A Beginning Guide for Dental Photography

Photography is one of the most important skills dentists need to master in order to perform esthetic dentistry at a high level. Today, digital single-lens reflex cameras are commonplace. Young dentists have grown up with Internet, smartphones, and online platforms exposing them, and their patients, to cases that other dentists have shared, increasing the awareness and popularity of esthetic-focused treatment. This article provides readers with a simplified and attainable approach to begin the dental photography journey, as well as increase skill level, depending on practice style and desired investment.

Key points

  • Dental photography is a simple and available tool that can transform a dental practice.

  • Dental photography is a skill that is needed in order to perform high-level, predictable esthetic dentistry.

  • Dental photography plays a critical role in the continuous journey of self-improvement for esthetic dentists.

Beginning the journey

My first introduction to dental photography was during my Advanced Education in General Dentistry residency at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Dentistry. We were required to buy a simple digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera, macro lens, and ring flash. Looking back, I lacked a full understanding of photography concepts and its value for a dentist. I had a scarcity mindset: the goal was to spend the least amount of money while satisfying the program requirements, rather than to truly understand the process of dental photography and its value. I did not have a workflow. When my photos were of poor quality I was not sure why. When my photos were of good quality, I simply got lucky. I was learning a tremendous amount about complex restorative dentistry, implants, and esthetics, but I was not using my camera with intention as I do today. I did not fully understand the camera as a necessary instrument for the type of dentist I wanted to be: practicing esthetic, restorative, and comprehensive dentistry at the highest level possible.

Two things occurred in my career that shaped my path. First, I started a continuing education (CE) journey with purpose, seeking high-level courses that taught comprehensive, patient-centered, relationship-based approaches to dental care. These courses all used photography as the foundation upon which to build a relationship, trust, and understanding with a patient as well as perform accurate diagnosis and form a treatment plan. Second, I started taking dental photography courses. Third, once some formal photography education was underway, I began teaching photography at the UCLA Center for Esthetic Dentistry. These experiences, and many hours to taking photos in a private setting, have shaped my ability to understand photography as it relates to dentistry. More importantly, it has allowed an evolution to continue to distill the complex into more and more simple workflows.

Value and purpose of dental photography

  • Documentation

  • Patient education and case acceptance

  • Collaborating and communication with colleagues

  • Marketing and branding

  • Dental education

  • Evaluating outcomes


Beyond esthetic dentistry, creating thorough records is imperative to operating a compliant and responsible practice. All new patients should have photographs taken of their starting condition as they enter the practice for clinical reference as well as medical-legal protection for the dentist. Initial photographs serve as a time stamp of the patient’s existing state when they first become a patient. It is important that these photographs are of high quality and include multiple views of the patient’s face, smile, and dentition. Furthermore, within dental esthetics, a workflow should be developed in order to provide consistent, high-level documentation throughout all stages of treatment, including follow-up.

Patient Education and Case Acceptance

Photography is an integral part of communicating with patients. It allows the dentist to show the patient the starting point, existing conditions, findings, simulated treatment options, and examples of finished procedures for understanding and motivation. When discussing esthetic treatment, it provides a conduit to clearly understand patient goals, and aspects of their smiles they do not like and would like to enhance. One approach developed by dentist Bob Barkley in the 1960s and still taught in highly regarded CE courses is the process of codiscovery.

This process involves dentist, patient, and photography, and results in the patients gaining a thorough understanding of the conditions of their dentition and oral health. Bob Barkley spoke to this issue brilliantly when he said, “No greater risk of failure can be run than that of attempting to use traditional patient management procedures in a health oriented restorative practice. Examining and treating a patient’s mouth without prior attitudinal development is an error of omission for which the dentist pays handsomely with time, energy, stress, and money.” Photography is key for this process and results in the success of the attitudinal development of patients, where patients can see their dentition, begin to fully understand and take ownership of their conditions and problems, and strongly value high-level treatment.

In dental esthetics, through the process of diagnosis, treatment planning, and digital smile design, photography is used to develop a clear path for a patient’s treatment. A smile design and proposed outcome can be presented to a patient. A digital simulation of the outcome has a profound impact emotionally on patients because they are able to experience how esthetic dental treatment can influence their overall appearance. Fig. 1 shows the steps of a completed case motivated by photography and a digital smile design process. The more clinicians are able to communicate in this visual fashion, the more patients tend to understand their options and how esthetic dental treatment can help accomplish goals of improving their appearance.

Fig. 1
( A ) Initial Patient Presentation. ( B ) DSD Outline Form. ( C ) DSD Virtual Smile Simulation. ( D ) Prototype Try In based on Wax Up. ( E ) Final Restorations.
( Courtesy of Yair Y. Whiteman, DMD, Los Angeles, CA.)

Collaborating and Communication with Colleagues

Esthetic dental treatment is often interdisciplinary, involving close collaboration with other specialists. Esthetic dental treatment always requires detailed laboratory communication. Photography, presentation development, and digital smile design allows for optimal communication for interdisciplinary treatment planning to occur. If a dentist does not practice in close proximity to the dental lab that will be fabricating the restorations where a custom shade appointment can be accomplished, then photography will be required for shade matching purposes ( Fig. 2 ). Photography is also used for evaluating restorations at the try-in appointment and then communicating to the laboratory if modifications are needed. Esthetic dental treatment cannot be done accurately or predictably without photography.

