Recommended Setups for Dental Photography
Panasonic Lumix GX9
Panasonic puts their latest color science, wireless transfer and 4k magic into a very small package.
Most faithful color I've seen out of a Panasonic.
Very fast autofocus
Custom memory for easy presets
Grip is a bit on the small side. (they sell an add on grip for $70)
No external microphone jack for video
Very short battery life. Spare batteries mandatory.
Panasonic GX-9 and GX-85 sample images
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 GX9 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.
The GX-9 retails for about $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.
In a few months of use, our main two complains are the short battery life and the small handle grip. You can buy an DMW-HGR2 external grip for about $60 to fix the grip. Two batteries and a USB charger can be had for $25 on Amazon. (affiliate link)
If you are serious about studio quality video, the GX-9 lacks a microphone jack--a deal breaker for most serious video. (you can record audio on a separate recorder, but I'll tell you that's an unnecessary headache with today's camera choices) Step up to the G9 or even GH5 if you are thinking about regularly filming video. The latter is a very very popular choice amongst professional videographers, yet the controls are largely as easy to use as an SLR.
Budget Pick: GX-85
At $600, the GX-85 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 (including the E-PL8 in the Blue Sky Bio kit) 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 (and it's bigger Panasonic brothers GX9, G9, and GH5), 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.
GX-85 vs GX-9
At first blush, the GX-85 looks 95% the same on the outside as the GX-9, because it largely uses the same chassis, same battery, and same general layout. Some key differences:
1) 20mp sensor on GX-9 vs 16mp on GX-85- this isn't a noticeable resolution upgrade
2) Color accuracy. This is the biggest difference, and for the more discerning, worth the difference all by itself. The GX-85 has oversaturated reds. GX-9 renders colors more faithfully.
3) manual focus switch on GX-9 - for those taught the classic push pull manual focus technique, this is a huge quality of life upgrade
3) GX-9 adds electronic viewfinder with upward tilt - for old school photographers like me, this makes weekend photography much more fun
4) GX-9 adds 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. (Canon has added this to their M series and R series mirrorless cameras; I have not had a chance to test it)
Step Up Pick: Panasonic G9
The G9 is the Porsche 911 of the Panasonic lineup. It handles, focuses, and shoots so fast, you think you're cheating.
At $1699, it was just too expensive to recommend over the GX9. But Panasonic recently dropped the body-only price to a more reasonable $1299. At that price, the G9 is a superior camera in almost every regard. More durable, water resistant body, micrphone jack, triple the battery life, faster, and on and on.
The only real downside is that it's basically the size of a smallish SLR. You still get the smaller lens and smaller flash, but you are not saving any weight or size from a crop frame SLR body. The total setup will be about 20 to 40 percent lighter than an SLR.
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. Lowest price observed was between Black Friday and Christmas.
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
EDIT: 8/21/2018 - if you use f/8 and ISO 800, the pop up flash on the GX-85 and GX-9 are sufficient to use the Divuser. You will have much less margin of error on focusing, but you don't have to use the FL-200L flash. I've been shooting with just the pop up for a week and the results have been much better than expected. I still get more consistent results with the FL-200L flash installed.
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 could use it in optical slave mode, but you'd have to set the flash exposure for each shot.
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.
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-9 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-9 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 adds LED for 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 $400 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. You will get better build quality (with it usually longevity and durability) a brighter viewfinder, faster controls, and faster autofocus with the D7000 series cameras over the lower lines.
The D7200 is the immediate predecessor to the D7500. It is sold for considerably less money. There are no significant differences as far as dental photography is concerned. You may even find some very good used deals if you do your due diligence.
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.
I grew up in Canon cameras. They were really innovating in the 2000's, so I bought the 10D, 20D, 40D, 60D, 6D....yes, I was a huge Canon fan. Some of my mentors love their color science. After playing with so many brands, I've noticed that Canon is not advancing at the same rate as their competitors. They are the prohibitive market share leader, and their corporate culture is very conservative. So the innovation in the camera space has come largely outside of Canon the last few years.
As of this writing, I'd rather have a Panasonic first for dental photography. The new generation I feel has the compactness, speed and color accuracy we need in the field. But there are those who have Canon components or perhaps love the very warm Canon "look." It's great for pale skin tones, but it can make certain people look jaundiced. Most portrait retouchers seem to cool down the Canon tones and warm up the Nikon tones. Most dentists just want an accurate image out of the box. I no longer feel Canon is the best brand for that.
But if you must have a Canon setup, I'd recommend the Canon 80D because it's the least expesnive one with a custom preset. It also has a very good video mode. The step up body would be the Canon 6D Mark II, but it adds nothing a dentist would need. I have recently purchased one on deep discount for vlogging, and it is better than I thought it would be. The recommended lens for Canon would be the $500-ish 100mm USM macro lens. The 60mm is too short on working distance for me. The L version 100mm is what I own, and it's very good, but the image stabilization isn't useful for everyday dental flash photos, and most of us aren't shooting video with this lens. So most of us can save the money and get the $500-ish Canon 100mm IS macro lens.
If you are just shooting for ortho and don't care how flat your images look, the MR-14EX flash works fine. I hate ring lights with a passion, but I realize that's my personal preference and ignorant and/or old fashioned dental photographers like them. If you want to make your images have more depth and less glare, get the MT-24EX twin flashes. Finally, I haven't tried the Yongnuo knock off flashes, but they do offer twin and ring flashes. I've had some colleagues use them with success.
But What About....
Sony - big len$$$$, no native macro flash
I probably own more Sony cameras than any other brand besides Panasonic. But I have not been able to sustain dental use for them. Sony lacks an affordable, company macro lens. They have giant, heavy $900-$1600 macro lenses at 100mm, and a waaaaaaayy too short little 30mm macro lens. Remember, Canon, Nikon, and Olympus/Panasonic all have a good or great $400 macro lens offerings that work perfectly for dentistry.
There's also no native macro ring or twin flash. Some of us want the image quality of a large, heavy 100mm lens, but I don't want it mounted on Sony's tiny little hand grips. It's a hand balance issue they still struggle with on older models. I hear the mark III A7 bodies have a better grip, but they are $2000 and up, which is more than most dentists are willing to spend. The A6000 series might work, but again, the lens expense is a huge deterrent. I know people like the Metz ring flash (I don't) because it works with lots of brands, but as an instructor, I need to know there's a screw in, plug and play option for a camera system before recommending it.
I love Sony for my family pictures on the weekends, but my Sony kit stays at home.
If you absolutely insist on using your Sony body, you can adapt Canon or Nikon macro lenses you already own to, via a Metabones adaptor with autofocus. Mine was pricey, but it does work. I've gotten my Canon MR-14EX and MT-24EX to work with my Sony A7ii successfully, albeit in manual mode. There's a roundabout way to get TTL working with Cactus or Godox trigger systems, but it would look ridiculous in a macro flash rig.
Fuji - great lens lineup, but no native macro flash
Fuji has some really stylish camera bodies that feel great in the hand. As someone who grew up in film photography, I <3 the anaog style dials everywhere. the 80mm macro lens (120mm equivalent) is stellar looking, but the $1200 price is probably too much for most. Remember, Canon, Nikon, and Olympus/Panasonic all have a good or great $400 macro lens offering that works perfectly for dentistry. And there's still no native macro flash offerings. Again, beginners need plug and play macro options, and most want a ring flash (yuck) or twin flash. No love with Fuji, but you may be able to use a Metz ring flash wirelessly, or perhaps a Canon or Nikon macro flash in manual power mode.
For dental photography mirrors, I've written a blog post here:
For lip and cheek retractors, I've written a blog post here: