Portraits are an important part of dental photography so that you can see the full impact of the smile. There are about a million ways to create dramatic lighting with moody shadows but in our everyday clinical dental photography we want uniform lighting without shadows.

Over the years I've spent thousands of dollars on flashes, softboxes and beauty dishes. On top of the financial burden, I've always fumbled with storing all of this stuff in my small office. Don't worry, you don't need to spend a ton of money like I did. You can take a beautiful portrait with minimal space and a small budget.

Side-by-side comparison of patient dental photography.

What you need

You may already have a high-quality DSLR camera. All you need now is a speedlight, which should cost you less than $350.

I use the Nikon SB-700 AF Speedlight. You'll need to buy a speedlight that is compatible with your camera and the i-TTL system for automatic metering. This tells the camera to decide how much light you need based on your environment.

Light 101

Harsh, direct light is ugly. Beautiful portraits are made with diffuse, soft light. This is why most portrait photography is done with softboxes which diffuse light to make it softer, or more flattering.

Think of light like a bucket of water. You don't want to throw the bucket of water directly at the patient's face (direct light). Direct light looks harsh. Instead, you want the light to softly sprinkle across the patient's face while still providing enough light so that the photo isn't too dark. Think about it like you're throwing water at the ceiling and letting it fall.

With this technique, you're going to “bounce” the light off the ceiling by pointing the flash towards the ceiling. This splashes the light off the ceiling so that it falls on your subject softly, instead of throwing the light directly at their face.

Make sure you are in the same room as your patient and your ceilings aren't too high. You can't have your patient in a room and stand in the hallway because the light won't make it to them. Also make sure your ceilings aren't dark or they will absorb the light.

A typical dental patient mugshot photo with no supplemental flash, using the camera's pop up auto flash.
Figure 2: A typical mugshot with no supplemental flash, using the camera's pop up auto flash
Example of a dental patient portrait with harsh light due to the speedlight pointed directly at patient.
Figure 3: Direct/harsh light with speedlight pointed directly at patient (notice the ugly shadow behind her and the less-than-flattering light on her face).
Example of dental patient photography using a softbox.
Figures 4 and 5: Softbox photography (requires twice as much space plus storage).
Example of dental patient portrait with speedlight bounced off ceiling.
Figures 6 and 7: Speedlight bounced off ceiling (takes about half the space and can be used in any room with a wall as background - and look at all that extra room for activities!).

Patient positioning

People will naturally stand against the wall if you're going to take a picture of them. This creates an ugly shadow and makes your portrait look like a mugshot.

Make sure there is at least one foot between the back of their head and the wall. This ensures that the light sprinkles onto their face and the space behind them so that you avoid the weird shadow.

Comparison showing a patient positioned directly in front of a wall and two feet in front of the wall.
Figure 8: Patient positioned directly in front of a wall (left) and two feet in front of the wall (right).

While I still love to pull out the softboxes for a post-treatment glamour shoot, it's just not practical for my day to day dentistry. Nearly 95% of the portraits at my office are taken with the speedlight method.

Special thank you to Stephanie Brauer, Bernie Villadiego and Bill Moore, who have taught me everything I know about photography. And a special-special thank you to the most beautiful model and best dental assistant in the world, Adele Tafoya-Ecker.

Dawn Wehking, D.D.S., M.A.G.D., is a member of Spear Visiting Faculty and a contributor to Spear Digest.


Commenter's Profile Image Doug S.
January 17th, 2020
Thank you so much for posting this. I've already made a couple of changes to our protocol in the office.