Advanced Tips for Tack Sharp Images

Advanced Tips for Tack Sharp Images

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One very common question I get from photographers is why they can never get their images as sharp as the ones they see online. This is a loaded question, and it really made me think about all the things I go through to get tack sharp focus on my images. Sure there are the obvious tips like holding the camera properly, squeezing the shutter instead of stabbing it, tucking your elbows in, and so on. The truth is, that is just the beginning to taking sharper photographs.

Let me start off by saying that I still take blurry images from time to time. All professional photographers do. The only difference is that we don’t post them online! However, I will also bet that I take far less than most other photographers, and there are clear reasons as to why. Getting sharp images involves a combination of a few different techniques, and when put together they will produce a far higher success rate of sharp images.

Back Button Auto-Focus

I can honestly say that about 90% of the photographers I talk to don’t use this built in feature on almost all cameras. Whenever I ask photographers how they focus on a subject, the response is that they press the shutter half way down to focus, then all the way down to take the picture. The problem with this is that EVERY time you take a picture, your camera is going to re-focus the frame. What if your subject is a far away person and there is a crowd of people walking between you? You can’t just set your focus distance and fire away. Instead you have to wait for line of site to your subject and hope nobody walks by while you focus each time.

On most (nearly all) cameras, there is a button on the back of the camera titled “AF On.” Through your menu settings, you can set this button as your focus trigger. This way, you set your focus then fire off as many shots as you need to. The focus point stays the same through all shots and the shutter is free to be used as just that, a shutter.

Read more about Back Button Focus in James’ post – 3 Reasons Why You Should Switch To Back Button Focus

Single Point AF

One of the many revelations that photographers have is discovering the difference between letting your camera decide how to do something, and telling your camera what to do. Most photographers press their shutter down halfway and the camera decides what to focus on. More often than not, it picks the right thing. This is normally because the subject is prominent in the frame and the camera can easily find a contrasting element to focus on. Using this simple method is fine in a lot of cases, but if you begin to venture into prime lenses and shallow depth of fields, your images will begin to suffer greatly.

If your subject is 10 feet away and you’re shooting f/2.8 at 200mm, your depth of field is only 1 1/2 inches deep! That means that your subject will come into focus at 9.94 feet away, and drop out of focus at 10.06 feet away. Do you want to leave a 1.5 inch depth of field up to your camera? What if it focuses on the tip of the nose? Now your subjects eyes are out of focus.

Your camera should have a button (top right in image) that shows how the camera is focusing. The default is to have all the focus points on and the camera uses those points to decide where to focus. Instead, press the focus grid button and use the joy stick (bottom left in image) to decide where to set your focus point. Instead of a bunch of focus points popping up when your go to focus your subject, you will now only see the single focus point that you set. Now if you want to focus on your subjects eye, place your selected focus point over the eye and simply tap your AF-ON button. Your focus is now set for that mark in the frame. The only thing you need to worry about now is movement.

AI Servo Focus Tracking

Funny name, serious setting. Getting your camera off of “One Shot” can be revolutionary to your photography if you have yet to discover Servo focus mode. Here’s an example of how Servo works: You’re shooting a wedding during the end of the ceremony. You are at the end of the aisle and the wedding party is walking down toward you. You are shooting at f/2.8 because it’s dark and you want to let in as much light as possible. Your depth of field is 6 inches. With “One Shot,” your camera only focuses on the subject each time the focus button is pressed. You then have to press the shutter to take the picture. With a depth of field of 6 inches, and the wedding party walking towards you in groups of two, your window of opportunity to get your shot in focus is incredibly small. One strategy is to just try and be quick, pressing the focus button and shutter in succession as quickly as possible. Another strategy is to set a mark on the aisle as a window of opportunity and wait for each person to hit that mark, then take the picture. This is hit or miss though, and you only have one chance. You don’t want to take chances like this at a wedding!

Enter AI Servo

When you switch your camera over to AI Servo, everything changes. Servo was introduced as a standard camera setting all the way back in the 80’s, by request of several sports photographers who needed a better way of ensuring focus on moving subjects. With Servo activated, now your camera will track focus on the wedding party as they move toward you, and will keep updating every step of the way. This works whether the subject is coming toward, or moving away from you. In your menu settings, you can even adjust the sensitivity of the focus tracking.

Examples Using These Tips

This shot is from a meet and greet session with the band Jars of Clay, at a concert in Austin, Texas. The manager told everyone not to worry about taking pictures until after the show because any meet and greet pictures would be boring. I took that as a challenge. I sat patiently for the right moment and when I saw their lead singer make eye contact with my lens, I fired away.

With normal focus methods, this shot may not have been possible, and I don’t like taking chances. If I used grid focus, how would my camera know to focus on HIS face, and not something else in the frame? Instead of using the entire focus grid, I turned on a single auto focus point and placed that point over the lead singers face. I then used my back button to focus that point over his face and waited for the right moment. When he looked my way, everything was already done, all I had to do was hold down the shutter.

This is one of my favorite pictures I’ve taken. It’s my nephew Will being spun around by his dad Billy (my brother in law). I think the image embodies the love between a father and a son, and what better backdrop than fair grounds? With factory set focus methods, the probability of pulling off this shot would have been slim to none. Sure, you can spray and pray, and hopefully you will end up with a keeper, but what if you don’t? The moment is gone! For this shot, I had a single point activated in my focus grid and used AI-Servo to track my nephew as he spun around in circles. Because I had back button auto focus on and Servo tracking, I was able to hold down the focus button to track focus as he spun around. This allowed me to track focus using my thumb and hold down the shutter with my index finger. Trust me, this stuff becomes crucial when you start using shallow depth of field like in this shot.

I took this shot during a family shoot last spring. I was having a tough time getting this little guy to open up to the camera and I had to figure something out quick. I noticed a ledge (as seen in the background) and made a bet with him that there was just no way he could jump off that ledge because it was only for big boys. Well, that was all it took! Within seconds he was up on the ledge with a smile on his face, ready to prove me wrong. Again, I used Servo focus tracking and held it down during the jump using back button focus. I grabbed this frame as he made a bit of a rough landing.

This image was taken at Carlsbad State Beach in southern California. This surfer girl noticed my camera and came running up the beach to greet me and talk photography. She was also a photog and wanted to make sure I didn’t get a shot of her wiping out! As she walked back out to catch some more waves, I grabbed this shot of her. I placed a single AF point over her back, then held down Servo focus tracking so my camera would keep her in focus as she walked away. When the moment was right, I held down the shutter to capture a hand full of frames. This was the winner.


These focus tips completely rocked my world when I discovered them, and they will always be part of my work flow, now and in the future. I probably use AI Servo about 90% of the time. The only time I don’t is when it’s too dark for the camera to focus without an assist beam from a flash. To use a flashes focus assist grid you have to be in “One Shot” instead of AI Servo (at least as far as I can tell). I don’t see any reason to ever go back to using my shutter button for focusing. I have never looked back on that front! And as far as grid or single point AF goes, it’s pretty much the same story. I use my entire grid maybe 1% of the time.

If these tips are new to you, I urge you to stop what you are doing and give them a shot. I will admit, using back button focus and single AF points takes some getting used to, but eventually it becomes second nature. At this point, I can switch focus points on my grid in the blink of an eye, and using the back button for focus is instrumental in placing those points of focus on their targets.

Call to Action

Let us know if these tips have helped you! Use the comment section below to post links to examples or ask any questions you may have. Be sure to follow me on Twitter (@jamesdbrandon), I can answer questions there as well and I always try to share links of other inspirational articles and work from around the interwebs! Now go out and take some pictures!

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

James Brandon is a landscape photographer and educator residing in Dallas, Texas. Join 20,000+ photographers and get access to his free video tutorial library at his website. James also has an online store full of video courses, ebooks, presets and more. Use the coupon code "DPS25" for an exclusive discount!

Some Older Comments

  • Tom Upton September 25, 2013 03:48 am

    No you do not. They are independent. Actually divorced...The back focus is a "momentary" switch, working only while depressed. Once you release the back button focus you are set for the last focused upon point/plane in your scene. Just like in single shot focus mode.You can fire at will. Holding the bb focus button down is akin to shooting in continuous focus mode. You can release the shutter at any time, focus button or no button. The beauty of bb focus is you have the best of the modes single and continuous at your fingertips, no beeping and full discretion. These buttons are independent and bi partisan, they will not preclude, interfere, or negate the other's function. Unlike the U.S. Congress.

  • Julie Rogers September 22, 2013 06:57 am

    I have been using AI servo and back button focusing. My question is: do you take the picture ( push the shutter ) while you are you're holding down the back button or do you release the back button immediately before you push the shutter.

  • Hali August 23, 2013 12:41 am

    Thank you!! This is the BEST explanation I have read on how the 3 elements correlate! I was changed my shutter button to just be the shutter and used the Back Button for focus. Found it tricky when I started to work with the points. Especially since you can't activate 2? He has 2 eyes! How does recomposing come into place with these elements? Can you hit your BB and then slowly move the camera? I'm a graphic designer so it's in my nature to allow for a lot of negative space!

  • Tom Upton August 22, 2013 03:23 am

    Either way will work. This focus point functionality is set up for you to have choices. I know that answers like this involves yet more pedantically-annoying, "it is up to you" stuff etc...and that involves actually knowing when to use a side-point rather than the center-focus/recompose approach. Often in the heat of excitement setting up a shot one forgets things. In this shot of the Mountain Columbine, I got so involved with hanging the camera from the center column, I forgot to focus. So now I am composed, on my knees in 32 degree august snow melt rivulet in the sierras, underneath my tripod. My center focus point is not helping me. The bottom most point made the shot easy so I could get out of cold water. Faster. [eimg link='' title='Sierra_Clmbne2148_web' url='']

  • Mike Servis August 20, 2013 11:54 am

    I use to use AI Servo mode but found I was always forgetting to put the mode back to One Shot mode.

  • Mark Johnson July 9, 2013 06:27 am

    I have the canon T2i and a 50mm 1.8 besides the 18-55 and 55-250. By using the focus points do you use the center focus point on your subject ( like the surfer girl pic above) and use the focus button on back and point the camera so the center focus point is on her back then recompose the shot to get a better composition now that you have focus lock? Or do you chose the nearest focus point on your subject?

  • TomUpton February 22, 2013 11:19 am

    this will change your photography forever. BTW had a hard time navigation your website, cover image was cool though...

  • Jazza Vock February 21, 2013 01:55 pm

    This article just rocked my entire world. Thank you thank you thank you!

  • TomUpton February 19, 2013 04:11 pm

    the button you are looking for is the (AE/AF lock) read about it on pgs. 34,97,98 of you manual. The manual is cryptic at best. Keep in mind the goal is to separate the release button from the act of focusing. You will need to try the different setting Nikon suggests and see if it works. Specifically on p. 98 you want to set the function of the button to the "AF-on" option. This will take some getting used to, i often for get that my focus is on the back button and blow a few frames. Once you get the hang of it you can keep your camera in AF-A mode and it is a whole new way of focusing, fluidly and accurately. But that is for lazy people, I do recommend you be very aware of the auto focus Modes you are in and never forget to use Manual focus in low light and with macro lenses.

  • Andrea simmons February 17, 2013 03:57 pm

    I have a Nikon d50 and I don't see these buttons or I can't find them. Any suggestions

  • Steve January 14, 2013 10:05 pm

    Great article, but does this only apply to Canon?... I see a lot of Canon references, anyway.. I shoot Nikon - no problem with focus... peace ;)

  • Helen December 11, 2012 04:28 pm

    Do you have any tips for the fujifilm x100? :)

  • Jill Benzaquen October 22, 2012 01:01 pm

    Thank you so much! Used your tips today & it made all the difference. Very happy to see the results in my shoot and even happier that my passion for taking photos is reignited!

  • Sharon October 19, 2012 03:58 pm

    Thank you so much for this great article! I've put these suggestions into practice and have loved the results. The one area I can't seem to conquer is family/group photography! Is there any way you can offer suggestions for focusing on groups as well as settings you might use? Thanks again!

  • Eric Cuenca October 13, 2012 10:21 pm

    Great article. I am sure it will help me a lot. Thank you so much.

  • Sarah N October 5, 2012 10:03 am

    This is an excellent article!!! Great tips that I will be doing from now on!!

  • Denise Boyd October 4, 2012 02:47 pm

    I love it! Thank you so much for this great information. I wish I knew this 2 years ago.

  • George Krousti October 3, 2012 06:46 am

    Loads of great information on this page. You have taught me something that probably would have cost a few hundred on a course! Much appreciated.

  • Rachael August 20, 2012 08:21 am

    This is EXACTLY what I was looking for in answer of "these kids are SO hard to catch, they're never in focus!" I would love to have this as a youtube video to see the techinique of what you wrote. Thanks!

  • Celeste May 19, 2012 04:46 am

    I was surfing the web on tutorials and so glad I stumbled onto this very helpful single point AF tip. It has made an 100% difference in getting the macro shots! Thanks so much...

  • Stevo April 10, 2012 09:50 am

    I have been struggling with tracking moving children and now i know why!....setting the focus to the Af on button makes complete and absolute sense! It was like a light bulb going off in my head!!

