Like a lot of photographers, I prefer to use available light when I can. However, there are times when the available light is either insufficient or is in the wrong direction for the effect you want to create; that is when you need a flashgun to provide light.
Many cameras have built in flash which you can use on these occasions but of course these have their limitations. The first is the power which is usually quite low meaning that they will only work within a relatively short distance. The second is the position, which is by definition close to the lens. Apart from the red eye effect this creates, this means the light produced is harsh, flat and unforgiving. My compact camera has built in flash and no alternative so when I need extra light, I have to put up with the unnatural effect it produces.
The obvious solution, with a camera which has a hot shoe or flash socket, is to buy an external flashgun which will have a lot more power. Mounting it on the top of the camera though still gives that unforgiving light and at the same time creates ugly black shadows especially if you use your camera in the vertical position. In a sense, moving the flash a little further way is worse than having it close.
To soften the effect you need to make the flash appear to be larger which you can do with various clip on attachments. The simplest and cheapest of these is the Stofen which is made from translucent plastic. Pop it over the flash and point the flashgun head upwards at about 45 degrees and bingo, the light is a lot softer and the shadows a lot less harsh. I use one of these a lot when I am out and about.
Even better though is to move the flashgun off the camera. Of course you then need a way to communicate between the flash and the camera. This can be in the form of an extension cord which fires the gun and transmits the data at the same time. You also need long arms, an assistant or a light stand/tripod to mount the flashgun on. If your camera is heavy like mine, holding it with one hand and a flashgun with the other is a no no.
Taking this all a step further, you can eliminate the trailing wire by using wireless flash triggers. The market leaders in this field are Pocket Wizards but these cost a fortune to buy. Fortunately, there are cheaper alternatives which may not be as durable but do the job equally well. The downside of most wireless triggers is that the flashgun no longer works in automatic mode meaning that you have to set the exposure manually. This is what we used to do anyway before TTL and then ETTL flash became the norm so it is no big deal. In any case, with digital cameras it is a lot easier than it was with film because at least with digital you see the results immediately and can make adjustments as necessary.
So, now that you have the flash off the camera, it is time to consider other forms of light modifiers. The cheapest and simplest to set up is a brolly. Just like the kind of brolly you use in the rain but this time made of white, silver or gold material, these are used as a reflector to give a broader spread of light. You can also use a white translucent brolly the other way round i.e. you shoot the light through it to give an even softer, broader effect. Those professionals who have expensive soft boxes and beauty dishes may scorn them but the truth is the flash brolly is a very versatile tool.
That is where I am up to now, experimenting with ways to improve my flash pictures and capture better portraits of my granddaughter Molly. My next step is to consider a second flashgun either to be placed behind the subject to give a rim light or on the opposite side to the main light for cross light effects. That is very much for the future though, I need to master using one light and a reflector first!
For those who are interested, the Strobist blog explains all this a lot better than I do.