Shutter Life | Adventure Surf Photographer Lucia Griggi’s Life Behind The Lens

From the Arctic to the Antarctic, Lucia Griggi shares the stories behind her favourite images

“Try swimming at night,” Lucia Griggi tells me, when I ask her how the hell someone prepares to go to work in an office that constantly threatens to drop 30ft water bombs on their skull. “You need to learn to move with the energy of the ocean. As a surf photographer, you’re so low in the water that you can’t see what’s behind the wall in front of you. You need to work with the waves without being able to see them.”

It’s advice that really puts our gripes with the rattling air-con and stinky work fridge to shame. 

The 36-year-old internationally renowned award-winning surf and adventure photographer is talking to me through a heavy case of jetlag from her home in St. Ives, Cornwall. It’s a home she’s barely seen over the last 12 months, after a packed-out 2019 trip list that included Antarctica, Miami, Panama, the Arctic, Colombia, and even London. Despite this, and a client list that includes Red Bull, Billabong, Warner Brothers, Conde Nast and more, you won’t find her calling it ‘work’ any time soon.

“You need to learn to move with the energy of the ocean”

“I’ve really never had a ‘job’,” she says. “After handing in my dissertation at Uni in London I jumped in a car, drove to Newquay and started working on the beach, hiring boards and teaching surfing. I started taking my camera with me in 2004, and, in 2007, like pretty much every surf photographer you’ll speak to, I saw my first published photo and that was it.”

Since then Lucia’s photographed not only the surfing world’s elite – Kelly Slater, Carissa Moore, everyone else – but land-lubbers too, such as skate legends Tony Alva and Jay Adams, and even Hollywood royalty, like Matthew McConaughey. And then there are the far flung places and faces she captures too, such as penguins and polar bears leaping from ice flows, and indigenous Indians in the deepest central American jungles. It’s a career we could spend one long month talking through, rather than just this short hour we’ve promised to keep her awake. But goddamn, we gave it a good go…

Here, Lucia pulls out ten images that stand out in a 15-year-or-so career of epic-ness, from perfect-ten waves to people that few western eyes (and lenses) will ever see, by way of gorgeous Icelandic rivers and waves that never were, and never will be again. Strap in, this one’s a biggie…

The Big Leap One

Unknown surfer, Pipeline in Hawaii, 2008

Credit: Lucia Griggi

“I’ve spent so much time shooting at Pipeline. I used to head to [Hawaii’s] North Shore for a few months every year. It was always a highlight on my calendar. I would stay at a friend’s house, which has this incredible tree growing up through the middle, and get up every morning before sunrise, sometimes around 3am, just to check the swell.

“He’d never seen anyone move so fast in the water”

“I loved the rawness and the freedom of it all. In the beginning, I would spend a lot of time photographing from the sand, and watching other photographers going in to shoot the riders from the water. I didn’t know anyone at the time, so had to work out for myself that you needed to jump in from the far side, then work hard with the vicious current. To be honest, me swimming it just felt kinda stupid. A guy I was working with, Scott, must’ve sensed that I wanted it, though, and one day asked “So you coming in today?”

“I had a waterhousing for my camera, and plucked up the courage. I really felt like I stood out as I walked past all the guys, as Kelly Slater and Taylor Knox got into the water, to get to our entry point. The bright yellow helmet I was wearing probably didn’t help. When we got there, Scott said “When I jump, JUMP. And then swim as hard as you can.” So I waited for his call, leapt in, and swam as fast as I could. When I finally stopped, Scott was miles back – he later said he’d never seen anyone move so fast in the water. It was all worth it, because this was the first shot I ever got at Pipe, from the water. It’s nice, clean, sharp and colourful. It’s definitely a special one for me.”

The Perfect Ten One

Kelly Slater, Pipeline in Hawaii, 2010

Credit: Lucia Griggi

“When Pipeline breaks, the ground under your feet shakes. I think you can feel that ocean energy, as well the energy from the crowd, in this image. On this day, sometime in November, Pipeline was pumping.

“By this time I’d spent a lot of time shooting in the water, so wanted to change things up a bit. I’d been playing with a tilt-shift lens, and thought it a good time to crack it out for something totally different.

“I must have taken a thousand frames before getting this”

“I needed to find the ideal gap, get everything lined up precisely, and wait for an exact moment on a perfect wave. Then a surfer took off and let rip. I pointed, and I got it. I’d love to say it was as easy as that, but to be totally honest, I must have taken a thousand frames before getting this.

“Technically, it was such a challenge, but everything came together here, with a rider that just happened to be Kelly Slater, on a wave that just happened to be a perfect ten. I like the effect it gives, giving the viewer the impression of seeing the action through the eyes of the super stoked crowd in frame. There was so much hype on the beach. We all went wild.”

The Adrenaline-Charged One

Surfers at Wiamea, Hawaii, 2010

Credit: Lucia Griggi

“This shot has done the magazine rounds – I’ve seen it published all over the place. It’s taken at Waimea Bay, at [big wave invitational] The Eddie. It was seriously on.

“This shot wasn’t easy to get – framing is tough at Waimea at the best of times, and shooting into the light at this time of day was a real challenge. But this came out great: you can feel the spray on your face, and the adrenaline of the surfers scrambling and scratching at the wave to escape it. As for timing, the wave after this was way bigger, and wiped them all out.”

The Award-Winning One

Stu Johnson, Cloudbreak, Fiji, 2012

Credit: Lucia Griggi

“I won a National Geographic Traveller award for this back in 2012. It was taken hours before one of the most famous swells to ever hit Fiji, known as ‘Filthy Friday’, rolled through. I was out there for the Volcom Fiji Pro, but it had to be cancelled because the waves were reaching 30ft.

