It's hard to make an honest portrait if you are using your subject as a canvas upon which to paint some trendy technique. Taking a cue from my friend, Don Giannatti, I think your lighting and shooting should be "subject-centric;" meaning that the lighting and camera-work take their cues from the subject itself.
The portrait above is of Belinda and I'm sure I was shooting this for two reasons. First, I just adore her and I'm always trying to create a better portrait of her. Secondly, I'm just as sure I was trying out a lighting style in anticipation of some upcoming assignment.
This is a classic "one light" portrait. I'm not afraid of stepping on Zack Arias "One Light" trademark because this particular piece was done long before he picked up a camera. (Hint, hint: It's all been done before. The content is all that counts....) I used a very large scrim panel directly to the right of Belinda and as close in as I could get it without showing the edge of the panel frame. When I say large I mean four feet by six feet large. I used one big strobe head with a large, magnum reflector about eight feet behind the screen to yield an even light spread on the white diffusion cloth. The light was set at a level equal to the top of the scrim frame and angled down. I wanted the light to drop off from the top of the scrim to the bottom. I used black flags to keep spill light from the flash off the background and the foreground.
I used a black panel to the opposite side for some "subtractive" fill. A funny way of saying I was trying to keep light from bouncing off the far wall and adding to much fill light to my wonderfully dramatic shadows.
The background was far enough behind Belinda (twelve or fifteen feet) to drop out of focus because of the limited depth of field that resulted from the use of a long, medium format lens used at f5.6.
I can't imagine trying to convey the sweet and calm aspect of Belinda with a combination of hard beauty dish lights, glancing side lights and brash hair lighting. Nor can I imagine doing complicated things with the background when all I really want to do is focus on her beautiful eyes. Indeed, the lighting should be used in the service of pulling your vision of your subject into existence.
When you start working on different styles it's a good idea to figure out what you want to convey and why. Once you get those two things figured out everything else seems to fall into place.
Update on the painting show: I have tentatively sold my first painting. It's the one of the coffee cup with wings on a red background. It's a lot of fun having a silly show of paintings up. I seem to be having extra coffee just so I can see how people react to the work. If you'd like to see the paintings in person (fly on down from New York, I'll buy you a cup of coffee....) they are on display at the local Starbucks. Address: 3300 Bee Caves Rd. Ste 250, Austin, Texas 78746. (implied smiley face icon).
update: I changed a few things on my website. Would you mind taking a look? http://www.kirktuck.com