    Thank you so much

  • jonalisa April 4, 2012 10:59 am

    James, I loved this article so much that I bought the ebook and it has transformed my photography experience.
    No more disappointment and frustration holding me back.
    And I just want to add that you have an easy going writing style which made the steps & explanations easy to grasp. Thanks.

  • Ben Anderson March 30, 2012 10:02 pm

    he T2i and T3i have a back focus button option:

    On the Canon T2i, press “Menu” and navigate to custom function IV-9: “Shutter/AE lock button”. Your options will be:

    ?0: AF/AE lock
    ?1: AE lock/AF
    ?2: AF/AF lock, no AE lock
    ?3: AE/AF, no AE lock

  • Patti Johnston February 19, 2012 06:07 am

    Thank you for educating me on AF ON and A1 Servo. Have been practicing this all day and I get it now.

    You comment back to someone about testing how Servo works really helped it click.

    Your comment: " To test out and familiarize yourself with how Servo works try this: Sit at your couch, your desk or wherever with your camera. Set the camera to servo focusing and use the center focus point in your grid. Place some sort of object in front of you probably no more than 3 feet away. This could be a cup, an apple, the remote, whatever. If you’re using the AF-ON button for focusing like I went over in this article, simply hold the AF-ON button down with the focus point over your subject and start physically moving the camera towards the subject as you look through the viewfinder. You should see the focus constantly updating as you do this. As you do this, you’ll notice that the camera isn’t focusing then refocusing incrementally. Rather, it’s in a state of constant, smooth focus tracking on your subject. The speed at which the camera is able to track will depend on the lens mostly and how fast the motor is."

    Great article! Will take my shooting up a notch.

  • sherry February 16, 2012 03:16 pm

    ok.. so great info... but I have a question>>> on my 5D mkii, when i press my back button to focus, my shutter will not focus as well, only take the picture. When I do the same thing on my 7D, the front shutter button also focuses...won't that be a problem??

  • Tom Upton February 15, 2012 02:17 am

    Canon 7D or the Nikon D7000, depending on what lenses you have and may want to keep. Read about them on

  • Shilpa February 14, 2012 02:54 pm

    Hello, I have been reading you articles, and they have been very useful. I have Canon450D which I bought 4 years ago, but now i feel I need a new Semi prof one, what would be your advise, a Canon or a Nikon, and what series,
    please suggest.

  • Karen Reyburn February 10, 2012 09:21 am

    Really helpful and so simply written! Love it, thank you!!

  • Pam January 25, 2012 10:57 am

    I just came across your article now - thank you for sharing. I use single focus points and have heard great things of the back button focus; however, I find that when I use that and try to recompose that it refocuses on my single focal point when I push the shutter. Any thoughts on this? I did go ino my menu and turn on AF point disp - thought this would solve my issue.

  • Kimber January 24, 2012 03:22 pm

    I don't think the Canon T2i has that focus button on it. I have been looking. DO you know if it does and what it looks like?

  • Tom Upton January 22, 2012 02:56 am

    I can't speak to the 7D yet, mine is still in the box. One of the reasons I did buy it is for the focus point variety. this is the first time Canon has offered more focus point options in a prosumer camera. One setting does not fit all situations in a fluid scene with soccer balls and kids I like the auto points setting when shooting my son's water polo team. I will use the 7D in the same manner going for clusters of points or overall auto settings of points when I am chasing down rugrats or birds. The focus points and the focus modes are some of the most tricky things to these cameras. Practice practice practice when learning modes and Location location location when learning points.

  • Jeremy Hearne January 21, 2012 11:55 am

    I am going to try the back-button focusing. However, I have a question about the focus points. I have a Canon 7D and I primarily use the single focus point when taking portraits. But what about for sports and/or moving children? I've been told I should use either the Zone focus points or the expansion mode when in AI Servo. What is your opinion on this? Do you always use the single point auto focus point mode? Thank you.

  • Ken Stolz January 21, 2012 10:28 am

    Depends on where you have AF Mode (Canon) set: one shot or servo. For one shot, you need to press the button multiple times as you track the subject (just before you hit the shutter each time). If on servo, you focus on the subject and hold it down as you track the subject. And if you are shooting a Canon, the green light in the viewfinder works differently in servo. Blinking green light means it is not tracking, no green light means it is tracking.

  • Nancy January 19, 2012 02:04 am

    One question, do you have to keep the af/on button pressed down continually while tracking the subject, then let go when you take the shot or can you keep it pressed down and press the shutter? Thanks for this article. Have been using the af/on for focusing but on one shot. Getting some out of focus shots.

  • Tom Upton January 16, 2012 03:13 pm

    can you be more specific? Canon indeed does not make it easy to understand how to set these AF options in the C.fn menus.

  • tonyjr January 16, 2012 01:11 pm

    Thanks , I have the factory and 2 other 7D manuals - all 3 suck as far as turning AF ON and off and just using it .

  • Jenna January 5, 2012 04:02 pm

    Great tips, I was pretty excited when I saw the picture of the surfer girl in Carlsbad. I grew up there and will be there this weekend to take pictures, and teach my 14 year old cousin how to use her new DSLR camera (I'll be the surfer girl) Thanks for the inspiration :)

  • Tom Upton December 30, 2011 03:18 am

    I do believe on the Rebel there is a button on the back this has an asterisk on it. If I am not mistaken you can set that button to a back focus function in your custom functions (Cfn) Menu...
    Tom Upton

  • Christy December 29, 2011 10:00 am

    WOW! Thank you so much!
    One thing I'd like to mention, on my Canon Rebel model, I don't have a back AF button, but what I can do is set the focus point and then switch it to manual so the camera doesn't try to refocus on me once I've got it where I want it. Again thanks so much for these tips, this has been the one hurdle I couldn't overcome and now I'm sure I can conquer this problem!

  • Jenni R December 10, 2011 12:56 pm

    You can actually download the full instruction manual from Canon's website. Browse to that camera and then go to Brochures and Manuals and the instruction manual (290 some pages) is available PDF... and I just compared it to the manual that was on the CD and it's the same thing :)

  • Tom Upton December 10, 2011 11:56 am

    Ah Ha!
    I just downloaded the "basic instruction Manual" this is a new trend. Skimpy manuals that just give you the bare minimum...Your full instruction manual is on the Cd that came with the camera. (like it says on the cover of your basic guide) Open up the PDF of that and that is where you will find the part in the manual where you can change your custom functions (C.Fn) settings for the star button and then separate Church from State!

    keep us posted!

  • Jenni R December 10, 2011 11:54 am

    Perfect! Thanks! I'll have a look tonight!

  • Tom Upton December 10, 2011 11:43 am

    Seems the T3 is so new I do not have the manual yet. Check the same general place, in your manual...the part in the custom functions usually in the end of the manual that deals with the "AE lock FE lock button" that is where you can separate focus and exposure functions normally done by the shutter button.

  • Jenni R December 10, 2011 11:33 am

    Tom, I actually have the T3, not the T3i... any idea where in that manual? I think I might have ran across it in playing last night but want to review it in the manual. Thanks!

  • Tom Upton December 10, 2011 11:27 am

    The 7D is a helluva upgrade, you are definitely looking for more. (ie: I want one too) The focus points in the 7D are different than the previous Canons. I think this is the first time (except in the pro series $8k models) Canon expanded the fosuc point process, also to get caught up with Nikon in terms of focus point versatility. P.88 in your 7D manual will run you through the focus point selection process with the M-Fn button, and then the various ways to select points or clusters of points, pretty cool when you get the hang of it. I know learning stuff from the manual is really risky so have some strong coffee on hand and take a step at a time. The manuals put me to sleep and I do this for a living,and i know sleep experts at Stanford.
    Tom Upton
    Palo Alto, CA

  • Tom Upton December 10, 2011 11:16 am

    1) First refer to page 256 of your T3i manual. c.Fn.9= This is the custom function setting to assign the asterisk button a varied function from the factory default. The language of the manual is s bit dry so bear with it. Try the settings with the camera with you in your lap and then try another setting to get the hang of it. I would try setting 1. This is where one can separate the focus and exposure functions normally elicited by the shutter button simultaneously. It's awesome. In other words this is where the rock star wedding jock photographers set their camera to get the bride walking down the isle. He only gets one chance for this so this is a cool setting to know and then practice, and then master. It is different than the default so you have to remember how you have set the camera! The other thing to keep in mind is that this button and the focus point button is also right there so make it a point to know what button your are pushing. I set my camera here and tap the * button to focus and lock or hold it to get more continuous focusing.

    2) go to this article, at the Canon Learning Center and print it out using the web print icon. this really takes focus to the next level. Remember that learning to focus with a DSLR is a process. These cameras are the real deal, precise, professional and stunning results await you. You need to know your modes and you need to know your focus points. Then you need to practice with fast shutter speeds. give yourself time to make this practice happen and you will have learned a trick most pros know and amateurs and weekend warriors miss.

    Tom Upton

  • Jenni R December 9, 2011 08:37 am

    Anybody know where/how to activate the back button focus on a Canon T3? I've looked in the manual and it talks about AE lock and AF lock... is this the same? Because to me and didn't really sound like the manual was explaining how this back button focus is being explained.

  • Mindy December 9, 2011 05:12 am

    I am glad I found this as well, just upgraded to a 7D and am having major trouble with all the focus points!! Will be saving this to read up and practice!!

  • Kimberly November 10, 2011 05:48 am

    I have been looking for this information for about a year now. Thank you so much for sharing. Also, I absolutely love the horse picture!

  • Funky Junk Interiors November 1, 2011 02:32 am

    Thank-you!! I'm new to an SLR and this tip is absolutely brilliant! I had been wondering how to achieve this without even realizing there was an actual way. :)


  • Marilyn October 29, 2011 11:38 am

    Just what I needed for a quick read. I just upgraded from a Rebel t2i to a 7D and am trying to get my head wrapped around the new awesomeness of my AI Servo.

  • Amie October 25, 2011 03:38 pm

    Wow~ AI Focusing! I never knew! I've been needing this information, and didn't know how to focus in this way... until now! Yay! I'm SO loving knowing this now, and can hardly wait to get started using it in my work. THANK YOU!!

  • Wendhy Jeffers October 5, 2011 03:01 pm

    Very good article. Thanks for putting things in plain english so that I can understand :)

  • Laura September 19, 2011 11:52 pm

    This is fabulous! Thanks for the explanation of AI Servo! I tried it when tinkering with my camera just after I got it. I noticed that it drained my battery much faster so I stopped using it. I will stock up on batteries and include it in my practice as a pet photographer.... this is much needed!

  • Davilicious September 14, 2011 01:51 am

    Hi James,

    Your tip about the back button focus is great. I've been using it after reading this tip and never going to leave it until far better focusing method is found, especially for shooting moving objects. Thanks a lot...

  • elena September 5, 2011 04:52 am

    Thanks for the tip ( I'm new in this stuff)

    It is very interesting, I'm going to try it now I think it will help a lot with kids pictures.

  • mj onsori September 3, 2011 02:27 pm

    i've seen this tips on many tutorial photography movies,but i think it's better to repeat it many times ,to get learn it intuitively and could use it.
    (I hate when i go out and taking pictures of some animals or landscapes and some people are coming and asking me "Did you take my pictures????"
    Ooooh,It's hard to concentrate just on your subject on crowded places!
    That helped me,Thanks!

  • Leah September 3, 2011 05:57 am

    nice tips (:
    the back button tip is new for me but i dont have a back button auto focus button :(
    and i dont really want to loose the metering lock...
    i use that pretty often.

    thoug hthis article is definatly making me make up my mind to try the al servo setting more often :D

  • Tom Upton August 30, 2011 01:33 am

    I have never really warmed up to AIServo ("Auto Intelligent" servo, if you can believe it. this was, no doubt, a term decided by a committee) I will try the wide aperture option. I own the same 70-200.

    I have never really felt the AIServo worked well. Auto focus need to find contrast within a scene so the more light there is the more information the focusing system has to parse. So this makes sense, except that it is not practical. Most lenses these days are fixed at max aperture for preview purposes so this should be a moot point. Again the utility with AI is to track once stationary subjects that are now moving. I tend to divide my focus options between single shot and continuous. In continuous (full Servo) I have been able to work well once i put auto focus start on a back button. My rationale is that there are not that many subjects that are stop and start for me. And when there are, I use the Servo mode full bore. with the back button. I Hope this helps. this subject is one of the most elusive and yet most important. I appreciate this blog thread and hope some more knowledgeable lens geeks can chime in on this, because it is an enduring mystery!
    Tom Upton

  • Gary August 29, 2011 11:52 am

    Great article. I would add the AWESOME feature of "Micro-adjusting" It is in the Custom Function menu of the 5dII and 7d (other to, but these are the two I own).

    Basically calibrating your lense/camera combo.

    To find out how accurate your lense/camera is, focus on a yard stick sloped up and away from you (u can also buy a fancy tool) best to have camera on a tripod. Lets say you focus on the 18 inch mark, you may find it has a sharper focus on the 22 inch mark. Mico-adjust will allow you to hone the focus accuracy.

    Sorry for the short explanantion (but it is late and I don't have the camera with me). You can google to find out more or send me an email.

