Recently, we were at the pediatrician for our child's appointment. At the waiting room, I was observing the many family pictures that patients had sent in. Out of the dozens of photos, there were a handful that stood out to me. What made them eye-catching in my view (no pun intended) was the lighting.
The vast majority of the photos I saw were taken outdoors in daylight or sunset, and with fill flash. The decision to use flash seemed appropriate in many of those cases. For example, strong backlighting would have made faces too dark if flash had not been used. The problem for me was that the photos looked artificial because of the flash direction and to a lesser extent, flash intensity. The flash was often casting on-axis shadows that were very different from the shadows one expects from the apparent position of the sun. In other words, the flash came from either the pop-up flash or an on-camera flash, while the sunlight was coming from a direction other than from behind the camera. The flash was also often a bit too strong and would have looked more natural if it were reduced slightly in intensity. In some cases, the effect of the flash was so jarring that I speculate the photos may have looked better if they had been based on a proper exposure for the subject's faces using ambient light only (no flash) and allowing the background to blow out.
By contrast (no pun intended), the outstanding outdoor photos had lighting that seemed natural. The photographers either chose ambient light conditions that didn't require a flash, or they used a flash consistently with direction of the ambient light. To my recollection all were off-camera lights, and many used short lighting.
The takeaway here is that if you want family photos that are noticeably better than most in this age of digital cameras, proper lighting is key (ok pun intended). If you're new to lighting, please check out the TTL FAQ in this blog to get you started.