On Assignment: Shade is Your Friend
And for my money, nothing does that quicker and easier than the shady side of a building.
If I am doing a strobed outdoor portrait (as in the above photo of two prep football standouts) I will typically use a building as a "sun gobo" whether I include it in the photo or not.
Even if I am including a bright sky in the background, I'll use the shade of a building to drop my subject to near black when underexposing a stop for the sunny sky. You get more lighting control this way.
If I am starting in full sun as my ambient, there are only a couple of stops of wiggle room before I get to my tightest aperture and max synch speed. No matter how powerful your flash is, that's the end of the light balancing line for you.
You can cheat it a couple of stops with an ND filter, but that is another story (and the subject of an upcoming post.)
But the fact that the shaded area was 2-3 stops darker than the area in full sun allowed me to drop the ambient down some for a more dramatic effect in this photo. When you realize that this photo was taken in the middle of the afternoon of a sunny day, you start to see the lighting ratio advantages that shade can give you.
I had my flashes set on half power, and placed them as seen below.
(FYI, the front/left strobe was on the 85mm beam setting, allowing me to let the light fall off below the guys' faces.)
For you home-gamers, the thought process is as follows.
1) Set the camera on max synch speed.
2) Cross light the two guys, with the flashes on manual at half power (full power if placed further back.)
3) Fire some quick test shots while adjusting the aperture until the lit subjects are properly exposed in your cool little cheater screen on the camera back.
4) Your ambient-lit areas will be very dark. While keeping the chosen aperture constant (to make the strobe happy) open your shutter speed up until the lighting ratio looks as smooth (or dramatic) as you'd like.
With a little practice, this is a very fast process, and does not require a strobe meter.
And with the money you save on the flash meter, you can get another light...
Next: Sometimes it's Not the Photo, it's the Process