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Tommy Zaferes: What’s better than a dream job? My job!

Tommy Zaferes admits that if you’d handed him a blank piece of paper on which to write his dream job description back in 2014 (the year he decided to change tack from professional triathlon) even he couldn’t have dreamed up a more perfect job than the one he’s doing right now. Living and training with the best triathletes in the world (including his wife, Katie), travelling the globe for World Triathlon, SuperLeague and other professional triathlon events, being a full-time photographer and working with some of the best brands and athletes in the sport. It sounds too good to be true, and yet Tommy somehow carved out the perfect niche for himself and is happy to be along for the ride.

The son of two photographers, Tommy initially wanted nothing to do with photography and aimed to write his own story in the Zaferes family by pursuing Swimming and later Triathlon at the professional level. With multiple World Cup podiums to his name and several years racing on the WTS circuit, Tommy built a reputation as a strong swimmer and fierce competitor at the highest level of draft-legal Triathlon. At the end of 2014 Tommy decided to shift his focus away from racing Triathlon after suffering severe consequences from heat stroke during a race, after receiving a camera from Katie for Christmas in 2015 there was no turning back and Tommy jumped straight into the world of sports photography.

After getting the camera from Katie the next step towards becoming a photographer came from a meeting with Roka in Kona,” explains Tommy, “I told them I wasn’t sure how much longer I would race and one of their photographers took me under his wing. Roka Co-CEO Rob Canales also gave me a camera that he wasn’t using and told me to capture images of their Roka athletes that I was spending my days with anyway.” Once he had that new camera from Rob, Tommy made the most of his Dad’s experience and learnt the ins and outs of how to use a camera by spending days on end at the skate park back home in Santa Cruz.

Learning how to use the camera is just one part of the profession though,” continued Zaferes, “the other major element is the workflow and all the steps it takes to go from taking the photo until it can be published online or in print. There’s multiple download and upload processes, cropping, editing, processing, naming, and filing that has to go on behind the scenes. I tried to model my workflow on Wagner Araujo (editor’s note: another World Triathlon photographer), who I found was always the quickest and most efficient in processing his photos after events.”

Asked how he scaled up from working with Roka to making Photography his full time job, Tommy listed off a series of opportunities that he grasped with both hands, “Originally I was just working with Roka and travelling to the WTS events with Katie, but since I was recently retired and knew a lot of the people there I was lucky to get VIP media access in exchange for sharing my photos with World Triathlon. I started doing pre-race galleries and sharing the pictures with the athletes, World Triathlon saw a huge spike in their social media activity thanks to this as the athletes were using my photos to announce their upcoming race and tagging World Triathlon in the process.

I took the opportunity in Abu Dhabi to use my new GoPro to do in-water photos of the Swim familiarisation. World Triathlon were initially reluctant and only let me do it if I promised to stay out the way and didn’t bother anyone, but again the impact on social media was huge and we found that having all these pre-race photos was beneficial to everyone.”

Next I suggested to World Triathlon that I could do Facebook Live videos of the Bike course recons, and this proved popular again, especially with athletes and federations who couldn’t make it to the venue in time for the recons. At this point World Triathlon had realised the value I was bringing but they didn’t have any budget to pay me, other than covering my flights and hotel for the events. For the entire first year I considered myself an intern, as I wasn’t getting paid but it wasn’t costing me anything to do it and I was learning the ropes all along. Thankfully, at the end of the first full season World Triathlon pitched the idea to the Board of hiring me as a content producer, backed up with all the data from the season thankfully it was approved.”

It snowballed from there really, as my name was associated with all these pictures going out on social media and a lot of the athlete’s sponsors and federations began reaching out to me to purchase photos or hire me for photoshoots. The best example is the JFT Crew that Katie trains with, all the athletes know me so when one of the sponsors hires me to do a photoshoot I am able to seamlessly integrate it into their day or week, and it’s a win-win for everyone since the brand gets their pictures and the athletes aren’t thrown off their normal schedule.”

Moving onto the practicality and reality of shooting professional triathlon races, we asked Tommy what opportunities he gets to recon venues before a race, “I’m lucky that Katie likes getting to venues early before a race, typically on Monday or Tuesday before a weekend race, so I get a full week of recons with her where we get up early to ride and run the course in the city centre. She gets to recon it for her race, and I get to scope out different spots that I think will be interesting to shoot during the race.”

Lots of factors influence whether a course is easy or hard to shoot,” continued Tommy when prompted to explain the ins and outs of shooting the races, “it depends a lot on the weather, the types of buildings, whether or not you can cut across the course and the number of spectators in the streets. Bermuda and Montreal are two of my favourites as they are easy to get around, Hamburg and Leeds however are a different story because it’s so busy and very hard to move around. In Hamburg I can only shoot from the transition zone basically, so I have to find different angles for each lap as they come through, it can be quite challenging, but it forces you to become a better photographer.”

Asked which of the three disciplines is harder to shoot, Tommy explained how each one was unique, “Depending on the type of shot you want to get each discipline has its challenges, but you can’t really compare the three disciplines to each other as they’re quite different. On the run for example the biggest challenge is when you’re shooting a group you need to get everyone on the up-cycle of their stride, not the down-cycle. Otherwise, some of them will look good and the others won’t, and the chances of getting six runners on the up-cycle of their stride at the same time is quite small. Ultimately, I want to get pictures that the athletes want to use, so they all have to look good or I’ll start getting messages from the person concerned asking me why I made them look bad next to the others looking good.

Discussing how he his briefed for each event, Tommy went on to explain that World Triathlon have a list of obligations for each photographer (usually requests from the host venue, a story line to capture or certain federations looking for particular pictures), but that once those are fulfilled, they have free reign to be creative and get the best shots possible of the event.

Finally, we asked Tommy if there are any days that he wishes he was still racing, and if he could choose one other sport to shoot which one would it be, “The only time I want to race is when it’s the mixed team relay, I think it’s a format that plays to my strengths and I think if I could train a solid few months for it I could be quite good, but otherwise it’s a lot less stressful being there as a photographer, I don’t miss the stress and anxiety of racing. And, if I could pick just one other sport to shoot, it would have to be skateboarding, the opportunities are just endless I think it would be really interesting and challenging as a photographer.”

If you want to see some of Tommy’s work, you can follow his Instagram page here and his Facebook page here, you can check out some of the World Triathlon photo galleries on Facebook here and you can check out his website here.

Photo: Ben Lumley (@bensnapstuff)

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