Sometimes when I post a photo on my social media channels I’ll include the EXIF data and comment that the photo was captured using back button focus. This usually prompts a question or two from people who want to know why you would use this technique, and how to set it up on their camera.
In this article, we’re going to take a deep dive into this topic and examine the problem with the standard half-press focus method, and the pros and cons of using back button focus instead.
When I first discovered this technique it really helped to improve my photography, but the funny thing is that at the time I just started doing it “because all the pros do it”, rather than having a solid understanding of why you might want to do it. Though my approach at the time was misguided and full of youthful impatience, I had nonetheless stumbled upon a setting in my camera’s menu that had the power to both improve the sharpness and the composition of my photos.
Table of Contents
- What is Back Button Focus
- How Does Back Button Focus Work?
- Why Use Back Button Focus?
- Compositional Flexibility
- Easier Tripod Shooting For Landscapes
- Manual Focus Override For Complex Foregrounds
- Pre-Focus Technique For “Must Not Miss” Moments
- Focus Consistency for Panoramas
- Improved Accuracy In Tough Lighting Conditions
- Remote Cameras
- Liveview Accuracy
- Macro Photography and Focus Stacking
- Improved Portrait Moments
- Faster AF Mode Switching
- Can Your Camera do Back Button Focus
- How to Set up Back Button Focus
- Dual Back Button Focus
- Is Back Button Focus for Everyone?
What Is Back Button Focus?
Most people are used to the default behaviour of all cameras: Give the shutter button a half-press to focus on the subject, and then fully depress the button when they are ready to take the shot.
With back button focus, you separate the two functions of focusing and taking the photo. Autofocus is assigned to a button on the back of the camera, and the shutter button simply takes the shot.
How Does Back Button Focus Work?
If you have single-shot autofocus selected as your AF method, pressing the back button will focus once, just like a half-press of the shutter button before. It doesn’t matter whether you press the back button and release it, or continue to hold down the back button, it will only focus once on the selected AF area.
If you have some kind of continuous focus mode selected (AI Servo, Continuous AF – name depends on the brand you are using), the autofocus will start when you press the back button, and it will stop as soon as you release the button. In other words, you have to hold the back button down while you are tracking a moving subject, for autofocus to stay engaged. It is not a press once to engage, press once again to disengage, system.
Why Should You Use Back Button Focus?
I’ve seen the sceptical look on people’s faces in my workshops when I tell them about this, so if it’s your first time hearing about the technique I can imagine you might feel a bit uncertain about it. On the face of it, pressing two buttons instead of one just sounds more complicated. Bear with me though, because there are many good reasons why the majority of professional photographers use this technique. In fact, I would bet that the vast majority of people who try this technique will never go back to the old half-press method afterwards, as long as they dedicate a necessary, but a small amount of time to adjusting to it.
Let’s look a few different scenarios where back button focus can save the day:
If you don’t use back button focus it can be easy to get stuck in a compositional rut. Yes, you can use the focus recompose method of putting the AF point on the subject, half-pressing the shutter button and recomposing the frame before you take the shot, but that’s tedious if you are really experimenting with a lot of different compositions of the same subject. You’ll be constantly swinging your camera back and forth, focussing and recomposing. You might not realize it, but it’s probably stifling your creativity and limiting your experimentation. Some people just give up entirely with the standard half-press focus recompose method and only end up composing images where the subject falls directly under one of the AF points. If you do this, you’re leaving so many compositional options on the table because the array of AF points only covers a small amount of the frame.
Providing your subject isn’t moving around too much, with back button focus you can focus just once with a single push of the back button. After that, as long as you don’t move from your position, thus maintaining the same subject-to-camera distance, you can rapidly alter the position of your subject within the frame and take multiple shots in quick succession. I test different compositions out all the time with this method, and in just a second or two you can capture a huge variety of compositions by simply moving your lens around and taking another shot, without needing to refocus at all. It simplifies the mechanics of the whole process and allows me to think more about the artistic side of things.
I find that this method not only promotes more overall compositional freedom and experimentation, but it also helps me perfect extremely tight compositions that are reliant on several different objects in the frame being in exactly the right place. If you are constantly having to make large camera movements to use the focus recompose technique, then you keep putting yourself back to square one with these difficult compositions. Since I’m using back button focus, I can focus once and then really concentrate on just making extremely small compositional changes in my viewfinder, sometimes shifting the camera just a single millimetre left and right to alter things.
Easier Tripod Shooting For Landscapes
For landscape photography, it’s vital that you focus on the right part of the scene so that the depth of field from your chosen aperture, delivers sharpness throughout all the most important elements of the landscape. When you work from a tripod, it makes constant focusing and recomposing even more tedious if you’re taking multiple photos and have the camera set up in the default half-press mode. Most people probably focus once on an element in their scene and then switch the lens to manual focus so that they can take multiple photos without the camera trying to refocus on a different part of the scene.
With back button focus, this isn’t a problem. Just place your AF point over the area in your scene where you want the plane of focus to fall, and press the focus button once. Now you can carefully position the camera using the head of your tripod, and press the shutter button whenever you like, without having to mess around with switching the lens to manual focus.
Manual Focus Override For Complex Foregrounds
If your subject is hidden behind a complex foreground element, the fastest way to get the shot is sometimes to forgo autofocus altogether and manually focus using the ring on the lens. If your camera is set up in the default half-press mode, this would require you to also change the focus switch on the lens from Auto to Manual, otherwise, the camera would refocus the lens when you go to press the shutter button.
