Back Button Focus: A Game Changer

Back Button Focussing

Not many people have heard of back button focusing, and of those that have there are many who are not entirely sure of its benefits. For me, using the back button focus is a real game changer in wildlife photography. By the end of this article, I can almost guarantee you will be tempted to make the switch!

For Nikon users, we can shoot in AF-Single (AF-S) or AF-Continuous (AF-C). Those using Canon cameras have the equivalent of One-Shot or AI-Servo modes. AF-S and One-Shot modes mean that your camera focusses at the point you half-press the shutter button. If your subject moves (which is guaranteed to happen at some point with wildlife) you have to release and repress the button to focus again. As a result, most photographers will find themselves looking away from the viewfinder to change between the two modes depending on the type of scene they are shooting. This is precious time, and can often result in missing shots.

Back button focusing allows you to separate the focusing action from the shutter button. So instead you press AF-On when you wish to focus. This allows you to remain in AF-C/AI-Servo mode whilst maintaining the benefits of being able to focus and recompose your shots like in AF-S or One-Shot. Here’s an example:

Whilst photographing this great grey owl perched in the tree, I was using back button focusing. I pointed the chosen focal point (the centre point, as it is most accurate) at the owl and pressed AF-On to focus. Then, having released AF-On, I was able to recompose the shot and press the shutter to take the image. All the time in AF-C mode!

Great Grey Owl Perched

As soon as the owl took flight, I simply held down the AF-On button to track the focus and pressed the shutter simultaneously.

Great Grey Owl Flying

The focus was kept sharp throughout the flight path, rewarding me with a series of usable shots.
Great Grey Owl Vole

Without back button focusing, I would’ve originally been shooting in AF-S so that I could recompose a shot of the owl in the tree. I would’ve then wasted precious seconds switching to AF-C, which can sometimes be fiddly – especially with cold hands in snowy conditions! By then, the owl would’ve probably finished its flight and I would’ve missed the shot.

Further Reading: “How to Photograph Birds in Flight

There are other reasons why you should make the change, too. You’ll never have to fiddle around with the dials to switch to manual focus. Just don’t press AF-On and it is exactly the same. Perfect the focus with the focus ring, then press the shutter, and your adjustments aren’t altered.

Making the Switch

I imagine that by now you have decided you want to make the switch – at least just to try it out.

For Nikon Users

Go to your menu, and enter the Autofocus custom menu. Scroll down to AF activation (a4) and switch it to AF-On only.

Some older Nikon camera users will find this under the AE-L/AF-L option, in the Controls custom menu (f5).

Note: Make sure that a1 & a2 of the Autofocus custom menu are set to ‘Release’ priority.

For Canon Users

Go to your menu and head to Custom Functions. Select the shutter button, and change its function to Metering Start. Then change the function of AF-On to Metering and AF Start.

If the above isn’t working for you, take a look at this list from the Canon website which will show many users where to find this option:

  • 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 6D: C.Fn III-5 (Custom Controls — Shutter, AF-ON, AEL buttons)
  • EOS 5D Mark II: C.Fn IV-1 (option 2 or 3)
  • EOS 5D Mark III: C.Fn menu screen 2 (Custom Controls — Shutter, AF-ON, AEL buttons)
  • EOS-1D X: C.Fn menu screen 5 (Custom Controls — Shutter, AF-ON, AEL buttons)

Summary

Whilst back button focusing is a very handy tool, it is important that you practise with it first. Don’t forget that your camera will now take photographs when the shutter is pressed without focusing them. Just because you hear that reassuring click no longer means the images are sharp. Enjoy!

 

Will Nicholls is the founder of Nature TTL and a professional wildlife photographer and film-maker from England. Having been photographing since the age of 12, Will’s images have won a string of awards, including the title of “Young British Wildlife Photographer of the Year” in 2009 from the British Wildlife Photography Awards. Will is also the author of the book On the Trail of Red Squirrels.

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  • Reached for my D7000 as soon as I read this but the setting aren’t there. Any alternatives?

    • Found it under ‘Controls’ in custom menu, cool!

  • Rob Haynes

    This works ! Everyone should try this , well done for bringing this to attention Will !

  • Bob Pietrowski

    Great advice. Thanks.

  • Neil Hutchinson

    I did know about this but hadn’t tried it (Canon 5d mk3) This article has made it that little more likely that I’ll get around to trying it. Thanks.

  • Chris Pearson

    I made this swap when I got my D7000. Now using shutter to focus feels so weird.

  • jebir

    Back-buttom focusing makes all sense whenever you want to control focus independent of the rest. The only other alternative is manual focus.

