Never! Just in case that needs a little more explanation, Never, Ever! It doesn’t matter if your using a cell phone camera, or a $5,000 DSLR, if you use the flash that’s on the camera, your picture will look like crap. If you’re close enough to a subject to actually use your flash (they typically work out to about 6 to 12 feet, so it always cracks me up when I see them going off in the bleachers of a stadium) then you flood them, straight on, with a ton of white light. It’s a horribly lit, horribly flat shot. The “flat” part means that it has no perception of depth, which is created by having some shadows. This is why any time you’re photographed in a studio, you’ll notice that the photographer typically has a light set off at an angle to your face. This creates a subtle shadow that gives us the perception of depth…letting our minds interpret the photograph into a 3 dimensional image of the captured subject.
The only thing your on-board flash is good for, is proving that a picture of someone was taken. For example, if you decide to become a kidnapper, it would be perfect for taking a picture of your kidnap-ee holding up a newspaper to prove that you have them. I guess you could also use it for taking mug-shots at the police station. That’s it…it’s good for nothing else. OK, maybe if you become a spy, it works well for photographing documents. Notice how nothing it’s appropriate for is related to taking pictures you would want your friends to see.
So how, you might ask, can you take pictures indoors or under low light situations? A semi-complicated solution is to buy an external flash unit, commonly referred to as a “speed light.” You can set this up on a small light stand, off to the side of your camera, and fire it remotely to get away from that “flat” look. The problems with this is that it adds $$$’s to your set up, extra gear to carry around, and a greater technical understanding that most people aren’t interested in.
Depending upon your camera, the best way to handle low light is to increase your ISO setting, increasing the cameras sensitivity to light. Most cameras allow you to manually adjust your ISO. Where a “normal” ISO setting would fall in the range of 100 to 400, many cameras can go as high as 3200, 6400, and even higher. At these highest settings, you may start to see some noise in your images (also known as a “grainy” look), but that depends on the camera. Some can go well above 3200 and show little to no noise. Even with the “potential” noise, it may be worth it to get an overall better image that doesn’t resemble a mug shot.
So don’t wait until you need to get a low light shot to try this out…grab your camera, adjust the ISO higher (way higher), and take a few shots!