With back button focus, that doesn’t happen because the camera doesn’t adjust the focus unless you press that back button. You can safely adjust the focus with the manual focus ring and then press the shutter button right away to get the shot. Not only does this save time, but it also ensures that you don’t forget your lens has been switched to manual mode, thus causing you to miss the focus on some piece of sudden and unexpected action.
Pre-Focus Technique For “Must Not Miss” Moments
This is a technique that is used by many professional sports photographers for situations that absolutely cannot be missed. I did this kind of work professionally for many years, and I would say that I used it for more than 75% of my action sports photography work. When the path or trajectory of someone is predictable, there’s really no need to be autofocusing when you take the shot at all.
Let’s take a look at a skier hitting this huge jump as an example. The skier’s path is entirely predictable to me, and I have positioned myself for a specific composition, knowing where the skier will be within the frame once he is in the air. I know the exact point at which I’m going to take the shot, for compositional balance, and I, therefore, know where the plane of focus needs to be, long before the skier has even begun to ski towards the jump.
If I already know where I want to be focussed, what is the point of adding to the complexity of the situation, and also adding a potential point of failure? What if the camera’s AF system decided to get confused by all the reflected light from the snow, and decided to hunt for focus at the exact moment I pressed the button?
That would be a disaster, and the shot would be blown! I have shot many action sports moments where the athlete has very clearly said to me “I’m only going to do this one time”, simply because they are often risking their lives. When you know you only have one shot at it, you need to think about removing all potential points of failure from the equation, and sometimes autofocus is one of them.
By having my camera set up with back button focus, I can pre-focus on the scene to place the plane of focus exactly where I know it needs to be, much like you would do for a landscape photo. Then, as the athlete passes into that plane of focus, I just press the shutter button and get the perfect, sharp shot. I don’t have to worry about the camera taking too long to acquire focus and missing the moment, nor do I have to worry about placing an autofocus point right on a rapidly moving, sometimes very small target. That in itself is a huge bonus because it means I can carefully frame the composition and keep the camera static, instead of panning with the action and just hoping that a balanced frame will be the result.
It’s worth underlining that this technique is the only reasonably reliable way of sharply capturing a rapidly moving subject that has been intentionally framed outside of the area that’s covered by your camera’s AF point array. The assumption for most beginners is that when any subject is moving, you must shoot in a continuous focus mode, and therefore be able to place at least one AF point over them within the frame. When the AF point arrays of some cameras only cover the central portion of the frame, this greatly reduces your compositional choices! However, by combining back button focus with the carefully planned pre-focus technique I just described, you would easily be able to place a moving subject at the far edge or corner of a frame, should it benefit the composition in some way.
With a large enough depth of field, this actually gives you more freedom than you might expect when working with slightly less predictable paths and trajectories. I have used this technique to photograph extreme skiing in Alaska, where all you really know is where an athlete will ski +- 100ft. If you’re working at a great distance, it’s quite possible to get a depth of field that will encompass 100ft, meaning you can use the back button to pre-focus on a mountainside ten minutes before the athlete skis down it, and still have confidence in your shot when they decide they are ready to drop into their line.
Focus Consistency for Panoramas
When capturing multiple photos to stitch together for a panorama, you need to make sure that the focus distance has been maintained for every shot otherwise the images won’t blend seamlessly. Once again, if your camera is still set up in the default half-press focus mode, you’ll be forced to mess around with changing the lens to manual focus mode when you need to take your shots for the panorama. If you don’t do that, your AF points will fall on objects at different distances for each photo, and your panorama will be ruined.
Back button focus solves this problem again. Just focus once with a press of that button, and then rotate yourself (or camera on a tripod) to capture your panoramic images. You can even take multiple sets of images to make sure you got everything you need, and you still won’t have to worry about focusing again as long as you didn’t significantly alter your own position. Assuming you are working with a small aperture and a very large depth of field, you still don’t need to refocus if you move a few feet back or forth, because that kind of small shift in a large depth of field won’t be noticeable. If you need to move left or right, no problem at all! The distance between you and a distant plane of focus isn’t going to change.
For example, if I focus on a point that is half a mile away to place my focal plane there, and then move myself 30ft to the left or right, that plane that I focussed on is still half a mile away so there is no need to refocus. When using back button focus, you just press the shutter button.
Improved Accuracy In Tough Lighting Conditions
Autofocus systems have certainly gotten better in the last few years, but it hasn’t been an exponential improvement by any means, and there are still times when poor lighting can confuse an AF system and cause it to hunt for focus. The most common occurrences are in extremely low light levels, and when the subject is backlit with a light source directly in the frame.
Assuming your subject isn’t moving around significantly, in these situations back button focus is preferable because you only need to acquire focus once, and then you can shoot a number of photos while effectively having your focus locked. Even if the subject is moving, as long as it’s a predicable path then we can combine this with the pre-focus technique that was mentioned in the previous section. The photo below is another good example because whilst the cars are moving fast, their path is perfectly predictable, almost to the inch.
Remote Cameras Need Back Button Too!
If you ever use a remotely triggered camera for sports or wildlife photography, you’ll want to make sure that the camera has back button focus enabled. You can’t see what the camera is seeing and you can’t just hope that the subject falls within the autofocus points. The only way to effectively work with a remotely triggered camera is to carefully compose the framing that you want for your shot, and then pre-focus the lens on the point where you want/hope your subject will be. With a camera set up for back button focus, the wireless remote control of the camera will not cause the camera to blindly try and refocus when you take a shot. With the camera pre-focused, you also don’t have to worry about the length of time it would take to acquire focus, and you can simply fire off the photo at the right instant.