  • Barrie Williamson

    Can this be done with a Canon 650d

    • I’m not sure I’m afraid – I’m a Nikon user. Dig through your menu and have a look.

  • Campbell Lindsay

    The only way I seem to shoot now, love it!

  • Gonçalo Matos

    great tips!!

  • JestePhotography

    When I first discovered this 6 months ago(ish) it felt like Christmas came early that year!

  • Freya Coursey

    So useful! Thanks a lot!

  • Excellent tip Will, this was also mentioned in this months Digital SLR Photography magazine, definitely going to give it a try with my Pentax K5, easy to switch off the AF on the shutter release and use the AF back button to focus in AF-S or AF-C mode.

    • It’s a great technique I must say!

      • I’ll let you know how I get on Will, hope to get out today if the rain doesn’t arrive early!!

  • Clive Furler

    Back-button focusing – a great idea, wouldn’t do it any other way now!

  • Eric Hamilton

    I like this tip a lot, about having both AF-S & AF-C Focus Modes available at the same time. I assume that having selected AF-C, you then select Single Point AF from the Area Mode, as that is the most accurate. When your owl flies off & you hold down the Back-button to track it in AF-C, isn’t it a bit difficult to follow in the viewfinder using only the 1 focus point you’ve selected?

    • Hi Eric. Yes you can use the single-point as always. However, I have my camera set to 9 point focus. So the camera uses 9 points to focus too, so if you move the single-point off the head of the bird, the focus will be maintained. I also turn off the “lock-on” focus delay – it’s in the menu somewhere. This will be covered in an upcoming bird in flight article I expect.

  • Eric Hamilton

    Hi Will – thanks for your feedback. I have enjoyed reading your articles on NatureTTL very much. I’m quite new to wildlife photography & only got my first DSLR a few months ago – a Nikon 5300 which I use with a Nikon 70 – 300 VR budget zoom. I didn’t know that you could use an additional d21 point focusing system as well and I’ve never heard of the ‘lock-on focus delay – must be pro camera features which all sound very good. I’ve been trying out the 39 point focus in AF-C with mixed results – the camera doesn’t seem to lock on too well. Think I’ll try the 9 point mode next time. Thanks again.

    • Sorry that was a muddle of my words. I choose to use the grouping of 9 points, but when looking down the viewfinder it “appears” as one spot (the other 8 spots aren’t visible through the viewfinder, at least with my camera). There are many different options for focussing.

      Take a look at this new article on birds in flight, it discusses different methods for focussing. http://www.naturettl.com/how-to-photograph-birds-in-flight/

  • Martyn Jones

    Hi, I thought I read in the manual that you lose the VR function if you use the back-button focus technique. Please correct me if I’m wrong on this as I’ve stopped using this technique on my Nikon f2.8 300mm due to this issue. It does seem a little odd that this would happen and I’d love to be wrong.

    • Hi Martyn. Can’t say I’ve ever heard of that. Never lost the VR myself, so possibly you are mistaken?

      • Martyn Jones

        Here’s the part of the nikon f2.8 300mm manual which suggests it – it’s the last bullet point in the VR reduction section. Am I misunderstanding this?

        • There’s no image attached to your comment. Email me info [ at ] naturettl.com and I’ll take a look.

  • Charles Robinson

    Can I ask ,how would this work with fast moving birds ,would I need to go back in and change back to my previous settings , I also would find it difficult to hold down two buttons at once, or have I just got it all wrong ,

    • Hi Charles. Back button focus does take some getting used to, but with practice it should be easy to grasp. The shutter button is controlled with you right hand’s forefinger (of course), and you thumb controls the AF-On button (which is where you assign focus rights to). To focus, you simply hold AF-On down and track the bird like you would normally (of course make sure you’re in AF-C or Ai Servo mode), and then tap the shutter fully down when you want to take the image.

      Does this clear it up for you?

      Will.

      • Charles Robinson

        Thank you so much Will, for your great explanation

  • Edward Selfe

    This is very interesting. As you say, it’s useful to be able to use One Shot and Servo without having to switch between the options. But getting used to back button focusn is hard, even for people who use their cameras daily for their livelihoods.
    I have been using the back button for a long time, not to initiate focus, but to stop focus. So you keep the camera on Servo mode, and track using focus points in the normal way, but use your thumb to stop focus to allow you to recompose if you want to.
    This means that your thumb is left free during ‘normal’ use to adjust focus point, EV or anything else. Otherwise, in order to change any of the settings that you need your thumb for, you have to lift it off and focus tracking ceases.
    It’s the same principle but it reverses the situation: you use your thumb to stop focus, rather than to initiate. All modern cameras have the option to assign this function to the AF-ON (or Nikon equivalent) button. Hope this helps some people.

