or GEMs, are what most people refer to when they talk about Equatorial or EQ mounts.

German Equatorial Mounts incorporate counterweights and are best suited for astrophotography.

Center-Balanced Equatorial Mounts (CEM)

Center-Balanced Equatorial mounts (CEM) are a variation of EQ mount made solely by iOptron.

The tweak on the GEM design allows the counterweights to be closer to the center of the mount which enables them to have a higher payload capacity in relation to the weight of the mount.

Note, these are also referred to in some places as Chinese Equatorial Mounts (CEM) to indicate the country of the design origin (like with a GEM).

Hybrid Telescope Mounts (AZ/EQ)

Hybrid Mounts combined Alt-Az and Equatorial functionality and so can be used either way. They are often called AZ/EQ mounts.

The advantage of this is that you can have the simplicity of the Alt-Az mode for observing, but also the capacity for astrophotography use by switching into the EQ mode.

The downside of Hybrid Mounts is that they are more expensive than standalone Alt-Az or EQ mounts.

Star Trackers (Camera Tracking Mounts)

Star Trackers are essentially mini-equatorial mounts. The key difference is that they are primarily designed for use with regular DSLR/mirrorless cameras and lenses, rather than with telescopes. Therefore they are smaller and have much less payload capacity.

They are usually used for landscape and Milky Way astrophotography. They allow the photographer to take a much longer exposure and reduce the need for stacking in post-production.

They can be used for deep sky astrophotography with telephoto lenses, or even small telescopes, but they are not usually computerized or GOTO.

The advantages of star trackers are that they are small, light, and portable. They usually do not use counterweights but some accommodate this to allow an increased payload capacity.

See the Best Star Trackers to learn more and find the most popular models.

Dobsonian Telescope Mounts

Dobsonian Mounts are a specific type of Altazimuth mount.

They do not incorporate a tripod but instead sit on a circular base on the ground. They are specifically designed to support large Newtonian reflector telescopes. This is what a Dobsonian Telescope is – a Dobsonian mount with a Newtonian Reflector telescope.

What Dobsonians are good for is astronomy and observing. They are the best value in terms of price for the aperture you will get in a telescope. This means you can get a huge and powerful telescope for a relatively low cost, compared to other telescope types like refractors and catadioptrics.

The downside of Dobsonians is the size and weight – you need to make sure you have the space to accommodate it. In addition, like other Alt-Az mounts, they are not good for astrophotography.

Single Arm Telescope Mounts

A Single Arm Mount is a form of alt-azimuth mount. Its name comes from its design where the telescope is held by literally a single arm that attaches to one side of the OTA to hold it.

This is opposed to fork mounts that hold the telescope with two arms.

A single arm mount comes packaged with Celestron’s popular Nexstar telescopes.

Telescope Fork Mounts

Fork Mounts are also another kind of alt-az mount. They are characterized by having two arms that attach to the telescope on each side.

The advantage of a fork mount is that it should be more steady and secure than a single arm mount and can therefore track with more accuracy and have a higher payload capacity.

In comparison to German Equatorial Mounts, they are also easier to use and more compact, requiring no counterweights.

Fork mounts can be converted to equatorial mounts with the addition of an equatorial wedge.

The popular Celestron CPC telescope packages come with a fork mount.

U Mounts

U Mounts are most commonly used with astronomy binoculars but can fit small telescopes.

Similar in appearance to fork mounts, U mounts attach to the optical device via a quick-release plate underneath.

Popular U mounts for astronomy are manufactured by Orion and Explore Scientific.

Direct Drive Telescope Mounts

Direct Drive mounts are different from most other types of mount in that they do not incorporate gears.

The advantages of this are they are extremely precise with no periodic error, and no backlash. They are also low maintenance.

Most commonly these are very high-end mounts from companies like Planewave and ASA.

Direct Drive mounts can be single arm or fork mounts and so there is some cross-over here in terms of what type of mount any specific model is. I.e. a mount can be a direct drive fork mount, and so fit within two categories.

Harmonic Drive Telescope Mounts (Strain Wave)

Harmonic Drive Mounts – also known as Strain Wave Drive Mounts – are another type of mount that do not use gears and so eliminate periodic errors and backlash.

They are gaining in popularity for astrophotographers due to the high level of performance and the price reducing in relation to GEMs and (the far more expensive) Direct Drive Mounts.

Popular models of harmonic mounts come from ZWO, Hobym, and Rainbow Astro.

iOptron also offers a number of variations of these called Hybrid Equatorial Mounts (HEM), Strain Wave AZ/EQ mounts (HAE), and Strain Wave Alt-Azi mounts (HAZ).

Read more on this in our guide to Harmonic Drive Telescope Mounts.

Friction Dive Mount

A friction drive mount is another variation that has no gears and therefore no backlash.

Examples of these kinds of mounts are rare, with harmonic and direct drive mounts more common.

English Telescope Mounts (Yoke)

English mounts (also known as Yoke mounts) date from hundreds of years ago and were used in observatories, so they are not really relevant for everyday users today.

However, a modern take on this is the Portable English Mount (PEM) which can be found from specialist manufacturers.

Telescope Mount Specifications

Aside from the type of mount, there are also a number of key specifications that you should be aware of in selecting a mount. Most importantly these are:

  1. Payload Capacity
  2. Computerized / GoTo Capability
  3. Motorized / Manual Drive
  4. Smartphone Compatibility

Payload Capacity

The payload capacity of a telescope mount is one of the most important factors since it determines what telescope can be used with it.