Ultra Accurate Focus With Liveview
The invention of the live view function on cameras has allowed us to zoom in using the camera’s LCD screen, up to 20x on some cameras, to manually focus on extremely specific areas of the frame. Once again, back button focus technique means that after you have precisely focussed using live view on your LCD, you can simply press the shutter button to take the photo, without worrying about it refocussing and undoing all your hard work.\
Macro Photography and Focus Stacking
Macro photographers will often photograph the same object or scene multiple times whilst altering the plane of focus between shots. This series of shots, all focussed at slightly different distances into the frame, is then blended in Photoshop to simulate a deeper depth of field. Focus stacking requires extremely precise focusing, and will often combine the previously mentioned live view techniques with mechanical tools (focus rails) to allow repeatable results. This would have to be done with manual focus, but with a camera set up for back button focus, the photographer doesn’t need to make any changes at all before taking a shot.
Improved Portrait Moments
We’ve already covered some examples from the world of sports, wildlife and landscape photography, but the versatility of back button focus doesn’t stop there. If you’re a portrait photographer it can also be a help! Let’s imagine that you’re shooting a simple studio portrait of someone, and of course, you are concentrating hard on making sure that their eyes are in sharp focus. With the default half-press focus method this means you are either limiting your composition to having the eyes fall directly behind an AF point, or you are constantly employing the focus recompose method. I’ve seen a lot of people go with this second method, whilst using the usually faster and more accurate single, central AF point. The problem with this is that you are so fixated on constantly focussing and recomposing your framing, that you miss those brief moments of facial gesture and eye contact that can really make a portrait stand out.
When you use back button focus, if you instruct your subject not to step forward, backwards or sway their head around too much, you can get your focus with the back button and then just wait with your finger on the shutter button until you see that perfect moment though the viewfinder. When it happens, the photo can be instant and you’ve got your shot. Of course, if you are working with an extremely shallow depth of field in your portraits then this does have some limitations, but even then I’ve got a trick for you: Swaying! When your depth of field is incredibly shallow, ask your model to remain as still as possible, and then adjust your focus not by actually changing the focus of the lens at all, but by swaying back or forward in line with the model. Through your viewfinder, you will be able to see the shifting plane of focus, and when it intercepts with their eyes you know you can shoot. If you’re using back button focus, pressing that shutter button will just take the photo and your focus won’t be changed. This puts you in control a little more, and you aren’t constantly trying to second guess the mode’s movement.
Faster AF “Mode Switching”
In many ways, setting your camera up for continuous focus and then using back button focus is giving you the benefits of both a continuous focus mode and a single shot focus mode. When you need a continuous mode you just hold the AF-ON button down whilst tracking your subject, and when you need single-shot focus you briefly press the back button until focus is acquired. For many people, this will negate the need to constantly switch back and forth between those two AF modes using the buttons on the camera. More time saved and less fiddling with buttons between shots always makes the creative process easier.
Does Your Camera Have Back Button Focus?
Before we get started on this, we need to answer this important question. As far as I know, there isn’t a camera on the planet that comes with back button focus enabled by default, so it’s a feature that needs to be enabled in the menu. Setting it up requires the ability to alter the behaviour of the shutter button, and usually requires assigning at least one custom feature to a button on the back of your camera. Unfortunately, not all cameras allow that level of customization and that means that the back button focus technique isn’t available to everyone.
Camera manufacturers usually include the necessary level of customization in at least the top four tiers of their camera lineups, but most likely you’ll have to consult the specifications page for the camera to determine whether it’s possible. In fact with some brands, the information isn’t listed in the simple specs so you might have to go so far as to download the camera’s manual and consult the customization section.
It’s simply not possible to list all the cameras that do offer this feature, but you’re safe if you have cameras in the following product lines:
- Canon 1D X series, Canon 5D series, Canon 6D series, Canon 7D series, Canon M5 series, Canon M50 series
- Canon R3, Canon R5, Canon R6, Canon RP
- Nikon DX series (D4, D4s, D5, D6 etc.), Nikon D7XX series, Nikon D8XX series (D810, D850 etc.), Nikon D5XX series (D500 etc.), Nikon D3XXX series.
- Nikon Z-Series (Z6, Z7, Z6 II, Z7 II)
- Sony a1 series, Sony a9 series, Sony a7 series (a7 III, a7R III, a7S III etc.), Sony a6XXX series (a633, a6600 etc.)
- Fuji GFX series (GFX50, GFX 100 etc.), Fuji X100 series, Fuji X-H series, Fuji X-Pro series, Fuji X-T series
This list is not exhaustive. In fact, there’s likely even more cameras from the above-mentioned brands that do offer this feature. If in doubt, consult the manual.
To utilize this technique some cameras will require you to reassign the function of an existing button on the back of the camera, and some cameras will actually have a dedicated button on the back that is designed to be enabled for use with back button focus. Obviously, if your camera has one of those buttons then it’s a dead giveaway that your camera supports the feature! The button will be labelled AF-ON if there is one dedicated to the feature and if not then you’ll have to reassign the function of another button such as AE Lock.
