When all the photos are gathered and sorted, there are usually two to three dozen that are obvious contenders. Selecting the winners of this contest from these is the task of our five-member judging panel. Astro-imaging is now a major part of amateur astronomy for two reasons: Digital-imaging equipment is better than ever, and it is available at increasingly attractive prices. And here’s a tip: If you want to break into astrophotography, try the tripod-mounted unguided category. Typically, a 10- to 30 second exposure with a normal DSLR camera takes first prize in this category.
Winner: While in Australia this spring, Warren Finlay of Edmonton, Alberta, captured this ethereal image of the Milky Way from an airstrip at 2:38 a.m. on March 31 under totally dark skies. It is a 122-second exposure, f/3.5, ISO 3200, with a 15mm Sigma fisheye on a Canon 6D tracking with an AstroTrac mount. “This was my fourth attempt to try to get this shot,” says Finlay, “after clouds and rain had skunked me on previous nights. It was my last night, and I had actually given up after waiting to see if the clouds would clear. However, just as I was leaving to go back to bed, I saw a band of clearing on the horizon, so I waited, and the skies cleared long enough for me to take this photo. Sometimes, patience pays off!”
Grand Prize: Canon 70D DSLR camera from Camera Canada
Best Deep-Sky with Digital SLR or Webcam-Type Imager
Winner: Philippe Moussette of Cap-Rouge, Quebec, captured the iconic North America Nebula, in Cygnus, with exceptional subtle detail using a Canon 1DX with a 300mm f/2.8 Canon lens. Seven 5-minute images at ISO 1600 were digitally stacked to produce the final photo. This nebula is so huge, it is visible in 7×50 binoculars on a clear, moonless night well away from light pollution. Its estimated distance from Earth is 200 light-years.
Prize: Meade Series 5000 24mm ultrawide eyepiece
Honourable Mention: The nearest spiral galaxy similar in size to our home galaxy, the Milky Way, is the Andromeda Galaxy, a favourite target for beginning astrophotographers. Yet it is not an easy subject. For this image, Jeff Donaldson of Enfield, Nova Scotia, used an Orion f/4 astrographic Newtonian reflector with a filter-modified Canon XSi DSLR camera to take fifteen 5-minute exposures at ISO 800. These were then digitally stacked, resulting in the celestial portrait seen here.
Best Digital-Camera Photo/Lunar and Planetary
Winner: This fine image of Saturn, taken on May 31, 2014, shows why most backyard astronomers turn their telescopes to the ringed planet at every opportunity. Astro-imager Roch Levesque of Terrebonne, Quebec, notes that “it was my best shot of Saturn this year.” Our judges remarked on the subtle belts in the planet’s atmosphere and the lack of processing artifacts in the photo. Levesque used an ASI120MM CCD camera on an 11-inch Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrain working at f/20 for the R-RGB image.
Prize: Celestron Skyris 618C CCD camera
Honourable Mention: In this region of the first-quarter Moon, the landscape is wall-to wall craters, many of them dating back more than three billion years, to a period of heavy bombardment following the formation of our solar system. The prominent crater with the central peak at bottom middle is 115-kilometre-wide Maurolycus. Jean Guimond used a 12.5-inch PlaneWave CDK from his home observatory in Quebec, Quebec, with a PGR Grasshopper monochrome video camera for this shot. The final image is a digital stack of 180 sixteen-millisecond frames selected from more than 1,200.
Best Deep-Sky Digital High-Resolution Imagery
Winner: Lonnie Hunker of Thorsby, Alberta, used a Sky-Watcher Esprit 120mm ED apo refractor for this ultradeep 26-hour exposure of the Elephant Trunk Nebula taken at Wizard Lake, Alberta, over four nights (September 10-13, 2013). Baader filters in H-alpha, O-III and SII were used to provide exceptional detail for the relatively small telescope employed.
Prize: Black Diamond ED 80mm OTA package with aluminum case and focal reducer
Honourable Mention: Selecting an infrequently imaged dusty region in Cepheus known as Cohen 129 — the yellow knot of nebulosity in the upper middle — Keith Egger of Prince George, British Columbia, used an Atik 383L+ Mono CCD on a Sky-Watcher 190mm Mak-Newtonian for this 20-hour image. Colour data collected from a filter-modified Canon XSi DSLR on a 90mm refractor.
Best Tripod-Mounted Unguided Photo
Winner: Calgary-based photographer Robert Berdan was at the right place at the right time to record this stunning aurora at 1:05 a.m. on August 30, 2013, on the edge of Prelude Lake, 30 kilometres outside Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. He used a Nikon D800 with a 14-24mm f/2.8 lens (at 14mm) for the 15-second exposure at IS0 800.
Prize: iOptron SkyTracker
Honourable Mention: Many astro-images have been collected in Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park over the years, and here’s a particularly fine example. Dave Crombie used a Nikon D700 at ISO 3200 with an ultrawide 14mm lens at f/2.8 for 30 seconds for this panoramic portrait of the summer Milky Way and the stinger of Scorpius appearing to merge with low clouds and the distant glow of light pollution from urban centres 150 to 200 kilometres to the south.