"I was shooting off the back of a Jet Ski in Fiji when one of the surfers wiped out. We had to go in to rescue him, but our ski toppled over. The next thing I knew, I was inside a nine-metre wave being dragged across the reef with whitewater the size of a house coming towards me."
No-one could accuse Lucia Griggi of living too cautiously. "I live for adrenaline," says the British-Italian travel and wildlife photographer. "I need to push the boundaries, to push myself to get results." Lucia's photography takes her all over the world. Starting as a surf photographer before switching focus to wildlife, she's recently traded the tropical beaches of Fiji and Hawaii for the white deserts of Alaska, Antarctica and Siberia.
Lucia is in constant search of true wilderness, exploring the last frontiers aboard expedition vessels for up to six months at a time. Her subjects are truly wild, but Lucia knows she needs to take a measured approach to capturing them. In hostile environments, where the stakes are so high, she has to do everything she can to control the variables.
Wildlife doesn't perform on demand. Lucia has to think and act quickly, and to do that she needs to control the variables wherever she can. "Portraits of wildlife are nice, but what about when there's a kill? What happens when there's a leopard seal about to launch to get one of a group of chinstrap penguins?" In those make-or-break moments, it's essential that Lucia can work with her kit intuitively.
For this reason, she chooses to shoot at fixed focal lengths with Canon prime lenses. "Shooting on telephoto primes might not give me the flexibility to be able to reframe my shot, but it focuses my eye," she says. "I like to see the frame straight away and then bring what I need into the viewfinder. If it doesn't fit, then it's not my shot."
Artistic vision is what separates a great shot from a good one, and Lucia has spent years under waves in Hawaii and surrounded by penguins in the Antarctic, refining hers. Her most striking shots of wildlife subtly convey the drama of the landscape while singling out, and celebrating, the majesty of her subject.
In order to achieve this effect, Lucia relies on the ability to shoot in low light. That's why her preferred lens is "a telephoto lens with an aperture of f/2.8, because I rely on speed. I like to take light away around my subject, underexposing it and then bringing it back in. I'll use strips of natural light to highlight parts of my subject to capture emotion."
Working on expedition vessels, Lucia has the luxury of being able to pack lots of kit to cover all eventualities. She typically shoots aerial photography on a Canon EOS 5DS, underwater photography on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with waterproof housing, and wildlife on the ground with a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III.
But, if she had to choose just one lens "it would be the Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS USM prime [now succeeded by the Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM]," she says. "As a wildlife photographer, it's important not to disturb wildlife, and that lens gives me a good balance. The focal length is long enough, while allowing me to capture some of the landscape around my subject at the same time."
Reflecting on her lifestyle, Lucia says: "I like to extract beauty in the world, and working in remote locations enables me to do that. Having access to some of these locations, working on expedition vessels, working on the sea are all platforms to get me closer to what I really love to shoot the most, which is wildlife."
Even in the right place, with the right kit, perfect conditions and a willing subject, there are still some things Lucia can't control... "I was tracking an Arctic fox in the Kuril Islands in the Russian Far East," she says. "I got into position and was ready to shoot, when all of a sudden it turned around and came towards me. As I was lying down on the ground, it came up and it put its little nose right on my fingers, touched my nose and fell asleep.
"Did I get the shot? No, not that time. But sometimes it's not about that. It's about immersing yourself and experiencing it."
Spending months aboard boats in some of the most extreme environments on Earth requires commitment and sacrifice. Her dedication to getting the shot has earned Lucia partnerships with brands such as Red Bull, Patagonia and Jeep, while her photos have been printed in National Geographic and Condé Nast Traveller.
At times, however, it can be overwhelming. For instance, on one of her first trips to Antarctica to shoot an emperor penguin colony, she says: "There were so many penguins, and so much going on, I didn't know where to start." Surrounded by huge numbers of these animals, Lucia froze. "How do I tell this story?" she thought.
Getting the shot required single-minded focus on the task at hand, and a determination to get it, whatever the cost. On that day, temperatures reached -40°C, she explains. "I should have spent only three hours outside, but I was so immersed in this amazing experience that I ended up spending 12 hours on the ice, and came close to getting hypothermia."
After investing so much time and energy into getting in position and putting her body on the line, Lucia can't afford to miss her shot. "It takes one second to get an amazing, golden shot of that humpback whale breaching. But it takes days, weeks, months to actually put yourself in the right position to enable yourself to get that shot. I need a camera that's robust, and the reliability of the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III is fantastic."
The technology inside Lucia's cameras and lenses plays a key part in the self-taught photographer's success rate. "There's such a lot going on when you're taking a photograph, waiting for that moment, that the IS and autofocus tracking enables me to capture that shot," she says.
"There's only so much you can do to stabilise shots when you're on the ocean, particularly when you're shooting wide open and your area of focus is razor-thin. If I'm on the ocean, with a whale about to breach, handholding the Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS USM lens, I know the IS will enable me to get that shot."
Lucia turns to AF tracking to capture fleeting moments such as birds flying overhead. "You're waiting for a moment for that bird to launch out of the nest and you need to track that, keeping focus on the eye. AF tracking enables you to keep that pan shot and to prevent the background from coming into focus or anything hindering that shot.
"For me, having that trust in those capabilities allows me to focus on the creative side of how I need to frame that shot, how I want to create that image, knowing that Canon has my back."
It's clear that for Lucia, photography is about more than taking pictures. Photography gives her purpose, but the purpose of her photography is to educate the world about the life that exists in the extreme locations where she shoots. "Having something to say, and having the means to say it, is really important," she says. "Little of the population can access these remote locations, so having that privilege, it is my responsibility to capture this and show a wider audience."