NH Astrophotographer Christopher Georgia

With a little patience (and the right lenses) the New Hampshire sky becomes a window to the universe

Above: “It is very rare to convince friends to hike at night in search of a photograph. Especially when the hike involves Mt. Washington. Fellow photographer Jessie Briggs and I began our early evening ascent during summer solstice in June of 2013. Our destination was the crest of Lion Head, offering a beautiful view of Tuckerman Ravine and the summit of Mt. Washington. This panoramic image was photographed using 13 shots. It was quite difficult to capture this particular image due to the unforgiving 30 mph plus headwind.  I also had to be very quick with the moon setting over Tuckerman Ravine, not to mention the giant moon halo. With a firm grasp on the tripod, I fired away 13, 30-second exposures and stitched them together to create this panoramic image.” – Photo and description by Christopher Georgia.

Look up. Not now. Wait until it’s night. Wait until it’s dark. That’s astrophotographer Christopher M. Georgia’s way of life. While most people are sleeping, Georgia is recording what few of us ever notice — the breathtaking nightscape of New Hampshire.

The Manchester artist’s oeuvre, while still in its early stages, presents remarkable views of the star-strewn sky looming over Mount Washington like a planetarium show, a green curtain of aurora borealis shimmering over Mount Chocorua, the Milky Way splitting the night sky above Cannon Mountain, and a nightscape transforming the gritty Queen City into an iridescent fairyland.

“My work offers a different perspective. It’s something most people don’t get a chance to see,” says Georgia of his panoramic and time-lapse images of the night land and skyscape.

His masterpiece, to date, is “Light of the Night,” a six-and-a-half minute  video  that  takes  a visual tour of the New England from Manchester to Lake Massabesic, through the White Mountains and  along the seacoast. It is choreographed to the space rock suite, “Forever Lost,” by the Irish band, God is an Astronaut. Think “Koyaanisqatsi” meets the Granite State.

Above: “The holiday lights had just been installed at Cape Neddick Light Station in York, Maine. Fellow photographer Garrett Evans and I decided to go out to see what we could capture. While at Cape Neddick we received word that the aurora borealis could be storming soon. Frantically packing up our gear, we rushed to the car to head north.  We found ourselves two hours away from our original destination, back in New Hampshire, photographing the aurora borealis from Lake Chocorua in the middle of December 2013.” – Photo and description by Christopher Georgia.

Georgia says it took him more than 500 hours to make with 12,500 plus photographs, 3,000-plus miles driving and 250 miles hiked. He calls it “a short film capturing just a small sample of the beautiful New England star-filled landscapes” — all time-lapse photography rendered into a video: “I wanted to see what I could do. It serves as an introduction to my work.”

The short film has had more than 30,000 views on YouTube and Vimeo and 50,000 on Bing. He’s also had a lot of hits on his website.

But the 29-year-old Thornton native is relatively new to this work.

“The photography came first in high school, 35 millimeter, black-and-white photographs. I was also into hiking and started hiking the 4,000 footers. I photographed landscapes, then I moved to digital and color, but it wasn’t overly inspired. They were images we’ve all seen of the state’s natural beauty,” he says.

He went on to study marketing and eventually moved to Manchester, where he worked in the wide-format and print division of a marketing firm.

“Tuckerman Ravine has always been a special place to me.  Every time I arrive at the Hermit Hut, the scenery puts a huge smile on my face. I returned one winter evening in February with hopes to capture Tuckerman Ravine under the stars. It was a cold night. With temps well below zero and the wind gusts up to 35 mph, capturing a long exposure while maintaining sharpness proved to be difficult. After quite a few tries I finally achieved my goal.” – Photo and description by Christopher Georgia.

Georgia was still hiking during the day and shooting photographs now and then. But about two years ago, he had an epiphany of sorts.

After a day of hiking, Georgia took his camera with a wide-angle lens and mounted it on a tripod. In that one evening he captured the Milky Way, the International Space Station and the aurora borealis in the middle of Lake Mattawamkeag in Island Falls, Maine.

