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.

Before you run off, I want to share with you some of my very best Youtube videos.  These are all on-location videos where you can see how I'm using the color in sunsets, choosing my compositions, etc.  Enjoy, and don't forget to hit subscribe so you can see my future Youtube vids!

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210 thoughts on “Back Button Focusing – Easier than you think!”

    1. hi there! I’ve been using canon 7d for 4 years already and I really loved it’s double AF point back button feature. That means that you can assign a certain AF point to focus on when you press the (*) button and the other regular AF point that you can change anytime is activated when you press the AF-ON button. for example, you want to focus the upper right most AF point, just press the (*) button. and if you want to focus the upper left most AF point, just press the AF-ON button which is really a great and fast thing to do when you frequently shift from one AF point to the other that you used most of the time. is this feature also available in Canon 5D Mark II? am asking this because i bought my friend’s 5d mkii but i can’t find the feature i mentioned above. back button focusing in 5d mkii still possible but with only one settable AF point. is it possible to have 2 AF points instead?

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

    1. Manual focus has nothing whatsoever to do with this. This is how to set with auto focus pre-shot using the built in focusing mechanism.

      1. Not necessarily true. With many AF cameras, you can set the camera (via S/C/M button) to manual focus but use the back-button AFL to auto focus while in manual focus mode. If you need to use the half-shutter autofocus (like handing your camera to a stranger), just take it off manual to single-servo mode.

  2. Philip Holloway

    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. 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. 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.

    1. I do the same thing with both my Nikon D7100 and D500 with the back button. When I am photographing flying birds I am with the back button and in continuous focus. When I am photographing some animals staying in one spot I am with the back button, single focus, and get good shots while they stay in that spot.

  5. 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. great article.. would you know if sony cameras have this feature ( I own the A-350) thanks 🙂

  7. 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?

  8. 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!

  9. 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…

  10. 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?

  11. 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

  12. 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.

  13. DerstructoTex

    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.

  14. 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? 🙂

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