Recommended Setups for Dental Photography
Panasonic Lumix GX-85
The all-around team player camera. My micro four thirds setup of choice.
Custom memory for easy presets
Resolution is very good, but there are better
Skin tones good, but not great
No external microphone jack for video
Micro-four thirds is an open platform headed by Olympus and Panasonic. All the camera bodies, flashes, and lenses work together. You could have an Olympus STF-8 twin flash sitting on a Panasonic GH4 body and an Olympus 60mm macro lens, and snap away. Because the sensor is one size smaller than the APS-C found in your typical Canon/Nikon setup, the lenses are MUCH smaller. Like other mirrorless cameras, the autofocus is built into the sensor itself, allowing for very fast focusing, even when using the rear screen. In my experience, holding the camera away from your eyes is friendlier for your team members and even more so for doctors wearing loupes.
I prefer the GX-85 because it is the least expensive interchangeable lens camera in North America to include a custom preset. This is a "must have" because it allows you to record all your dental settings into one spin of the mode dial. How many of you push the recline and lower buttons on your dental chair? Nope--most of us press the #1 button and it goes to the preset position. That's exactly what a dental camera should do. The Olympus cameras do recall the most recent manual exposure settings, but to me, that's not enough. All it takes is one errant finger swipe of a setting wheel, and your images are off. Then your team member has to troubleshoot why the camera isn't working right. And that's when they fall back to no photos at all. You can train your staff to know the shutter speed, f/stop, ISO, and color balance settings, but with the GX-85, all I have to tell my team is "turn it to C1" for dental and "Turn it to Auto" for head shots. That's all they have to know.
Step Up Pick: GX-9
Panasonic Lumix GX-9
UPDATED 7/19/2018 : The GX-9 is a bit more at $1000, though it includes a $500 zoom lens to soften the blow a bit. You can use that versatile 12-60 lens for travel or weekend photography. (flip it on e-bay if you're keeping the camera at work) It should be considered a big brother to the GX-85, not a replacement for the GX-8.
At first blush, the GX-9 looks 95% the same on the outside as the GX-85, because it largely uses the same chassis, same battery, and same general layout. But it adds a few key features:
1) 20mp sensor vs 16mp - this isn't a noticeable resolution upgrade, but it is a HUGE color accuracy upgrade. The GX-85 has slightly oversaturated reds, if you are picky, or coming from a well calibrated Canon setup.
2) manual focus switch - for those taught the classic push pull manual focus technique, this is a huge quality of life upgrade
3) electronic viewfinder with upward tilt - for old school photographers like me, this makes weekend photography much more fun
4) bluetooth/wifi combo - this is the potential game changer feature. Like the GH5 and G9 cameras, the GX-9 has a bluetooth chip in addition to the GX-85's. This allows the camera to push notify your smartphone. When configured to do so, the camera can push EVERY photo you take to your smartphone as you're taking it. And your smartphone can use Dropbox or Google photos to sync to the cloud thereafter. That's a really roundabout way to get a photo from camera to PC, This will use more battery life (which is already tight), but will add a lot of convenience to some offices. I will document this feature more as time allows. But so many people ask me what the replacement for Eye-fi cards is, and this Panasonic auto-transfer technology may be even better than eye-fi ever was.
Olympus 60mm f/2.8 macro - 1/4th the size of a standard SLR macro lens, and still just as sharp. 120mm equivalent view due to sensor crop. MAP is usually $399. It has been seen on sale for $349 and occasionally $299.
Recommended flash for diVUser
Panasonic FL-200L - a small, short flash with pivot for ceiling bounce and LED for video lighting. Recycling and battery life are middling, but it's the best option for this setup. MAP is $230. diVUser is $130
Recommended twin flash
Olympus STF-8 - this is a very compact, yet very capable twin flash. The included diffusers are pretty good. MAP is around $480
We do not recommend ring lights, but if you must, the Metz 15210 Macroslave 15ms-1 would work if you find a flash commander. Mine is out of production.
You can pick this up at BHPhoto and Adorama also. At minimum, get these items:
-Panasonic GX-85 body
-Olympus 60mm macro lens
The Amazon list includes a few more recommended accessories.
*affiliate link - I make a small commission at no additional cost to you.
OM-D E-M10 Mark II plus 12-50 Kit
The even faster focusing budget micro four thirds setup.
