3 Ways to get Better Control of Autofocus - Digital Photography School

3 Ways to get Better Control of Autofocus

In this post, Steve Berardi from PhotoNaturalist talks about three ways to get better control of autofocus.

auto-focus.jpgSometimes autofocus can be really annoying. For some shots it’ll focus on the right part of your subject, but then the very next shot it may choose to focus on something far and away into the background.

Sure, you could avoid this problem by always using manual focus, but autofocus is great when you need to focus quickly or when you’re photographing a landscape and you need to focus on a certain spot in the scene.

Well, autofocus doesn’t have to be annoying anymore, because here are three ways to get better control of it:

#1 – Press your shutter button half-way to activate autofocus and then recompose

Set your autofocus point to the center spot, then point this spot where you want to focus and press your shutter button half-way (don’t press it completely yet) to initiate autofocus. Then, while still holding down the button half-way, recompose your shot and press the button completely down to snap the photo.

#2 – Switch to manual focus after autofocusing

Use autofocus as you normally do, but once it focuses on the right spot, just switch off autofocus on your lens to manual focus. Your lens will keep the current focus when you do this. This method works well when your camera is on a tripod and you’re taking multiple exposures from the same spot, like when photographing a landscape.

#3 – Use back-button autofocusing

Normally, your camera will autofocus when you press the shutter button, but with back-button autofocusing, you have to press a button on the back of the camera instead, giving you complete control of when autofocus is initiated.

With back-button autofocusing, you can just set the autofocus point to the center spot, then point that where you want to focus, and finally press the back button to automatically focus on that point. Now for all the shots you take from that position, that focus will be maintained (the camera won’t randomly focus into the background anymore).

You can do the same thing without this back-button autofocusing by switching to manual focus after the camera focuses properly, but using the back button saves time and this way you don’t have to constantly switch back and forth between manual and autofocus (which can inadvertently move the camera sometimes).

Back-button focusing is especially helpful for photographing moving subjects, like birds in flight or other wildlife: just switch on the continuous focusing mode, set the autofocus point to the center spot, and hold down that back button. Now you don’t have to worry about accidentally hitting the shutter button while you’re tracking the subject in your viewfinder.

How to enable back-button autofocusing: Unfortunately, this feature is called something different on each camera, so you’ll probably have to do some digging around in your camera’s manual and “custom functions” to find it. If it’s not labelled clearly on your camera, try changing the settings of the different buttons on the back of your camera (like the AE lock button).

steve.jpgAbout the Author: Steve Berardi is a naturalist, photographer, and computer scientist. You can usually find him hiking in the beautiful mountains and deserts of Southern California. Read more of his articles on nature photography at the PhotoNaturalist and follow him on Twitter.

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  • Keith Starkey

    Thanks!!

Some older comments

  • Qais

    April 9, 2013 01:43 am

    Thanks for a another great article!

    Although these points are great, and like any type of focusing, either auto or manual, you need some light source for your camera's sensor to find a point to focus on. My question is, how do you focus when it's pitch dark?, in a nightclub for example. Specially if you don't own a very fast lens. When I tried this at home with my 5D M2 and 24-105, the lens could not focus and was looking for a point to focus on. Will it make a difference if I add a speedlite and fire a pre-flash or is carrying a constant light (flashlight) or video light are the only solutions?

    Any advice would be much appreciated.. Thanks :)

  • Alex McKown

    April 3, 2013 11:49 am

    Thank you for these pointers.
    I have one question on "back-button" auto focus. I have a Canon 6D. If I push the AF On button on the back, can I release my thumb and then recompose, or do I have to continue to hold this button down while recomposing? By pushing this button do I achieve "Focus Lock" similar to "Exposure Lock"?
    Thank you.

  • Peter Bodig

    March 31, 2013 08:28 am

    My camera uses another autofocus solution. I use a Sony NEX with a touch screen. I just touch the LCD on the spot I want the camera to focus. It keeps focusing on that part of the image until I reset it. I love this feature and hope it becomes common on all cameras.

  • Brian Phillips

    March 31, 2013 04:05 am

    I read an article here several months ago on back button auto focus. There were a lot of arguments back and forth in the comments section in that article. To me, I didn't quite grasp the advantage, but thought I'd at least give it a try. It didn't take long for me to realize the advantage and I use it all the time now, or at least whenever I'm not doing manual focus.