“I fell in love instantly. I fell in love with the night sky,” he says. And he hasn’t looked down since. “Every time I go out now I find something different.”

When he fell in love he also took a leap. He left his day job and is doing astrophotography full-time.

He does a lot of work in the White Mountains, but he doesn’t like to say precisely where due to the competitive nature of photography.

And while New Hampshire’s volatile weather makes for amazing night photography, it also presents challenges, says Georgia. He has to go out on a clear night when the sky is not brightly lit by the moon. He uses apps to monitor the moon’s phases, the weather and the movement of constellations and planets as well as the possibility of seeing the aurora borealis on any given night. “Sometimes I can only go out one or two nights at a time. I can’t do anything when it’s cloudy and I have to follow the moon cycle because too much moonlight washes out the stars. If the weather isn’t just right, you don’t get that cosmic feel to the landscape.”

“The clouds forming over Rye are a type of arcus cloud called a roll cloud. These clouds are in the beginning of formation. Later on in the night the roll clouds form in perfectly straight lines, forming the shape of a series of pipes. Roll clouds generally form from sea breeze or in this case the remains of a cold front from a thunderstorm. During the formation of these clouds, the moon continued to rise in the night sky, casting interesting shadows on the landscape from the roll clouds.” – Photo and description by Christopher Georgia.

And yes, a cold, clear winter night does make for great shooting for Georgia. But it also takes a special kind of tolerance. “I’ve been in negative 20 degree weather. That’s unbearable to some people but I enjoy it.”

Georgia says he has had a number of close encounters with wildlife but the details are sketchy. He can’t use a flashlight because it would ruin exposures; he may only use a red light that will not damage the film, but it offers limited illumination. “I’ve heard animals in the woods. One night I heard one running back and forth near where I was shooting, but I never got to see what it was.”

He also doesn’t mind being out all night alone on a cold mountaintop, although he never recommends going solo to beginners. He is often accompanied by Mike Taylor, a friend and fellow astrophotographer from Albion, Maine.

So far few people are as involved in this kind of endeavor the way Georgia and Taylor are in New England. And Georgia is hoping he can earn his living through the photos he sells on his website.

He says he wants to be able to offer workshops on night photography this year. No special equipment is required. He uses a Canon 6D DSLR camera with a tripod and wide-angle lens with an aperture of 2.8 or wider to take successive images to create a panorama.

He also sells his time-lapse and composite photos through his website, some of which show satellites and meteors as white scratches in the night sky.

“I met with fellow photographer, Mike Taylor at Cape Neddick Lightstation in early December of 2013 to photograph the famous Nubble. After a long night of shooting, Mike captured this image of my last shot of the evening at Nubble. I set my camera and tripod over a crack in the rocks with waves crashing under me to get the composition I was looking for.” – Photo by Mike Taylor. Description by Christopher Georgia.

Occasionally, the International Space Station makes a cameo appearance as well. “I’ve seen it about 45 times,” says Georgia. “It’s a light that takes four and half minutes to cross from horizon to horizon. It doesn’t blink and it’s as bright as Jupiter in night sky.”

But Georgia’s favorite night phenomenon is not man-made. Last summer he took a trip to Mount Osceola. Four friends were supposed to accompany him on the night hike, but they bowed out at the last minute. Georgia went up alone and when he arrived at the 4,315-foot summit he saw the aurora borealis lighting up the sky. “I took a full panoramic series of shots from north to south,” he says. “It was one of the strongest auroras I’ve seen. I photographed it for six and a half hours.”

“Manchester is the exact opposite of what I look for in a night sky. Although there are few stars to be seen at night, many beautiful views are to be had under a night sky. This particular view from Rock Rimmon Park over looks the entire city of Manchester. Under a partly clouded sky, the city looks amazing from this vantage point.” – Photo and description by Christopher Georgia.

