I can’t remember when I became best friends with back button focus. Like all great things, it’s something that I just started using and never looked back. I think you’ll feel the same way.
What is back button focus technique?
The clue to back button focus in photography is in the name. The back button focus button is on the back of your camera, close to your right thumb and can be assigned the focusing function instead of the shutter button.
This allows the shutter button to be used just for taking the shot only and cuts out the common problem of refocusing between shots.
Exactly which button and what it’s called varies between camera brands so I’ve listed these further down in the article.
Why you should use back button focus
It’s really quite logical. If you are already focused when you push the shutter button to take the shot, the camera has less to do in that minuscule split second of time.
Without back button focus, you have to depress the shutter button slightly to focus before actually fully depressing and taking the shot.
But what if your subject, or you, moved a bit in that brief interval? Your camera would have to refocus before taking the shot.
The back button is a little focus Scout – always prepared.
Within 5 minutes of first using back button focusing, without even thinking about it, my thumb has not left the back button. Except for when I put my camera down that is. It just makes sense.
When photographing young children back button focusing is essential – they move so fast! All the time.
Further reading: Freezing motion with a fast shutter speed
What button is used for back button focus?
Different camera brands call the back button focus button different names. Even the button used varies between the camera models in each brand.
What they all have in common is that the back button focus button is the most convenient button for your right thumb to reach on the back of the camera.
Here’s a list of the buttons top camera brands assign to back button focus:
- Nikon – AF-ON or AE-L/AF-L
- Canon – AF-ON or AE Lock
- Sony – AF/MF AEL or AF-ON
- Fuji – AF-L or AE-L
- Olympus – AEL/AFL or Fn1
What else is involved with back button focus?
To get the most out of back button focus on your camera, your autofocus should be set to continuous servo mode for Nikon or AI Servo for Canon. As the name suggests, your camera will continuously focus all the time you hold the button down.
I even use continuous servo for close-up still life images. The subject might not be moving, but I move fractionally every time I breathe in and out. Also, I don’t have a particularly steady hand, which is really annoying for a photographer.
What about autofocus area for back button focus?
Don’t use auto area autofocus
There is no point using auto area autofocus, AF-A for Nikon or AI Focus AF for Canon, if you’re using back button focus. It’s far too general and the camera won’t know what you want to focus on.
That’s why if you use this autofocus area you’ll find every now and then that your subject is completely out of focus and some random object in your image is beautifully in focus. I’d go so far as to say, don’t even bother with auto area autofocus.
Further reading: One Shot vs AI Servo vs AI Focus – which AF mode is best?
I used single point autofocus in continuous servo with back button focussing and a high shutter speed to ensure a sharp photo of this very fast moving and delightfully goofy dog barrelling down the hill to his owner when called.
Use single point autofocus
Take control of the situation and choose single point autofocus (same terminology for both Nikon and Canon).
Position the focus point on your subject. If you’re photographing a person, and they’re close enough, position the focus point on their eye – the one nearest to you. Do this and your camera will be ready to take a perfectly focused image when the moment arrives.
Here’s a handy cheat sheet for Nikon and Canon autofocus area modes. Pop in your details and we’ll email it to you. As a bonus you’ll also receive my latest photography tips every week. You can unsubscribe at any time, no hard feelings.
Move the focus point
Also, get really, really good at changing your focus point really, really fast to keep up with your subject when using single point autofocus.
I don’t see how you would get a well focused image of a moving subject with a DSLR if you’re not using back button focus, along with continuous autofocus. For DSLRs you also need to use either:
- single point autofocus
- 9 point dynamic area autofocus
- or 21 point dynamic area autofocus
Dynamic area is a Nikon term. Canon’s equivalent terminology is AF point expansion.
Mirrorless cameras also have the big advantage of eye autofocus.
Further reading on how to get the most out of your autofocus:
To be a good photographer you need to develop your inner control freak.
Have you used back button focus?
Have you made the switch to back button focus yet? If so, let us know in the comments what you photograph. Also, when you made the switch, how much of a difference did it make?
If you haven’t, you need a new BFF and BBF is the one!
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