Back Button Focusing – Easier than you think!

In Features by Jim Harmer198 Comments

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!

Subscribe to Improve Photography TV on Youtube!

 

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About the Author

Jim Harmer

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Jim Harmer is the founder of Improve Photography, and host of the popular Improve Photography Podcast. More than a million photographers follow him on social media, and he has been listed at #35 in rankings of the most popular photographers in the world. Jim travels the world to shoot with readers of Improve Photography in his series of free photography workshops. See his portfolio here.

Comments

  1. I’ve changed back to release button focus. I thought my camera had back focus problems and got a focus calibration chart to test it properly. I found out that focus seems to be intermitent with Nikon D3200 and concluded that I really don’t want to be trapped into the faster is better deception. I returned to how it was built and it is working fine now. The Nikon isn’t anywhere near as good as my Fujifilm Xpro1 which is light years ahead in every way imho. Focusing the ‘normal’ way isn’t as inconvenient as trying to use a polarising filter on a twin lens reflex (that’s a hoot!) so I think ordinary focusing is ok. If you’re a profesional photographer it’s fine but for a hobby, for me anyway, I slow down on purpose so I can say ” the roses smelled good too” instead of “smell them? I haven’t got time for that!”.

  2. none of this is rocket science, most people that tell you how to switch to bbf . do a poor job of explaning it , i been using it for years , since the D90 nikon first came out . a have two of them and thats the only mode they have been in i take about 3000 photoes with each one of them a year , i havent found the reason to ever change back to tickling the shutter . if there is one i havent found the need to yet . i take a lot of BIF and other moving shots , horses cars , ball games hockey foot ball kids parties etc . it took me one hour shooting this way. and it was all i needed , i never looked back . just do it , it may take you a whole day shooting bbf.
    to get it down pat . but you wont be sorry , i get at least triple my keepers of B.I.F birds in flight . from bald eagles .

    it really boggles my mind how some people find this hard , i will be 76 this month and i have I.B.M. Google it this way

    I.B.M. (diesese)

  3. Thanks for the advice! I have tried it with my D7000 and separate focusing with back button feels more natural for me.

  4. Hai I am Vishwa from Sri Lanka,
    could you please cdvice me whether to buy !DX Mk11 or 5D Mk iv for predominantly wild life shooting and for street photographhy.
    I will be using 2.8 40-80 zoom and 2.8 300mm tele with 2x converter (when needed)

  5. So I’m guessing this option is not available on the Canon Rebel T5i? No mention or listing how to set up.

  6. I had to reset my Nikon D800 settings just before a family wedding this afternoon and lost my back button focus, which I’ve depended on for several years. Couldn’t figure out how to set it again, even though I found the whole 800-page Nikon manual online. Keep Goggling and found your tutorial. Voila. I was back in business minutes before they exchanged their vows. A million thanks.

  7. I’m just going to have to try it because the explanation and examples given don’t help me…and I am someone who DOES use the AE-L and AF-L buttons – they are intuitive! In fact your description of why to use back-button AF in the portrait example seems to be the same reason one would use AF-L!

  8. Hello, great article!
    I tried to put the settings in my Nikon D5500 to allow the autofocus a1, but the camera says “This option is not available in the current settings or in the current state”. What do I do?

  9. Been looking for this trick for a long time..thank you sir for the great sharing.

  10. I set my D7100 to back button focus to give it a try, but I find it really difficult to use. I’m a wheelchair user and have little core control, and when I move my thumb to the AE-L/AF-L button my grip on the camera is not as good and I get lots of shake/movement. I’d like to change back, but I can’t find details anywhere on how to set your focus back to the shutter release button. Could anyone help please?

  11. Remember, Nikon shooters, if you use AF-ON, your lens may NOT engage VR. I have checked the manuals of several of my lenses, and they explicitly say that use of the AF-ON button disengages VR. I suspect this applies to ALL Nikkor VR lenses.
    The ONLY way to engage VR on Nikon DSLRs is through half-press of the release button.

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