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Tips & Tricks

Back Button Focus | What Is It & Why You Should Try It

By Michael Henson on March 14th 2015

You have the perfect shot lined up. Your subject is compelling, the background is a photographer’s dream, all the compositional elements are popping like movie theater popcorn makers before the next Marvel superhero movie marathon, and don’t even get me started on the lighting…You half press your shutter to focus and accidentally push the shutter the rest of the way down. Before you are able to reset, the mood is ruined – a trash truck rolls in and parks right behind your subject blocking the light and throwing up a cloud of foul smelling dust. All of this could have been avoided had you just used back button focus! Well, not the trash truck thing, but you probably would have captured the picture before it invaded the area.

Back Button FocusBack Button Focus – What Is It & Why You Should Try It

Well, the name pretty much says it all! Rather than using the half shutter press method, that many photographers are fond of, you use a button on the back of your DLSR to control when your camera focuses. This gives, in my humble opinion and experience, a little bit more control and helps avoid accidentally snapped photos capturing your scene in mid-recomposition.

[REWIND: 10 VALUABLE LESSONS I’VE LEARNED ABOUT STREET PHOTOGRAPHY]

It makes recomposing simpler because you can simply press the button to focus on your subject, release the button, and recompose while your focus point remains exactly where you placed it. It’s great for those images where you would like a little extra space to one edge of the photo or where your subject is partially hidden behind an object that might throw off your camera’s focus when using the half-press method.

It makes capturing motion in street, sports, or other action photography easy as well! You can simply hold the button down to keep the camera in continuous focus mode while reserving your shutter button for the moments you actually want to capture. Less accidental clicks!

Tyler&Amanda - Outtakes - SLR Lounge - Back Button FocusBack Button Focus – How To Get Started

Take out your camera’s owner’s manual and look for the section discussing back button focus. Some cameras have a button dedicated to this while others have a button that you can assign to strictly be your focus button. For the majority of users, you’ll need to change the function of the AE-L, AF-L button to be AF on from your camera’s menu. Once you’ve done this, the rest is basically a matter of practice and becoming familiar with the new location of your focus button. (Also, if it intimidates you in the least, I’d recommend checking out our Photography 101 course to get up to speed and snapping away in no time!)

The only way to become accustomed to this is to spend time using it. When I initially began using back button focus, I would spend time while watching TV or hanging out in the backyard framing shots and using the new focusing format. You could also plan a photo shoot or specific period of time where you know you aren’t going to use the half-press shutter method or go out and take some street photos utilizing the back button method only. I’ve found that as I’ve become more comfortable, I tend to use it more and more as I like having the increased level of control I feel it gives me.

Sticks - SLR Lounge - Back Button FocusYou’ll find that as you use it more, you’ll either wonder how you survived this long without it or wonder what the hype is all about and go back to the default method. For me, it’s very beneficial. I’m able to focus on my subject with less contemplation of which of the myriad of focus points to choose from, less worry about accidentally snapping a worthless photo,  or missing focus because my subject moved just a bit and ended up  with a less than ideally sharp image.

Ultimately…

It’s completely up to you, of course, but I encourage you to try this method out if you haven’t already. Most importantly, get out there and SHOOT! Share your favorites with us on your favorite social media platform, like us on Facebook, drop by our critique section, and be sure to sign up for email updates to stay up to date on the latest and greatest news, products, contests, reviews, and photography articles!

CREDITS : Photographs by Michael  have been used with permission for SLR Lounge. Do not copy, modify or re-post this article or images without express permission from SLR Lounge and the artist.

Michael Henson is a St. Louis based photographer obsessed with everything creative. His photography interests span genres from still life to sports. When he’s not running around with his face to the camera or behind a keyboard writing, you can typically find a guitar in his hands or catch him out enjoying life with his family and friends.

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Q&A Discussions

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  1. Thomas Horton

    I am a convert to BBF, I don’t think I would ever want to go back. On my camera I can link the single and continuous focusing to the BBF (Pretty sure any camera that can do BBF can do this). Press and release for single focus or hold the BBF down for continuous. Sweet.

    But BBF is not for everyone… if it were, then cameras would only be made with BBF. :)

    It is just an option that may or may not work for an individual photographer. Options are good.

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  2. Frank Coleman

    I’ve been reading more and more about BBF. Hopefully my Canon Rebel T5 1200D can do it…I’m not sure though, since it’s an entry level DSLR…anyone know for sure?