  • milad ayoub

    March 29, 2013 06:02 am

    I think the best way to focusing moving subject is manuel focus with low aperture

  • Jeff Collett

    March 29, 2013 04:47 am

    I do a variation of #3. The AF-ON button on my 5D mark ii is set to really work as AF-OFF. That way, the camera works in a normal half-press for AF until I'm in a situation where I will be recomposing my image after focus where I can then just press and hold the AF-ON. I found that one has to be dedicated to technique #3; otherwise it is easy to forget that you have to press the AF-ON button to focus for all the shots especially if handing the camera to another person.

  • ccting

    March 28, 2013 07:05 pm

    oh.. i use only manual focus / aperture lenses...

  • JohnE Nikon

    March 28, 2013 05:22 am

    eric v,
    I agree with everything you say about focus and recompose, except; "will cause (more often then not) your subject to be less in focus"

    This is a real issue when dealing with shallow depth of fields. I am careful to only use the focus close to subject in such circumstances, but most of the time my DOF is not very shallow, so it usually is not an issue.

    When using primes wide open or even longer focal length lens close this is more of an issue. Glad you mentioned it.

    Read more: http://digital-photography-school.com/3-ways-to-get-better-control-of-autofocus#ixzz2OlSQZ45u

  • Eric V

    March 28, 2013 01:19 am

    #1 is bad advice... NEVER FOCUS/RECOMPOSE!

    The distance between the center focus point in your AF points and the actual distance changes therefore changing the actual distance between your camera and the subject, especially so if you're using a very high or low focal point in you're frame.

    A right triangle demonstrate this perfectly. The vertical line is line A, the line perpendicular to A is line B, and the line joining the two is line C. If you were to overlay lines B and C it will be clearly evident that these two lines ARE NOT equal lengths, directly translating to the camera's line of sight and your focal point now being behind your subject.

    Using the focus/recompose technique will cause (more often then not) your subject to be less in focus then selecting a focus point much closer to the focal point. My advice is to forget the focus/recompose technique no matter how intuitive it may be, your photography will thank you down the line.

  • JohnE Nikon

    March 28, 2013 01:06 am

    Occasionally a lens will not grab focus especially in low light. I look for portions of the subject with high contrast and use this to acquire focus, then I recompose. This happens more frequently with zooms with high aperture, rather then my faster lenses. Last night I was shooting clouds covered lit up by the moon. I focused on a lit up house about 400 yards/meters away. I then used this focus to shoot clouds. see https://picasaweb.google.com/104310967428146619677/MoonCloud#
    This occasionally also happens with portraits and when lens starts searching for focus I move focus around face instead of just keeping focus on eye. Sometimes the hair skin interface will work well.

  • Stacie Jensen

    March 27, 2013 08:19 am

    Love BBF, makes huge difference in speed and sharpness.

  • cornel4web

    September 23, 2011 03:53 pm

    Sorry, but after a lot of reading in the last time about shooting, I found that my also used method of focus/recompose is not accurate...you should use the appropriate focus point in order to get better result of the in-focus parts and DOF you want...

  • Shishir

    May 27, 2011 12:40 pm

    #3? Seriously? And I thought I knew everything out there.

  • bhowell

    May 10, 2011 09:52 am

    I shoot sports with a D700 Nikon. Fast sports. I use "back button focus," continuous auto focus (Canon AL Servo), and the center focus point. It is up to me to keep the desired subject under the center focus point. If I don't, someone/something else is in focus, and I have lost my shot. #3 works, even with flash. When I shoot still subjects, there is so much time to consider camera settings that even I can hardly go wrong. Choosing exposure settings is always another matter altogether.

  • Terje Kolbeinsen

    May 6, 2011 08:32 pm

    Another thing with Canon is that many lenses let you directly adjust the focus manually after the focus has locked.

