Back Button Focusing – Easier than you think!

Great photography tip on back button focusing for sharper photos

I made this graphic so it is convenient for you to pin this on Pinterest if you’d like. Put your mouse over the picture and click the “Pin it” button.

One of the most frequent questions I have received in the last month has been about back button focus and how to use it on Canon and Nikon DSLR cameras.  In this article you’ll learn what back button focusing is, and how to back button focus for Canon and Nikon cameras.

What is back button focusing?

The camera usually focuses when the shutter button is pressed half way down, and then the photographer takes the picture when the button is pressed in fully.  Back button autfocus makes it so the shutter button doesn’t control the focus activation at all, but instead assigns another button on the back of the camera (hence the name) to activate focusing on the camera.

What is the purpose of back button focus?

The best way to explain the benefits of back button focusing is through two examples.

Example number one

First, suppose you are shooting portraits.  The person who you are shooting is standing still and you want to take several different shots of the person.  You take your first shot, and then change your composition and need to move your focus point to be on the person’s eye.  If your camera has 40+ focus points like many DSLRs do, you have to use the four-way selector to tediously move the focus point to the correct spot, focus, and then take the photo.  How annoying!

You can use back button focusing to solve this problem because the distance between the photographer and the subject stays the same between both shots, but the composition changes.  With back button focusing, the photographer activates focus for the first shot, and then is able to recompose infinite times as long as the distance between the camera and the subject remains exactly the same.

You’ll note that there are other ways to solve this problem, such as focus and recompose (equally tedious, but sometimes it’s your best bet), or holding the AF-L, AE-L button, but that is just plain annoying.  Back button focusing is superior in this instance as long as the photographer is careful not to change the distance between the camera and the subject (which would throw off the focus) when using shallow depth-of-field.

Example number two

While I was shooting wildlife in Yellowstone earlier this year (read about that trip here), I came amazingly close to a pack of wolves one morning (well, close as in it filled the frame with a giant 800mm lens… I wasn’t THAT close…)  and I shot as fast and furious as possible as the famous Alpha 06 wolf played in the snow in front of me.

Just as I was shooting madly, another photographer scooted too close in front of me and my 800mm lens began to focus on the photographer’s shoulder!  Focus on such a long lens can be somewhat slow, and by the time I readjusted my heavy tripod and lens, the wolf was running away and all I got was butt shots.

In the same situation, back button focus could have saved me.  When the photographer’s shoulder appeared in the frame, my focus would have been locked on the wolf still and I could have shot to the side of the photographer and still got sharp shots as soon as I shewed him out of the frame.  Instead, I had to find focus again in low light with a plain white field of snow in front of me (meaning focus was tough to acquire).

Tutorial: Back Button Focus for Canon

Canon was the first camera manufacturer to implement back button focus in 1989 and has put the feature in all DSLR models made in the last 8 or 9 years (yes, even the Canon Rebel XT and XTi).

In the Canon camera menu, you’ll look for an option called “Shutter/AE Lock Button” and then in that menu you’ll see a whole host of options.  The one you’re looking for is called “Metering Start / Meter + AF Start.”  Could they have possibly made that any more confusing for us photographers?  No… I think not.

The following is a cheat sheet from the Canon Learning center where you’ll find the menu option on your Canon camera to set up back button focus.  If your camera isn’t listed here, just poke around a bit and I’m sure you’ll find it easy enough.

EOS Rebel T3: C.Fn 7 (option 1 or 3)
EOS Rebel T3i: C.Fn 9 (option 1 or 3)
EOS 50D: C.Fn IV-1 (option 2 or 3)
EOS 60D: C.Fn IV-1 (option 1, 2, 3, or 4)
EOS 7D: C.Fn IV-1 (Custom Controls — Shutter, AF-ON, AEL buttons)
EOS 5D Mark II: C.Fn IV-1 (option 2 or 3)
EOS-1Ds Mark III: C.Fn IV-1 (option 2 or 3)
EOS-1D Mark IV: C.Fn IV-1 (option 2 or 3)

More advanced Canon cameras have a dedicated button on the back of the camera that will be the button used to activate the focus on the camera, and other Canon cameras (such as Canon Rebels, Canon 60D, etc) will use the AF-L, AE-L button as the button that will activate focus after this option is selected.

how to back button focus your DSLR camera

Some advanced cameras (for both Canon and Nikon) like the 5D Mark III and the Nikon D800 have a dedicated button for AF-On. Other cameras (like a D7000 or a Canon Rebel) allow the photographer to program the AE-L, AF-L button to work for back button focusing.

Tutorial: Back Button Focus for Nikon

On a Nikon camera, it is a bit easier to set up back button focusing than it is on a Canon, but you still have to know exactly what to look for.

There are dozens and dozens of Nikon model DSLR cameras, so I can’t go through each of them, but if you follow one of the tutorials below for a similar camera to your model, I’m sure you’ll get it set up easy enough.

