What does it look like in practice?
Here are a couple of photos to illustrate the points.
In all of these photos, I'm using the Canon 5D Mk II, 85mm f/1.8 and 580 EX II flash. There is scaffolding right above us, a wall on my right and empty street to my left. For this photo, I bounced the flash up at the ceiling: which illuminated it and turned it into a giant softbox. The problem with this method is that it created lots of shadows under her eyes, under her nose, and under her chin. In the process, the image really isn't all that flattering either. Some of the highlights are also blown out as you can see on her forehead.
For this photo the flash was bounced up and to the right: therefore aiming at the upper part of the wall on my right. The result still delivers some shadows on Kristen's face, but the image is much more flattering. For this image, you can imagine the equivalent of a giant softbox being placed up and to my right.
This time, I aimed the flash totally to the right. As you can see the image is very flattering. There is a harsh shadow under her chin though: this problem could've been solved with a reflector on my left.
For this image, it would be best to imagine a softbox being placed to my right.
So what would happen if I didn't use flash at all? Well I'd have to totally change my exposure settings and you'd end up with the shadows you see above. Notice the shadows under her eyes and chin. No one ever wants to see those.
A key to lighting that I was taught in cinematography was to imagine that the entire scene went to black and you had to light it one light at a time. Then I needed to imagine what each light would do to the scene. The same applies to using flash except that in some situations, there will be lights present. You'll just need to take very careful notice of the lights around you and figure out what effect they are creating.
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