  • ian southward

    May 6, 2011 06:23 pm

    I cant use it with any great degree of certainty of a good shot as I mainly photograph aircraft, 120-210 mph on approach at an airport is asking a lot for my Tamron 300 to lock up on one particular spot, so I stay manual, but it is brilliant when taking seascapes or animal shots. #3 I will try and give feedback

  • KevinB

    May 6, 2011 04:02 pm

    This is a great post! Thanks to all. I've just acquired a Fuji HS20 to tackle in-flight bird photography. Will have to figure this focus lock / tracking thing out quickly - I'm going up to the Drakensberg vulture hide tomorrow! Cheers. Kevin.

  • Rolfe

    May 6, 2011 01:55 pm

    i agree , but take note of the type of camera you are using. there are settings like AF-S , AF-A, and AF-C.. so the "press halfway, then recompose" technique won't work all the time. :-)

    one should also consider the AF-Lock button :-)

  • Jyoti

    May 6, 2011 12:26 pm

    Very good feature indeed. Need some practice to master this feature. In D90 you can achieve by clicking Menu => custom setting menu => f controls => f4 => set this to AF-ON.

  • Jyoti

    May 6, 2011 12:26 pm

    Very good feature indeed. Need some practice to master this feature. In D90 you can achieve by clicking Menu => custom setting menu => f controls => f4 => set this to AF-ON.

  • nesa

    May 6, 2011 05:45 am

    You mean AF button by back-button?

  • Scott

    May 6, 2011 03:53 am

    @Gene - All Canon's with a joystick can be configured this way. It's in custom functions. The only difference is that the 7D performs more like Nikon where you press the joystick in the direction you want to move the AF point. On other Canon's with only 9-point AF the direction corresponds specifically to the point you want to use. 8 way directional + pressing for the center point.

  • Mayank

    May 6, 2011 02:51 am

    very valueable post. time to find the use of AE / AF lock

  • Gene

    April 30, 2011 02:22 am

    Or you can just buy a Canon 7D with the best auto-focus of any Canon and ability to move the AF point with the joystick. :-)

  • Lon

    April 30, 2011 02:03 am

    One other hint about MF, atleast on Canon Rebels (XTi, XSi) if you hold the shutter halfway (or hold the * button if using back-button focus) and adjust the focus manually it will beep or give the the circular "in-focus" indicator when the selected point is in focus (even though AF is off). The times I've found this useful is when I'm in MF and am either having a difficult time discerning the contrast of something at the focus point (it seems the camera is better than my eye at detecting contrast) or if I need to get a shot off quickly without having to feel for the af/mf switch.

  • John

    April 29, 2011 10:47 pm

    One additional downside to back button focusing, --- Try handing your camera to someone else so that you can be included in the picture and explaining how to focus-I have not often seen a sharp image when I am not the shooter.

  • John

    April 29, 2011 10:18 pm

    A few months ago I started using option #3 Back focus button. I really liked how I no longer had to switch from AF-S to AF-C. The downside for me was that it was difficult to remember to hold down shutter release for a 1/2 sec to engage vibration reduction, my auto focus assist light does not work in AF-C mode, and lastly when shooting with a wide angle and subject is near edge of frame or even with a normal focal length lens with a shallow depth of field your focus plane will be behind subject and you will not get a tack sharp image. I have since switched back to moving focus points around for portraits. For wildlife/ birds I still use back focus button.

  • Edgar

    April 29, 2011 03:41 pm

    #2 is a great tip and another reason i love my PENTAX DA Limited lenses; quick shift feature. Allows me to adjust focus without needing to flip a switch to manual focusing.

  • ScottC

    April 29, 2011 02:05 pm

    You can also leave the focus set to infinity by turning the camera on (with auto focus selected) and then changing the setting to manual focus. Each time the camera is turned on the focus is automatically set to infinity.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5577283782/

  • Nicole

    April 29, 2011 12:25 pm

    Thanks!
    That's what that Button at the back of my cam is for ;) I really need to read that big ol' book that I bought 3 years ago :P

  • sid cardenas

    April 29, 2011 12:15 pm

    @ greg aleknevicus - thanks for the instruction! will try it on my d40 tonight. :)

  • Mandeno Moments

    April 29, 2011 11:57 am

    Heather at 3:50: I have the 30D and you've got the right idea. To get the exposure of the face correct you can use Manual or set the custom function so that a half press of the shutter button locks auto exposure.

    One advantage of back-button AF is the it puts AF control on one button and auto exposure control on a seperate button.

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    Letting the camera decide what to focus on is the photographic version of Russian Roulette.