If you discover that your camera isn’t capable of this technique, I think it’s still important to read through this article and really understand what the potential benefits are. Personally, I do let the presence (or lack) of this feature influence my camera purchasing decisions. I’m such a firm believer in this feature that I simply wouldn’t buy a camera that doesn’t offer it.
How to Set up Back Button Focus
I have done my best to outline what I believe to be the average way to enable this feature with several different brands. I didn’t want to skip over this part of the guide entirely, but the fact is that even within a single brand, there isn’t one single method for enabling the feature. Sometimes the settings are in one tab of the menu, and then in their next camera, they have inexplicably been buried deeper in another tab. Even if the instructions in this section don’t match 100% with what you are seeing on your camera, with a little lateral thinking, the menu item names and function descriptions should point you in the right direction.
- Open the menu system, navigate to the Orange set of tabs to a tab labelled Operation.
- Select the option near that bottom that is called Custom Controls.
- The first item in the list of controls is always the shutter button. Press the Set button on the camera to open the options for the shutter button
- Change the setting from the default setting of Metering and AF Start to just Metering Start
- Move down the Custom Control menu and choose the AF-ON button if there is one on your camera, if not, choose the AE Lock button(*). Press the Set button to open the menu.
- Change the function of that button to Metering and AF Start.
- Select Custom Setting menu (red pencil icon).
- Select a – Autofocus.
- Select AF Activation.
- Change from Shutter/AF-ON to just AF-ON only, then press right and set Out-of-focus release to Enable. This is correct, although highly confusing in my opinion. What you have done is turn off the AF Activation from the shutter button. I think Nikon could have been clearer here.
- Go back to Custom Setting menu.
- Choose f – Controls.
- Choose Custom control assignment
- If your camera has a dedicated AF-ON button, choose this from the next menu and make sure the mode assigned to the AF-ON button is indeed the AF-ON function. You could conceivably have previously assigned it another function. If your camera does not have a dedicated AF-ON button, select the AE-L/AF-L button button instead, and change its function to AF-ON.
- Change the Pre-AF setting to OFF
- Change the setting AF w/shutter to OFF
- Open Custom Key Settings menu item
- If your camera doesn’t have a dedicated AF-ON button, choose the AEL Button item in the menu (a6XXX series and below). If your does have an AF-ON button (a9, a7 III onwards), choose AF-ON from the button list instead. If you camera has neither (a7 II), choose the C3 button.
- Change the button setting to AF ON in the next menu.
- In the menu system access the Setup section (wrench icon).
- Change the Shutter AF setting to OFF.
- Return to Setup section.
- Open Button/Dial Settings
- Select the Fn/AE-L/AF-L option to open the custom control menu.
- If your camera has an AF-ON button, choose this from the list and verify that the AF-ON function is applied to that button. If you do not have that button on your camera then you will need to choose either the AE-L button or the AF-L button to use instead. Choose whichever one you feel is most comfortable to hold your thumb on.
- Assign the AF-ON function to the button.
Dual Back Button Focus
For Canon users who have either a 7D series, 5D series or 1D X series camera, there’s a really cool feature that you can set up that I’m calling Dual Back Button Focus. I’ve previous written a separate tutorial on how to set up dual back button focus for these cameras. Essentially it allows you to have two back buttons that activate autofocus, where one activates one-shot AF and the other activates AI Servo AF (continuous). Sadly the level of button customization needed to achieve this doesn’t fall below the 7D series cameras in the lineup at the moment.
This isn’t quite the same as the above mentioned Canon trick, but it’s still awesome and well worth knowing about if you have mastered single back button focus with your Nikon camera. Essentially with this technique, you can set up two different AF point selection modes on different buttons to allow you to quickly swap between them. You can read my guide to setting up double back button focus on a Nikon camera here.
Is Back Button Focus for Everyone?
I’m a firm believer that at some point everyone should try it, but it’s important that you are already reasonably proficient in the use of your camera, and really ready to push yourself in terms of composition and technical operation. This is an advanced technique and there is a learning curve. If that learning curve gets itself tangled up with any other learning curves then you’re just going to end up with a mess!
70 thoughts on “What is Back Button Focus and How Do You Set It Up On Your Camera?”
I fought using BBF for a long time, gave up on it, then revisited it with a more open mind as I kept hearing so many good things about it.
It takes a bit of getting used to, but once you see the benefits of it you will be hooked.
I rarely operate my camera (Pentax K-3 by the way) without using BBF.
For shooting wildlife, birds in flight especially, it is indispensable.
I’m really glad you went back to it and gave it a second chance!
I’ve never given it a try, but I’ve always been curious about it… As well as frustrated about the fact that autofocus would keep trying to re-assert itself with every single shot. Always wanted to be able to keep the convenience of autofocus on hand, but have it not do the half-press thing.
….I’m definitely going to be giving this a try next time I’m at West Edmonton Mall, I’ve been trying to get a shot of the triple car in motion on the Mindbender…. IN THE MIDDLE LOOP where pretty much if you blink, the cart’s already behind you and moving onwards down the track. Not at the top of the loop like so many other shots, and not from a distance either… But taken right in the middle of said loop (there’s a walkway you can shoot from ^_^), with the first of three cars just starting to poke it’s nose up from under the pedestrian walkway. Trying to use autofocus with my G85 set up as it was out of the box, it would always refuse to lock, and then obviously refuse to open the shutter…
Last time I was there, I spent almost an hour trying to snag something even remotely close to that shot, and I have a suspicion I just might be going back to West Ed this weekend >.>;;;; It will also allow me to retake a few of the previous shots I’ve done in the past where I’ve tried to capture the cars along the dual loops, but my camera decided something else was the main focus point (usually the far walls >.<)
Many thanks for the writeup on this!
