The Ambassador's apprentice: a student receives career guidance from a top pro

Photography student Mariam Sholaja talks to Canon Ambassador Lucia Griggi, who shares her best advice about how to stand out from the crowd, build your career and present yourself to potential clients.
Two women, both wearing winter clothing, on a foggy hillside, adjusting a Canon camera on a tripod.

Having worked across a wide range of photographic genres, and with almost two decades of experience to her name, Canon Ambassador Lucia Griggi (left) was the perfect mentor to help student Mariam Sholaja (right) develop her skills and industry knowledge.

Mariam Sholaja is a Media and Communications student at De Montfort University, Leicester, UK. Now in her final year, she has been passionate about photography since her mid-teens and is currently considering her future career direction.

"At university, I've been studying photography and video, and the course has had a good balance between the practical and the theoretical," she says. "I really like portrait photography but want to get more into fashion and editorial work when I graduate."

Growing up, Mariam loved choir and piano lessons, but also street dance and swimming – "anything that wasn't sitting in a classroom learning equations!" Thanks to sympathetic teachers at school, she learned that "being creative was a thing and that academic subjects weren't for everyone." In fact that was how she was introduced to photography when, as she describes it, "I had one more subject to choose but I had no idea what else I had an interest in."

Mariam's heritage is Nigerian, although she was born in the United States and raised in south London. Her work draws on this rich background and reflects her personal perspectives. "I want to keep creating work including people who look like me and have had similar experiences," she says.

Under the umbrella of Canon's Student Development Programme, Mariam recently had the opportunity to meet Canon Ambassador Lucia Griggi, who coincidentally shares Mariam's love of the water.

Two women in winter clothing talking while they examine camera lenses next to a large rock.

For Lucia, photography is about more than taking pictures. "Having something to say, and having the means to say it, is really important," she says. Her own career in surfing photography, then nature and travel, has grown out of her own passions.

Lucia has been a professional photographer for almost 20 years. She started out specialising in surfing photography but has made a transition to shooting travel and nature. Alongside her work, she has also taught and mentored photography and filmmaking students for more than a decade. A guest lecturer at Falmouth University in Cornwall, England, she is passionate about guiding younger photographers.

"It's not just about teaching the fundamentals of photography," Lucia explains. "It's also vital to make students aware of the importance of pitching ideas, client management and everything that goes with showing yourself in a way that will get you commissions."

Mariam and Lucia met at a rural location west of London. There they discussed photography and went on a landscape shoot, and Lucia introduced Mariam to the Canon EOS R System.

Mariam normally uses a Canon EOS 80D (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 90D), but with Lucia she tried the Canon EOS RP with a Canon RF 24-240mm F4-6.3 IS USM lens. "It was a lot lighter than my own camera, and I really liked the sleek, compact design," she says. "I hadn't used a mirrorless camera before, but it wasn't hard to get used to it and I really enjoyed shooting with it. The lens has an incredible zoom range."

The meeting wasn't just about trying out new kit, though, and bad weather did not provide the best conditions for a day of landscape photography. It was primarily a chance for Mariam to find out more about life as a professional photographer. These were her main questions to Lucia...

Have there been any difficult moments on your journey to becoming a professional photographer?

"I spent most of my childhood in a swimming pool, training, swimming up and down. I knew what I had to do, so I carried on doing it. That discipline and determination have stayed with me. I'd say to anyone who wants to achieve a dream, it might not be an easy road. But what separates those people who are living their dream and following their passion from those who aren't? It's simply hard work and never giving up.

"My first photography career was in action sports photography, a male-dominated world, and I feel in some ways I had to work harder to be seen and accepted. I had to find the strength within myself to keep my eyes on my goals and dreams. Ultimately, it was wonderful to be recognised as one of the world's top surf photographers, as I don't believe it's an easy journey for anyone. However, for people starting out on a career now, I do think there are more opportunities for women in niche genres.

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"Nature, wildlife and travel photography have been my most recent challenges. They've been tough in different ways, but on your journey as a photographer you're always learning. It's about working with the people around you and finding your place.

"On a recent shoot working with a penguin colony on the polar sea ice, the temperature fell to -30, -40°C. I should have spent only a few hours there getting the shots I needed, but I was so immersed in this amazing experience that I ended up spending 12 hours in the sea ice and was actually near to hypothermia. It's what we do as photographers to get that shot. We really do push those boundaries."

Is it important to have a career plan? Did you know where you wanted to go next?

"Surfing was my passion, and the search for perfect waves took me to corners of the earth I would never have gone if the ocean hadn't led me to them. My love of photography was inspired by my passion for travel, the desire to capture places and moments that happen on the road. Creative people need an outlet to express ourselves, and photography is just an extension of who I am. Clients such as National Geographic and Jeep look to me for images that have the look and feel of the adventure lifestyle."

When starting out in a career in photography, is it best to specialise in one field or get a broader range of experience?

"I'd say get a broader range of experience, because it's still very much valued, and all the skills you develop in different fields are transferable and intertwined. I do think it's good to have a focus, but I also believe it's good to be flexible."

A young woman in a blue winter hat holding a Canon EOS RP camera.

