Pro's Choice: The Photography Of Jonathan Robert Willis: Simply Elegant Portraiture

Jonathan Robert Willis knew where he was going at a young age. “In school, imagery always spoke to me louder than words and numbers. My interest in black-and-white photography was sparked during my high school years by music-industry portrait photographer Michael Wilson, a family friend. His work really resonated with me and I just fell in love with the idea of making pictures for a living and shooting the music that I listen to.” In fact, Willis switched to a public school “because that school had a decent darkroom that nobody was using. I knew I wanted to make photographs.” It was there that he taught himself black-and-white processing and printing. And in college, “I pretty much lived in the darkroom.” Fast forward and we now find Willis comfortably settled in his Cincinnati, Ohio-based studio, although we may find him shooting on location just as much, if not more. Willis’s creative team consists of first assistant Scott Meyer and digital retoucher Patrick White, with Laura McMurray serving as production assistant/studio manager.

Client: Cincinnati Magazine

Using a rented Hasselblad H3D2 and an 80mm lens, Jonathan Robert Willis photographed Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory against a cyclorama. This would serve as the cover shot for a story titled “The Power Players,” which focused on this city’s powerful figures. “We lit the shot with two umbrellas, one on each side just off his shoulders, about 10 degrees behind the mayor. He was probably 2 or 3 feet in front of the lights, with the lights about 7 or 8 feet to either side.” There was also a large overhanging softbox angled downward to provide frontal fill. (Design Director: Grace E. Saunders, Cincinnati Magazine.)
ALl Photos © Jonathan Robert Willis

A Change In Viewpoint And Attitude
When he shot film, Willis was working first with a twin-lens Rolleiflex 2.8, then added a Hasselblad 501CM when business picked up. Kodak Tri-X was his favorite emulsion. The switch to digital came in 2004, in part because clients were starting to request it. What’s more, “it dawned on me that I was standing too much in the shadow of my mentor and felt I needed to make a departure, to reinvent myself and develop my voice creatively. So the digital camera seemed to be a perfect tool for me to rethink my approach to image making.”

Client: Good Samaritan Hospital, Cincinnati

The campaign was called “Two Weeks Ago,” illustrating how far this hospital has come in advancing coronary care, by showing a coronary patient out and about only two weeks after open-heart surgery. This shot aims at showing a grandmother enjoying shared moments bowling with her grandson. “We tried to find people who were related or who knew each other, which was the case here, to give the scene a more genuine feel.” Shooting with the Canon 5D Mark II and 85mm lens, Willis set up the lights so that the background wall would easily be seen framing them. To enhance the effect, he introduced vignetting, which is a carryover from his darkroom days. (Agency: Northlich; Art Director: Aaron May.)

Unfortunately, the D-SLR proved at first to be a hindrance. “I went from taking a more intimate approach to the subject, engaging in conversation, with good eye contact, to hiding my face behind the camera.” But time heals all misguided shooting methodologies, the result being that now Willis’s portraits reflect a seeming bond between subject and photographer, resulting in more meaningful and engaging portraits.

While he started shooting digital with a Canon EOS 20D, Willis’s camera of choice today is the Canon 5D Mark II. His backup is the original 5D. He will occasionally rent a Hasselblad.

Client: Simple Portrait Project Family Portraits

Willis devotes studio time during the year for more traditional studio portraiture. “I’ll shoot 100 families over six days.” He calls it the Simple Portrait Project, which is exactly what it is, involving simple lighting (softbox plus background lights) and maybe one prop. It takes place in a 30-minute session, during which captures are edited with minimal retouching, selected by the client, then burned to CD and delivered on the spot. He shoots tethered but handheld with the Canon 5D Mark II and 85mm lens set to f/8.

“I have five lenses in my camera bag that I use consistently,” Willis points out. “The one that gets the most use by far is the Canon 85mm f/1.2.” After that comes the 50mm f/1.2, followed closely by the 16-35mm f/2.8. “I didn’t buy a fancier camera body because I was more interested in investing in lenses and lighting.”

Much of Willis’s shooting involves the camera seated atop a Manfrotto tripod/head combo, but he may opt for a camera stand in the studio. Either frees his concentration so he can focus on establishing rapport with the subject.