You’re very welcome! It has been a long time since I was last in West Ed Mall haha! But it sounds like this technique could definitely help you out in that situation 🙂 Thanks for taking the time to post and share your story!
Back button focus eh, been there done that decided to learn how to use my camera instead, every camera these days has an auto exposure lock and a focus lock don’t dump back button focus on them learn what they do these two buttons alone with a single push can help you get your desired shot quickly, stuck in a compositional rut because your desired area dosnt fall under a focus point that’s why cameras give you the option to pick single or groups of focus points if you learn how to use this function then you will be able to change it quickly with a flick of a focus wheel or joystick, if you want to think back button focus is going to make you the king of kings then use it, better you learn how to use the basic functions of a camera then you can pick up a camera of any brand and produce acceptable images within minutes or stick with one camera and learn it inside and out, a camera is only a tool by spending time with it you will learn what works for you learn the sweet spots on your lens, learn about apertures and stops, become a photographer in your own right learn your own techniques if it’s right for you it will work, the wife and I both started back button focusing in 2000 with a pair of early Olympus digital slr’s and over the years we’ve played with it but to be honest if you can use your camera and set it to your preference and stick with it then this will be faster and guarantee you a higher hit percentage.
Good for you, if you like to always do things the hard way. Your comments just show you don’t understand or know how to use back-button focus.
I LIKE back button focus however…there are times (like handing the camera to someone else for a shot) that I want to toggle back to half-down mode. On the NIKON, how to a quickly do that and then quickly toggle back to bbf?
I’m not entirely sure, as I’m not a NIkon shooter, but perhaps you could set up two custom profiles and switch between them? I know the higher end Canons have that ability but I’m not sure about Nikon.
In response to the comments from Andy Pearce:
“decided to learn how to use my camera instead” This IS deciding to learn how to use your camera. What you are suggesting is that you stick to the default settings, which are set up for the masses, and decide NOT to learn how to use your camera. Auto Exposure Lock has nothing to do with this, you can use that, and sometimes should, whilst using back button focus.
Auto Focus Lock is not on all cameras at all, Canon cameras don’t have this button at all and like it or not, that covers the vast majority of DSLRs out there.
As for “pick single or groups of focus points” and that comment… the focus points cover perhaps 60% of the frame on most cameras these days. I know that some mirrorless ones push past that, but again, that is currently the minority.
“or stick with one camera and learn it inside and out” so on one hand you don’t want me to teach people things, and then the other hand you extoll the virtues of learning a camera’s functions inside and out? I’m literally helping people to learn a camera inside and out with this very article.
“learn about apertures and stops, become a photographer in your own right learn your own techniques” I speak to this in the last section where I clearly say that you should at first be proficient with the use of your camera before trying this out to see if you like it.
Readers are free to make up their own minds as to what they want to use, I’m just here to explain the benefits of this method and why most professionals shoot in this way. I’m glad you are happy to not use bbf, but I really fail to see the point of telling me to not teach people about the benefits of previously-unknown-to-them camera functions. My readers are smart enough to know when they should be trying this, and when they should be reading the articles about more basic things. There’s not a single line in this article that tells people they “must” use the technique.
I couldn’t have said it better. I always looked at BBF as a feature of my camera I was just too reluctant to learn, mainly because I didn’t understand it. Using BBF IS learning how to use your camera. It has made me a better photographer, and it opens up avenues that just aren’t available otherwise. For instance if you are trying to photograph a bird, say a hawk or eagle as it takes off from a branch you can use the BBF to get your initial focus. When the bird leaves the branch you get one free shot without having to refocus. If you simultaneously hit the BBF and are using your drive and continuous auto focus you are already tracking the bird and getting some great shots before it speeds away.
Personally I like it.
Thanks for taking the time to add your experience to the conversation, Paul. Much appreciated! Last night I was in the Yukon and patiently waiting for an eagle to take off from a branch and using this exact technique!
That is absolutely great. Thanks for this post. I bought the original 5d in 2006. Before I used an aging analogue Minolta 8000i. However, the 5d‘s autofocus system was not as good as I hoped it to be. Therefore I started to experiment with settings in an attempt to improve my in focus catch rate. Back button focusing was what I finally settled with more or less intuitively, wthout ever giving it any further thought to its other potential benefits. The 5d has been a faithful companion for 12 years until I decided to replace it with the Mk4 last year mainly because of the now much improved autofocus and video capabilities.
I then thought that back button focusing is history because of the so much improved autofocus system. This is until I read your post and noticed that these settings were doing so much more and I actually used these additional benefits without really knowing. With hindsight it was really stupid of me dropping these benefits when I swapped to the Mk4. With your help I now went the full way to „Oh Sh-&%“ focusing. I am sure it will be of great help during my upcoming vacation wit the family to Iceland, with an ever changing mix of group portraits, landscape, and bird photography. I am really greatful for all your resourceful posts.
May I ask a somewhat unrelated question? For the upcoming trip to Iceland I borrowed a friend‘s 100-400. Ufortunately it is the „vacuum cleaner“, i.e. the original push-pull zoom version. As weather in Iceland can be harsh I wondered if I need to protect the lens from water ingress and if yes what would you recommend as a suitable protective sleeve?