    This adjustment option has made a tremendous difference to our business.

    Happy shooting,

  • Joe Pyle August 29, 2011 07:49 am

    Am I to understand that in order for AI servo mode to work correctly, one must use a lens with 2.8 or better capability? If so, bummer. Just bought a 70-200f4L IS, and a 17-40F4L. Please let me know, as it is very relevant.

  • Ken Stolz August 19, 2011 02:44 am

    I've very much enjoyed this thread and hearing of all the "converts" to back button focus. I also bought the e--book and it's got even more great points (pun intended).

    So how about a new thread that addresses where the metering point is, how it can or can't be synced with the focal point, and that related? back button AE lock.


  • Tom Upton August 18, 2011 03:45 pm

    These are your focus points. You can turn them off in your menu, the first or second review icon (blue triangle) right by the Histogram and the highlight warning. It can be annoying if you have a lot of points displaying (due to the auto focus point display selection); however now that you know what it shows you it can be useful as you build your focusing skills. The points do not show up anywhere else and are not in the file.

  • Stephanie D August 17, 2011 11:13 pm

    Great article, I was playing around with the back button focusing and now when I play back the image on the lcd screen it shows a red square where my focus was on all of my pictures. How do I get that off? It's distracting, but when I zoom in on the lcd screen the red square is gone.

  • susan costa August 12, 2011 01:18 pm

    James, Love the article and plan to practice this technque ASAP. I take a lot of family portraits and need all subjects in focus. Would I just adjust the focus point fron single focus point to point expansion?

  • Maureen August 12, 2011 11:07 am

    I have a Canon PowerShot S3IS and the AF-ON button is located just below the Omni Selector (joystick to you). This might help those that haven't located it on their Canon model. I am delighted to know what it is for (thanks to you) and how to use it.

    However the AI Servo is a puzzle. The only thing I've found that might be related is "Continuous Shooting Mode". Is this what you are talking about? Would appreciate a confirmation.


  • Ike August 12, 2011 10:29 am

    I'm taking your challenge and will try out more single point AF on my D3S as well as beginning to acclimate myself in use of the AF-ON button. I take a heap of low light photos of my kids with 50mm/1.4 & 85mm/1.4 so I'll let you know if my sharpness success improves. Thanks!

  • Sascha August 12, 2011 02:12 am

    Thank you for taking the time to answer my question(s). So I understand that I DO have to follow my subject with the single focus point. Which means…while your nephew was spinning around you actually were following him with the camera? The follow-up question I have then is: How do you compose a nice frame? Do you toggle your focus point? If I have my single focus point in the center and focus on the brides eyes…her head will be in the center of the picture and her legs will be cut off while I maybe rather would like her head in the upper corner to fill the frame with her dress. How can I compose a nice frame if I have to concentrate that my focus point is where I want it to be?


  • James Brandon August 12, 2011 01:46 am

    Thanks Sacha,

    I truly appreciate the kind words :-).

    During servo focusing, the camera simply keeps focus on whatever your chosen focus point is over. It is up to you the photographer to keep that single focus point over the moving subject. If the subject is a plane flying through the aire from right to left then you have to place a focus point over the plane and do your best to keep it their as it goes by. If your subject is a bride walking towards you on the aisle then it's your job to keep your selected focus point over her eye or face the entire time she is walking. The camera will do the work of adjusting focus as she moves towards you. In most cases, yes the camera really can track focus on fast moving subject. There are certainly limits to this but they don't come up too often.

    To test out and familiarize yourself with how Servo works try this: Sit at your couch, your desk or wherever with your camera. Set the camera to servo focusing and use the center focus point in your grid. Place some sort of object in front of you probably no more than 3 feet away. This could be a cup, an apple, the remote, whatever. If you're using the AF-ON button for focusing like I went over in this article, simply hold the AF-ON button down with the focus point over your subject and start physically moving the camera towards the subject as you look through the viewfinder. You should see the focus constantly updating as you do this. As you do this, you'll notice that the camera isn't focusing then refocusing incrementally. Rather, it's in a state of constant, smooth focus tracking on your subject. The speed at which the camera is able to track will depend on the lens mostly and how fast the motor is.

    Hope this helps :-)

  • Sascha August 12, 2011 01:34 am

    I read your article on getting tack sharp photos on the ‘Digital Photography School’ website and it was pretty much eye opening! As you…I use single focus 90% of the time but using the back button to focus I read about before…but never felt comfortable doing. Now, after reading your article it makes much more sense to me and I will give it another try. What I don’t understand, and that is why I’m writing this email, is how the camera ‘knows’ what the object to focus on is during servo-AF. Lets take the example of your nephew spinning around. I assume you have to hold the camera steady to get a clean shot. So you focus on your nephew, hold the focus back button…are in servoAF…but what happens then? Your nephew, while spinning around will leave and enter the focus point all the time. You are not following him with your camera, aren’t you? So how does the camera know that the focus point is supposed to follow the spinning kid? Also…this spinning…or walking up an aisle….happens so fast (within a split second)…can the camera really focus that fast in servoAF? I would think the moment the camera focuses the object already is long gone…no?

    Thank you so much for your help.
    I love photography…I’m trying my best to break into this business…but I’m learning every day from amazing photographers like you.


  • Wes Dunbar May 29, 2011 09:38 pm

    I just read your articel and found it quite interesting. I shoot with an Olympus E520 camera and I have a hard time getting things in focus. Occasionally I'll get lucky but a lot of the time things are just a bit blurry.

    I don't know if my particular camera has the "back button" focusing or the AI Servo focusing you talk about in your article. Do you know by chance if it does or how I would find out? I would sure like to be able to get that tack-sharp focus your article title referred to.


  • Tony Walker May 2, 2011 11:09 am

    Have these tips helped me ? You bet ! There is always something new that I didn't know. I find your articles exceptionally informative and beneficial to my position as a photographer. Keep up the great work.

  • Tony Walker May 2, 2011 11:09 am

    Have these tips helped me ? You bet ! There is always something new that I didn't know. I find your articles ecpetionally informative and beneficial to my position as a photographer. Keep up the great work.

  • Steve Rubelmann May 2, 2011 10:47 am

    Great insight into the back focus button. I didnt really understand what you were writing about until I got to the point about the menu settings. Then I looked into mine and there it was. (actually I read the user manual a bit). I tried it around the house and it works great. I have used AI-Servo off and on since I got the camera and am quite used to it. Many thanks for a very useable article. I wish I could have read it about 7 months ago before a trip to California and Grand Canyon.

  • Tony Walker April 17, 2011 06:39 am

    Great article however........maybe I'm asking too much. I am shooting with a Canon XSI, a Tamron 18-270mm lens. I am shooting chicadees eating just outside of my window. The camera is on a tripod, thelens is set to 270mm. When I try to zoom in on the birds,some of the images are blurry, not tack sharp. If I set the aperture high (f/22) as mentioned in the article the shutter does not release fast enough. Lower the aperture, heighten the ISO ? I am shooting on Av.

  • Mayer April 16, 2011 09:40 am

    Thanks for some of the sample images. Would you be able to share the exif info of the dad swinging around his kid. I love the dof on that shot. Thanks

  • Kat April 1, 2011 03:06 pm

    A revelation for me, thanks so much!

  • DougG February 27, 2011 06:06 am

    Nice tips, but there is an additional one... get really good with manual focus. It's not easy, but I find it sometimes significantly easier than waiting on the servo. Another good one is hyperfocal distancing if you have the light conditions and right lens to take advantage of it.

  • Jaime Goloyugo February 25, 2011 09:42 am

    Many thanks in posting this article. Reading this will make me a better photographer. Great job in sharing your photography talent.

  • robink February 21, 2011 11:14 pm

    i ws wondering if the nikonD90 has AI servo..if it does can someone tell me where do i find it,,/..??

  • benjie January 29, 2011 05:44 pm

    Hi there! This article does help a lot, but i could not turn the AF back button on my 40D. Tried it on menu setting but just can't make it right. How to it the right way? Please help. Thanks!

  • Jeremy January 22, 2011 04:20 am

    Hi, Jackie,

    IS does NOTHING to solve the issue of subject motion. It ONLY helps with camera shake. The rule of thumb to avoid camera shake with a non-IS lens is to choose a shutter speed that is greater than effective focal length of the lens.

    Let's say, for example, that you're shooting with a 50mm lens and using a crop sensor camera. You are very likely shooting with a 1.6 crop--Canon only makes 2 full frame cameras, the 1Ds at $7000 and the 5D at $2200 and Nikon has a similar product line. Your effective focal length is 80mm (50 x 1.6), and you would need to have a shutter speed of 1/80 to avoid blur due to camera shake... IS can help solve this problem by up to 4 stops, depending on the lens.

    For sports and the like, however, where your subject isn't standing still, IS will not help blur caused by subject motion. This is where you need a high shutter speed, I'd suggest at least 1/500th to stop action in most high school sports. You MIGHT be able to get away with 1/250 on a dance recital if the dancers aren't moving very fast.

    The problem that you run into here is not a function of IS, which does nothing to stop subject motion, it is a function of having enough light entering the camera to produce a proper exposure at 1/500th or faster. There are two options:

    1) Open up the aperture. Primes can get you a wider aperture for less $$, but you won't get any distance out of them. If you need distance and you're indoors, you'll likely need at least a 2.8 lens to get a useful shutter speed. Some auditoriums and gyms are just caves and 2.8 may not even be enough to get a good, low ISO, high shutter speed shot.

    2) Raise the ISO. My goal is always to shoot with as low of an ISO as possible. I despise the grain that appears at anything above 800 ISO on my Canon 7D. Sure, I'll go above that when necessary, but I will always open the aperture first and lower the shutter speed second (when possible) before raising ISO.

    Flash changes the game with all this. A nice, softened (or sometimes hard), off camera flash does wonders for your pictures. BUT, you can't use it at places where you might need it most such as dance recitals and gymnastics meets.

    You might consider renting a lens for occasional important events ( and are two popular choices). I'll do that for my daughter's gymnastics.. I don't own an 85/1.8, but I'll just rent it for a week the two times a year that I need it.


  • James Brandon January 22, 2011 02:45 am

    Jackie - I think this all comes down to just how fast your shutter speed was. If it was indoors at f/4 with ISO 800, I can't see how it would have been that fast of a shutter speed. Most people need about 1/50th or faster to get sharp images. Some with steady hands can hand hold slower. If I'm shooting indoors, I'm usually around ISO 1600 shooting wide open on whatever lens I have. My indoors lenses have to be fast, so I won't use anything less than f/2.8. If I'm somewhat close, I'll use a 50mm and shoot at f/1.4. So, what was your shutter speed during these shots?

  • Rob Hickey January 21, 2011 05:57 pm


    One more thing....If the lighting was really low at the competition, sometimes it can be difficult for an accurate lock or perfect focus when using CF / AI Servo, so going manual instead might yield better results....

  • Rob Hickey January 21, 2011 05:38 pm

    Hey Jackie;

    Yeah, sometimes tough if you aren't allowed to use a flash for certain events, but if you were a distance off, you could be limited with a flash too. IS does help a bit I find for low shutter speed shots and takes care of blur due to shaking, but I doubt it would work all that well for real quick motion.

    Hard to say what the precise answer is to your frustrating situation as nobody wants to miss out on shots especially of the kids! Sometimes what I do is try to recreate a similar environment with the room, lighting, motion, etc with no stress attached to get the shot off, then just play a lot with your settings. ISO, shutter, exposure compensation, you name it and you might find your answer. I'm always learning this stuff too and seem to find my way with a lot of trial and hopefully less error, lol.....

  • leith January 21, 2011 05:12 pm

    That is the best advice I have read on focusing.

  • jackie January 21, 2011 10:14 am

    hey Rob,
    i had a fast shutter on continuous - we were not allowed to use flash...could that be my problem? my lens is also not IS (Canon for Image Stabilization). I fear that my non-IS lens and no flash is the problem...

  • Rick V January 15, 2011 08:58 pm

    I hope the folks at Canon and Nikon have got the underlying message from these posts ... their description of camera functions in their manuals is wholly inadequate! I think its clear that most readers have learned far more about their cameras from this article and the discussion than they ever would from the manufacturer. Not only technique and effect, but how to produce it with the controls provided on the hardware and software.

    Really good stuff James. As one reader already pointed out, we hope you continue on with similar descriptions of the other camera functions ... like exposure lock, flash exposure lock, live view, flash sync, etc.

    I'm not a pro - just an optics and software enthusiast with a Canon 450D.

  • Rob January 14, 2011 05:06 pm

    Hey Jackie...I take it your photos were blurry due to the focus and not the shutter speed selected????

  • jackie January 14, 2011 04:37 pm

    tried it. still can't get it. i normally shoot headshots...and know that medium very well.
    but taking pics of my own daughter's dance competition was a nightmare. had a 70-200m f4 lens, on al servo, iso at 800, great exposures, but all blurry. what am i doing wrong????!

  • TheWombat January 13, 2011 11:59 pm

    I think you may have just opened my eyes. Thank you !

  • Anne January 13, 2011 05:15 pm

    Hi, could you run an article particular to Nikons on sharp focus. All the Canon info' gets a bit confusing. You all are great!!