Fig. 2
Shade matching for esthetic treatment.

Branding and Marketing

Photography is needed when branding an esthetic dental practice as well as marketing the practice to both grow and maintain its relevance. Photography is used both internally and externally for these purposes. Before-and-after photos of patients can be shown to patients during a consultation. Specifically, completed treatments from cases similar to a patient’s condition can be used as a relatable example of someone else that underwent treatment and experienced an excellent outcome. Examples of completed cases should be included in your overall online presence to help patients find you for the type of treatment you are offering and they are seeking. Photography can help differentiate a dental practice from others depending on the quality that is performed and the style that is displayed.

Dental Education

Photography allows content development for lectures, study clubs, forums, and other aspects of education and collaboration among colleagues. When attending high-level dental meetings, incredible dental photography can be witnessed in presentations. Even if not currently teaching, documenting cases in a complete manner helps to build a library of content that may be used in the future should a teaching or lecturer position ever be pursued.

Evaluating Outcomes

Photography allows dentists to see the outcomes of their work as well as to evaluate successes and shortcomings.

This is one of the most important factors for growth and development for practitioners of esthetic dentistry: every case, when documented well, scrutinized, and reviewed with colleagues and other experts, leads to exponential learning opportunities .

Routinely taking photographs at each step of treatment (diagnosis and treatment planning, prototype try-in, preparations, provisionals, final restoration try-in, cementation, and postoperative) collectively provides information that would otherwise not be available for fully understating outcomes, creating a path to mastering clinical skills.

Photography setup

Like other dental equipment and instrumentation, photography equipment comes in varying levels of quality and a wide range of price. So many options for photography equipment exists that it can be overwhelming for first-time users who are not sure where to start. Smartphones, point-and-shoot, and DSLR cameras are all options for the dentist and team. Although smartphones and point-and-shoot cameras are convenient, less expensive, and less technical, they do not have the overall functionality and nor do they produce the overall quality that DSLR cameras provide. Therefore, it is recommended that a DSLR camera be the primary camera for dental esthetics. There are multiple brand options for cameras and lighting that satisfy the level of quality desired; the aim of this guide is to simplify the shopping list with function, ease of use, and attainability in mind. There are five main categories encompassing proper photography setup:

  • DSLR camera body

  • Macro lens

  • Lighting setup

  • Accessories

  • Laptop computer

Digital Single-Lens Reflex Camera Body

The camera body is the main part of the camera minus the lens and lighting setup. Camera bodies come in 2 types: full frame and cropped sensor (Advanced Photo System type C [APS-C]). Full-frame cameras are what professional photographers use. Cropped-sensor cameras have a smaller sensor and are less expensive but are still of excellent quality. A full-frame camera will work for dental photography; however, a cropped-sensor camera is all that is needed for high-level dental photography. By choosing a cropped-sensor camera, a dentist can save thousands of dollars without sacrificing the quality that is needed. Because of their smaller sensors compared with full-frame cameras, APS-C cameras capture only part of the image produced by the lens. This feature is known as a crop factor.

To work around this small variation in sensor size (crop factor), the photographer simply needs to move slightly away from the subject to capture the same image at the same distance as a full-frame camera. This technique results in a magnification phenomenon that influences the focal length once the lens is connected to the body, which means that, depending on the space present in a dental practice, the proper lens type paired with a cropped-sensor camera allows the dentist to take photographs comfortably in a small operatory room setting, versus a larger studio space, which is not always available in a dental practice.

Macro Lens

The type of lens needed for dental photography is referred to as a macro lens. A lens is selected by brand, quality, focal length, and cost ( Table 1 ). The lens is perhaps the most important aspect of the photography setup, where its physical quality is a greater determining factor of overall photo quality outcome than other parts of the dental photography setup. The number on the side of the lens signifies the focal length of the lens. The focal length determines how close the dentist needs to be to the patient in order to capture the desired photo. The appropriate focal length for dental photography is a range (85–105 mm), depending on the type of camera as well as how much space is present in the dental operatory or studio setting.

Table 1
Macro lens recommendations
Lens Pro Con
Nikon AF-S Micro Nikkor 85 mm f/3.5
  • Lighter in weight

  • Smaller in size

  • Less expensive

  • Decreased working distance required compared with Nikon 105 mm

  • Slight lower quality compared with Nikon 105 mm

Nikon AF-S Micro Nikkor 105 mm f/2.8
  • High quality

  • Excellent optics

  • Smooth, fast focus

  • Heavier in weight

  • Expensive

  • Larger in size

  • Increased working distance required compared with Nikon 85 mm

Tamron SP 90 mm f/2.8
  • Excellent optics

  • Middle price range

  • Can work closer to patient than Nikon 105 mm

  • Cannot get as close to patient as Nikon 85 mm

Tokina atx-i 100 mm f/2.8
  • Least expensive

  • Excellent optics

  • Light in weight

  • Slow focus speed may be off-putting and slows efficiency

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Sep 28, 2020 | Posted by in General Dentistry | Comments Off on A Beginning Guide for Dental Photography
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