You need the mount to be able to carry the telescope and all accessories for it to function properly and also you don’t want your gear to collapse onto the ground because you overloaded it (and potentially hurt someone and/or break your gear).

With using a mount for astrophotography there is a common rule of thumb that you should only use about half of the payload capacity of the mount to ensure that it works smoothly enough for imaging.

Therefore when buying a mount you need to check the weight of your OTA and the capacity of the mounts you are considering.

Computerized / GoTo Capability

All different types of telescope mount can be computerized (or “GOTO”).

A computerized/GOTO mount will scan the sky for you, tell you what is available for you to see that night, and then move on its own when you select what you want to look at.

This can save a huge amount of time and make it much easier to find astronomical objects.

The downsides are that they are:

  • More expensive
  • Require a power source and may need to be plugged in
  • Take away a learning element of trying to manually locate objects in the night sky

Computerized and GOTO are used interchangeably but technically:

  • Computerized Mounts will track an object for you but not automatically find
  • GOTO Mounts will literally “go to” the object that you select from the hand controller or app you are using

You can also find Push-To mounts, which contain the computer for reading the night sky but no motor, and so have to be manually “pushed” to track what you want to view.

You can read more on this in What is a GOTO Telescope?

Motorized or Manual

A motorized mount will track the object you are viewing in the night sky using its own drive. This is in contrast to a manual one that you have to move yourself.

Most EQ mounts and GEMs are motorized and require a power source like batteries or AC.

A manual mount requires you to manually track the object you are viewing by slowly turning knobs to move it.

Manual Alt-Az mounts are common in lower-priced telescope packages but manual EQ mounts are fairly rare these days as there are few advantages to a manual over a motorized model, other than possibly a lower price. The manual control also undermines the core advantage of an EQ mount in that it can smoothly track objects for photography.

Smartphone Compatibility

A final thing work looking out for with a computerized mount is whether it can be controlled via an app on your smartphone (or tablet).

If so, this means you can ditch the hand controller and just use your phone. This means one less component to manage and fewer cables.

Telescope Mount Types for Astrophotography

At Skies & Scopes, we conducted an analysis of all gear used in nearly 700 images shortlisted for the Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition in the last five years.

Our article on the best mounts for astrophotography covers the most used mount models and most successful brands, but here we can use the data to also examine the most commonly used mount types.

You can see here that German Equatorial Mounts are by far the most successfully used mount for astrophotography:

Most Popular Telescope Mount Types for Astrophotography
Telescope mount types used in images shortlisted for Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2018-2022

The success of GEMs not only reflects their suitability for astrophotography but also their accessibility in that they are affordable for regular imagers.

Direct Drive mounts come high and are used by high-end astrophotographers using observatories for deep sky imaging.

For more on this, Wido’s AstroForum has a great video that dives into telescope mount types and astrophotography:

FAQs: Telescope Mount Types

How do you Attach a Telescope to a Mount?

It depends on the mount, but telescopes usually attach to mounts via dovetail plates. These are rails that attach to the bottom of your telescope and clamp into the saddle of the mount.

There are a number of different types of dovetail plate and this is how you can make sure your telescope is compatible with a certain mount.

What are Tracking Mounts?

Tracking is the process of staying with an object as it moves throughout the night sky.

If a mount has tracking, it likely means it has motors to keep an object centered in view when looking through the telescope.

What is a Motor Drive / Clock Drive?

If a mount says that it is motorized then is usually means that it is not computerized but will move to track an object once you have centered on it.

However, all GOTO and Computerized mounts are motorized and so this is not always a clear classification.

What is an Equatorial Wedge?

An equatorial wedge is a component that allows an alt-az mount to be used equatorially. This improves its performance for astrophotography by allowing it to move on a single axis.

What is Backlash in Telescope Mounts?

Backlash is an issue that occurs in gear-driven telescope mounts and causes issues in tracking.

What is Periodic Error Correction (PEC)?

Periodic Error (PE) is the occurrence of a small and measurable error in tracking that occurs each time a mount’s drive gear completes a revolution.

Gear-driven german equatorial mounts will often enable Periodic Error Correction (PEC) where the mount can be “trained” to compensate for this error.

Periodic Error is avoided in mounts without gears, like direct drive and harmonic mounts.

What Type of Telescope Mount is Right For You?

The key takeaway from all of this is that:

  1. Alt-Azimuth mounts are best for visual observing
  2. Equatorial mounts are best for astrophotography

So if you are just looking for a telescope to casually use for astronomy in your backyard then a package with an alt-az mount will probably suit you and will be the least expensive.

If you know you want to get into astrophotography then an equatorial mount will be best but bear in mind it will be harder to master and also heavier and harder to store and transport.

(For a deeper dive into this, see our article on Altazimuth vs Equatorial Mounts).

The caveat to this GOTO functionality. We believe that for a beginner a computerized alt-az mount may well be better for you even for astrophotography since you will get more use out of it.

Depending on the mount you can also add the equatorial wedge to upgrade it for astrophotography – whilst this isn’t perfect, many people have great success in deep sky imaging with setups like this.

In theory, Hybrid AZ/EQ mounts are perfect but they are significantly more expensive.

Harmonic and direct drive mounts are also an upgrade for astrophotography but substantially more expensive (direct drive) or limited in payload capacity (harmonic drives).

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About the Author

Anthony Robinson is the founder and owner of Skies & Scopes, a publication and community focused on amateur astronomy and astrophotography. His work has been featured in publications such as Amateur Astrophotography, Forbes, the Guardian, DIY Photography, PetaPixel, and Digital Camera World - read more.


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