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Flash photography can be a lot of fun, but one of the issues you will have very quickly is that directly hitting a subject with flash lighting can lead to some very harsh contrast and shadows which is often unwanted. If you want to get away from that then there are a heap of ways to make the quality of flash light a little better for your purposes – here are a few you might like to think about.
B-B-Bounce – Turn your flash to face a wall or the ceiling rather than pointing it straight at your subject. This will diffuse the light and go a long way to removing the harsh look that direct flash can have on a subject. You will probably have to experiment with settings depending on the colours and distance of the wall or ceiling, but this is probably the most common strategy to fight the bright.
You can really bounce it off anything (rather than pointing it straight at the subject). In a pinch, point the flash up and secure a business card behind it with a rubber band so the light bounces of that. It's ghetto, but it's often a better option than direct flash. The photo below uses paper to bounce light!
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D-D-Diffuse – There are a multitude of amazingly great flash diffusers that fit straight onto your flash head. These range from miniature and cheap soft-boxes off ebay through to more professional setups. Buy using these you are making the light source of the flash larger and more even which will go some way towards giving you a softer type of light on the subject.
If you have off camera flash, then there are even bigger diffusers such as softboxes and the like. In a pinch, you can diffuse the light with anything you can get your hands on. Some photographers simply hand a white piece of cloth, like sheet, between the flash and the subject. If this gets you the quality of light you are looking for, then it's a great way to diffuse light!
Remember though, that when you diffuse light, you also make it less powerful, so be sure to take that into account.
Thomas Shahan (below) uses a home made flash diffuser constructed from an ice-cream bucket and gaffa tape that you can see here.
Go the Umbrella – Off-camera-flash umbrellas can be used to both bounce and diffuse the harsh light of a flash. And the good news is that you can get them pretty cheap (though the more expensive brands are better as usual). Even a cheap umbrella will allow you to diffuse that harsh light so it's a big improvement.
Use a Flash Ring – Another piece of kit that a lot of portrait photographers will probably experiment with at some stage is the flash ring. They can be cheap or expensive or you can even make them yourself, but they are an effective way to avoid teh harsh light of a direct flash.
(If you're getting sick of spending money on lighting gear then we strongly recommend you check out DIY Photography which has some amazing DIY lighting projects that you can put together for a few dollars).