On Assignment: Make the Ambient Work For You
Raising the level of light artificially with strobe has the effect of lowering the relative intensity of the pre-existing light in the scene.
While this tends to solve some of your bad-quality-of-light issues, it can also be an opportunity to use the ambient as a compositional element.
If you are just shooting with just the ambient, it is hard to include the light source in the frame. It will usually be blown out. This is because (unlike your eye) film or digital simply cannot hold that contrast range.
But if you have your subject cranked up a couple of stops (or more) with strobe, you compress the tonal range and may be able to use the existing light as a compositional element.
In the photo above, I was sent to Verizon's offices in our area to shoot an exec with one of their new "V-Cast" phones, which shows little TV show snippets.
They call them "mobisodes," which apparently sounds way cooler than "dinky little video clips."
I shot the obligatory Guy Holding The Phone shot, but also wanted to get a detail shot of the phone itself. There was not a lot of environment to work with - just a table in a room. I had lit the phone with an SB-28 on an umbrella, but I wanted a little more visual interest.
So I decided to include the florescent light fixtures reflecting in the tabletop as a compositional element. They aren't the end-all, but it is a matter of working with what you have.
Since I had the phone lit to f/11 by the flash (from camera right) and filled by a sheet of paper (out of the frame at camera left) it was a simple matter to dial down the shutter speed until the florescents' reflection fell into the contrast range of my photo. It gives the photo a little more of a high-tech look, without being terribly obvious as to the source of the pattern. I also used the phone to hide my own reflection.
Fortunately, the phone's display screen fit within the tonal range, too. Otherwise, I would have had to bail on the idea.
I use this technique from time to time on portraits, too. Those florescent light fixtures that we love to hate when shooting all ambient can turn into cool, futuristic-looking repeating patterns when you shoot someone from a low angle and they are lit enough to help you bring the florescent lights down into your contrast range.
So, nothing earth shattering. Just two things to remember.
First, to look at common compositional elements from a different point of view. And second, to take advantage of the ability to shift the light level on your subject to pull formerly unavailable elements into the contrast range of your photo.
Next: Use a Second Light to Create Tension