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    Perhaps Panasonic owners will find my article useful. I've written about back-button AF on the Lumix DMC-G2: this should also work on the G1, GF1, GH1, and GH2.

    http://wp.me/pkqf4-nm

  • Paul Willyams

    April 29, 2011 10:38 am

    On the Canon 7D you can set up #3 back button focussing and it is sensational. Someone on TWIP explained it this way: your shutter button used to do one thing, now it does at least three (AF/AE/shutter).

    Using a back button means that you completely control the focus, and let the camera work out the exposure when the shot is taken. In AF Servo mode, you just keep the back button held down all the time, while rattling off shots of passing birds. Or for a portrait you focus on the eyes then release the button, and the focus is locked in.

    Just set your Custom Controls so that the Shutter button is Metering Start, not Metering and AF Start. Then set the AF-ON button to Metering and AF Start. There are videos out there if you get stuck.

    The only catch is that you have to remember to press the back button, otherwise you won't get focus at all!

  • Ah'dhu

    April 29, 2011 10:02 am

    Great tips. #3 Ever since I found the back button to focus I have loved it. Used to focus using #1 method. Sometimes not very successful, especially if you are shooting moving objects. Never tried #2. Might try it. Thanks for the tips.

  • Calvin Pennick JR

    April 29, 2011 09:57 am

    I have really been struggling with autofocus during events when It is dark or when there isn't enough contrast. The Nikon D90 have a 3D tracking feature that seems to work well with technique one.

  • Lynda

    April 29, 2011 07:44 am

    I recently learned that autofocus works by finding contrast, so making sure your focus point is set to the spot with the most contrast will also help. That's been helping me a lot lately!

    I do trick #2 a LOT.

    I used to have my camera set up to do trick #3, but I never really use it. It's kind of a pain to work with.

    I still have my camera set up to lock spot metering with the shutter half depressed from when I shot in Aperture Priority mode. Now that I shoot exclusively in manual mode I need to change the AE lock! Thanks for the reminder!

  • Rick

    April 29, 2011 07:21 am

    Yeah, No. 1 doesn't work when you've got a narrow DOF. What I do to compensate is to get your focal point close to where you want to focus, then compose the shot with enough room to crop accordingly. I did my son's senior pictures last year the same day I got my 50mm f/1.4, and found all of this out the hard way. Needless to say, we had to re-shoot.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck

    April 29, 2011 06:44 am

    Hi

    Being old school, I like to look through a viewfinder and take Auto Focus OFF. Sometime the algorithms just dont do it for me. I want to be in control. When shooting brackets for HDR - the auto focus will adjust between exposures and ruin the series. In addition, it makes me take extra time which allows me to think about what exactly I am trying to achieve with the shot.

    For example, if I used Auto Focus on this shot of a classic engine, I am sure it would have been messed up!

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2011/04/27/ford-power/

    Regards, Erik

  • Tiberman

    July 9, 2010 07:38 am

    From a vantage point along the coast, I focus on a coconut tree (around 500 metres away) across the lagoon. My ancestor rests under that tree. So I wait for sunset to take multiple shots of that tree till it is almost completely dark. The sun happens to set just beside that tree, so you can imagine the drama AND the camera thirsting to focus elsewhere as the sharp contrasts change. No. 2 IS FOR ME! I'll try the back-button alternative sometime. But it would be tedious in dark twilight. I think. Thanks Steve.
    Tiberman - Mauritius

  • Heather

    July 7, 2010 03:50 pm

    If shooting a small child who is likely to "wiggle", would the recommendation be to have the Canon 40D in AI Servo mode and continue to depress the back button AF and shoot? Also if I know I want the child on say the left side of the frame would it be appropriate to have the far left point selected, then use the back button AF to maintain focus?

  • Heather

    May 15, 2010 08:44 am

    Scott,

    Thank you so much for taking the time to reply. The article really helped me gain a better understanding! I think my problem lately with achieving focus has been that I've been shooting a lot with a shallow DOF so when I'm recomposing the angles are different and like you've mentioned the distance changes. Thanks again! Heather

  • Scott

    May 14, 2010 12:52 am

    Heather, not so much. Read this:

    http://visual-vacations.com/Photography/focus-recompose_sucks.htm

    Then, I would suggest setting up the joystick on the back of the camera to control focus point selection. Using that you can select the focus point that makes sense for your composition and have a very minimal amount of recomposing needed.