Georgia is admittedly aurora borealis obsessed: “I track the aurora as much as I can.” And it’s paid off. He’s photographed the amazing light phenomenon nearly a half dozen times — sometime appearing like a glittering, green scrim, at other times a blue apron of light on the night horizon. He says the aurora borealis is a relatively common event, but most people don’t get to see it because of light pollution, a serious consideration in his work.

Georgia says in general, people have become less familiar with the night sky because of the proliferation of artificial light. “It’s happening all over and it keeps us from seeing a lot of amazing things,” he says. “Light is becoming a huge problem with the extension of cities and industries putting up more and more lights on a daily basis.” And he notes that much of it is wasted pointing upward and outward, affecting not only his work and astronomers’, but the circadian rhythm of humans and animals, as well as the migration patterns of birds, bats and sea turtles. “The areas that I look for are away from heavy light pollution and have the natural look of New Hampshire,” he says.

Georgia is hoping his photographs can affect this issue. He does some work for the International Dark-Sky Association, which advocates controls on light pollution.

“Some say that by 2025 we’re not going to be able to see anything in the night sky except the brightest planets and major stars,” he says. For that reason, he sees his work not merely as art, but also as documentary work. “I’m hoping to capture the night sky before things change forever.”

Christopher M. Georgia offers  some tips for the night photographer:

  • Get familiar with places that have dark skies, far away from the city or highway lights.
  • Take the time to become acquainted with the night sky. (He suggests regular visits to skyandtelescope.com, which offers tips on what to view each night.)
  • Allow your eyes to become accustomed to the dark. The longer you spend in the dark, the more you can see. Such sights as the Andromeda Galaxy are visible to the naked eye.
  • Dress warmly.
  • Bring a flashlight; also use a red light to keep your eyes adjusted to the darkness.
  • Bring someone with you. It’s always good to have a friend along for the sake of safety and to share the awesome experience.
  • Watch your footing. It is difficult to tell the difference between a dry and a slippery rock in the dark.
  • Check your chances of seeing the northern lights — the aurora borealis — at solarham.net.

Nine Places to Embrace the Stars

  1. Your back yard: On a dark-sky night, you should be able to see about one meteor streak by per hour; during a meteor shower you might see 50 to 100. Satellites like the International Space Station can be seen with the naked eye, as can the Milky Way, constellations and bright planets. With an amateur telescope you can see more clearly. If you don’t have a telescope, your library may have one, thanks to a program of the NH Astronomical Society. There’s a list of the libraries at astro.com.
  2. McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center, Concord: Aside from a state-of-the-art planetarium, the Center has an observatory with two telescopes, one for nighttime skies and one for solar observation. The observatory is open the first two Friday nights monthly from 6:30 p.m.-9 p.m., weather permitting, and is included in the Discovery Center admission. The observatory is also open from 1 p.m.-4 p.m. on days when the Discovery Center is open as well as during special events.
  3. St. Paul’s School Hawley Observatory, Concord: A complex of four domes used for observation and research by St. Paul’s faculty and students is open to the public occasionally while school is in session. The school now has the largest telescope in the state. To find out when public star-gazing is happening, e-mail lchamberlain@sps.edu.
  4. UNH Observatory, Durham: Public observing sessions are held on campus the first and third Saturday of every month from 8 p.m.-10 p.m. September through March and 9 p.m.-11 p.m. April through August.
  5. Phillips Exeter Academy Granger Observatory, Exeter: The observatory is open to the public on clear Friday evenings when school is in session — generally, 7 p.m.-8 p.m. in the winter and 9 p.m.-10 p.m. in the months with longer days. The best way to know when a session is scheduled is on Twitter.  
  6. NH Astronomical Society Observatory, Hillsborough: All-night mid-winter and mid-summer observing sessions are held at the observatory as part of NASA’s Night Sky Network. Regular events include a “Skywatch” open to the public at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center in Concord.
  7. Sullivan Observatory, Keene: The Keene Amateur Astronomers Club operates the two-telescope observatory, which is open to the community for observing the night sky. Check their calendar for dates.
  8. Dartmouth College’s Shattuck Observatory, Hanover: The observatory, built in 1854, offers public observing on clear Friday nights from 8 p.m.-10 p.m. while school is in session. Call (603) 646-9100 to find out if a session is on.
  9. Plymouth State University’s Mark Sylvestre Planetarium, Plymouth: This 31-seat facility offers a window to the night skies.