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  3. Matt Gebhart

    Thanks for trying to help me understand. I’m not knocking anyone else’s technique, I just want to make sure there isn’t something I’m missing out on. I’ve tried BBF many times because so many people rave about it, but I think it’s just not for me in most situations. I think I can see the use for sports or events where things are moving erratically around and you can’t move your framing along with your subject. I will say that I have a back button set to lock AF and AE and I do use that when I’m in Continuous (AF-C) which is most of the time, and I want to recompose outside of where I have focus points available. But it’s risky at 1.4 and the subject can’t be moving at all. Most of the time I need my AF to be right on my subject at the instant I trip the shutter. Happy shooting everyone!

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    • Matt Gebhart

      Oh one other thing I just realized. For the way I shoot, I need my right thumb to constantly be changing my focus point with the multi selector so it isn’t available to hit the button. Maybe that’s why I could never get comfortable with BBF. It’s like one extra step for me to move my thumb up when my “superhuman pointer finger” can take care of the job. :)

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    • Steve VanSickle

      Yeah, it’s really about what works for you. I had a somewhat similar feeling when I switched: I liked BBF much better for my kind of shooting, but I still felt like people had hyped it up to be the second coming of sliced bread…which it is not, just a potentially useful mode of focusing (esp. if your AF points are clustered tightly in the center).

      Happy shooting!

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    • Chris Cameron

      I was of the same opinion when I first switched to BBF. I had to move my thumb between the AF button and the multi selector. Even to the point that I suggested to my local Nikon rep that they update the firmware on the D4 so that the Multi selector press could be programmed to be the AF on button. ie keep your thumb on the multi selector, move to select focus point then press to focus.

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  4. Francisco Hernandez

    I’ve only been using BBF for a few months, but I wish I did it way sooner!

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  6. Matt Gebhart

    Am I the only person who doesn’t like back button focus? I shoot weddings mainly and am at f 1.4 90% of the time so focus/recompose means lots of out of focus shots. I have to select my focus point to nail it and I find I can do that pretty fast especially because without even thinking I am moving toward the focus point I need before I even put my camera to me eye. I don’t find it saves me any time over half press and recompose for when I do need to recompose. Are people accidentally taking shots when half pressing? Maybe I’m just good at pointer finger control :) I really don’t understand all the hype.

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    • robert garfinkle

      I’m gonna say it’s what you are use to – no right or wrong / indifferent etc…

      For me, I was finding that I could not recompose without it – however, if all is fair in love and war – it could have been me not knowing how to use my system – which is probably the case…

      I own a D810 now, had a D800 before, yet had issues pressing half way down on the shutter for recomposing yet when I went to take the shot it’d fail as the camera thought it was out of focus – bummer… btw – I was on AF-S (not AF-C) and the problem was happening… When I started using the AF-On everything got better for me, and use it exclusively now…

      but, like I said, if you, your finger, and your camera have a good working relationship that’s great…

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    • Michael Henson

      I only run into issues with accidental shots is when trying to recompose while half pressing. It doesn’t happen all the time but it happens enough to be annoying.

      I guess you’re one of those rare & beautiful people with superhuman pointer finger control. :) If you’re good with adjusting focus points on the fly, etc. it makes sense that back button focus wouldn’t really interest you and, yeah, if you’re at 1.4 most of the time your process makes sense too.

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    • Steve VanSickle

      The reason I’ve found back-button so useful is that I frequently shoot concerts, performance art, etc and I use apertures like f/4 more than 1.4. Using the standard focus I had too many instances of a performer moving out of the focus point, leaving my camera hunting for a focus instead of taking the picture I wanted. I wouldn’t say BBF is something everyone needs, and it did take me a day or two to get used to it, but I’ve found it incredibly useful for shooting subjects that may move quickly in unpredictable ways.

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    • John Sheehan

      It’s definitely a “what works for you” type thing, and may not work in all situation. In two years or so of using it I’ve only had one situation where I had to change it in the field back to the shutter button, but everyone’s shooting style is different. The important thing, I think, is that people know about it and give it a try. I have one friend that refuses to try it, even after she tried it on my camera, because she’s afraid of being stuck with it and not being able to change it (which I think speaks more to her being unsure of herself with the camera’s menu system after coming from film only recently).

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    • Natoyi Lively

      I only use the back button, because I don’t need to choose my focus mode depending on the situation: i keep my focus in active focus mode, so when i want follow focus, i keep the button down, if i don’t need follow focus, as soon as i have the shot i let off the button. The only time i switch to shutter button focus is if i hand the camera to someone who doesn’t know how to use the back button, or i want to do a selfie and cant reach the BBF.