  • Jason McDonald January 12, 2011 09:05 pm

    I have been shooting for the Chicago Steel hockey team (USHL, Junior A League Tier 1) this season and often struggle with speed of focus even with a 2.8 lens. Going to the single point AF with the back button auto focus REALLY helped me out at the last game. I had way fewer blurry shots than usual and was really pleased with how sharp my photos were. I am eager to keep shooting this way - it's QUICK! Thanks for the tips.

  • Diane January 11, 2011 05:28 pm

    I am trying to get the best night soccer pics I can with my Canon XTi, using my 2.8/200 mm zoom & monopod.
    Can you please tell me what mode works best for you?
    I have used AV & sports mode, using 1600 ISO, but I just read about using the AI servo-if I use this, which mode do I use, is TV better for me, or must I keep in sports? Also, do I need to follow the box which appears when I push Ai servo, or move it with my other finger as I pan to follow the action?

    Thanks so much for any advice:)

    TRYING to LEARN......

  • Jim Wheldon January 10, 2011 04:59 pm

    Thanks for the good tips, I'm going to try them.

  • alex January 7, 2011 04:06 pm

    thanks james....
    great tips!!!
    my camera LOVES a challenge......glad to know i'm not the only pentax user out here!!!!

  • Patrik January 7, 2011 10:57 am

    Good tips! I always use the center focus point and then manually recompose. I have never really felt at home with AI Servo but you're right and I need to start using that a lot more.

  • tom upton January 7, 2011 12:07 am

    Nice reminder to look at the forest and notice the...trees. I teach a lot of beginners. This tip will really rock for my intermediate longer lens users.AND I NEED TO DO THIS MYSELF MORE OFTEN!
    Do you recommend disabling focus from the shutter button altogether? In the Cfn settings?

  • Mayur January 6, 2011 08:23 am

    James, thanks for sharing this. It did some getting used to for the first time. But now i find it the best way and wont return back to shutter release button to achieve focus. Some people find it not so useful and they may have their own reasoning, but i find it very useful. achieving focus in one touch and then no need to keep on pressing shutter button is kind of big relief. i think it also saves battery power in some way, maybe....

    I used to keep the center point as focus in old way, even using the focus button, i use the same spot and is most convenient almost every time. u can recompose the subject after u achieve the focus just like old way, yes it works and that made me switch to this new technique.

    thanks again...

  • Mooshu January 3, 2011 12:40 am

    Great article, I really needed to learn that AFon button trick but now I need to find how to change the * button on my 450D. I've been using AI servo for years, love it and recently started using single point AF love that too.

  • Zuska Madar January 2, 2011 09:22 pm

    Great tips but my Nikon D3000 doesn't have a AF On back button or a AI servo focus tracking. ;-(

  • Hamish Tear January 1, 2011 04:31 am

    This is good - but would be very much more helpful if a) The settings were given for each example shot (what was that aperture setting in the father swinging his son?) b) If you would include the equivalents for other camera types - what is 'Al Salvo' in a Nikon? for example.

  • eric epie December 31, 2010 07:19 pm

    Hi James,

    I have a question regarding 7D's AI Servo mode, when I use my EX580 EXII flash for some reason the assist beam does not fire but when I switched it to One Shot it fires the red beam. Is there any issues with this mode?

  • CharlieJ December 31, 2010 05:06 pm

    I've been using the focus back button on my Canon 350D for some time now. It really helps when there is a lot of movement in the foreground, but the subject is located in the "background". The AI Servo mode is rather new... and will certainly help when I shoot spring soccer and other events.

    I'm adding a link to this article to my photoblog. THANKS!

  • Darin December 30, 2010 09:35 pm

    After reading these tips I immediatly put then into practice. I knew about the back button (AF-ON) I just never implemented it - until now!
    Thanks for that extra push I needed to utilized this method. I think my pictures are sharper and I spend less time focusing and refocusing.

    The only quirk I have with using the AF-ON button is when I go portrait mode. I dont have a Battery grip for my 7D, so I don't know how (or if) that might help make a differenece but I seem to have a hard time finding the button while in the portrait position. I keep hitting the AE Lock button that is situated right next to it.
    Maybe with more practice, it will become second nature.

    Thanks for the informative and very helpful article!


  • Adrian December 30, 2010 02:46 pm

    I'm using the Nikon D7000. Should I set it to the AE-L/AF-L button? If I set to that button, does it lock the exposure together with the focus when pressed??

  • B J Hughes December 29, 2010 02:27 pm

    Great article! I started immediately using this and it works great! Thanks again. I appreciate this useful information.

  • darthkir December 29, 2010 01:36 pm

    Great article btw, this had me look at the AF-ON button on my Nikon from a new perspective.

    However if I may point out that, for somebody who likes to focus & recompose (like myself), this method wont work (AF-C/AI-Servo). Especially on a stationary subjects. It is suitable for moving objects only. So you cant use your central focussing point if your subject is off centre. Trouble to follow the rule of third!

    Then the option is to manually select a point which is on your subject. The downside is, you may loose AF speed as normally the outer points are less sensitive, particularly on a small apperture. So to use the AI Servo/AF-C method, you simply need to select a point than focus. If the subject moves, it will track (theoritically).

    So my summary goes like this;

    1. AF-ON rocks, it helps with reducing shake and help lock focus better without need to refocus after each frame.

    2. Ai Servo/AF-C technique is not suitable for focus & recompose technique because once the subject has move away from the focussing point it will focus on the background. For this technique, manually select an off centre focussing point and focus.

  • Loni December 29, 2010 05:49 am

    Yes, yes, yes!! So helpful!! Thank you!

    But I am completely intimidated by the back focus button. Arg. Gotta just bite the bullet I suppose...

  • 30/90 December 28, 2010 10:08 am

    Thanks, James. I really appreciate your instruction. It has opened new world of photography for me. Learning more and more about my camera all the time. Starting to tell it what to do as opposed to shooting and hoping. Thanks.

  • James Brandon December 28, 2010 05:14 am

    Veronica - Glad to hear you got a new camera :-). As far as your question, I'm not sure on a Sony. You will have to read through the manual and find out how, but there should definitely be a way to select a single focus point instead of just letting the camera try and figure out where to focus.

    Christopher Kenison - Yes, the speed of the lens will certainly factor in to that

    Mukul - I have an app on my iPhone called "Depth of Field Calculator" that you just plug the numbers into. I think it's like $1.99 or something

    30/90 - If you're using Servo, you have to hold down the focus button to track focus on the subject. If the subject is stationary, you can simply tap the focus button once and focus will remain on the subject

    boniw - That's true, if you don't have an AF-ON button you will have to use the * button. However, there should also be menu setting to have the * button act as both. Or, you can have the * as back button focus, and the shutter half way down as exposure lock. Without the AF-ON button, it's sort of give and take

  • Dr.Charan December 28, 2010 02:09 am

    thanx a lot bud, its gr8 havin som1 lik u around ! esp when i'm breakin a sweat fiddlin my new slr . u r one sweet handy candy ;p ..... nice shots by the way ;)

  • Veronica December 27, 2010 10:57 am

    Thank you for posting this article. For Christmas this year I purchased a Sony a55. I got it on the 23rd and have been playing with it daily trying to learn it's features. I have had trouble getting the pictures I want, and just today learned it was an aperture issue. So I don't think I will spend much time in the auto mode. This means I have a lot of learning to do.

    Your article was timely, as now I will start out using this camera, with more knowledge of the controls outside of just setting it to auto. It took me a while to figure out the AF-on button feature since the button only says AF. You need to auto focus by pressing the shutter button half-way down, press the AF button, then you can release both. It will stay focused on the object you focused it on originally, even of the shot is recomposed.

    The continuous mode is easily accessible and seems handy. Not sure how it is different from the sport mode, but I will research that.

    The only thing I haven't figured out was how to get the camera to focus on a certain section of the screen. All I have been able to do so far was depress the shutter button half-way, then release, and repeat until the squares show up where I want them to. And the squares only show up towards the center of the screen. Is that the normal routine for making the camera focus where you want it to, or am I missing something?

    Thank you for your feedback.


  • Guy December 25, 2010 07:16 am

    @Sam - refer to Emma's post of 12-17 @ 9:50am
    I had the same questions until I came to her post which was an Ah-Ha moment. Now to go practice. Thank you James for an eye opening lesson!

  • Christopher Kenison December 23, 2010 05:44 am

    I have a quick question: Wouldn't the benefit of using/relying on AI-Servo be dependent on the focus speed of the lens?

  • B J Hughes December 22, 2010 06:43 am

    Great article on Tack Sharp Photos! I need to learn more about Al-Servo.

  • Anne December 22, 2010 01:39 am

    Hi, can you tell me how to do the same on my D90? Thanks!

  • 30/90 December 22, 2010 12:33 am

    I did have one it necessary to keep the back button AF depressed during the shot, or is focus locked once the back button has been pressed?

  • 30/90 December 22, 2010 12:27 am

    I'm still trying to figure out why anyone would be shooting a 10 foot distance using 200mm.

  • Mukul December 21, 2010 11:45 pm

    Wonderful article!! and I am one of the photographers who say my images are not crisp

    However I have a question,When you said "If your subject is 10 feet away and you’re shooting f/2.8 at 200mm, your depth of field is only 1 1/2 inches deep!"

    can u please tell us how u calculated this thing?


  • 30/90 December 21, 2010 09:06 am

    Brian!! I think the 40D is "Button Challenged!!"

    Merry Christmas!!

  • 30/90 December 21, 2010 08:10 am

    Interesting question, boniw............anxious to see the response. But, I have been practicing using the new technique for a coupla days now and I'm really getting some amazing shots that I would have never gotten had I been locked into AF at the shutter button and not hitched up Al Servo with single point focus.

  • Brian December 21, 2010 06:51 am

    Great tips here! Thank you much for sharing...
    I've already switched to back-button AF on my Canon 40D, and like it much better than half-shutter. But, I've also switched my setup so that the * button (AE lock) is now my back-button AF, just because it is easier to reach with my thumb that way, as other readers have suggested here.

    My problem now, however, is that the same button also functions as "zoom-out" when I'm in Live View, and with the switch no longer does that. So, I can zoom in, but everytime I try to zoom out I am just telling the camera to AF instead.

    Does anyone know of a way to correct this? Or do those of you that have done the same button configuration have the same problem?


  • BonIW December 21, 2010 04:39 am

    Just another question. If you are using the * for AF back button all the time then you can never use the *'s intended use as an AE lock, correct??? I use this option a lot so I would be hooped if I kept the * as back button AF.

  • Gene December 21, 2010 02:05 am

    I'm a Nikon user and learned in the beginning to use the AE-L AF-L button for focusing. I use the half press for exposure lock. This made more since to me since exposure lock and focus lock are two different things and should be kept that way. Isn't that why we spend a great deal of money on camera and lens, so we can have more control. I have talked to more experienced photographers than I and they don't understand why I set my camera up this way. My reason is I get better photos more consistently. You can pre-focus and not have to hold the shutter button while you wait. You can track your subject better. The reasons go on. It was refreshing to read that I'm not the only one who thinks this way. This article will help a lot of people. For those of you who do try this method don't just take a couple pictures and say there is no difference. Take some action photos. Do some creative focus stuff. Try it with your HDR. Once you get use to the new style of shooting you will find more and more reasons to use this method.
    Good job James!

  • 30/90 December 21, 2010 02:05 am

    Sam, the attached table does not cover the 7D. It might be necessary to e-mail Canon or see a local dealer who can give you the proper setting code. However, I had to figure it out for my 40D, in that the table indicates use of IV-1 as the proper setting to cancel the AF function from the shutter button and place it on the back button. In reality, the proper choice appears to be IV-2 to achieve the option described in the article. I guess what I am saying is that you are limited to the choices provided in your menu listing and you have to choose whichever choice that provides the configuration you are trying to achieve. The article calls for removing the AF funtion from the shutter button and placing it on back button of your choice. I would think you could try whatever options are available to see which is the appropriate one. They are easily cancellable by simply reverting back to default settings. You might have to do it by trial and error if you can't find somebody locally who's been through the drill. Good luck with it.

  • Doug Atkinson December 20, 2010 10:20 pm

    Loved this article and had a chance to experiment with the single point focus setting that was mentioned. So I had the focus tuned in to a single point on the grid, put it over the dove I was trying to photograph and took the picture...I got distracted on something and didn't look at the review right away. It wasn't until I was doing some PP work that I saw what I'd actually taken the photo of...

    Couldn't have timed it better if I'd tried!

  • 30/90 December 20, 2010 06:18 am

    I really, really found your article informative. It was very well written and seemed to fill in some "gaps" that I had in my understanding of some of my camera's features. Taking your comments to the field, I spent an afternoon in a local park photographing water fowl. The park ponds are full of seasonal migrating visitors, presenting some great opportunities to practice techniques learned from reading your article. I am blown away by the results and how easy and uncomplicated your techniques were. It has opened a whole new appreciation for my camera's capabilities and has given me confidence to attempt shots that I never before would. The results were amazing........shooting birds in flight.............taking off and flaing to land........and getting tack sharp results in the process. Thanks ever so much, James. I feel like I have become liberated from so many of my own limitations and misunderstandings. This was the most helpful photography piece I have ever read.