While working with Lucia, Mariam had the chance to try out the Canon EOS RP, Canon's lightest full-frame mirrorless camera – super-compact and super-portable.

Two women in winter clothing holding Canon cameras stand on a foggy hillside.

Lucia has travelled the world shooting in challenging locations including the polar regions and under the ocean, so a little bad weather didn't deter her from setting out on her shoot with Mariam.

What's the basic kit I'd need for shooting fashion outdoors?

"I'd advise starting with a mirrorless system such as the Canon EOS R System, because that's the future. It's great for shooting fashion outdoors because it's lightweight and versatile, and you're not compromising on quality. On the shoot, we used the Canon EOS RP, but other models in the range such as the EOS R or EOS R6 would also be a good choice.

"In terms of lenses, the Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM is the ultimate portrait lens and produces beautiful results. Shooting with the lens wide open will give your images a cinematic, professional look. If you're looking for more versatility, then try the Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM. It has a slightly narrower maximum aperture but is good for including more of your models' environment, and the wide zoom range gives you more flexibility.

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"The Canon RF 70-200mm F4L IS USM would also be a candidate. I've tested that lens and I loved it. I don't normally use lenses with apertures narrower than f/2.8, but I found it gave me enough light, the quality wasn't compromised and it was beautifully sharp."

Should young photographers develop skills in shooting video as well as stills?

"Yes. A lot of content nowadays is based on video. I do both. Whenever I'm on a shoot, I take photographs myself but also direct the crew around me. I got into filming on my first expedition and it came really naturally, as it will to most photographers. I think it's definitely worthwhile to nurture those skills and to experiment, because it's becoming more apparent that photographers need to have a knowledge of both."

A young woman dressed in winter clothing holds a Canon camera in a foggy wooded area.

Mariam is keen to explore portrait and fashion photography when she graduates, and Lucia recommends Canon's full-frame mirrorless EOS R System cameras as a good choice for outdoor fashion photography. The cameras are lightweight and versatile, and there's a growing range of outstanding RF lenses to choose from.

A young woman holding large purple flowers sits in front of a bright yellow background.

Mariam's portfolio reflects her interests. This bright and buoyant image was taken as part of the young photographer's Companionship series, which focuses on the power of friendship. "I hope I don't ever lose hope in the beauty of friendships and connections with people," she says. Taken on a Canon EOS 7D (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 7D Mark II) with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens at 1/125 sec, f/14 and ISO100.

Is it important to develop a personal style?

"Yes, it's really important. It may come naturally, but some people need to work on it more than others, and there's nothing at all wrong with that. A personal style is what is potentially going to separate you from others – you will be commissioned and offered work purely because of your style.

"It's challenging, and you won't find it overnight. You might not find it by the time you leave university. It's also a journey of experiences that define your style, so don't put too much focus on it, because your style comes from who you are and that can evolve or change. You need to just relax and go with it."

What's the best way to develop contacts in photography?

"It's all about relationships, really. Anyone can find a contact, but it's how you approach the person that matters, and how you deliver on your word. When approaching potential employers, you need a good body of work and a means to showcase it that separates you from the rest. Being properly prepared to do a job is one of the most important things a student can do, because if you're not, you won't get work.

"It's also about having integrity in yourself, understanding what your goal is and what value you can provide for that client. And you mustn't get too despondent if you don't get that job. I remember taking things personally a lot of the time before I realised it's not about me, it's about the needs of the client and maybe I'm just not the person for that particular job."

How important is building a good website for approaching potential employers?

"I think a website is vital. Instagram shouldn't be your only portfolio. Instagram is great, and many clients look at that as their first point of reference, but you should then lead them to your website. A website can support your voice and showcase in more depth what you're about.

"I also think that social media is a must for you to get examples of your work seen. Think carefully about the way you present your work; it's important to understand how you want to portray yourself and what you want to say."

A woman covered in white and pink flowers lying on a pink silk sheet.

An image from Mariam's Cattleya series, centring on the tropical flower native to south and central America. It is typically associated with vitality and fertility, and Mariam uses it as a motif to explore beauty, strength and contemporary femininity. Taken on a Canon EOS 70D (now succeeded by the EOS 90D) with a Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM lens at 1/200 sec, f/4 and ISO100. © Mariam Sholaja

A man, his faced covered by silver foil, stands on the very edge of a wall next to a concrete chimney.

Another image from Mariam's portfolio, this time from her aspirational Up series, which explores concepts of height and altitude. "The inspiration was the Jim Carrey movie The Truman Show," she says. "It tells the story of a man who discovers there's more to his life than what he was made to believe. Once he uncovers the truth, he decides to escape and explore beyond all he's ever known." Taken on a Canon EOS 70D with a Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM lens at 1/1300 sec, f/4 and ISO100. © Mariam Sholaja

Mariam says speaking to Lucia has really helped focus the way she will approach her career. In the immediate future she aims to build her portfolio, develop industry contacts and approach brands for collaborations. She also plans to pitch project ideas to potential editorial clients and enter photography competitions to get her work more widely seen.

"Lucia's advice was incredibly helpful, especially with regard to making connections and finding my creative voice and personal style," she says. "I'll also keep in the back of my mind that if you don't try, you will never know."

David Clark and Alex Summersby

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