If you don't mind a bit less sharpness but even faster autofocus speed, the Olympus 12-50 macro zoom is the fastest focusing macro I've ever seen. ( It can take a direct hit at a waterpark and keep on shooting, too--but you'd need a high end waterproof body, too. ) It has a smooth electric zoom motor and silent focusing for video. It's $500 in the US, but you can find gray market/used for much less. I have three copies. The macro mode is 85mm equivalent which works out nicely for dental. Geometry is decent, though you can't get down to single tooth shots (say for tabletop crown pictures). Three tooth wide veneer close ups should be doable. I'd call this an ideal ortho lens, because it excels at quads and occlusals. It focuses so fast, my hygienist often doesn't realize she's taking a picture while she's aiming.
While the supply lasts, spend $650 to get the 12-50 AND a very capable OM-D camera body with it. It's deeply discounted because it's last year's model. (dental photography's technical needs don't change much from year to year--so year old cameras are a good way to save money)
Compared to the GX-85, the OM-D E-M10 Mark II (yes, that's a mouthful) is capable, but lacks a few features. Most of these are not critical to dental photography. The megapixel count is similar, but the Olympus has an AA filter which smoothes moire patterns but costs some fine detail. You're unlikely to notice the difference unless you "pixel peep" at 100x magnification. There is no 4k video like the GX-85.
The biggest OM-D advantage is their pop up flash. It doesn't require a separate set of AA batteries to maintain and charge. It's plenty strong for dental photography when equipped with the diVUser (now available for the 12-50 lens). That saves $230 you would have spent on a Panasonic FL-200L flash, and a lot of bulk, too. You can also use the pop up as a wireless flash commander, but that's perhaps a more advanced feature most won't touch. Another advantage to Olympus is more natural color rendering. The GX-85 overdoes the reds a bit. Most won't notice, but if you're color critical, Olympus is noticeably better in the color department.
The biggest drawback to this OM-D E-M10 mark II is the lack of custom memory preset. The manual mode settings for dentistry are easily entered, but if you accidentally knock a setting wheel or push a button you didn't mean to, your images may be off. Worse yet, most setting changes aren't noticeable until you see them on a big computer screen. Often, that isn't until the patient has left. So you DO have to train yourself and your team to know the settings and perform a five second "pre flight" setting check before EVERY shoot. The GX-85 has a custom preset mode that lets you recall ALL relevant settings simply by twisting the dial to "C". Olympus reserves custom presents for their $2000 cameras.
Overall, this camera would make most users very happy for the money. At $650 + $140 for a diVUser, you're looking at just under $800. That makes this an exceptional value while it lasts. I'd easily recommend this over any Canon Rebel or Nikon D3400 based setup. If you have one of those, I'd strongly suggest switching over. Your staff will thank you, and with training, you'll get take photos and better case acceptance.
Blue Sky Bio's Digital Camera Kit
Also check out Blue Sky Bio's Olympus Kit
For $900, you get a camera, lens, diffuser, and pistol grip. It uses the same basic layout as the diVuser setup above. The "diffuser + close up filter" scheme has been used successfully for years by Photomed to turn point and shoot cameras into mini dental powerhouses.
I've talked to the head of Blue Sky Bio and he's a great dentist who cares about the needs of dentists. The whole company is dedicated to bringing top technology to dentists at lower prices. They offer $99 implants and free implant planning software.
What's the difference?
Compared to the Photomed Powershot kits, the Blue Sky Bio kit includes a sensor that is at least six sizes larger for less money. This is like getting four times more meat in the same size hamburger bun, and not beingcharged more for it. There are many ingredients to quality dental images, but the sensor size is the single largest determinant of value and form factor.
Compared to my own GX-85 kit, what I like about Olympus cameras is that they include a VERY powerful pop up flash. It's certainly more powerful than my Panasonic GX-85 or even my mighty Canon 7D. That power is what enables them to sell you a camera without the traditional ring flash. The diffuser spreads out the light beautifully. With my setup, you have to buy an additional $230 flash. That flash enables video shooting and many cool flash bounce tricks, but most offices won't use them. The Olympus E-PL8 included in Blue Sky Bio's kit is very fast, very small and very light. It's a great little camera. I wouldn't hesitate to take it around the world with me.
To meet the lower price, they used a close up filter on the standard 14-42mm kit lens. The $50 close up filter is much less expensive than the $500 macro lens, and for full arch shots, it's still takes very good pictures. It's light, fast, and very team member friendly. For most general and ortho offices, this would be a fine addition. I like Olympus color tones better than Panasonic for the most part. Image sharpness will be comparable amongst most micro four thirds cameras.