    The back-button AF works well when the camera and subject doesn't move and you want to take repetitive shots without having to focus and recompose in between.

    However, if you're dealing with shallow DOF then both focus/recompose and back-button focus may lead to OOF shots. There could be minimal movement between clicks that aren't adjusted for with re-focusing and as in the article I linked states, recomposing changes the distance, even if only slightly.

    If you're shooting with plenty of DOF then it matters much less, so part of this depends on what kind of glass you have and what aperture you typically shoot at.

  • Heather

    May 13, 2010 04:09 pm

    So to clarify...if I'm using the "back button" on my Canon 40D for focusing I should:
    - Put the part of my subject that i want in sharp focus in the center of the frame
    - Press the button on the back (AF-ON) (I guess in theory this locks that particular focus right?)
    - Then as long as my subject is the same distance away I can recompose - (meaning I can now have the subject off to the left within my frame) and the camera will have kept the focus on my subject who is now off to the left within the frame?

    Thanks,
    Heather

  • Bob cole

    February 13, 2010 04:32 am

    Option #3, "Back Button", is especially useful for aerial photography. This technique was suggested to me as I prepared for aerial trip at Denali. (5DII) Worked beautifully as light changed constantly while focus did not.. Each "half press" of the button yielded curren exposure setting. Also used exposure bracketing for best exposure. In fast changing situation, "Back button" focus allowed me to concentrate on composing. See website for examples.

  • Debbie Weber

    February 12, 2010 06:00 am

    Great tip on the back button option!! I had never used it before but this really helps when I have to auto focus quickly- Thanks!

  • panoramic photo stitching

    February 2, 2010 06:13 pm

    Good and informative article. Useful ways to get better control of autofocus. Keep blogging and thanks.

  • nosw

    February 1, 2010 03:37 pm

    I couldn't see the advantage of #3 over #1. If you use back-button autofocusing you have the focus point in the middle, press the button then recompose and take a picture. When you recompose, you basically change the focal plane and suffer the same drawback as that of #1. Please someone explain to me on this? Does #3 function the same as "AF lock" button? Thanks for sharing this good info, Steve.

  • Steve Berardi

    February 1, 2010 03:53 am

    Hey, sorry for this late response.. I was out camping in the desert the last couple of days, so I'm just now getting back to a computer. Anyway, thanks for your comments!

    @scott / jeff - thanks for pointing out that you need to focus "with your final composition in mind." I should have mentioned this in the post.

    @clubped - I'm not sure how all image stabilization systems work, but with Canon, I know that if I compose, hold the shutter down halfway and then recompose, the IS will try to compensate, BUT: if you hold your final composition for a second or two, the IS will figure out what you're doing and stabilize around your new composition.

    @val - I use Canon, and have used back button autofocusing a lot on their SLRs. I'm sure there's some cameras out there that don't have or need this feature, but to list them all would have taken up an extraordinary amount of time and space.

    -Steve

  • Chris

    January 31, 2010 11:38 am

    Interesting article. Learned something new with #3 and will definitely have to learn that technique.

    I agree with commenters who say #1 will change your focal plane and using fast glass will cause out of focus on the details that you want sharp. I used this technique when I first started shooting with digital point and shoots. Didn't work so well when I went DSLR.

    Thanks Steve for this very informative article.

  • David Durán

    January 31, 2010 06:03 am

    Thanks, Scott, that made the trick ;-)

  • Politics

    January 31, 2010 05:24 am

    Photography
    Your topic is very nice. Coming for digital camera change the photo effect.

  • Tom L

    January 31, 2010 01:08 am

    Maybe start noting : "DSLR Only" tips.

  • Debbie L

    January 30, 2010 02:05 pm

    I'm honestly limited by #1 and #2. Can't wait to get some practice with #3. Love this place.

  • Chris

    January 30, 2010 09:03 am

    I'm on a Canon Rebel Xsi...here's how Canon describes how to find it.

    http://www.usa.canon.com/dlc/controller?act=GetArticleAct&articleID=2286&productID=190&articleTypeID=5

  • Jesse

    January 30, 2010 05:35 am

    Not sure why I have ignored this feature. I've been battling focus changes when trying to shoot the same subject, such as a plant with leaves at different depths. I will definitely give this a try today and probably utilize every time in the future.