I’m really pleased that you found it helpful Urs. It takes me so much time to create resources like this and I love to know that it actually helps people out, so thanks for taking the time to let me know. Regarding your question, since you are just borrowing the lens you likely want something that isn’t too expensive. I would recommend this one called the Storm Jacket, reviewed here: https://shuttermuse.com/storm-jacket-camera-rain-cover-review/
Thanks for responding Dan. In fact, the situation has already changed since my post. I discovered that the iris module of the borrowed lens is probably faulty and there was also an issue with the IS. Despite cleaning the contacts the value it sent to the camera flickered between 1.8 and 2.0. Initially, these values were correct but the longer the lens stayed on camera the issue became more an more apparent until the time it displayed a correct value was less than it showed incorrect figures. Long story short: that is not the risk I am going to take if I have that once in a lifetime occasion of having a Puffin or perhaps even an Orca in front of my lens and then get it spoiled by a faulty lens. Hence, I decided today to buy the version II of this lens in part also because of your review. According to this it will anyway pair much better with the 1.4 III converter, which I own as well. Let’s call it an anyway long overdue investment.
As for rain cover, I ordered the Peak Design Shell in size L. Unfortunately I did not see your highly appreciated response before ordering. Well, if that one is of no good use I may still return it may get something more appropriate.
Urs, you will love the lens! Congratulations! I think you might end up returning the Peak Design cover though. You can’t actually shoot with the cover on, because it has no hole for the eye piece. It’s only designed as a cover to protect your camera while you carry it on your shoulder strap. Also, it will not work with the 100-400. That lens is far too big for it.
Thanks for responding just in time to unpack the cover. It arrived yesterday and all my gear was already packed up. I did not want to unpack ist to test if it works with the cover. So I am very glad I could now simply remove the cover from the pack and will return it after I come back from Iceland.
Glad to help in the nick of time! Have a great trip 🙂
I first heard about BBF a few years ago when I was learning about wildlife, and especially bird, photography. I set it up to try it and haven’t ever looked back! When I went to Africa last year I rented a second camera body, but forgot to set up BBF on it before I left. I couldn’t remember how to do it, so just used the shutter button. It reminded me of why I never switched back in the first place – I got lots of pictures of sharp blades of grasses with nice bokeh wildlife in the background. Back Button Focus should be the default on cameras!
Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment Gayle! I’m so pleased that you appreciate the value in this technique.
Thanks for the article – highlighted benefits I had not appreciated when trying it in the past (on prior bodies) – I’ll give it a try again. Not sure about the tripod benefit, given almost always using a remote release – I’d say there were much stronger reasons elsewhere in the article.
Certainly on Canon cameras, the remote release acts identically to the shutter button. So that still means they you would have to keep switching the lens to manual focus mode if you did not employ the BBF technique. Otherwise your press of the remote release button would cause the camera to try to refocus again. Or am I misunderstanding what you are saying?
Once I got use to BBF, I could not live without it. The only time I do not use it is with night sky photography
Thanks for leaving a comment, Myer! I assume that for night sky photography you either manually set the lens to infinity, or you use live view and zoom in on a point light source such as a bright star, and then manual focus using the screen?
I’ve been using BBF for many years, can’t go back. No accidents when focusing, I earn all the bad shots the old fashioned way….:)
Thanks for commenting, Ernaldo. Haha I like your honesty. The old fashioned way has to be revisited sometimes for everyone haha 🙂
Thanks, Dan – I’m in the middle of planning a fairly elaborate series of panoramas, and it’s going to cost a fair bit in hiring a suitable prime telephoto, as well as a great deal of time – so your comments on the importance of back button focus will be invaluable, for me.
And aside from that, in my general photography things split roughly evenly between totally stationary objects, and moving ones – so I guess I ought to kick my ass and start making a great deal of use of this.
Glad you found it helpful Pete! Good luck with your pano project 🙂
Every case you describe can be achieved more easily with back button set to “lock focus”. It is not the same as focusing with the back button, it only locks focus achieved with the shutter button hal-pressed. It gives you all the benefits of the BBF + you can shoot with the shuuter button, as ususally.
Not all cameras have a lock focus button. Canon cameras do not, and like it or not that makes up the vast majority of DSLRs out there in the field. I’m glad you enjoy using it on your camera. I’m guessing a Nikon? I think they have that button, but as the majority of comments confirm, most people love to use BBF. Neither option is right or wrong, use whatever works for you.
Dan, luckily both my Nkon and Fuji X-* can do this 🙂
Dan, thank you for a great article. I enjoy your work as you are thoughtful and detailed in your explanations.
I have been using BBF for several years and love it! There is an addition BBF feature on the higher-end Canon cameras that most users may not have noticed. When you go into the Custom Controls and select the AF-ON button to activate “Metering and AF Start” you’ll notice “INFO Detail Set” on the bottom left. Press the Info button on the camera and you now have the ability to further fine tune how the AF system operates. This is incredibly useful for photographing action or wildlife. The photographer is able to customize the AF-ON button for moving subjects by preselecting the AF Area Selection and the AF Characteristics. This eliminates having to think about all these choices in the middle of action!
Keep up the good work.
Thanks Christopher. You’re right about that setting, I actually use that for my double back button technique that’s detailed here: https://shuttermuse.com/how-to-set-up-double-back-button-af/
In that I use it to set up one button for AI Servo, one for One Shot AF and actually the DOF button for a third AF setting. Perhaps the information is a little buried though. I’ll have a think about how else I can explain these things to people. Thanks for leaving a comment!