Willis approached illustrator Arian Armstrong with this concept involving a series of very colorful and design-oriented studio portraits. She would create the backdrops in watercolor. Each portrait would involve propping; wardrobe, hair, and makeup stylists; and the talent. Lighting came from a large softbox in front, with two umbrellas flanking the subject, with the addition of a gridded light aimed at the face.

Willis adds: “I normally shoot to a memory card, which lets me work really, really fast. If it’s for a major advertising campaign, we shoot tethered, regardless of location, so the art director has more immediate access to the image on screen for critical review.”

Willis has always leaned toward monolights, for starters, because that’s what he learned to use in college. But he also likes monolights because “they are so easy to set up, and they supply all the power that I need.” When first setting out on his own, he opted for White Lightning monolights, because they were cost-effective. Today, Willis lights with Profotos—four 600 ws and two 300 ws units. He also owns a battery-driven power pack, the Elinchrom Ranger RX Speed AS, plus two heads, which see occasional use on location. “When I use them it’s typically with a small softbox or a 90-degree reflector over which I wrap a translucent piece of cloth to soften the light spread.” Even on location, his go-to lights are the Profotos, but he may combine them with the Ranger when needed. When employing the Profotos on an outdoor location shoot, he’ll either run an extension cord or rent a portable generator. How many heads go on location? “That depends on the need or budget, and sometimes the crew. I always carry at least two heads. If it’s for a cover shot, then I’ll bring four heads to cover all contingencies.”

Client: FanMail Marketing

For this marketing firm’s promotional campaign, Willis was asked to photograph five archetypal fans. This shot, which involved wardrobe, hair, and makeup stylists, aimed at representing the video gamer. For this rendition, Willis’s retoucher stripped in a fabricated backdrop based on the argyle pattern in the sweater. “Also in retouching, we digitally opened up his eyes and mouth just a little bit to overemphasize his enthusiasm.” An umbrella light was positioned at an overhead angle probably 2 or 3 feet away, with two softened heads coming in over each shoulder and flagged away from the camera. (Agency: SYN/TAX; Creative Director: Emmit Jones.)

Over the years, Willis has expressed a marked preference for three light-shaping tools, beginning with Profoto’s own beauty dish with grid. “I would use that, for instance, to soften and light somebody’s face, letting everything else fall off around the shoulders.” He also employs a variety of Chimera softboxes, adding spot grids on occasion, and he gets “a fair amount of use out of Creative Light circular collapsible reflectors and white fill cards.”

Willis continues: “I’ve been using umbrella lighting a lot more in recent months, notably the Westcott 43-inch soft silver umbrella. I would use the umbrella when I’m shooting a portrait in a smaller room and need to focus the light. I love the way this light shaper hits the skin and the texture it imparts.” By “focusing the light” Willis means sliding the umbrella along the shaft closer or farther away from the head, which affects the light spread. But he adds: “To be honest, I feel my way through the shoot sometimes. I don’t have a science about lighting. But I’ll get a sense from working with somebody what quality of light I want hitting the skin. And that will point me to use a softbox or umbrella.”

Client: Pause Magazine

For a feature story, Willis wanted to photograph singer/songwriter Matt Wertz away from fans, choosing the basement of Madison Theater in Covington, Kentucky, where the artist was performing. This also provided the setting for a more moody and telling portrait. For his lighting, Willis employed the Elinchrom Ranger, setting up a softbox in front of him to the left, allowing some spill to illuminate the adjacent area. Camera: Canon 5D with a 24-105mm IS lens, handheld. (Art Director: Chris Bergman.)

As is true of most working photographers, Willis is constantly trying to reinvent himself. “I do a considerable amount of personal exploration work to stay fresh. If you are only making images because someone is paying you to do so, you may find yourself on the road to disappointment. Plus from a marketing standpoint, I only show work that I want to shoot. It’s a longer road, but in this day and age it’s the only road for the long haul. I can shoot other types of images but everything on my website reflects work that I am passionate about. It doesn’t get me every job, but once I am considered for a project I feel I have greater influence over the final execution—because I am hired for my style, a style that I have honed and explored to great depth. I am working toward becoming a master portrait artist.”

To see more of Jonathan Robert Willis’s work, please visit his website at:

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Photography isn't just for the people who has the skills, all of us can learn it by heart. - Wes Upchurch