  • Sam December 19, 2010 06:30 pm

    Hi all, could i please ask for some help? I recently bought a 7D and i just read this article last night. My questions is how do i set my "AF-on button" as my focus trigger? Apologies if this is a real noob question, i come in peace. Cheers

  • Peter December 19, 2010 12:05 pm

    Richard, that is a great reminder..i have been using the "locked in" technique to place the subject outside of the centre of the picture...

  • jonathan s. December 19, 2010 01:27 am

    Awesome tips! I finally comprehend AI Servo. I just discover the back button auto focus on my 60D and has been amazing. The half way shutter button wasn't working for me. Thanks for the "light bulb on tips"!

  • RICHARD December 18, 2010 11:56 pm

    James...Instead of selecting a auto focus point via using the joy stick, what is wrong by using the center point
    for focusing then hold the focus by pressing the shutter button half way down. With the focus now "locked in"
    by holding the shutter 1/2 way down, I would move the camera & recompose the shot since I do not want the subject to be in the center of the image.

    James your article is excellent !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Peter December 18, 2010 11:55 pm

    James, Thank you for your article....I use a D700 nikon and have been using the AF on a single spot focus combination pressing the shutter button half way to focus...only one button to use and have no problem getting sharp pictures.

    I tried out your suggestion using the AF ON and the shutter button but the AF ON step could be achieved using the shutter half way position.

    This was what i did a while ago;

    1. I press the AF ON and gets the illuminating light and the focus
    2. When i press the shutter button, the single point focus fired again before the shutter kicks in.
    I got picture one.

    3. I tried pressing down with my thumb on the AF ON and my other finger on shutter button (two buttons on) and took the same shot
    I got picture two

    4. I tried pressing the shutter button half way to get a spot on reading and all the way to get the same shot.
    I got picture three

    There is no difference in the pictures... so No 4 actually is more convenient as i only handle one button

    Am i doing the right thing?

  • saqibmoghal December 18, 2010 09:34 pm

    i thanks u for these rock tips for me

  • Steve December 18, 2010 04:14 pm

    Great article and have read it a number of times now. I kept overlooking the bit about changing the settings in the camera (Canon 7D in my case) as things were not working; the shutter kept over-riding the AF-On button. An article specific to Canon 'Back Button Focus' can be found here which I went searching for after reading this article.

    As an aside, from a Canon perspective, couldn't they have named the button to something more meaningful?

  • Sarah December 18, 2010 01:30 pm

    Wow - thanks SO much! I've had issues getting the focus sharp, esp. on moving objects for a while and have found my candid shots of kids at school concerts to be disappointing! I was feeling quite demoralised, esp. as I feel confident on still objects! This is such a great, well explained article. It'll change my life! Thanks so much! :)

  • Rob Hickey December 18, 2010 10:06 am


    I'm with you too!!!!! I would love to see more comments specific to the Nikon system and it's enthusiasts although I appreciate that a great deal of the subscribers here are Canon users.

  • justine george December 18, 2010 09:42 am

    which is the best still camera for wedding portraits.? Nikon or Canon??????????

  • Naku December 18, 2010 09:04 am

    Mr. Brandon,

    Excellent article. I will use every bit of information outlined in your article. All of the information is quite helpful, what's interesting is I was looking over some photos and asking myself on a number of the pictures, 'How can I improve my focus techniques.'

    Thanks again for this.

  • Doug Soper December 18, 2010 06:32 am

    Can you please explain "back button" to me ?

    Thanks !

  • Shar December 18, 2010 06:01 am

    Hi James

    I had to tweak your suggestions a little for my Nikon D7000: there's no dedicated AF-ON button so I changed one of the User settings banks to convert the AE/AF Lock button to AF-ON; leave AF-C on; also can use the 3D-tracking mode with single-point autofocus if required for moving objects.

    You just might have transformed my photography! I was at the stage in my photography where I had figured out most of the other settings but pin-sharp focus was the final frontier. No more "spray and pray".

    Thanks for a very informative article. My only (minor) criticism would be lack of info for Nikon users!

  • Jane Hasty December 18, 2010 05:06 am

    WOW-great tips. Never knew about those buttons! I have Canons and for anyone needing more help I goggled it and found this perfect explanation as to how to set them...

  • Gareth December 18, 2010 04:29 am

    Thanks Emma - sorted

  • ratkellar December 18, 2010 03:59 am

    Excellent and wonderful article (except for exposing my own ignorance about these features).
    Now I know to blame my Canon manual rather than myself for my poor DisneyWorld shots.
    Has the author considered writing manuals for Japanese camera makers?
    I miss my old SLR where I chose exposure duration and manual focused -- If I was quick I didn't miss action shots and I could always play with depth-of-focus. Doggone computerized cameras make the wrong decisions sometimes.

  • BonIW December 18, 2010 03:19 am

    Like Andy , my Canon Rebel T1i 500D does not have the AF-ON button either, but it does have the * . You said we could use this option as well and the options to do this is in the menu setting. Not sure, what I am suppose to look for in the setting. Could you explain. Sorry, beginner here.

  • Rob Hickey December 18, 2010 03:06 am

    This was a great topic to cover as I think a lot of us may resort to doing simple focus and shoot as it can get pretty involved sometimes. Personally on my Nikon D300, I enjoy putting my aperture, shutter speed settings to manual and I always try different things with the focus grid on various subjects. By constantly playing with the Single or Continuous focus mode along with the AF-on eventually makes it second nature to use and only makes me much more familiar with all the gizmos on the camera, cause let's face it, between the buttons and menu settings, there is a ton of stuff to learn if one should want to get into that; that's why I got my D300 in the first place, do do exactly those things.

    As pointed out in the article, we all have out of focus / bad shots, but by taking a lot of shots only helps and yes there will be shots you can't use or publish, but chances are there will be the one you were looking for if you snapped your subject enough times. Doing this on old film cameras use to get pricey and good luck remembering what you did wrong.....Digital is quite the deal I must say!

  • Karen December 18, 2010 02:43 am

    Hi--great article! I have been using back button focus on my Canon 50D for almost a year now. There are great instructions and explanation on Canon's website Canon Digital Learning Center titled "Back Button Auto-focus Explained. I also switched the focus button to the * button as it works better ergonomically with my smaller hands. As previously stated, it does make things difficult when wanting to hand your camera off to someone else when YOU want to be in the photo. I haven't used the AI Servo much but am going to use try it again. I tend to use the continuous shooting and fast shutter speeds in order to capture my lively grandsons/pets in action. With digital it's sooo easy to have too many shots and then simply discard the out of focus ones. That way I have better odds capturing those fleeting expressions/actions on "film".
    Keep up the great info!

  • Phil December 18, 2010 02:05 am

    The Canon website has an interesting article on back button auto focus:

  • Chris December 18, 2010 12:22 am

    Great Tips and easy to understand. I will make a conscious effort to try the methods you have talked about here. My 40D was ready to go with the back button focus. I had to play with the settings on my XTi to get the * button to do that task.

    Look forward to more articles from you!

  • olegna December 17, 2010 10:04 pm

    This post is an eye opener to me. I have been struggling to keep my focus accurate on moving subjects and so far unsuccessful using the shutter half press to focus method. But then I also use AE-L / AF-L to lock my exposure on my D90.
    I'm want to try this method but what happens to my exposure lock? do i assign this to the shutter half press button? how do you guys work around this issue?

    many thanks!

  • Jeremy December 17, 2010 09:02 pm

    Thank you so much James. Your article made me yearn to go back in time to revisit those several missed opportunities.

  • Jon Coley December 17, 2010 08:46 pm

    Thank you for the great tips...they are so simple and effective.

  • Greg Disch December 17, 2010 04:08 pm

    I use the back focus on my Canon cameras and have found another benefit not mentioned, and that is that my battery life can be as much doubled.

  • Mark December 17, 2010 03:48 pm

    @s. roma - You say that only at f/8 or above can you get all faces in focus. That is just flat out not true.

    The depth of the focus plane is effected by lens type, distance from camera to subject, focal length and aperture. There might even be others that I am not sure of. However, focal length is very much a factor and that is why to some degree lens type even enters into the equation. A super wide angle 17mm lens is very different is characteristics than a normal telephoto at say 120mm setting. These all effect the depth of field and you need to learn each lens at many f/ stops to understand and learn what works for each. I shoot almost exclusively wildlife shots at 400mm on an APS-C sensor so that it acts similarly to a 640mm lens on a full frame sensor and I have learned what works for that lens in that type of shot. Once in a while, I will shoot a landscape shot with my 24-70mm lens and since it is a landscape, I use much higher f/ stop settings like f/11 and up. But again, I had to try different f/ stops and learn what worked and what did not.

  • Mark December 17, 2010 03:36 pm

    @tanya - I see you replied about higher f/ stops and bokah. It is always a compromise with group shots of people and background. The easy answer is that you cannot have both, but that is not strictly true. If you group the people very much in front of a background and use just enough aperture to get the faces in focus, you will still have fairly nice bokah. I am thinking of a row of hedges or trees in the background behind the group of people. If the distance to the group of people is less than half the distance to the background and you use an f/5.6 or possibly as high as f/7.1 you could still get good bokah since the background is still far behind the focus range. If they are just a few feet in front of the background, it is impossible to have both focus on all and bokah at the same time.

  • Mark December 17, 2010 03:24 pm

    @tanya - If you are getting any in full focus, but others are slightly out of focus then your problem is not technique - it is to shallow of a depth of field. That is when you need to take control with aperture priority mode. You need to note the problem shot's aperture and set it for a "higher number" in other words a smaller aperture. For instance you are shooting in program mode and it is using an aperture setting of f/2.8 and you cannot get all in focus. You should switch to Aperture priority and set the value to f/3.5 or maybe even f/4.0 to get all in focus. You might even need to go higher but not usually. Good luck.

  • Len Taubman December 17, 2010 02:20 pm

    Great article about getting sharp images. Can't wait to try it out.

    I also have a question about the metering mode you keep on your camera for general photos. How do you determine when to use each?

  • S.Roma December 17, 2010 01:12 pm

    Qais – Not true. The only thing affecting how many faces are in focus is your depth of field. What controls your depth of field is your aperture. You can have grid focus on but if your aperture is 1.4 you still won’t have all the faces sharp.
    Likewise, you can put a single AF point on one persons face, and if your aperture is f/8 you will have all the faces in focus.


    Agree with james, only with F8 and more we can get clear pictures of others

  • S.Roma December 17, 2010 01:09 pm

    Dear Sir,

    Good info. Anyway, i learned this 3 months ago, with prof photog from Malaysia.

  • Ayden December 17, 2010 12:21 pm

    I noticed your using a Canon. Any idea on where these buttons are on a Nikon D300?


  • vinjk December 17, 2010 12:19 pm

    this is awesomeeeeee!!!!!

  • Emily Helms December 17, 2010 12:10 pm

    This is the best set of photography tips ever in one collection. I plan to print this and read it many times over until it becomes part of my routine. I have used the focus points most every shot but some of the other ideas I knew of but have not made part of my routine. Thanks!

  • James Brandon December 17, 2010 12:09 pm

    Qais - no problem, but regardless of what your into, aperture is still the only thing that affects depth of field. Using grid just means that the camera has a pool of AF points to choose from to decide what to focus on. The only way the grid will help focus is if you use the a-dep function on some canons, but a-dep just adjusts the aperture to get the proper depth.

  • Frank December 17, 2010 11:48 am

    Been using these tricks for a long time now. You're right, they do become second nature once you begin to use them. Regarding back-focusingy, I'm not even sure why it's not just standard practice on all cameras.

  • Qais December 17, 2010 11:40 am

    James - I know about DOF but since I am into taking bokeh shots with blurred backgrounds, cranking up the aperture won't cut it for me. :)
    Appreciate your reply though..

  • Pam December 17, 2010 11:38 am

    I've always wondered what that setting was all about... can't wait to try it...thanks

  • Luis Garcia December 17, 2010 11:27 am

    I use single-point AF, but I don't follow your other tips, namely using AI-Servo and the Back Button AF.

    I find that the AI-Servo setting re-focuses when I focus and recompose, but I suppose that can be offset by using the thumb AF button.

    The Back Button AF takes some getting used to - it just doesn't feel natural to me. If I can get used to it though, then I guess I can try using AI-Servo again.

  • JCP St Petersburg Photographer December 17, 2010 11:17 am

    @Tanya -- I am a pro portrait photographer and yes, if the subjects are not on the same plain then you have to use the right aperture and lens combination to make sure they are. It is pretty easy to solve though.

    First, I only ever use a single focus point dead center in AF-S (single focus) when making portraits. I set the focus point on the eyes and then recompose.

    When I want to include the background and am photographing a family, I use a wide angle lens (Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8). Typical daylight settings are f/11. Shooting at 17mm and f/11 it really does not matter if one person is a foot or two behind another person. All of them will be in focus.

    Even if you use a longer lens, like a 70-200mm f/2.8 at 200mm, as long as you are a far enough distance away from your subject (i.e. you can fit their whole standing bodies in the frame) and use like f/8 or even possibly f/5.6 a bit of uneven plane is fine.

