Keeping It Simple

Jeanine Fijol


Once per year Cincinnati-based commercial photographer Jonathan Robert Willis dives into portrait photography through a series of 100 photo shoots he calls The Simple Project. Below, he discusses profit, workflow, and the joy of rising up to a challenge.

PDN: You're primarily a commercial photographer. Can you tell us a little about your main portfolio, and what inspired you to create The Simple Portrait Project?

JRW: My work has always been people-focused but over the years it has undergone a great deal of simplification. I've gone from making crazy environmental images to creating photographs with simple backgrounds in the studio. The Simple Portrait project came from that way of working. I embrace the idea that creativity cannot exist without limitations so I work within these boundaries: I use just one light, one wood box as a prop, and I keep all the shoots to 30 minute sessions including shooting, editing and delivering. On average the shooting time is only 12 minutes long. The last challenge was to do this 100 times in 100 different ways.

PDN: How do you market this project to local families?

JRW: The marketing was done mostly through Facebook and email. I also gave away fliers and got some media attention in local newspapers and magazines. I also gave a few sessions to local clients including art directors and photo editors. The second year, people from the first sessions became my primary marketing force. It's amazing what happens when you ask clients to invite friends to participate in something you're doing. If you give them a unique experience they naturally want to share it with others.

PDN: How has your price model worked out, and have you achieved your goal of 100 families per project?

JRW: The price is based upon how many files clients take home. The first file is $125, 3 files are $225, 6 are $300 and so on. It was important that I set up a number most families could afford. On average people spend between $225 and $300. I think it also helps that there is no sitting fee. If you come and don't like the results you can walk away (this has never happened). And I don't have to follow up with everyone after they leave. I am sure I could make more money selling more prints but it is not where I want to invest my time and energy. This past fall session I had 98 sessions with 2 cancellations. I would say that I made my goal!

PDN: How many years have you been doing this project, and are there any big lessons that you learned after the first years?

JRW: I am on the third year on the project and it seemed to come together almost perfectly from the beginning. I've reworked to pricing a bit, added an online schedule, and for the next one I am only offering black and white, but that is really it. Through this project, I've learned that when things get slow, I should be open to new ideas. Because of The Simple Project I had and extremely profitable December and I was able to float a slow January.

PDN: What's the best part of this effort, what do you take away from it?

JRW: I love it. I love the formula, the results and the challenge! I just love it.

To view more of Jonathan Robert Willis's work, visit: To see additional images from The Simple Project, visit:



PDN August 2016: The Fine-Art Photography Issue



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