Source: NH Space Grant Consortium

New Hampshire Space Oddities

  • Ambrose Swasey of Exeter (1846-1937) was a mechanical engineer who specialized in astronomical observatories. In 1885 he built the 45-foot revolving dome of McCormick Observatory in Virginia, which was the largest in the world at the time. In 1887 he built the mount for the 36-inch refracting telescope at Lick Observatory in California, a mechanism so precisely machined that the instrument could be turned by hand.
  • Henry Ferguson, a 1977 graduate of St. Paul’s School in Concord, was one of the architects of the ground-breaking HDF observations, taken with the Hubble Space Telescope in December 1995. Ferguson, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute, specializes in the study of very faint, distant galaxies.
  • The University of New Hampshire operates a neutron monitor on the summit of Mount Washington that is the longest-running device of its kind. It has been tracking cosmic rays and their effect on Earth since 1954. The monitor helps provide a baseline from data collected by the Voyager and Pioneer space probes.
  • In 2008 PSNH replaced the town of Ossipee’s 108 streetlights with 70-watt metal-halide “white light” fixtures that are dark-sky compliant and allow residents and visitors to see more of the night sky. The project cost $51,000 and the money will be recouped over about seven years because they offer energy savings of 39 percent.
  • The 25-meter radio telescope in Hancock is part of a string of 10 instruments as far afield as Hawaii that combine to achieve a resolution 400 times better than the Hubble Space Telescope. The array has located a galaxy called NGC that is 450 million light years away. The dish in Hancock, operated by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, sometimes has to be rotated to dump snow that collects on the massive instrument.
  • Everybody knows that Derry native Alan Shepard was the United State’s first man is space, less well known is astronomer/space shuttle astronaut Rick Linnehan, a graduate of Pelham High school who made three trips to space. On his third trip in 2002 he made three space walks to repair the Hubble Space Telescope.
  • The New Hampshire Astronomical Society has an outreach program that provides telescopes to libraries throughout the state. Since its inception five years ago it has provided Orion StarBlast 4.5-inch Astronomical Telescopes to dozens of libraries from Colebrook to Nashua.
  • Robert Frost was a sky watcher from his home in Franconia. See his poem “Star-Splitter.

Star Struck

Weeks before the Soviets launched Sputnik II in 1957, a new “Curious George” book was published. In it, the impish monkey is sent into space in a rocket ship on a mission to see what would happen if he jumped out (yes, he had a tiny spacesuit on) and parachuted to Earth. He did it, and got a medal.

The book was a way for H.A. Rey, George’s co-creator along with wife Margret Rey, to share his interest in space with the many children for whom the monkey was a beloved character. Rey had long been a star-gazer, writing two children’s books about stars — “The Stars: A New Way to See Them” and “Find the Constellations” — in the early 1950s.

Living in Cambridge, Mass., at the time, it wasn’t easy to see the stars because of all the lights, so when they traveled to New Hampshire to spend the summer for the first time, they were amazed by all the stars they could see in the North Country’s dark skies. There were so many, Rey had to revise his books to add his new finds.

Rey would no doubt be happy to know that the Margret and H.A. Rey Center in Waterville Valley — which honors the Reys’ desire to increase understanding of and participation in art, science and nature — hosts star-gazing nights once a month year-round. Weather permitting, telescopes are set up at the Curious George Cottage by volunteers for the NH Astronomical Society and for two hours they talk about the stars. The public is invited, but the Center suggests anyone interested call (236-3308) and register so they can be notified if the session has to be canceled.   

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