    I see @James just commented similarly as I was writing this.

    In the portrait & wedding categories of my photo blog, I put the camera/lens/lighting settings I used under each photo. Feel free to see look around and see if any of the photos I have their are similar to what you want to make and note the settings I used:

  • James Brandon December 17, 2010 11:13 am

    Qais - Not true. The only thing affecting how many faces are in focus is your depth of field. What controls your depth of field is your aperture. You can have grid focus on but if your aperture is 1.4 you still won't have all the faces sharp.

    Likewise, you can put a single AF point on one persons face, and if your aperture is f/8 you will have all the faces in focus.

  • Qais December 17, 2010 10:58 am

    Tanya - I m not a pro either but you won't have sharp faces for multiple subjects if you are using less than the whole grid (AF POINTS).

  • Helen Smith December 17, 2010 10:16 am

    Great tips, I knew about the AF-on button but could not get the thing to work. Now it does. WoooHooo. And the Al servo is going to be useful. I have mine camera now on Al focus as it changes to Al servo automatically when focused on moving subject. No more "one shot" for me. Thanks heaps. I am a photography student and my tutor had said that my focusing was a slight problem. Not any more!!!!

  • Tanya December 17, 2010 09:59 am

    I have problems shooting more than 2 people w/ my Canon 5D. I am prob a lot newer to photography then most of you, but I can't seem to get everyones face in focuse UNLESS they are on the same plain...any suggestions?

  • Emma December 17, 2010 09:50 am

    Karen & Gareth,

    It just took me a while and some experimenting, but I worked out how to turn on the AF button and leave the shutter just to take the shot. The manual is not overly clear!

    Its in custom functions IV - operation/Others.
    Then it's the first screen that says - shutter button/AF-ON button.

    After some experimentation, I enabled number 2. However, number 3 will also work - it's the metering that comes into play about which one you use. I still don't know that bit yet! Check out page 181 in the manual.

  • Dak Paule December 17, 2010 09:26 am

    Enjoyed your article. I have the Canon Rebel T1i and I dont find an AF on button. There is mention in the manual of an AE on button. Does it do the same as the AF on button? Thanks

  • Budd Johnson December 17, 2010 09:26 am

    James, Great articale, But whats up next and when. My new 60 D Has lots of buttons to learn. Don't hold back on us. You are just getting started.
    After this articale make sure you just do buttons at a time so we can let it all sink in.


  • Kelsey December 17, 2010 09:06 am

    Hey! Does the NX10 have a AI Servo mode?
    Also do you think you'd be able to write this again but talking about the NX10? Thanks.

  • Qais December 17, 2010 08:02 am

    Wonderful Article!!
    I always used autofocus for weddings (aisles, dance floorS) but not too happy with the outcome as the objects are in constant move, which caused lots of blur. Also have problems shooting group photos in weddings as the foregrounds can be very busy sometimes (tables, cake, ppl etc) and using single AF on the row of subjects on the upper part of the frame can be useful instead of using the whole grid, plus with manual focusing, with large groups, subjects are too far and you can't really see their eyes from the viewfinder to focus on or you may end up with burned eyes at the end of the wedding trying to find those eyes. Can't wait to try these tips..
    Thanks for Sharing!!

  • Scooter December 17, 2010 07:50 am

    Awesome. I've changed my 5DMkII custom settings for the AF-ON button, thanks so much!

  • Merv December 17, 2010 07:25 am

    One of the best, if not the best tip to date! May be just what I needed, to get away from some of those juuuust barely, out of focus shots, some of which are a once in a lifetime event.

    Thanks again

  • Becky December 17, 2010 07:24 am

    Wow! As soon as I read these tips I tried them out and they are fabulous. I'm shooting a wedding in Feb. and am going to practice w/ this tips before then. Thanks so very much.

  • James Brandon December 17, 2010 07:15 am

    Phil - Not neccessarily. Maybe I'm just a control freak, but I never would use AI Focus because I don't want the camera to decide when to do one over the other. I can switch back and forth as needed, which isn't hard or time consuming to do.

  • Farzin December 17, 2010 07:12 am

    can't wait to go home and give these tips a try.
    It seems to be great for some one SICK TIRED of blurry images like me.
    Thanks for sharing

  • Phil December 17, 2010 06:41 am

    I'm a new 7D owner and trying to learn these drive modes. There is a third option: AI Focus AF which Canon says is a "hybrid" between One Shot and Servo. If the subject is still, the camera selects One Shot, and if the subject moves, it transistions to Servo. Isn't that the best of both worlds?

  • Karen Johnson December 17, 2010 06:33 am

    This is how I THINK you set AF on in the Canon 50D
    PLEASE someone correct me if I'm wrong because this is what I did!
    In Menu the 4th one to the right includes "AF point Disp". I small buttened down to that and clicked centre of big dial then small buttoned down to Enable then clicked OK (centre of big dial).
    But I am still confused as to how the AF ON works - the instruction manual is very confusing as it hints that you turn it off and on by pressing AF On button, and it really does not say what it actually does. I also don't know if you need to DISABLE the 1/2 press of the shutter button (and where are the settings for that?)

  • Tom December 17, 2010 06:26 am

    Great tips - especially the back button focusing - didn't realize my camera could do that! The continuous servo focus I never really understood - figured it was handy in sports mode and that's about it. I can see how this will help a lot with holiday shots of the kids!

  • Paul N6KZW December 17, 2010 06:19 am

    I wish I could spend a day with him practicing this..... next good lottery ticket ..your gonna hear from me Sir...

  • Tarnz December 17, 2010 05:59 am

    yes i agree with JCP St. Petersburg Photographer, a mention for both Nikon and Canon, I use Nikon and im a beginner, so i dont know alot about these buttons you talk about, then find out its not my camera, alot of info here though, look foward to knowing my camera better with all the tricks and whistles

  • JCP St. Petersburg Photographer December 17, 2010 05:10 am

    I tried looking through most of the comments to see if anyone else mentioned using the AF-L button. This button (autofocus-lock) allows you to lock the focus while being in AF-C/AI Servo mode (I think any article on DPS should include the nomenclature for both Nikon and Canon). I use the AF-L button a lot when I photograph baseball. I leave my Nikon set in AF-C. When photographing a batter I use the AF-L button to get a shot of him swinging, if contact is made and he runs toward first since I am already in AF-C mode I can shoot away.

    Not to be too critical, but I think for an article with "tack sharp" in the title, the sample images should be absolutely tack sharp.

  • Lynn December 17, 2010 04:53 am

    Yes u are right it is on the 40D also. Also I never use 1shot but I DO use AI Focus which switches to Servo automatically when camera detects movement

  • Arun December 17, 2010 04:36 am

    James - I think you misunderstood. As for your first image, I'd have been able to get it spot on with/without AI Servo, but for the other images where the subject is moving, it makes more sense! So, it's not just getting tact sharp images, but 'getting tact sharp images of moving objects'!!! :)

    Anyway, I think I missed the 'advanced', but yeah, I should thank you for not including them, else I would not have had to give my two cents!

    Anyway, I've learnt some stuff too, and I'm going to give your method a try - only AF lock going forward!!! :D

    Btw, did someone say that Rebel models don't have the AF button as Focus? Who said?

  • mddizon December 17, 2010 04:30 am

    Great article, James! Very timely as I have just been trying to figure out the best custom functions on my Canon 40D. How did you calculate that depth-of-field as you had explained in your example? And what does it mean when "your depth of field is only 1 1/2 inches deep"?...meaning what effect will result in this? Thanks so much!

  • Carleton Akana December 17, 2010 04:28 am

    Darren, i don't want to print the whole 8 pages, just until Enter El Servo. For reference reading
    ........................................................message ends.................................................................................................

  • Mandeno Moments December 17, 2010 04:20 am

    Leslie: I have wondered the same :)

    But seriously, APS-C cameras have tiny viewfinders with no focusing aids such as split prisms, making manual focus near impossible.

    Maintaining accurate manual focus on a subject that was moving at high speed was always very difficult.

    Manual focus with a static subject using a 35mm SLR with a split prism was very easy.

  • Karen Johnson December 17, 2010 04:17 am

    Thanks for the great tips. I knew about the single point focus and Al Servo, but not about the AF button. I've changed my AF button to be active, but in line with Fernando's comments, do I now need to disable the half-press of my focus button? If so, where do I do this (Canon 50D).

    The other thing that has me confused is how is this easier (I believe the author but don't understand) -- In the case of following the boy being swung around by his dad, for example, do you mean that you need to
    follow the kid with your focus point and press the AF button each time before you shoot???

    If so, then don't you still need to wait until it refocuses before pressing the shutter? If so then how is that easier than following the kid with the focus point and just re shooting with the shutter button rather than using 2 buttons? I'm a bit confused on that.

  • Mandeno Moments December 17, 2010 04:15 am

    Jennifer: it's in Custom Functions.

    Eg Canon 400D/XTi, Custom Function 4, option 3 makes * back button AF. That is, AF is only switched on when * is pressed and the shutter button only operates the shutter.

    (400D does not have a AF-On button)

  • Ian Mylam December 17, 2010 04:12 am

    James, thanks for a great article. I had already set up my camera in the way you have described prior to reading your article, and it was nice to find a validation of that set-up here. The only thing I would like to add is the following: If you use the AF-ON button for focus as you have described here, my understanding is that you can also leave the camera set in continuous-servo focus mode permanently, and never need to resort to "one shot" focus mode, because by removing your finger from the AF-ON button you have effectively locked focus as you would in "one shot" mode anyway.

    Another thing I like to do is program the camera to lock exposure with a half-depress of the shutter button. The thinking here is that your thumb is already busy with the AF-ON button, and your forefinger with the shutter release, so you have no useable digits left for exposure lock in tricky lighting situations. By programming the camera to lock exposure with a half-depress of the shutter button, you can control focus with your thumb, exposure and shutter release with your forefinger, allowing you often to nail focus and exposure ahead of time and concentrate on composition and the 'decisive moment'.

    Best wishes


  • Leslie December 17, 2010 04:08 am

    I'm trying to remember how I ever survived when my lenses were all manual focus. I'll have to dig out the old pictures and see if I ever got anything in focus! Maybe I just had quicker reflexes then...

  • Jennifer smith December 17, 2010 03:58 am

    Ok everyone keeps saying you can set the * button on the cannon to be a back focus button.....I'm driving myself crazy over here trying to figure out how to do this. Any tips?

  • Gareth December 17, 2010 03:55 am

    Dear all,

    Please cou;d someone tell me how to set my Canon 50D to use the AF-ON button for focus? I've looked at the manual but can't see any clear indication for this setting.


  • Michelle Strickland December 17, 2010 03:52 am

    Best, most useful article I have EVER read on focus! I can't wait to try it! Thank you so much for sharing. :)

  • Danish S. December 17, 2010 03:49 am

    Is there an Al Servo type setting in Nikons also? Or is it a proprietary thing in Canons?

  • Brian December 17, 2010 03:46 am

    I use back-button AF exclusively on all of my camera bodies (500D, 50D, and 7D), but only use AI-SERVO for sports shooting.

    For the Rebel series cameras (at least my 500D/T1i...I would assume the T2i has the same capability), you can set a custom function to repurpose the AE-LOCK button on the back of the camera to be an AF-ON button.

    The only downside to using back-button AF is that you can't just hand your camera over to someone to take a picture of you without reconfiguring it first. :-/

  • James Brandon December 17, 2010 03:45 am

    Tim - not true. Nikons have back button as well. I actually learned this tip from a Nikon user a while back.

    You should be able to do this on all cameras. The cheaper Canon DSLRs may not have the AF-On button, but you can still set the * button as a back button focus.

  • James Brandon December 17, 2010 03:43 am

    For all the Nikon users, here is a link that @jflphotography sent me. Thanks Jacob!

    As stated earlier, the Nikon equivalent to Canons AI Servo is called AF-C (continuous)

  • James Brandon December 17, 2010 03:39 am

    Arun - lol. yes your two cents were certainly needed ;-)

    The tips do not only pertain to moving subjects. Did you look at the first example? I use back button focus 100% of the time and servo and single point AF about 90% of the time. I think the title of the article is spot on ;-).

    All 5 of your points (five because you said three twice) were tips I intentionally didn't include because this article is about "advanced" tips, not the usual beginner tips on getting sharp images.

  • linda December 17, 2010 03:35 am

    so does the canon 30D not have an "auto focus on" button?

  • Johanna December 17, 2010 03:33 am

    This really helps me! Thank you for sharing! I have had serious focusing issues and have been looking all week trying to find out the problem. Well I think you answered it for me!

  • Amy H December 17, 2010 03:29 am

    Thank you for these tips, I am so excited to try them and am hoping it will help out my sharpness frustrations.

    One question - if you are taking a group portrait what would your method of focusing be? Would you still use the single auto focus point and place it in the middle of the group, or turn all focus points on? And I'm guessing try to not use a very shallow depth of field?

  • Tim December 17, 2010 03:24 am

    "Actually its more specific to Canon DSLR’s.. however it is only on the more PRO bodies. You will not have this button on say a Canon T2i. Only available on the 7D and up"

    Actually its on my 50d & 60d and I would bet on the 40d as well..