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  7. Andrew Von Haden

    After about 2 years on back button focus, I can’t image ever switching back.

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  8. Jean-Francois Perreault

    I’ve been lucky enough to learn about this feature the day I bought my first DSLR. I’ve been using it since and can’t go back to half press focusing.
    As I often use Aperture priority, I find it especially helpful to separate focus lock and exposure lock.
    I can focus lock my subject, recompose and then lock my exposure by half pressing the shutter, recompose if necessary and take the shot. All of this done in 2-3 seconds.

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  9. Vince Arredondo

    I agree with all.. This is the most accurate technique to achieve a high rate of focused pics. I used it and I love it!

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  10. Steve VanSickle

    I’ve loved back-button autofocus since I learned about it a few years ago. The only problem I’ve had is that I need to put the focus back on to the shutter button so that I can focus with a remote. (Nikon D610 and D7000)

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    • Rieshawn Williams

      How are you liking that D610?

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    • Michael Henson

      I’ve nearly pulled the trigger on the D610 myself several times…the only thing holding me back is the fact that I’d need to purchase new lenses.

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    • Steve VanSickle

      Michael- I had the same issue before I upgraded as well. What I did was saved up for a D610, and a Sigma 24-105mm f/4 Art lens, and that combo alone worked for most of my event photography for months until I could round out my full-frame lens lineup. The lens is rather versatile, and so sharp that I didn’t have problems cropping my images when the zoom was far enough for my liking.

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  11. Gurmit Saini

    I do use focus and re-compose from time to time, but has never tried back button focus, but will give it a go to see whether it suits me!

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  12. Kim Farrelly

    Guess I’m the only one using the back button to turn off the AF, as i need my thumb to push other buttons like the set one for adjusting the ISO. I don’t use the tracking AF very ofter though and can see how it would make sense with that, might set C3 to use it this way and see how I get on.

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  13. Barry Cunningham

    Use it frequently on my 7D.
    However, there is one drawback I find difficult. When I have a big lens on it, like the 100-400mm at air shows, not having my thumb firmly planted further down and to the left on the camera back for leverage to support the weight makes it harder to stabilize the camera and my right hand starts cramping after a while.

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    • Darcy Evans

      I have tennis elbow ( I call it photog elbow) due to this exact thing.

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    • Natoyi Lively

      could it be a matter of where you hold the lense? do you hold it at balance point? if you take your camera hand away, does your wrist want to twist from the weight of the camera?
      I have a 60d and use the cannon 70-300 is usm lens, and never had a problem with needing any strength to hold the camera.

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  14. J D

    Set it up for hockey recently and haven’t looked back. Took no time at all to adjust to it and so much better. I’m sure its not for everyone but I highly recommend trying it before you dismiss it.

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  15. Greg Silver

    I’ve converted over to back button focus as well. It takes a short time before you wonder how you ever shot without it.

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  16. John Sheehan

    I have all my DSLRs set up for Back Button Focus. Discovered it on a Youtube video a few years ago and it’s saved me a lot of trouble and missed shots.

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  17. robert garfinkle

    See, I’ve got it backwards (“no” and “all” pun intended – figure that one out). I have been using AF-On religiously; So, the backwards part is – I still can’t compose, can’t figure out lighting, I could not identify a perfect shot…

    Some cameras don’t have an AF-On button etc, yet from what I understand buttons can be programmed to do the same thing, right?

    I consider it a requirement to have that feature on board a camera without having to program anything.

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  18. Amir Boroumand

    I just started using back button focusing and can see why so many people love it. It separates the focusing and shot taking which saves time and avoids missing key shots.

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  19. Steven Pellegrino

    Great article Michael. I too am a convert to back button focusing. I was thinking about this earlier today when I was shooting the St. Patrick’s Day Run in downtown St. Louis this morning because had I used the “half shutter focus method” I would have lost a lot of photos I was going for. When you have crowds of people, some WILL step in front of your subject or area of focus.

    It takes a little getting used to, but I can’t imagine shooting any other way now that I’m used to it (which didn’t take me long).

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  20. Darcy Evans

    I switched to back button focus a couple years ago and have never looked back. Especially useful when someone comes up and says that’s a nice camera, it mus take great photos. I hand my camera to them and ask them to take a shot of me….. never gets old!

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  21. Tim Caisley

    Been using back button focus for a while now & its been a godsend for sports & wildlife shoots.

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    • Michael Henson

      Used it today on a shoot and just loved it! It’s definitely changed the way I shoot…

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    • Tim Caisley

      I find it especially handy with continual focus, its certainly increased my panning keeper rate.

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