    • That’s definitely an interesting way to do it – whatever works for you. 🙂 Personally I got used to BBF pretty quickly actually, I was surprised as I thought it would take a lot to get used to!

  • Raden Adams

    It felt a little strange or backwards for a few minutes but then, I was hooked forever! That was years ago and I have never changed it back and it is the only way I will shoot because the quality, sharpness, etc.. of my photos improved dramatically from the start. Also, I have terrible vision because of multiple sclerosis, I do wear glasses and sometimes I can’t even see what I am shooting at, especially in the summer months! My glasses stay fogged up from me being hot and sweaty and I can’t see a thing so I just aim at my target, hold down the back button focus and fire away!! This really was a game changer for me because most all of my photos are in focus and sharp even though I really can only see blurry images myself and I usually don’t even know exactly what I have captured until I go inside and check out my viewfinder or download to my computer. I do check out the histogram after each shot as I can judge the photo from it also but I know of no other way that I could shoot blind like this and even have any quality photos. To make it more challenging, my favorite subjects to chase around are all the tiny little warblers that pass through during migration and hang out in the shadows of the tree lines in horrible lighting conditions. Shooting in manual mode makes it even more fun because you have to change one control or another after each shot and the little birds are constantly flittering and fluttering around everywhere too! I have the most fun chasing the little dudes around but back to the subject of back button focusing. If you are serious about growing as a photographer, you need to learn all of your cameras controls but definitely try back button focusing at some point in time.

    • Thanks for your comment Raden – glad that BBF has made a difference for you and your photography.

  • Miklos

    Hello Will! I cant figure it out. To use AE-L/AF-L button (on my camera) to focus is to be able to shoot as AF-S while you have AF-C on? You write “As soon as the owl took flight, I simply held down the AF-On button to track the focus and pressed the shutter simultaneously.” Then why to held down the AF-On button (AF-S) for a moving subject? While reading the article I had been thinking that this back button function is to use AF-On focus for a subject which is not moving, and when it takes action I just release the AF-On and use my AF-C, which is already on. Sorry for my poor english! I am not sure if you will understand my doubts, if yes may you give me some feedback please? Thanks!

    • If I am understanding you correctly, you’re wondering how you can benefit from both AF-S and AF-C’s functions at the same time using back button focus?

      If you set the camera to AF-C, you can then do this because the shutter button is separated from the focus button. For example, to continually focus, you just hold down AF-On throughout the shoot and click the shutter when you want to fire a photo. To benefit from AF-S, you use AF-On to focus the image and then let go of the AF-On button. You can use the shutter to take a photo without the image refocussing.

      Does that help?

      • Miklós

        I have come just on time. Thank you for your quick response! Yes, now it is clear for me (even) 🙂 So when using the back button to focus, the shutter button is just to shoot. Thank you so much! I will definitely try this. Have a nice day!

  • Lilewis

    How would one do this with an Olympus OM-D EM-1?

    • I’m not sure about Olympus cameras, and I imagine it’s not possible with a mirrorless camera. I suggest Googling the model of your camera along with the keyword ‘back button focus’ and see if anything pops up. Sorry to not be of much help.

      • Lilewis

        Thank you for your reply.

    • Silvia

      It is possible !! I use BBF with my EM-10 and my EM-5ii. Here’s the way I set it up; then instead of the button on the lever, I chose to use (for the EM-5ii) the depth of field button, but that’s your choice. Google it as this is only one way of doing it, which I liked because it sets it to AF and M, so you can override with Manual focusing if need be or make adjustments quickly: https://mirrorlessmadness.wordpress.com/2015/10/07/corrected-olympus-om-d-e-m1-and-e-m5ii-back-button-focus/

  • Dave Riddell

    Hi Will, firstly I have been following your page for a few months now and find a lot of the articles extremely interesting. BBF has indeed been a game changer for me. My main interest is photographing birds and I used to find it frustrating trying to quickly change from taking a shot of a bird perched on a wall say to one in flight and still retain a degree of sharpness. I am very much an amateur and BBF has made such a difference to the point where I could not imagine moving back. Thank you

    • Hi Dave. Thanks for the comment and glad you are enjoying the articles! BBF is great, you’re right. I haven’t switched back since changing over a few years ago. Great little trick once you get your head around it.

  • Nemmondom Meg

    Hi Will, sry, stupid question, but what will lock the exposure settings, or as the focus is going the light metering is bonded to the focus point and it will be always the actual?

    • Just hold the AE-L button and you’ll lock your exposure, if that’s what you mean?