How Do Refracting Telescopes Work?

Stargazing is without a doubt one of the most relaxing hobbies you can have.

There is something so relaxing about sitting there and looking at the universe that exists outside of the world that we live in. It is a great way to detach yourself from the stresses of everyday life and an excellent way to feel at one with the universe. 

While you do not necessarily need a telescope to stargaze, it is the best way to truly feel at one with the stars and solar system. Even though you can see many stars with the naked eye, you cannot truly understand the patterns that makeup star signs without a telescope.

Telescopes can be confusing, mainly because there are at least two different types that exist, these are refracting and reflecting telescopes.

Today we’ll be looking at what a refracting telescope is, how it differs from a reflecting telescope, and exactly how a refracting telescope works.

So if you want to find out more about refracting telescopes, keep reading. 

What is a refracting telescope?

As we have established, there are two main types of telescopes: refracting telescopes and reflecting telescopes. All telescopes are optical instruments that use either mirrors or lenses to enable you to see objects that are very far away.

Some telescopes will use just mirrors, some will use just lenses, while others will use a combination of both. So what is a refracting telescope?

A refracting telescope is a telescope that allows you to see distant objects through the use of lenses. Traditionally, the refracting telescope design was used for spy glasses, however, the design was later used to make the refracting telescope and it became very popular during the latter half of the 19th century.

Despite this, the refracting telescope has constantly been overlooked, and it seems that both consumers and astrologers will always reach for the reflecting telescope before its refracting counterpart. This is mainly because the aperture of the refracting telescope is unable to reach the size that some reflecting telescopes have.

Despite the fact that they have been around for centuries, the design of the refracting telescope hasn’t changed too greatly from when it was first constructed. They usually have one lens at the front, followed by a long tube which forms the classic telescope shape.

At the opposite end of the lens, there is some form of eyepiece which you can look through that brings the image of the object you are observing into focus. The lens differs from model to model with some using two or three element lenses depending on what refracting telescope you buy.

Due to the differences in their design, a refracting telescope is closer to a pair of binoculars than it is to the reflecting telescope, so let’s take a look at the differences between a refracting and a reflecting telescope.

Refracting vs Reflecting Telescope

As the names used to describe these telescopes are fairly similar, you may be led to believe that both the refracting and the reflecting telescopes do not differ much in design.

However, this is not the case. As we have already mentioned, the refracting telescope is designed to use lenses as its way to focus on an image.

Alternatively, the reflecting telescope is designed to use mirrors instead of lenses.

As is common in most devices where there are two main types, both the refracting and reflecting telescopes have their advantages and disadvantages.

Some of the issues that you will experience with a refracting telescope you may not experience with a reflecting telescope and vice versa. Due to their use of a mirror, reflecting telescopes tend to have a better light-collecting ability than refracting telescopes.

Whereas refracting telescopes cannot collect as much light as reflecting telescopes, but they do show contrast and sharpness more impressively.

There is no right answer as to which telescope is the best as both telescopes are better suited for different situations. So with that in mind, let’s take a look at how a refracting telescope works in more detail.

How do refracting telescopes work?

As we have already established, refracting telescopes use mirrors to focus the light in a way that makes the object you are viewing appear closer to you than it actually is.

These lenses are not designed like lenses that are used in a pair of glasses, instead, they are specifically designed for the telescope.

Refracting telescope lenses are designed in a convex style which means that the lens is not flat, instead, it bends inward slightly to aid the focus of the light.

The shape of the lenses allows the light to focus in a way that makes the distance between you and the object appear significantly smaller than it actually is. This allows you to see the object that you are viewing in the night sky a lot clearer than you would be able to with the naked eye.

Now that we understand how the shape of the telescope allows you to view objects in the night sky, let’s quickly look at how you use a refracting telescope.

Once you have located the object that you want to observe with the telescope, you should set up your tripod. The best way to observe objects in the night sky is away from any artificial light including street lamps which cause great light pollution.

Loosen the screws on your tripod and insert your telescope into its designated place before tightening it so that it is secure.

You will likely then use your finderscope which can be attached to the telescope to help you find the object. Once you have located the object, you will need to insert an eyepiece that is appropriate for the distance that the object is away.

Following that simply adjust the focus on your telescope until you are able to get a clear view of the object that you wish to observe.


In short, refracting telescopes work very differently from reflecting telescopes. Refracting telescopes utilize a series of lenses to allow you to focus on objects in the night sky.

While they do not collect as much light as reflecting telescopes do, refracting telescopes can show great contrast between the object and the rest of the sky for a wonderful view. 

Gordon Watts