You may not be able to get close enough to take single crown shots. That said, the system is modular, and you can buy the Olympus 60mm macro lens when you're ready. Upgrading to a true macro lens would correct the main shortcoming of their kit. The usual street price of that lens is $500, but it has dropped to as low as $299 on Black Friday 2017.
You will also not be able to record 4k video. That's simply not a need for most dental offices, though if you wanted to 'weekend' the camera for family outings, that may be a consideration. On the plus side, the E-PL8 is a fantastic selfie camera :)
But the most significant feature missing from all affordable Olympus cameras is a custom preset mode. I picked the GX-85 because it is the least expensive interchangeable lens camera for sale in North America to include a custom preset. This is a "must have" for dental team members because it allows you to record all your dental settings into one spin of the mode dial. How many of you push the recline and lower buttons on your dental chair? Nope--most of us press the #1 button and it goes to the preset position. That's exactly what a dental camera should do. The Olympus cameras do recall the most recent manual exposure settings, but to me, that's not enough. All it takes is one errant finger swipe of a setting wheel, and your images are off. Then your team member has to troubleshoot why the camera isn't working right. Often, the images will look "good enough" on the rear screen, and the patient is dismissed before you realize the settings were incorrect. And that's when they fall back to no photos at all. You can train your staff to know the shutter speed, f/stop, ISO, and color balance settings, but with the GX-85, all I have to tell my team is "turn it to C1" for dental and "Turn it to Auto" for head shots. That's all they have to know.
I would still recommend the Olympus E-PL series (I have owned and enjoyed one version or another for 5+ years), just not as fully as other cameras because of the lack of a custom preset.
The sweet spot of Nikon's lineup is the D7500. It's considered a "prosumer" camera because it straddles the line between the consumer D3000 and D3500 series below it and the pro level D500 above it. The body sells for $1250. If that is above your budget, the basic image quality of the D3000 and D5000 cameras are more than sufficient for dentistry.
The D7500 has a custom preset mode, which allows you to record all your dental settings. You'll then have them available at the touch of the mode dial. The autofocus is fast, and the build quality is solid.
The recommended lens for this setup is the Nikkor 85mm f/3.5. It retails around $525.
Also consider the Tokina 100mm f/2.8, which is a great value at $300. Unfortunately, the autofocus won't work with D3000 and D5000 series cameras. Check the compatibility with your specific camera body before purchasing.
Crop frame bodies and 100mm lenses give a nice long working distance for dental photography. That makes them less intrusive to the patient, and makes the lighting more even, as well. However, that same crop sensor makes the lens have the field of view of 150-160mm. That's a long, long lens. So you end up having to be at 12 feet or more away from the patient to get a head and shoulders portrait. Find a long hallway :)
But the best reason to go Nikon isn't the body or the lens. It's the R1 flash. This is a wireless twin flash system. Because it's wireless, there are no dangling coiled cords, and no head unit on the camera's hot shoe. It's the cleanest looking flash system of the major brands. It also comes with two fantastic slanted diffusers. They make taking great anterior shots easy. Olympus has an STF-8 twin flash which is very good, but quite honestly, it can't compare to Nikon's R1. Neither can Canon's MT-24EX twin flashes, for that matter. Canon may be better in skin tones (matter of taste), but Nikon has everyone beaten for flash performance.
The main problem with a Nikon setup is mainly in the ergonomics of an SLR. I love shooting with SLR's for big assignments, weddings, evening events, and especially astrophotography. Large, beefy SLR's feel much more natural and balanced with big huge pro lenses. But in dentistry, having to shoot through an eye piece is tough when you wear loupes. The large size and weight make one hand operation difficult for many. (though they do have a more generous hand grip than the mirrorless cameras do) To me, one hand shooting is crucial for dental photography. You almost always need one hand steering a mirror or retractor. So while I love the shots I see out of Nikon's system, I just see no reason to buy an SLR for dental photography in 2018. Maybe there will be some earth shattering innovation, but we really haven't see anything in years from Nikon or Canon. All the growth and innovation are happening in mirrorless cameras. They have their disadvantages, too, but none of them are insurmountable.
If you want to be a master photographer, especially if you do sports or weddings, then an SLR is still king. If you want to enlarge your veneer shots to a full wall mural, a larger sensor SLR will give you a cleaner shot. SLR's are still very capable, but I think mirrorless is mature enough to take them on in the dental space. Particularly as a staff friendly way to take SLR-quality photos.
For dental photography mirrors, I've written a blog post here:
For lip and cheek retractors, I've written a blog post here: