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. Henry says

    Thanks for this article, Jim.

    Can you or someone comment on the issue of losing the focus when doing a focus-and-recompose (like you mention in example 1) like you are suggesting? Is that only an issue with shallow DOF and/or smaller focal lengths?

  2. Debbie says

    I have a canon 60d, so does that mean that i only have tp press the af on on the back od my camera and as long as i do not change positions or move fart her away, it will always stay focuswd on the subject, thanks so much for the info. I live in the far north and often tumes there are animals, sometimes they will get behind buildings or trees and i have to focus again. Thanks

  3. says

    I think I’m just not cut out for back button focus. I tried it for a few months and it felt awkward the entire time. I switched back and was much happier. I just do snapshots anyway-I am comfortable with my camera but I’m still a terrible photographer so bbf didn’t really help me.

  4. DerstructoTex says

    It’s definitely out of my comfort zone, but I think this article has convinced me to try it for awhile. After all, if I’m not willing to try new things, I’m not growing as a photographer or as an artist, right?

    Thanks for the gentle nudge, Jim.

  5. says

    3 Things,

    Once I became adjusted to using the AF button rather than the 1/2 press for focussing I fell in love with it and couldn’t imagine going back.

    One draw back is handing your camera off to someone else unfamiliar with this set up, if you forget to change the settings then you get a bunch of OOF pictures and a confused photographer.

    Jim, why don’t you get back to me about coming on the Camera Campus? :)

  6. says

    I applaud you for highlighting some features of using the AF-on button to focus. I am a big fan. Thank you.

    But I have a question. You mention it is easier to set up on a Nikon, then detail nearly the exact same process as on a Canon. Why would you suggest it is easier? I know on the 5DmIII it took me a few seconds to enable. Other cameras couldn’t have been much longer, though I can’t recall back that far.

    Also you don’t comment on, what I believe to be, the single best reason for back button focusing. So that you can use AI-servo (or continuous focus for Nikonians) when you hold the button down but have focus locked if you let go. I.e. you get the effect of single shot focus once you let go of the button, but holding it down gives you full focus tracking. This way you never have to choose between the different focus modes (unless you shoot canon and use flash and want that red AF assist grid, but that is another story).

    Also, you allude to it but don’t quite nail it down, the other killer feature is that once you set focus and take your finger off the AF-on or * button (whatever its set to use) you don’t have to focus on every single shot anymore thus speeding up multi shot scenarios, low light shooting, tricky focus scenarios, etc. Not having to worry about focus changing every time you touch the shutter is a huge plus in my book.

    Again thanks for the intro into back button focus.

  7. says

    I discovered back button focus from Thom Hogan’s D700 tome,and love it. I’m intrigued by Matt’s comments on using it with Continuous Focus—could you elaborate? thanks.

  8. Anja McNeil says

    Ahh ha!! This could help explain why I´m having OOF issues. I have a Canon Mark II and am new at this….

    How do I know if the AF-ON function is activated or not? When I press the button nothing seems to change and I don´t see any indiacators on display panels. I have the feeling that it´s on though as my shots have been out of focus these last few days.

    Any help/info would be greatly appreciated.

  9. says

    Back button focusing has saved so many images since I started using it years ago from bad focus errors for me. I recommend this whenever bad focusing is brought up especially when zoom lenses are used.

  10. Lisa says

    Help I have a 450D (prequel too 600D) do i have these options, Ive been trawlling my cameras functions, but no joy. Thanks

  11. Rebecca says

    Any advice for a cannon powershot sx30is user? I’m still learning the camera. Not a techical person at all.

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