  • Arun December 17, 2010 03:10 am

    Great topic to discuss!!!
    And nice views I see here.. Although I think there's just something that's missing - MY TWO CENTS! :)

    Well, first, like already said, 'this' method of AF-lock doesn't guarantee tact-sharp images! There are so many parameters that factor in for a tact sharp image -
    for one, it's the shutter speed,
    two, steady hands & the breathing rhythm of the photographer,
    three, the kind of lens (some lens produce better clarity & sharpness due to superior glass),
    three a, the resolution ability of the lens + camera intelligence - sometimes, the lens can't focus on something that's far because it can't make out the difference to focus, hence a slightly off focus image results!
    four, IS helps, but is not necessary for trained guys!
    and there's more that I missed, much more I'm yet to learn, and many many more, to be discovered possibly...

    Now, what you're saying makes sense only in case of moving subjects! So, you could have better tailored the Title! :)

    That said, I think the AI Servo has its drawbacks just as Fernando & few others pointed out - it's only at the AF points you can focus, nowhere else! So, re-composition out of question and virtually impossible in cases of fast moving subjects like birds! But I think using the AF-Button is a good suggestion, and I've myself used that only a few times, I use the half-press lot more since that way, the shake due to depressing the shutter is minimized! But I still think there are times when AF-L can help!

    One more thing I wanted to point out - if you were to use the AI Servo, and the bride's walking up to you a little slowly, it really depends if the focus would adjust well for every inch she moves - my guess, only if the camera can make the difference will it auto-adjust, not otherwise.

    In essence, only OUR EYES can tell the difference at all times, so train yourself to focus manually better, and use the Auto to guide you. There are times when Manual isn't an option, but for the trained eye, I think we can make out if it's just not perfectly focusing!

    Great discussion and great viewpoints. Thanks.

  • Randy Bayne December 17, 2010 03:06 am

    Thanks. Great article and great tips. I already use single AF points 99% of the time, but have never tried AI Servo. I will now.


  • Jeff Johnston December 17, 2010 03:04 am

    Wow this was a great article! Well written and well explained. I read it at my office and was kicking myself for not having my camera with me so I could try some of these out. Great tips that I am excited to play with. Thanks for putting so much effort into creating a really informative article!

  • Geoffrey December 17, 2010 03:02 am

    I look forward to your weekly tips and tutorials, thank you for posting these.

  • Cindy Y. fm SA December 17, 2010 02:50 am

    Thanks so much for the article, James. Now, I hope I can translate this into Sony A700 language. I'm much like Karen inthat I am a center-point-focus-half-press-recompose person. I hope I can remember this when I am around those very active grandkids.

  • Nikul Padhya December 17, 2010 02:48 am

    Really Nice post. I know about AI Servo, but lot of my friends who are noobies ask me about this setting. Now I can forward this post to them.


  • Jacck December 17, 2010 02:42 am

    Great tips, I have never heard of this. Everybody talks about so much different stuff but this seems to me to be the holy grail for pictures. To start with, getting the "shot" is the most important. I have a Nikon D90, could you walk me through the steps to perform this? thanks so much

  • Christopher December 17, 2010 02:38 am

    I started using these two tips a while ago, I forget where I ended up picking them up. I really like the AF button focus, it allows me to setup ahead of time or lock it between many shots.

    One thing to note about AI Servo Focus that wasn't mentioned, there is a delay between when the shot will be in focus. I think Canon recommends giving AF at least 1 second when using AI Servo before shooting, it maybe as little as a half a second, but if you just start shooting right off in AI Servo mode you will likely have a few OOF shots in the beginning of your set.

  • Linda Tillis December 17, 2010 02:37 am

    This lesson on focus (Al Servo) is one of the most helpful dialogues I have read. I have been fortunate to almost always get at least one good shot of my subjects. But I can see now it was LUCK (and the number of shots I took). I can't wait til the weekend to start practicing this maneuver. Thanks so much!

  • Ali December 17, 2010 02:34 am

    Thanks for the tips. Very helpful.

  • Jeffrey Bloom December 17, 2010 02:20 am

    This was concise and very worthwhile. Thank you!

  • Karen Stuebing December 17, 2010 02:16 am

    I have to admit that Al Servo is a new term for me. After reading the comments, I am assuming this is AFC on other cameras.

    I tried it and it was pretty cool. The Pentax did a great job of refocusing. It still makes me kind of nervous though that I would miss a good shot because I'm a center spot focus, recompose, half way shutter lock shooter.

    I guess I'm reluctant to trust a camera to get it right.

    Another point is that this is making the photo sharp in the camera. Post processing plays an important role too. You can have a focused photo but you're going to need to learn how to sharpen it.

    Great examples and thanks for the tip. I am going to play some more with it.

  • Ken Stolz December 17, 2010 02:10 am

    Great tips. I do use the focus on the back (AF On on the 7D), but haven't tried the AF Servo (but I do know where to set it on). Could you explain a little more about the sequence of setting the focus point on the moving person/object and then maintaining it (e.g. do you hold down the AF On button). - THANKS!

  • Fernando December 17, 2010 01:59 am

    Your second comment sounds very much like what the * button does on Canon cameras, if you set it up in the menu to do that.
    While the AF-ON button does the same thing, you do not need to hold it down the whole time, giving your thumb a break!

  • Fernando December 17, 2010 01:56 am

    Hi All
    Theres one thing that I think some people may not be clear on. In fact, I did not get to try it myself last night but I think it may be one thing that was throwing me off about using the AF-ON button. You first have to go into the menus of your camera and set the shutter to only work as a shutter, and your AF-ON button to work as the focusing button. If you leave your shutter to do both focus and shutter then I dont think it will work properly, because every time you press the shutter it will still focus. So turn that off when using the AF-ON button!

    From my understanding of James comments, after setting it up in the menu correctly the AF-ON button works to lock your focus, even if you remove your finger from the button, and you can then press the shutter without re-focusing (as long as the half press is disabled). This can be handy!

    As for AI-Servo, (also known as AF-C for Nikon and others), what this does is continuously uses the focusing motor to keep up with a moving object. It is only needed FOR MOVING objects. Do not use this on static objects because it can confuse the camera thinking it should be looking for a moving object and it will alter the focusing distance very slightly which could put your focus off. With a moving object it will follow it and give you the correct focus every time (hopefully!!!!!). The thing is, with this type of focus you HAVE to keep your finger on the focus button (either AF-ON button or your half-press, whichever you prefer) and the focusing point on the subject (either the center point or any other doesnt matter.... much .. other than center being more accurate). As soon as you let go of that button the focusing will stop correcting and if your subject moves out of the depth of field, then you will not get a shot in focus. Since we are talking about a moving subject here then it is likely it will not be in the same place anymore, and no longer in focus. So just hold down the focus button and then snap. This was why I said while using the center you cannot recompose while in AI SERVO. You have to keep the center on the subject. But as others have said, thats fine just crop your shot after (power of 22Mpix!), or use another focusing point!

    Enjoy the great tips everyone, feel free to email me should you want any more help with this, my email is in my link on my name.

  • Wallace Barron December 17, 2010 01:48 am

    I am shooting High School basketball - have a 7D - Canon 24 - 70 2.8 & 70 - 200 2.8 - What custom functions should I be using???? THANKS FOR THE GREAT TIPS!!!!!!!

  • Sarah December 17, 2010 01:24 am

    I just bought a Canon camera and i am trying to get to know it, which is pretty difficult. So, i have been getting infos on how to take clear sharp pictures and so far i have to admit that your explanation is simpler and more detailled than any other posts i've seen. I will definitely try the tips out and see how it goes.

  • London Wedding Photographer David Sherjan December 17, 2010 12:41 am

    Something we've been teaching for a while here and it's great to see it presented by DPS.

    Thanks for sharing guys :O)


  • Wayne December 16, 2010 02:56 pm

    2nd comment: another method

    For those who may find using a different button to focus too foreign (or that you may forget to do it for everyday shots/getting someone else to take a shot), I have a compromise solution that may work for you. (I've actually been using my camera this way before reading the article, and I realize that this may be beneficial for those wanting to try the AF-ON technique):

    I use the AE-L/AF-L button.

    Get the focus that you want, then hold down the AE-L/AF-L button. This will keep the focus (ie. will not refocus) as long as you hold the button down. Then you can use the shutter as only a shutter.

    I normally use this for candids. I focus, then hold AE-L/AF-L down. Then I can chat or whatever with my subject, then when the moment strikes, I shoot.

    (This button can also lock exposure, but this is camera dependent, and with some (D90 for example), you can change the behaviour of that button)

    Using the above scenario, you would:
    Focus with half-shutter with the center AF point.
    Hold AE-L/AF-L down (and keep holding it down)
    Let go of the shutter button.
    Press shutter when you want to shoot.

    Advantages of this method:
    You don't have to change your workflow for most of your shooting. (You won't forget to focus on normal shots)
    You can have others use your camera without changing the setting/teaching them.
    You only use the focus lock when you need to focus once only.

    For long waits in between shots, your thumb/finger can get tired.

    Give it a try! Focus lock/AF-ON is very powerful for capturing the moment!

  • Wayne December 16, 2010 02:45 pm

    (I use a D90, so Nikon button lingo)

    @Ed re: Fernando
    I think I may understand what Fernando means, as from my understanding and my own practice is that your suggestion may not fully answer Fernando's question. It also may be camera dependent.

    Using single AF focus point, the center one.
    Press AF-ON while subject in center. Release.
    Recompose (subject now in bottom L)

    This scenario works.

    Do the same thing, but without AF-ON (ie. use half-shutter):
    On my D90, I've found by using one of the "dynamic" or "3D dynamic" focus modes, it's able to keep focus while recomposing fairly well while I keep "half-shutter". (The 3D mode seems to do a bit better). So this scenario works with these settings.

    Re: AF-ON: However, after recomposition, if the subject then moves toward/away (ie. out of focus), as it is no longer in the center AF point, then pressing AF-ON again will focus on the background. Unless you plan to hold down AF-ON the whole time, then it's really no different than "holding shutter half-way", providing recomposition is accurate with the camera's "dynamic/3D" AF mode.

    Once you recompose (ie. subject off centered, and you're using a single AF point, the center one), if the subject moves (

  • surfnux December 16, 2010 02:19 pm

    Great tips, didn't know that AF-On Button and AI-Servo can be so fun at taking photos of moving objects. Will practice using this tips later on. Thanks for the tips. Very nice.

  • Jeremy December 16, 2010 01:58 pm

    I have been a single, center point and back button focuser since very near when I first picked up my DSLR, a technique shown to me a photog friend. I use the * button, however, as it is a more natural location for my thumb. I place the center point on the part of the subject that I want to be in focus, press the * button, and then recompose. Love it.

    (This is also VERY handy for handing the camera off to another person. I can focus the shot, press the *, and when the clicker person takes the camera the shot is already in focus. All I have to say is, put your feet here.)

    I have, as yet, been unsuccessful with AI-Servo shots. They all tend to come out blurry. If I try to compose the shot properly through the viewfinder, the single, center focus point ends up being on the subject's chest (in sports, for example), rather than their face, which ends up OOF. If I move the focus point to a higher point, near the top of the viewfinder, I'm still dissatisfied with the results, either unable to hold the point over the subjects head (eyes) or just plain not good when I blow them up and look at details for sharpness.

    My photog friend notes that he only ever uses the center focus point.

    Am I wrong to expect the same tack super-sharpness from an AI focused subject as I get from static focused subjects?

    I have a Canon 7D and L lenses. I know it's user error. Any additional tips?

  • Jose Calvo December 16, 2010 11:55 am

    Great article! Right to the point! Great examples!
    Definitely one of the best articles I've read here on DPS.
    Thank you!

  • tk December 16, 2010 11:20 am

    James' clarification is right on; using the AF-ON make it easier, not necessarily sharper. However, using AI Servo definitely helps with getting sharper images since either yourself or subject is constantly moving, especially shooting at 1.2. And this falls in line with the issue Fernando had.

    How do you shoot AI Servo and recompose the frame?

    The answer is, you cannot unless you use the AF-ON for focus, and shutter only for shutter release, or, use One Shot focus. You can also take the shot wide and crop down, but why have a 22mp camera, and only use 10mp since you cropped out half your image?

  • Sue Daigle December 16, 2010 10:34 am

    I'm pretty sure my 3 yr. old Canon has some sort of focus; the menu has different settings. Maybe I should read the book thingie that came with the camera???

  • Matt December 16, 2010 09:57 am

    Great tips! I will definitely use these in the future!

    Also, I'm pretty sure AF-C is the standard, as it's also so with my Pentax K-x

  • Jackson December 16, 2010 08:51 am

    What about Nikon cameras? I am sure that they all have the same functions, but the buttons are different. I have a D7000 so it is probably up to date.

  • Andrew Matteson December 16, 2010 08:39 am

    James, thank you very much for this article. I've been subscribed to the dPs RSS feed for about 6 months and this is my favorite post thus far. I look forward to trying these techniques out this weekend!

  • James Brandon December 16, 2010 08:33 am

    amy_bb - That should be correct if AF-C is a sony function as well.

    Mandeno - great tips, thanks!

