Back Button Focusing – Easier than you think!

Great photography tip on back button focusing for sharper photos

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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.

Comments from the I.P. Community

  1. says

    Couldn’t you just leave your camera on manual focus? Is there an advantage of using this technique over manual focus?

  2. Philip Holloway says

    In answer to Ren. If you use back button focus you can leave your finger on the focus button when in servo mode and it’ll automatically tracks the subject but if you take your finger off you then have instant manual focus. Also if you’re doing macro work you can just focus with the lens and not have two keep changing your camera from autofocuse to manual focus.

  3. says

    Great aarticle! Thanks for the cheatsheet on setting Nikon aand Canon cameras for this feature. I tell all my students about this focusing option. I set my wife’s camera to use the AF-ON button, she gets less photos of branches. She feels like she has much better control. See I am right once in a while!

  4. Steve says

    I’ve been using this approach for a while now, and I find that it is very convenient.

    I set the AE-L/AF-L button as you suggested, and leave focus on Continuous focus. As long as I have the button pressed it focuses, when I release it it stops.

  5. Malissa B says

    Ohhhhh, thank you so much! I have been reading about back focusing but couldn’t figure it out on my d7000! Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  6. says

    Very timely article. I’ve switched to back-button focus lately but really have not figured out the options for the button, and the manual says practically nothing. I don’t know the difference between:

    Metering Start
    Meter & AF Start

    My understanding is I should be able to use the shutter-halfway-down for metering, and the AF-ON button for focusing only. But I don’t see anything that looks like focusing only. Help?

  7. says

    Wow! that’s a really very intersting article.
    I always wonder what that button do but I never figure out. I can’t wait to use the back-button.
    Thank you very much for such a good article!

  8. says

    i guess, its now almost an year I switched to back button focusing on my Canon 500D, now I don’t feel like returning to normal focusing by any chance. Of course in the start it took me quit a deal to get used to it, but I always thought of the advantages of clear focus when I felt returning to old ways. Now I m really used to it, its fun to use, feels like pro and plus your images come tack sharp focused.

    there is one more advantage in this type of focusing, you can set the focus in a group shoot and ask someone else to take the camera and click without worrying about the focus, bcoz its already set.

    anyone who has used a decent DSLR camera at-least for some time I would suggest to give back button focusing a try…

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