All too often, I see people with digital cameras using their built-in flash for distant subjects. That's understandable perhaps in dark locations; but there's often a big problem. A flash unit simply does not provide adequate "reach" for a distant bride and groom during a ceremony, or the quarterback at a night football game. As well, flash cannot light up the vast interior of a cathedral, castle or a cave.
Another example is stage performances. At a dinner theatre performance I attended, people were shooting with built-in flash from distances of 30 metres or more from the stage, so it was unlikely that anyone got a well-exposed photo. Because flash range is not great in very large dark spaces, I got permission to move close to the stage. If I had not been allowed to get this close, a much higher ISO would have been required for greater effective "reach" of the light from flash.
If you use flash for very distant subjects, your pictures will be underexposed: dark and murky. Some pictures will be completely black. You'll have few useable images and no really great shots. Severe underexposure cannot be properly corrected even with professional software used by graphic design specialists.
Think about the range of your flash unit in any low light situation. A built-in flash unit may have a range of three meters in the camera's ISO 100 setting. A high-powered accessory flash unit may have a range of seven metres. If your camera has an ISO 400 option, this can increase the effective flash range by about 50%.
After taking a picture, check the image in the camera's monitor. If it's much too dark, try shooting the flash photo using ISO 800 and then at ISO 1600 and perhaps ISO 3200. At each higher ISO, the effective flash range will be greater. Of course, even very high ISO will not work miracles if the subject is too far. As well, a high ISO photo tends to be very grainy, due to digital noise.
As discussed in my Photo Tip of the Week: Add an External Flash Unit, a large, powerful flash unit does have greater range. Of course, not everyone wants to spend $300 to $500 for this type of accessory and not every camera accepts one. And even if you use a large flash unit, the range of flash is unlikely to be adequate for a distant subject like the pitcher at a night baseball game.
Turn Flash Off
Virtually every digital camera includes a "Flash Off" setting. With very distant subjects, select this option. To prevent blur from camera shake during the long exposures in low light, use a tripod or brace your elbows on something solid. Unless you want motion blur for creative effects, avoid trying to shoot a moving subject because it will be blurred during the long exposure.
Tip: For faster shutter speeds when shooting in low light without flash, you'll need to use a high ISO: 800, or 1600 or even 3200. Again, the photos may be very grainy by ISO 1600. If you can brace the camera or your elbows on something solid, you may be able to get a sharp photo at ISO 800; there, the image quality should be quite acceptable.
The Bottom Line
Electronic flash is a valuable tool but it has limitations. With or without flash, some situations can be impossible to photograph effectively unless you use professional equipment: the action at an indoor sports event or the distant tapestries inside a dark castle. Press photographers make great images because they can get close to the action or because they set up numerous remote flash units. When you cannot take good pictures, put your camera away and simply enjoy the experience.