I don’t agree on the “switching mode”. When you use AI Servo and release the back button, you’re never sure that your focus is accurate, as the camera keeps going back and front in case the subject is moving. This is the best way to take 10 shots and have 0 sharp ones !
You can use the back or front button to your convenience for any of the other reasons, but don’t trust this one. If you subject moves or if it’s still, you still have to switch focus modes (AI Servo – One shot) if you want your shots to be sharp !
Have a read of this tutorial, you can have both: https://shuttermuse.com/how-to-set-up-double-back-button-af/
Also, if you hold down the back button it will continuously track your subject while you take the photos anyway, so it doesn’t matter if they are moving.
I use BBF most of the time and I think it helps a lot, not only with composition, but with exposure. Using back button autofocus allows me to focus with one button and meter with the shutter control. That can be really helpful in unusual lighting situations. I often use the AE lock along with it, focusing on one area, metering separately and then finishing my composition. This isn’t always necessary, but it’s nice to be able to do it without having to think about it too much.
That’s a good point, Wade. I had not thought to include that in the article. Thanks for sharing!
You mention that back BBF can be set on the Canon M50. I have that camera and cannot see how to set BBF.
My Canon 80D is set to BBF and I love that feature!
Yes, you set it up essentially the same way as described in the article. Go to settings (spanner) menu number 5 and the top option is Custom Functions, then Custom Controls. Select that and then you can control the function of the shutter button, and assign new functions to the AE lock button or the custom function button.
Thank you, Dan. I have now set my little Canon M50 to back button focus. I have been using BBF for a number of years. Until I started using the M50 I had completely forgotten just how frustrating, cumbersome and inefficient the shutter half-push can be! For me the Canon M50 takes the place of a cell phone camera. My vision prevents me from using the screen on a cell phone. Having a viewfinder is a must.
Thank you for taking the time to write very informative articles and for taking the time to respond to comments.
Yay! I’m glad you were able to get it all set up. The M50 is such a great little camera. A real hidden gem in the Canon lineup. I love mine!
I’ve been using BBF on my Canon 80D for several years now and love it. I’ve read a number of articles explaining BBF benefits and how best to implement it but yours is the clearest and most comprehensive that I’ve seen! Thanks for sharing.
Thanks for the kind words Penny! I’m glad you are using it on your camera 🙂
When using Back Button Focus, how do you lock “auto exposure” for panoramic shots?
If your camera has an AF-On button then you can still use the dedicated AE Lock button. If your camera is customizable, simply assign AE lock to a different button. If you can’t do either of those things, simply shoot in manual exposure mode. This would be my choice anyway.
I have Nikon D90 and so don’t have dedicated AE-L button. But I will try assigning AE-L to one of the customisable buttons in the front. Thanks.
If I don’t assign AE-L, when does the auto exposure get calculated? When pressing AL-On or when full pressing the shutter button???
It gets calculated when you press the shutter button.
Thank you Dan.
Thank you Dan for great tips. I’ve been using BBF for years but never thought of using multiple buttons for various AF-modes.
One question: I’ve always used BBF with AI Servo only. Since I can release a AF-button whenever my object is in focus, BBF functions like sort of One Shot.
I tested your setup with a little tweak, setting both BBs to AI Servo but with different AF point / area -selection and I was quite happy with the setup. Would you consider excluding One Shot -mode from BBs a bad choice and if yes, why?
Glad it sparked some ideas, Sami! As for excluding one-shot, no I wouldn’t say it’s a bad idea at all. You should set your camera up for the things you like to shoot! Personally my shooting is a real mix of subjects so I find it beneficial to have the options I described, but if you are mostly doing AI Servo BBF then you have a good setup now I’d say.
Thanks Dan for the reply. After a day of testing, I’ve come up with following setup (for Canon 5dmkIV):
1) AF-ON button:
Maintain all manually selected AF-settings (and activate AF of course).
2) AE Lock button:
AI Servo, AF area selection mode: Spot AF
3) DOF Preview button
AF area selection mode: Auto selection AF
With this setup I can either 1) Do whatever fancy stuff by manually choosing settings, while maintaining BBF, 2) Get precise Spot AF instantly regardless of manual settings, or 3) for the “wouldn’t have thought that to happen” -situations give the controls to the camera and “shoot from the hip”.
So if I decided to use One Shot -mode (contrary to what I wrote before), I could manually select and use AF-ON button to activate it.
Seems like a good setup for your needs, Sami! Good on you for taking the time to experiment and get to know your camera. Most people never bother to do this and they miss out on so much 🙂
Great post! I’m new to photography and have been using back button recently. I will be travelling with my family for the next year or so and will be taking family group shots with a tripod and remote. How would I go about using this technique with this setup without continually having to adjust the focus…. I have a 3 and 5 year to wrangle during these shots! Any help for with a usefully technique would be greatly appreciated!
When you say you are using the tripod, I assume that means you’ll be setting it up and getting into the shot yourself. In this case back button focus isn’t ideal, and you might consider turning it off for those kinds of shots. Actually you don’t need to re-assign the back button at all – simply change the shutter button back to its default setting of activating both focus and exposure metering. So that’s just one setting you would temporarily need to change back.
