The Simple Portrait Project from Jonathan Robert Willis

January 9, 2012

By Barbara Goldman

© Jonathan Robert Willis

Aaron Morgan and his family from Fall 2011 TSPP.

Tradition is important to portrait and lifestyle photographer Jonathan Robert Willis of Cincinnati, Ohio, and he certainly has demonstrated that at holiday time for the past several years.  The Simple Portrait Project (TSPP) has become quite a beloved tradition for Willis, even if it is an exhausting one.  TSPP is a family portrait experience like no other.  As Willis explains, it is the embodiment of creativity, simplicity, improvisation and beauty—set to jazz and fueled by coffee, bourbon and juice (for the kids). The idea is built on one simple principle: Creativity cannot exist without limitations and true creativity happens when you reach multiple solutions to a given challenge within a set of boundaries. The boundaries for TSPP are one light, one prop, no descriptive backdrop and 30-minute portrait sessions. The challenge is to photograph 100 families in 100 different ways. It is an act of trust, collaboration and vulnerability.  Families can relax, let their kids be kids, and Willis brings their personalities to the surface in his portraiture. TSPP is more than a picture though – it is a process and an experience that has been a terrific creative venture for Willis, as well as a rewarding marketing opportunity that has generated increased revenue for his business and gotten his name out to other clients.

For two weeks from November 18 through December 4, 2011, Willis shot 125+ families.  The process actually entails very little advertising. He creates slots through his schedulicity site and announces via Facebook

In this way he is able to collect and keep track of his customer information year to year.  The project gets him about 40 percent new clients from referrals, 30 percent returning every year and 30 percent returning every other year. Plus, the social networking has made it easy to get the word out with a big return.  “It’s been a great way to profit from my reputation as a commercial photographer to a much wider base of potential clients,” says Willis.  Last year he even landed a large advertising shoot from a client who brought his family in for a sitting.

The concept for TSPP is based exclusively on Willis’s skill set.  “I am a maximizer, so I do well working in [a] small blast of energy and can get a lot out of fast-pace work,” he explains. The entire session lasts 30 minutes from start to file delivery.  The process works basically the same as if he were doing a commercial advertising assignment – he shoots, edits and delivers at least three images in 30 minutes. The pricing is based on the number of files chosen by the client. This kind of family photography also requires patience, as many times he might be working with kids, dogs and all kinds of pets.  But that is a challenge he is up to and enjoys.  “I love when women walk up and tell me they hate having there picture taken and leave beaming feeling beautiful and excited,” adds Willis. 

The toughest part of the job for Willis on any of his TSPP projects is shooting 120 versions of the same idea within a strict set of limitations such as one light and one prop.  This year his unique challenge was finding the perfect couch. It had to look good with either two people or 12 people, it had to have arms lower than the back and dark leather in a classic style. Not too deep and not too long.  After hours of searching, Willis found his couch in a big box grocery store on clearance.  It was the perfect couch, and he would have been willing to pay five times what paid just to get it.  In addition to his sparse set, Willis likes to shoot with a Canon 5d and 85mm f/ 1.2L lens, a Manfrotto camera stand, Profoto Acute 2400 with a large soft box, shooting tethered into Lightroom.  Willis also has the talent of being able to relax his people and let them shine in the work without using any false props or backdrops. With his casual style and setting, he captures the personality of each family.  Typical of the responses he gets on the experience is from Michelle Sinobite Caridi, “This project was beyond amazing. The studio environment was relaxed, and the staff was so welcoming. My children were immediately at ease – which shows in the pictures. In a short session, Jonathan was able to capture the essence of our family in some amazing, unique shots. It was the best family portrait experience I have ever had. Our family will be back every year this is hosted without question!”

For Willis, the beauty of this project is the community that surrounds it. He is always moved by how many people look forward to TSPP, save for it and spread the word.  The momentum is amazing and everyone wins.  Families leave feeling that they got the best deal, the best image and a unique experience.  “I end up making a killing financially and am stretched creatively and professionally. This has been a game changer for my business,” adds Willis. He has built a “tribe” around this project and everyone celebrates it with him.

Jonathan Robert Willis will return to his tradition of TSPP for 2012 with scheduled sessions.  In the mean time, see more of his work on his Web site at  and to view galleries from past years of TSPP or to make note of sessions coming up in 2012, visit You can also see more of his updates and happenings on his Facebook page Willis is represented by Kevin Schochat in New York City and can be contacted at