“You know it’s coming but everything in that moment just feels perfect”

“Right before a swell like that hits, you get the most incredible feeling in the water – you know it’s coming but everything in that moment just feels perfect. There’s calm, the water is at its clearest.

“I jumped in for a sunset swim and got this shot of my friend, Stu. It’s an intriguing and eye-catching photo. Only a few people outside of the surf industry get to see this angle, and, combined with the sharpness, is probably why it did well.”

The Big Fail But Big Fun One

Surfers walking through Anchorage, Alaska, 2015

Credit: Lucia Griggi

“This picture reminds me of how much stoke I get from my job, even when things don’t go to plan. This was taken whilst on a road trip from San Diego up to Alaska, in the summer. We wanted to surf a tidal bore up there, but the wave never came. These guys just sat out in the water waiting, and came back with their tails between their legs.

“Without the wave, we had a totally different adventure”

“Without the wave, we had a totally different adventure: living in a van, camping in the wild, drinking beers, getting our car caked in surf wax by angry Oregon secret-spot locals who’d seen our California plates parked at their break. It was awesome.”

The Airbourne One

Rivers from the sky, Iceland, 2018

Credit: Lucia Griggi

“I love the different perspective I get from aerial photography. It feels like it’s right at the other end of the spectrum from surf photography.

“When you’re hanging out the side of a helicopter… with propellers whirring close to your head, framing isn’t really your top priority”

“Iceland is one of the most phenomenal places to shoot from a plane or a helicopter. Over rivers, you look down over the braided waters and it’s art. The lines and colours, they’re amazing. I usually take two cameras up with me, one with a wide-angle lens, one with a long lens.

“You’ve got to be as prepared as possible because when you’re hanging out the side of a helicopter hundreds or thousands of feet in the air, with propellers whirring close to your head, framing isn’t really your top priority.”

The Right Light One

Midnight sun, Antarctica, 2019

“This shot sums up how it feels to be in Antarctica. It’s so otherworldly, and a place that makes you feel microscopic. At the time of year this was taken, the sun never sets, so you get the most incredible light. Shooting in it is an amazing feeling.

“I got everything lined up for this image, and just had to wait for the light. It took so long, and I was so cold that I remember thinking I was turning to ice! But photography is all about being in the right place at the right time, no matter how cold or tired you are. A landscape comes to life in the right light.”

The Lesson In Portraits One

Unnamed girl, Ayon Island near Siberia, 2019

“Last year I was on an expedition to Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean – a remote nature sanctuary that has the densest population of polar bears on the planet. On the way we stopped at a settlement on Ayon Island – a remote spit of land that reaches into the East Siberian Sea, where the reindeer-herding Chukchi people live.

“A remote spit of land that reaches into the East Siberian Sea, where the reindeer-herding Chukchi people live”

“This girl was really inquisitive about what I was doing, and had the most piercing blue eyes. I photographed her with my 85mm prime lens, in front of a blue wall to really highlight them.

“Obviously, there was a huge language barrier to contend with. In those situations, you have to use your body language and energy to make a subject feel comfortable. You have to make a subject feel comfortable in order for them to “give” you their portrait. If they don’t give it, you don’t get it.”

The Junglist Massive One

Indigenous Indian, Panama-Columbia Border, 2019

Credit: Lucia Griggi

“Another trip last year was to the Darien Gap – a remote swathe of jungle between Panama and Colombia. It’s a part of a notorious drug trafficking route, which keeps tourists well away. I had to enter by boat and canoe.

“I like how lines, marks and scars tell you a lot about how a person has lived their life”

“The indigenous Kuna and Embera Indians who live in the jungles build their houses on stilts. I didn’t just go into their world, I was truly welcomed in. Meeting humans that don’t have many layers of life around them, and live simplistically, they’re so open to you. They’re so calm. They’re not afraid, and happy to make time for you.

“It’s the same in wildlife – animals with no modern-human interaction will come right up. I think it’s really interesting to take note of that. It’s usual for photographers to gravitate towards children in these situations for a portrait, but I like how lines, marks and scars tell you a lot about how a person has lived their life, without having to speak. With this older man, you can’t help but look into his eyes and try to understand how he and his family live in such a remote place.”

The Ghost Wave One

Wave, Antarctica, 2019

Credit: Lucia Griggi

“You see that background? That’s not sky. That’s iceberg. As you’ve probably gathered, I work a lot in the cold. This was taken in an incredibly exposed part of Antarctica called Elephant Island – where Shackleton’s shipmates were marooned for months – after a two-day crossing of the treacherous Drake Passage.

“You see that background? That’s not sky. That’s iceberg”

“I was there to document penguins leaping from the ice flow, but looked over my shoulder and started to see these lumps forming in the water. It was a slab beginning work, and it kept getting better with each wave. I asked if we could jump into a RIB and scream over there to get a closer look. I saw it reach around four-foot and knew that if there was a surfer in the water, it could have been ridable. I call it the ‘ghost wave’ because the chances of it working ever again are zero – it was all down to the swell direction and the shape and position of the iceberg.

“It also ‘accidentally’ made it onto the cover of the Surfer’s Journal last year, too. I’d sent this over in a file of images for a portfolio piece they were running on me, and then got the best email of my life. It said they like this shot so much that it was going on the cover. That’s the ultimate accolade. It was all so crazy for so many reasons, not least because I’d not been shooting much surf at the time. When you take a step back and allow yourself to relax, it’s funny what comes your way.”


You can follow @luciagriggi on Instagram, and see more of her work on

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