  • Zack Jones

    January 30, 2010 05:26 am

    @Scott - thanks for pointing this out. I just downloaded the 40D manual from the Canon Web Site and now realized by setting the custom function I switched the purpose of the AF-ON and * buttons. I'll have to change that back so things function as they normally would.

  • Greg Aleknevicus

    January 30, 2010 02:33 am

    #3 on a Nikon D40:

    * Go to "Custom Setting Menu" (It's the little pencil.)
    * Select option #12 (AE-L/AF-L).
    * Set this option to "AF-ON".

    Your camera will now autofocus only when you press the "AE-L/AF-L" button (which is under your right thumb when shooting).

  • Scott

    January 30, 2010 01:32 am

    @Zach - The back AF button on the late model Canon cameras works for AF out of the box. The custom function works to take AF OFF the shutter, keeping it on AF On only, so that you can focus with the back button alone which allows you to essentially have on demand auto focus since you can now click the shutter without engaging it.

  • Zack Jones

    January 29, 2010 11:45 pm

    After reading this I configured my 40D to use back button focus and it's really a cool feature. Something I discovered is enabling this custom function allows you to focus with either the back button or the shutter release button -- very cool.

    @val y - Steve shoots with Canon gear though the techniques discussed should work with most DSLRs.

  • hfng

    January 29, 2010 07:50 pm

    #3

    Couple back focusing with AI Servo. You can easily track moving targets.

  • Digambar Rajbansi

    January 29, 2010 07:11 pm

    I liked the article. It was simple to go # 2 but i didn't think that way, now onwards i'll try it. I usually use #1 but for my studio & programmes i use #3, it helps me to keep control on the moving or for more stedy shots.

  • Jonathon Jenkins

    January 29, 2010 04:45 pm

    I use #1 almost exclusively and #2 for those times where #1 doesn't work for me. I've only used my AF button on the back when I'm trying to use live view. I've found #1 to be of great value especially when I'm striving for very shallow depth of field shots. I used #1 for the following shot to only focus on the ice:

    http://www.jljfoto.com/Other/Todays-Images/5762973_WM3MW#751486886_SD6iZ

  • Chris

    January 29, 2010 09:56 am

    I'm on a Canon Rebel Xsi and I can't figure out where to find back-button autofocusing. I found a section in the manual called "AE Lock"....Is it also known as "AE Lock?"

  • Val Y.

    January 29, 2010 09:45 am

    Interesting ideas BUT
    The author should specify the brand/type of camera(s) he is talking about, yes?
    Not all camera manufacturers need nor have the back button feature.

    DPS - you should have caught this before publishing.

  • clubped

    January 29, 2010 08:52 am

    How does method #1 work with an image stabilizer? Wouldn't the image stabilizer be trying to compensate for the movement?

  • Scott

    January 29, 2010 07:10 am

    @David - There is a Custom Function to switch the AF On and * buttons. That will allow you to use Back Button focus with a grip on the 40D.

  • eric

    January 29, 2010 06:15 am

    back-button focusing on my canon cameras a year ago has completely changed my life. thanks for sharing with others.

  • Jeff

    January 29, 2010 04:33 am

    #1 - As Scott mentioned, using the center point for focus lock, then recomposing can yield unexpected results. The distance to your desired focus area will not be accurate (think about triangle geometry). The problem is magnified with closer subjects and larger apertures (smaller DOF). A better solution is to select an autofocus point that nearest to the desired focus area and lock with that one. Then recompose slightly to fine-tune your frame.

  • Scott

    January 29, 2010 04:11 am

    #4. On Canon's there is an option to set the back button to AF Lock but you lose AE lock (on my 5D at least). That's a good option for quickly disabling AF if you prefer shutter AF as apposed to Back Button AF.
    -----
    Focus and recompose works fine on crop sensors with cheap glass. Once you get into fast glass and especially fast glass on full frame you'll find that you are shifting your focal plane too much.

