Understanding The Learning Curve in Dental Photography: A Reality Check

by Shadi Samawi

DSLR ?

A £5,000 professional DSLR doesn’t turn you into an award-winning photographer. It just turns you into the owner of a £5,000 professional DLSR.”

In this blog post, I would like to highlight what I believe to be an important issue related to some clinical dental photography courses and workshops that I have come across during my years of practicing, researching and writing the previous two editions of my clinical photography eBooks as well as presenting lectures and my own hands-on photography courses for both specialists and general practitioners alike.

The Problem

The issue at hand is related to the problem of over-complexity; the tendency to over-complicate relatively simple guidelines into something that is quite frustrating, especially for the first-time dental practitioner who is really only looking for some guidance on learning how to achieve good clinical photos for proper, standardized record-taking and documentation.

From personal experience, my personal observation is that many practitioners attending my lectures and workshops and reading my eBooks fall into that category of being clinical photography “beginners”. Some have more advanced knowledge and experience than others but most are looking to upgrade their basic clinical photography knowledge and skills in order to be able to utilize those skills for proper clinical record-taking or for practice marketing purposes. When examining the outlines of many clinical photography courses that come my way – online or otherwise – I notice much over-emphasis on equipment and buying the latest and greatest camera bodies (with current advancements in the field of digital photography, there is no such thing as a bad DSLR!), or jumping into explanations on how to use professional photography setups and studio equipment with off-camera flashes, soft boxes and various reflectors, etc.. as well as instructions on how to pose patients and direct the lighting and on and on…the list goes on with complex instructions and recommendations for expensive equipment that even seasoned professional photographers may not have acquired over their years of experience!

A “Workshop Design” Problem?

It seems that the design of such workshops ignores the simple fact that most of the audience are beginners who are interested in getting a START in dental photography, and not worried – yet – about complex lighting techniques that only professional photographers use and require! Discussions about RAW file handling and post-processing are actually overwhelming to a beginner in photography with limited knowledge – in most cases – about the terminology and differences between various image file types – they are all images, aren’t they??.. comes the question. Many courses also seem to under-emphasize the learning curve needed for beginners, expecting them to buy expensive and multiple complex accessories and equipment, right from the start, to get the job done right (which is, by the way, not the case at all.) From personal experience, I can confidently say that such an approach almost always ends up in frustration and abandoning the entire idea of clinical photography for many people, simply because a high-spec camera doesn’t make you a highly skilled photographer, and a highly skilled photographer doesn’t need a high-spec camera.

The Recommended ApproachA Short Guide to Clinical Digital Photography in Orthodontics - 2011 - Shadi Samawi

The first step – which I try to apply in the design of my own clinical photography courses – is to always make sure the practitioner gets a good grasp of simple, general photography basics, as well as basic understanding of how photographic equipment work (and appreciating the primacy of a high quality macro lens and twin (ring) flash lighting over the size, price and complexity of their DSLR!). This basic knowledge is then followed by explanations of principles specific to clinical photographic situations, and then clinical demos with as much as possible hands-on practice.  Once those basics and skills are mastered, one can move on to more advanced aspects such as more complex equipment and lighting setups, if desired.

The fact of the matter is that for most dental practitioners, they come to these workshops in search of a simple, efficient and reproducible method for achieving high quality clinical photographs, with the minimum fuss and interruption to their schedule and daily routine. Of course, I would highly encourage everyone to try and go beyond that level later, should they feel the need to do so.

If you are looking to start with clinical dental photography, you can easily be sidetracked by your lust for the latest and greatest technology that you lose focus on the important stuff. At first, Keep it simple, learn the basics of good clinical photography, then gradually move on from there as your level of expertise improves and your clinical needs dictate.

“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” ― Confucius