The Freelance Creative

The Rise of the ‘Hyphenates’: How Freelancers Are Adapting to Become Multi-Skilled Wonders

Michael Nelson launched his career in the 1970s as a photographer. Forty years later, he’s still a photographer, but he describes himself as a “visual producer” on his website. Nelson makes a living doing drone photography, web design, video journalism, and PR visuals. He says he never “reinvented” himself but just kept adapting to a changing marketplace.

Since technology speeds up changes in most industries, especially multimedia production, which often requires access to the latest gadgets, freelancers must adapt a new strategy or learn a new skill to thrive.

To stay ahead of the curve, Nelson turned into a hyphenate—a multi-tasking visual artist. Though most freelancers don’t refer to themselves as hyphenates, almost all, whether photographers, graphic designers, or writers, need to assume multiple roles in a tight economic market.

Hence the freelance writer becomes a copywriter and does advertising, turns into an SEO specialist, then becomes a content marketer and a ghostwriter, all variations on a theme with multiple revenue streams.

Decades ago, Nelson mastered the dark room. In the 1970s, Nelson specialized in doing multiple exposure book covers for major publishing houses. He also gravitated to fashion and advertising work. In 1996, Nelson bought a digital camera. He took six different classes to master digital editing. Those skills started paying off in the late 1990s when he was hired for a PR campaign, which involved using his digital camera to promote the Palisades Mall.

Over the last 10 years, however, clients turned to digital stock photography or began performing commercial work in-house. Fascinated by new gadgets, he bought a drone in 2013, placed a gimbal atop it to steady the camera, and practiced using it in a local park. He often failed, made mistakes, and only after 200 hours of practice did he get the hang of operating his new tool.

“You just follow your interests,” he said. “The more you follow your interests, it takes you into another path. Video is still shot at 24 images per seconds.” Although technology has propelled Nelson to evolve, he explained working with a Nikon, a digital camera, or a drone is based around imagery and still within his wheelhouse.

After clients asked him to incorporate photographers into web design, he learned how to design a website by taking classes at Westchester Community College to add a new workplace skill to his repertoire. He charges a separate fee for taking photographs and another fee for designing websites. “It’s all entangled,” he said. “That’s why I call it a production.”

After he shot some photographs for Hudson Valley Magazine, the Journal News asked him to produce 65 videos on a weekly basis for their website. Nelson then became a video journalist for the digital side of the publication. He continued to produce photography as well, returning to his roots for articles published in the print editions.

Nelson still considers himself a photographer, but he has also learned to ply many skills to generate enough income to compensate for the decline in advertising assignments.

Even with eggs in many baskets, Nelson still needs to anticipate the next change. For those in similar situations, Michelle Goodman, author of My So-Called Freelance Life, recommends freelancers read industry publications, attend industry conferences and seminars, join relevant Facebook groups, and surround themselves with positive, upbeat people; not the crowd who says “the sky is falling and there’s nothing freelancers can do.”

Don’t get trapped by complacency. Ask yourself what new risks you can take to stretch your talents. If you’re a writer, can you turn into a speaker or try corporate consulting? If you’re a photographer, what new markets are out there, and what can you learn from new technology? As Goodman reiterated, stretching your talents is essential to survival as a freelancer.

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