The second option is to simply have someone stand where you want to have everyone in the photo. Set the camera up, look through the viewfinder and use back button focus to focus on that person. Then start the timer and all go and gather around that one person. As long as they don’t move then you will all be in focus so long as you have selected an aperture that gives enough depth of field. This would be the way I would personally do it. Heck, it doesn’t even need to be a person you focus on! You could put a bag on the floor and focus on that, then go and stand where the bag was!
I read your article about BFF last July and read it again today.. I’ve been using BBF for a while know and I really can encourage fellow photographers to learn this technique. Anyhow it’s always a pleasure catching up reading on you’re very informative website. Thank you very much for taking the time to share with us your information and knowledge.
Best wishes for this new year to you and your family and all fellow photographers.
Greetings from Belgium.
Really excellent article and guide, so well written in simple, straightforward wording. This is delivered, not only with regard to how to set up BBF but moreover, providing some fantastic examples of why and in what circumstances it is most useful. I have been using BBF for some time but feel I understand much more now about how to use it to best effect. Thanks so much and I will be following your excellent guidance and articles closely from now on.
Thanks Ian! I appreciate you taking the time to comment. It’s always encouraging to hear that people are finding my writing useful! All the best, Dan.
Hi Dan, you mention pre focussing on an area for your skiing photograph but what if there is nothing to pre-focus on?
Then you find something that lies in the same plane of focus. Remember focus is simply a distance from your lens. If you think your skier is going to be 40ft away but there is nothing there, then you extrapolate that plane of focus and find something else that is also 40ft away and focus on that instead. Heck, if you’re confident in gauging distance then it could be something behind you! Usually there will be something to the left or the right somewhere.
Hi Dan. I found your site doing a search on a messenger bag, and I’ve spent a couple of hours now reading various articles. Very good work. I appreciate it. I was taught to use BBF at a wildlife photography class that I recently took. At the zoo, I found that focusing on and taking photos of the animals was greatly improved over normal focusing. Leaving for a trip overseas and I will continue to shoot with BBF.
Thanks for the kind words, and I’m glad you fond the site 🙂 . It’s always good to hear from people who are having success with these techniques in the field. Enjoy your trip!
I am trying using the AF On button to focus then take a shot, why can I hear my lens making a noise still when I am pressing the shutter button? I thought once I press the AF on button, that I would not hear the lens move when pressing the shutter button? Thank you
Two possibilities: 1. If your lens has image stabilization then the stabilizing gyros will be activated while you are pressing the shutter. The other possibility is that you activated the AF-ON button in the menu system but did not disable AF activation from the shutter button.
Easy to test this though! Just press the shutter button half way and see if the lens tries to refocus.
Thanks for an excellent article, despite using BBF for ages and having 2 lots of settings on the back buttons (Canon 7DII) one for slow shutter panning and one for freezing fast action I have just learnt from your article that (I think) I can use the DOF preview button for more settings! ?
Another thought, I know of people who hated BBF but discovered that for their shooting scenarios they could use the AF-ON button for AF-OFF to temporarily disable the shutter button AF command.
Also, I have a Custom setting C3 set for shutter button AF for camera handoffs and tripod work that requires AF on the remote to work!
When I first tried BBF it was for a couple of days and I thought it was a really bad idea, I kept forgetting to use it!
When I went back to it for all the reasons you mention I used it for a week and once the muscle memory is set up it is great.
Whatever you do you should not try to learn BBF during mission critical work, whether that is a family holiday or a paying gig it is a bad idea!
Yes, it takes time and you need some good practice. Good advice about avoiding the mission critical work.
Thanks for the interesting article. I notice you mentioning a few times about the AF points being clustered around the centre only as a justification for BBF. This is no longer really true in modern mirrorless cameras like the Sonys. One issue I have is if someone offers to take your picture with your own camera — on my Canon I can flick it into fully automatic mode, and auto focus is reenabled on the shutter release. On the Sony, this doeswn‘t happen, and I would need to fumble around the menus to turn BBF off. I have lost quite a few shots with BBF where I had to react quickly and didn’t manage to get the focus right. I think I‘m going to experiment with learning to use the sophisticated AF systems correctly before deciding to ditch it and go back to the BBF spot-focus/recompose method.
“This is no longer really true in modern mirrorless cameras like the Sonys” . This is perhaps true, and I’m actually going to buy a Sony in the coming months so that I can get used to it. At this point I will probably make some observations on this post. That said, AF point concentration is only one of the reasons to use BBF. I’m surprised there is no way to put a Sony camera quickly into “dumb mode” for other people to use it… or maybe I’m not surprised as the biggest downside to Sony is usually said to be the use-ability of them. I guess I’ll find out in the Winter when I get my hands on the new a9 iteration.
There is clearly a bunch to know about this. I consider you made certain nice points in features also.
Hi there! I stumbled upon your website searching for focal length multiplier for 35mm-GFX equivalence. The BBF article is superb – and explains well why it should be used. I am a reasonably sophisticated Canon user (1DX) – and have always never grasped why it exists! Thanks for explaining lucidly and for making a very powerful argument to use it. I am going to give it a shot ASAP.
Hi there. In your section “Ultra Accurate Focus With Liveview”, I’m not seeing that functionality in my Canon T5i. When I set the AF to BBF, I can’t tap on the LV screen to set the focus.
I have erred! I got confused between “setting the FP” with “driving AF”. I see now that in LV, I first need to tap on the screen to set the FP, and then press to make it actually focus on that point.