    The best option is selecting your focal point with your final composition in mind. Hopefully you have a camera with full cross type sensors like the 40D and 50D. (And hopefully Canon will release the next 5D will full cross-type!)

    The back button AF works well because it lets you control when the AF turns on. I used to use it to get my focus and then shoot multiple frames when doing portraits. But, since I got my 5D I've stopped. I usually have my 580exII on camera (bounced with a black foamy) so I can make use of the AF assist since the 5D's AF sucks in low light.

    If you lean forward or backward, or the subject moves, you will get out of focus shots if you are shooting shallow. And, if you are shooting kids with this technique it's likely that they will move out of the focal plane between hitting the back button and the shutter.

    There are places for every technique, but I've found that using the shutter button only and selecting specific focus points provides the best focused shots.

  • Paul

    January 29, 2010 03:38 am

    If you have a camera with a DMF (Direct Manual Focus) mode then #2 is really easy. In DMF, half pressing the shutter gives you the usual autofocus process, after which the camera automatically disengages the focus gear and lets you fine tune before taking the shot (thus avoiding you having to find the AF/MF switch with your hand). I often find this to be the most useful focus mode on my camera.

  • jm

    January 29, 2010 03:31 am

    #1 may not work on the newer AF systems, because the camera will want to refocus when you recompose (if you are still holding that shutter down halfway)

    #2 seems a bit cumbersome if you are doing this between every shot. And if you don't like a center-composed subject, that is what you would be doing.

    #3 is a great option. A possible #4 is to simply use the AE/AF lock button after you have your focal point where you want it (Pretty sure all Nikons have this feature, and I imagine Canon would as well). After you focus, lock it in by holding the AE/AF lock button with your right thumb, recompose, and fire away. As long as you are holding that button down with your thumb, the camera will not refocus on anything no matter how many times you click the shutter. The benefit to this is you don't have to change any camera settings and you don't have to reposition your hands at all. With practice, it becomes second nature. I don't even realize I'm doing it, even though I use it for nearly every single picture during weddings, engagements, etc. As an added benefit, if you are using a metering mode (A, P, or S), you can also lock in a meter value from a neutral object if by chance your subject is all white or bright, or all black or very dark.

  • Ryan McKay

    January 29, 2010 02:54 am

    I am soooo looking for tip 3 tonite!

  • Kerri Shotts

    January 29, 2010 02:28 am

    Nice article, and good tips.

    For #1, if you are shooting with a narrow depth of field, this will be a problem. Select the focus point and use that to focus. More steps involved, but better results.

    For #3, using a back button to focus is amazing. I went to it several months ago just to see how I would like it, and fell in love. Now whenever I pick up a camera that doesn't have the option, or doesn't have it set, I feel lost.

    Before I found the back button to focus, I would use #2 all the time. And for cameras where that isn't option, it is a very good option... until that amazing, but unexpected, shot pops its head up, and you're out of focus, and can't hit the switch fast enough. Thankfully that doesn't happen all the time, but when it does happen, it's really annoying!

  • Marc

    January 29, 2010 01:57 am

    #3: On my Fuji it is indeed called AE-Lock.

    And now I know what it is for. Thank you!

  • David Durán

    January 29, 2010 01:51 am

    I'm a big fan of this feature too, being very useful in concert shootings. However, I cannot manage to learn which the back-button is when using the grip of my Canon 40D (which is the same model the 50D uses) because it lacks of the AF-ON button (which it happens to be the back-button for focusing when in landscape orientation). Does anyone know? :-/

  • Paul

    January 29, 2010 01:43 am

    #1, with a very shallow depth of field can be troublesome

  • Clay Anthony

    January 29, 2010 01:43 am

    I use technique #2 regularly for studio still life and product shots. Definitely cuts the number of "opps, camera changed focus on me" shots.

  • Michael

    January 29, 2010 01:27 am

    I almost always use #1. It is definitely habit now - I don't know if that is because of my mistrust of auto-focus or what. I definitely prefer it though.

  • Dan

    January 29, 2010 01:19 am

    I can personally attest to the value of #3. I discovered my back-button autofocusing feature by accident recently, and it's been amazing. Now the half-pressed shutter takes a light meter reading, which is actually much more helpful to me. Personally, this would be my #1 recommendation, although you will have to let your brain reprogram itself, too.

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