Back Button Focus on a Nikon D7000

1) You need to assign the AE-L, AF-L button (yes, that button that you’ve never used before and always wondered what it does) on the back of the camera to be AF-On. To do this, go to your camera menu and look in the custom setting menu (the pencil).  In the custom setting menu, go to Controls, and then choose F5 “Assign AE-L/AF-L button.”  Within this menu, choose “AF-On.”
2) Now you need to set up the camera so it will take a picture even when focus has not been achieved.  This is preferable in most situations because you may have focused and recomposed the shot.  To do this, go to your Custom Setting Menu and choose Autofocus.  Within this menu, select A1 “AF-C priority selection” and set it to “release.”  Then set AF-S priority selection to “release” as well.

Back Button Focus on a Nikon D3100, D3200, or a D5100

Check out this video tutorial that explains step-by-step how to do it.

Should all photographers use back button focus?

Definitely not!  If you’re not yet 100% comfortable with operating your camera or if you don’t quite understand how focus works, then head for the hills, hide yourself in the corner, and grab a teddy bear for protection.  Back button focusing will only make using your camera more complicated–which is why camera manufacturers for decades have used the half-press shutter method of focusing.

If, however, you’re a confident photographer and you’re ready to try an advanced technique that can definitely improve your focus in some situations, then meet back button focus.

I thought back focus was a bad thing!

Back focus and back button focusing are two very different things.  Back focus is when the lens focuses behind the intended target, and back button focusing is a technique used by advanced photographers to focus by separating the focus and shutter activation of the shutter button.


  1. Keith R. Starkey

    It is worth noting that with the D3200 (and, I would suspect, for other cameras as well), the exposure setting is still set via the shutter release button. Prior to setting the camera to back focusing, both focus and exposure are activated when pressing the shutter release button half way down. After moving the focus from the shutter release button to a back button, the exposure is still set by the shutter release button.

    So you want to be aware that just because you’re focused, having pressed the back focus button, you still have to allow the camera to set the exposure by pressing the shutter release button half way down until you have it where you the exposure where you want it.

    1. Kathy White

      Just want to clarify something…I have a Nikon D3200 and followed the instructions for assigning the AE-L/AF-L button to “on.” Does the Shutter-release button need to be turned to “off?” Please advise. Thanks!

    2. David

      As soon as you press the back button to acquire focus, the camera set the exposure. You don’t need to half press the shutter.

  2. Natalie

    Hello! Thank you for this demo. I have a Nikon D3100. Following your tutorial, I set up the back button focus. The initial few shots of my in-focus subject worked. However, when I changed composition – shift the camera up, down sideways etc to get a different view – the shutter does not release, even though I’m still the same distance away from my subject. Inconvenient and potentially disastrous! What is going wrong with the camera (or photographer)? :)

    1. Abbas

      Hi Natalie,
      This seems to be a problem with the entry level Nikon DSLRs. I myself have a D5100 which has the same limitation.

      Seems like you’re most probably in the AF-S focusing mode where the camera will fire only when the scene is in focus. Basically in this mode, the camera only holds focus as long as you’re pressing the AF-on button. So when you’ve focused, I’m assuming you release the AS-on button and recompose, so now the scene “under” the active focus point is now out of focus and the shutter will not release when the scene is out of focus. If you want to recompose, you’ll have to hold down the AF-On button when recomposing…

      If you’re in AF-C mode, the camera will fire even when you recompose…

      Hope it makes sense.

      1. Steve

        Right,but when you are in bbf you have best of both worlds (s and c). Press once and release when you want single focus hold the back button down for continuous. Set it to continuous first of course ;-)

  3. Claude B.

    Interesting, but where are your answers to the multiple problems posted here?

  4. SongYong Oh

    This function is really I needed.
    Canon 5D Mark III has AF-On button back there, but I don’t know what this button for.
    So I was set another function for that button… I corrected now :-P

    Thank you so much!!

  5. Lowell Schechter

    I have a Nikon D7000 and the AEL/ AFL button on the back of the camera is a bit close to the Viewfinder and I find it not very comfortable to use as a back focus alternative to the shutter button, so I just use the shutter button to focus..

  6. Eric Schurr

    I have a Nikon D750 and I use BBF. but does it work the same way in live view? My initial experience is that it does not

  7. Philip King

    Thank you! I love the way you write. Most entertaining as well as informative.

  8. Ruth

    Thank you so very much, very informative.! I have been try to find out for quite some time now how to use the back button as I like to try and get birds in flight. I have been lucky some times but most times very disappointed. I haven’t been out yet to see what I can do with the back button focus as yet but am looking foreword to trying it out.

  9. Uygar

    Nikon preferes to put its back focus button way TOO close to the viewfinder,which is hard to use.I have D7000 and D7100 is the same.I wish we could have set another button for this.
    By the way I have a question;I know what DOF preview button does,but does it really works?Cause I tried it but saw no difference.

  10. Anne Brooks

    Hi, I have the d750. If I want to focus and recompose, and I back button focus, how do I do that? I don’t see “release.” Thanks!

  11. Stephanie Petersen

    Question on the Nikon D3200, I see where the comment states that the shutter button still needs to be pressed half way down for Exposure. But can’t you set the AE-L/AF-L button to AE and AF BOTH, and would that not allow the back button to both meter for exposure and focus?

Leave a Comment

Powered by sweet Captcha