    Steve - lol, glad to help :-)

    Thanks for all the great comments everyone! Keep the questions coming if you have any!

  • James Brandon December 16, 2010 08:29 am

    It's not that it makes your images sharper, it's that it makes it easier to keep certain things in focus.

    Take the first image I gave as an example. You have several band members in a row, going away from the camera. If my shutter was set to focus at half way down, then every time I press the shutter button the camera will have to re-focus the scene.

    With the AF-On button, I place my single AF point over the persons face that is making eye contact, then fire away. My focus is now SET for that distance to his face. I can set my camera down, go get a drink, pick my camera back up and take more pictures at that same distance.

    If you don't like this method, by all means keep doing what you're doing. However, this feature is there for a reason; because it works. It's also not a standard factory-set feature for a reason; because it's a bit tricky to get the hang of.

  • amy_bb December 16, 2010 08:24 am

    Sony user here (A330) AF-C the equivalent of Al Servo?

  • Ed Frazier December 16, 2010 08:19 am

    @ James, I understand what your saying I do...I just don't see how this is any easier or how this makes your images "sharper" versus the standard.

  • Mandeno Moments December 16, 2010 08:14 am

    I always use single point auto focus, because then I control what the camera is focusing on: the alternative drives me nuts.

    However, I do set the camera to "automatic selection of focus point" when I'm giving the camera to a non-photographer, otherwise that person may put the single focus point over the wall behind the group. Automatic selection of focus point generally works well for social snaps, and I make sure that the camera will use an aperture that gives plenty of depth of field.

    Some non-photographers may be able to cope with Canon's A-DEP mode. Just say "half press the shutter button and you'll see several red lights. Whatever is behind those red lights will be in focus, and if you're happy push the button all the way". Note that A-DEP won't work with flash (if you turn on the flash you're effectively in P mode).

    Fernando: a couple weeks ago I was shooting kite surfers with AI Servo/AF-C. To avoid boring compositions with the subject in the centre I framed loosely and cropped later (as suggested by James). I only had 10MP, but unless you're going to be doing large prints that's enough (a 10x8" print at 200dpi only requires 3.2MP). I was using a basic Canon 400D/XTi, so only the centre point is good for focus tracking with high speed subjects.


  • James Brandon December 16, 2010 08:13 am

    Ed - I use my thumb to press the back button for focus. If this button were not activated, my thumb would still be in that same area (i.e. I'm not placing a finger on the camera that wasn't there before). This doesn't cause any extra camera shake either. If I'm holding the focus button down for focus tracking, the only finger that is moving during the shot is the shutter finger which would be the same either way. I'm never pressing and releasing each button simultaneously.

    Be careful about disagreeing just b/c you don't get it yet. As I said in the article, this takes some getting used to. That is why it's an advanced tip. This stuff is second nature to me now, I don't even think about it, I just do it. Sort of like driving a stick shift. When I learned I had to think about it each time I switched gears, but not I simply switch gears out of rote. Hope this helps :-).

  • Steve December 16, 2010 08:13 am

    James, I think you just changed my (photography) life! Thank you for that insightful article. My new 7D and I thank you...

  • Steve December 16, 2010 08:12 am

    James, I think you just changed my (photography) life! Thank you for that insightful article. My new 7D and I thank you...

  • Ed Frazier December 16, 2010 08:05 am

    I can't say I agree 100% with using AF-ON to focus and the shutter to capture makes your images me that seems the direct opposite. You have taken 2 steps from one button and made them separate on 2 different buttons. This requires more fingers to use and that in itself "moves" your camera leading to camera shake.

    I tried this on my camera based on this article and I just don't get it..the shutter button doing two steps under one finger seems quicker and less of a hassle for coordination and higher sharpness.

  • Anna Patrick December 16, 2010 08:01 am

    Good tips, will try on my camera this evening. Love the little boy in green pic :-)

  • Jesse Kaufman December 16, 2010 07:52 am

    Thanks for the great tips! Nothing that I didn't already "know" but you covered the features of my camera I most often forget about, so thanks for the reminder :) ... definitely have to keep these in mind more, since the most common issue I have with focusing is it being *just* off ... like focusing on the nose instead of the eyes, because i leave it up to my camera

  • Danie December 16, 2010 07:14 am

    Thanks, being new to DSLR's my wife frequently commented that although the IQ seems better than her PnS it always appear to be blurry/not sharp compared to her little Canon. I then read about changing to single point focus. It changed everything, but this article explained it even better and I will definitely give the back button and AI Servo a try.

  • frankieG December 16, 2010 06:55 am

    thank you, finally i understand all that stuff.. :) thank you

  • Dimitri December 16, 2010 06:50 am

    I forgot to add, this article makes me want to go shoot as soon as I get off from my day job. Speaking of which... I've got kids to teach. Gotta run!

  • Dimitri December 16, 2010 06:47 am

    Thanks for writing this article. It was very well done. This blog has somewhat fallen to the back burner for me because as I've become more experienced and familiar with my equipment, I yearn for more advanced articles on techniques that go beyond the basic. This article scratches that itch.

  • Michael Ko December 16, 2010 06:43 am

    Thank you so much for these tips. I've been struggling with getting clear shots this last little bit. Keep these coming.

  • Orv December 16, 2010 06:33 am

    AI Servo is a must for all wedding photogs on aisle shots.

  • Frank December 16, 2010 06:13 am

    I use these settings (AF-ON button / single focus point / AI Servo) all the time. In the beginning it was getting used to, but now I am just so happy with it!

    Only two exceptions:
    - dim light: the red focus assist light of my flash only fires in "One Shot" mode.
    - rapid snapshot (e.g. playing kids): all focus points because reframing after focus takes too much time

  • tk December 16, 2010 06:01 am

    If you actually use the AF-ON to focus and not half shutter, then in AI Servo, you can focus and recompose. Just focus with AF-ON and once in focus, release the AF-ON, recompose, and shoot away.

  • tk December 16, 2010 05:59 am

    If you use the AF-ON focus instead of half shutter focus, then you can use AI Servo and recompose. Just focus with the AF-ON and once in focus, release the AF-ON, recompose, and snap away.

  • Brett December 16, 2010 05:56 am


    You are correct, on the Nikon it is called AF-C

    The AF-C Priority Selection by default allows photographs to be taken whenever the shutter-release button is pressed (release priority) and does not wait for a focus lock. This can be changed to force a focus lock in the menu system.

  • Stephanie December 16, 2010 05:42 am

    This article is so timely! I was JUST experimenting last night with the back button auto-focus and single point AF on my camera...but I wasn't sure exactly how to use them to my best advantage. Looking forward to trying again with these tips in hand!

  • FrameXFrame December 16, 2010 05:16 am

    This article is fantastic! I'm so excited to go out and try this. Thanks! :)

  • James Brandon December 16, 2010 05:05 am

    Max - not sure on Nikon. It might be called AF-C on Nikon if I remember correctly? Nikon shooters help me out here if I'm wrong. I think the C means continuous which would be the same thing

  • Max December 16, 2010 04:55 am

    Is the Al servo feature a universal name or is it different per manufacturer. I'm working with a Nikon D90 and I'm not seeing it anywhere. I've relied on manual focus in most of my shooting (so i can only blame myself) but would love a more reliable autofocus format. Hoping i can figure out Nikons Al Servo function.

  • Kevin Blalock December 16, 2010 04:50 am

    This is an outstanding article! I have already suggested it to a few friends. I mainly shoot drag racing, and for the most part use these exact settings. One thing I do differently, is I disable the AF-ON button and change the * button to function as AF-ON. It is just more ergonomic for me, and the way the camera (Canon 7D) is shaped, faster for me to get my thumb on the button. I also agree that I use AI-Servo most of the time. About the only time I use one shot is if I am shooting posed portraits as it seems to be a tad sharper most of the time. It has worked wonders though as well in AI-Servo taking pictures of the granddaughter as she never sits still! ;)

  • Rachel December 16, 2010 04:43 am

    Love this! Thank you.

  • samuelphoto December 16, 2010 04:27 am

    Very good tips, I am going to incorporate these into my workflow.

  • Alanna December 16, 2010 04:15 am

    Thanks for this article I have been struggling with getting those beautifully sharp photos. I just purchased a 7D (and I see the camera photos used for the article look just like the 7D, so that helped!) so I am learning the different types of focusing options I have, but what I think it comes down to is applying what you shared here...and of course, practice!

  • Hibazas December 16, 2010 04:15 am

    very good tips!

  • jasonFTW December 16, 2010 04:13 am

    great tips. Thanks!

  • Ed December 16, 2010 04:06 am

    One of most useful posts I've read in ages. I've kind of been playing with back button focus and had heard about using it with AI Servo, but hadn't really got the whole thing straight in my head. It's SO helpful to have it all put together clearly like this.

    Thank you!

  • Brett W. December 16, 2010 04:05 am

    Aww man, I wish this article had been published last week... I was at an NFL game last weekend and missed the flyover because my camera couldn't focus on the jets....

    At least I know for next time!!! Great read, thanks a million!

  • James Brandon December 16, 2010 04:04 am

    Andy - You're right, the AF-ON button is not a feature on all cameras. I know that you can do this same thing with Nikons, but it's called something different maybe. If you have a Canon that doesn't have this button, there should still be a button on the back that looks like a star *. You can use this button as well. The option to do this will be in the menu settings.

    Keep in mind this has nothing to do with turning auto focus on or off, it has to do with HOW the camera focuses, using the back button instead of the shutter.

  • Fernando December 16, 2010 03:56 am

    @Andy Merrett
    Actually its more specific to Canon DSLR's.. however it is only on the more PRO bodies. You will not have this button on say a Canon T2i. Only available on the 7D and up

  • Jennifer smith December 16, 2010 03:52 am

    Great article...I will difinantly be playing with the servo setting¡

  • Andy Merrett December 16, 2010 03:48 am

    I have no idea what this AF-ON button is. Is it more specific to Nikon DSLRs, because I've not seen it on the Canons I own. I either switch AF on or off on the lens, not the camera body. The *type* of focus is controllable from the camera menus.

  • Dave December 16, 2010 03:46 am

    Easily one of the best how-to articles lately. Great post!

  • kirpi December 16, 2010 03:41 am

    Your tips are definitely useful, and make much sense. Thank you!
    Yet I feel that often manual focus is the best choice for it is enough fast, accurate and smart.
    Sadly a lot of lenses today are too loose and not well crafted: manual focusing is not so easy with them as it was with good lenses of the past.

  • Fernando December 16, 2010 03:30 am

    Absolutely correct... the 21MP does help on croping for sure. I dident want to say you cannot use the other points, they work.. just wanted to say they may not work as well for very fast moving objects as the focus takes slightly longer, especially with lack of light. In bright sunlight you would probably not notice any difference!

    Another note I just wanted to make that I just realized you did not talk about (due to keeping it short I guess) would be shutter speed. If you are shooting moving objects and only shooting at 1/15th of a sec or sometimes even 1/60th of a sec, you wont get a sharp shot (unless you freeze them with flash or are a master at panning!) For moving subjects it's esential you shoot at a fairly fast shutter speed to truly stop the action and get tack sharpness.

    Also.. dont let blur get you down! Sometimes it adds to a shot! =)

  • James Brandon December 16, 2010 03:10 am

    Killian - Awesome! Glad this article helped you discover Servo :-). Let me know if it changes your life like it did mine ;-).

    Scott - Cool shot brother! Kinda makes my head hurt!

    Fernando - Great points you make. I think it all depends on the depth of field you are dealing with. I have a 1DsMIII and a 5DMII and I get very sharp images off of all the focus points on the grid. I wouldn't suggest feeling tied down to just the center. On the same token, if you were tied down, you can crop to take the subject off center in post. Those 21 mega pixel images allow you take plenty of fat off the ends :-).

  • shawn December 16, 2010 03:10 am

    Great tips !!! Thanks!

  • Fernando December 16, 2010 03:03 am

    Great tutorial and good tips.
    Although AI Servo is a GREAT the biggest problem with it is that you cannot recompose your shot. So if you are using the center focusing point (which is the most powerful in most cameras for AI Servo focusing, making it the most accurate) all of your shots are going to have your subject in the direct center of the shot. As soon as you recompose while AI Servo is on it begins to focus on the background. To fix this you can use one of the other focusing points that are off to the side, however they do not have the same kind of speed or accuracy in most cases as the center point (the center point on a Canon 5DmkII is a cross type AF point, with most of the Assist AF points surounded around it, which is why its the best to use for AI Servo)

  • jD December 16, 2010 03:00 am

    thanks for the amazing tips

  • Scott December 16, 2010 02:58 am

    Great article, I've experimented with each of these mode on my camera. The single point AF requires a bit of time, but works better than spot and recompose if you have do have the time to set up the shot.

    These candles are on tiers that are at varying distances. Though I did not recompose in this case, spot focus was used to ensure that the ones in the center were in focus. Still not sure I'd call this "tack sharp" though, because of the subject.

  • Killian December 16, 2010 02:50 am

    Great images! Most of what I shoot is sports, so it's all moving targets. I stumbled on the back button AF, and use it with abandon, but I completely missed the boat on AI Servo. I will definitely looking up how to use this on my camera this weekend.

    Thank you!