Back Button Focus: What is it and why should you try it?


What operation on a camera could possibly be more simple than pressing the shutter button to take a picture? There’s not much to it, really –  you look through the viewfinder (or at the LCD screen on the back of the camera), press a button with your index finger, wait for the camera to focus, and voilà! You’ve got a photo.

Well, as the popular saying goes, what if I told you there was a better way? Hidden deep within the settings of most cameras is a feature called Back Button Focusing, and enabling it can transform your approach to photography.

A Brief History


The Minolta Maxxum 7000 was one of the first SLR cameras with autofocus capability in 1985.

To understand what Back Button Focusing is, it’s important to know a little about the history of the autofocus function on your camera. Until the mid-1980s, there was no such thing as autofocus on consumer-level film cameras. You had to hold your camera up to your eye and either turn a ring on the outside of the lens or adjust what’s known as a rangefinder in the top-left corner. It required a great deal of patience and practice, and there are many photographers today that still swear by this method.

In 1985 Minolta released the Maxxum 7000 which integrated the autofocus function into the shutter button, which seemed like a sensible choice because you would normally want to make sure the camera was focused before taking a photo. This implementation of autofocus worked well, but required a bit of maneuvering if the photographer wanted to focus on something other than what was in the center of the photo. To do that, he or she would have to aim the camera at the object to be in focus, carefully hold the shutter button down halfway to keep the focus locked while re-composing the shot, then pushing the button all the way when the picture was ready.

This system remains in place on most cameras today, and it’s probably how your own camera operates. At this point you might be wondering why you should bother to change something that has worked perfectly well for the past 30 years.


Canon’s EOS 630 was the first camera to give users the option of using a separate button for focusing instead of the shutter button.

The answer is because there really is a better way to focus your camera before you take a picture, and it was invented by Canon in 1989. On their EOS 630 camera they included an option within the camera’s custom settings menu to separate the actions of focusing and snapping the shutter. Users could tell the camera to use a separate button on the back of the camera to handle focusing duties, which left the shutter button to do one thing and one thing alone: take the picture. It was not an immediately obvious feature, and it never really caught on like Canon may have hoped, but the same capability is in every Canon DSLR today as well as virtually all cameras from other manufacturers like Nikon, Pentax, Sony, and the rest. If you have any sort of DSLR or mirrorless camera there is probably an option in your settings menu to enable Back Button Focus, and it’s something I highly recommend trying out.

Back Button Focus requires your thumb to press a button on the back of your camera (hence the name) and your index finger to press the shutter, which does take a few days to get used to, but soon becomes second nature. All this begs the question – why should you re-learn how to do something as basic as focusing your camera when the shutter half-press works perfectly fine? The answer lies in the overall concept of giving more control back to you, the photographer.

More Creative Freedom

Cameras today have a dizzying array of autofocus points – those little dots or squares that light up in the viewfinder when you press the shutter button down halfway. You also have a ton of options in how you use these points. You can select an individual point, you can have the camera select what it thinks is the best one, you can tell your camera to use some of them in conjunction with one another, and many cameras have modes such as automatic face detection as well. To be honest, all these options works really well. But just know that by decoupling the act of focusing from the shutter button, and moving it to a separate button, you will be able to do a lot more with your photography than you may realize.


If your camera has an AF-ON button, you can use it to focus instead of the shutter button. If your camera does not have this button, you can usually adjust the camera’s settings to make another button such as AE-L/AF-L perform this function.

By using a button on the back to focus, you will no longer have to hunt around for the specific autofocus point you want to use or wait for the camera to focus on what it thinks you want to before allowing you to take a picture. Trying to keep a moving subject in focus while deftly holding the shutter down halfway is a feat of dexterity that would keep Legolas himself at bay. This is easily remedied by using back button focus. With this method you can hold the back button down as long as you want, which keeps your camera continually focusing on your subject, until you are good and ready to snap a photo. This is incredibly useful when your subject is in motion, whether people, animals, mechanical objects, or simply a flower petal meandering across a meadow.

One of my favorite cameras is the Nikon D7100, which has 51 autofocus points that cover almost the entire frame. For a while I used all of them, frantically shifting from one to the next as I adjusted each shot or tried to track a moving subject. It worked fairly well, especially in conjunction with Nikon’s 3D subject tracking algorithm (variants of that can be found in most cameras today) which did a good job of keeping my subject in focus whether it moved or I altered my perspective. But I found that I often messed up some critical shots because I was either too busy changing the autofocus point, or letting my camera decide what it thought should be in focus. Switching to back button focus remedied all of this, and helped me gets shots that would have been much more difficult otherwise.

To get this shot I used the back button to focus on a different passer-by, and then waited for others to come down the sidewalk. I was then free to snap photos no matter where people were in the frame, because the shutter button was not also refocusing the picture.

To get this shot I used the back button to focus on a different passer-by, and then waited for others to come down the sidewalk. I was then free to snap photos no matter where people were in the frame, because the shutter button was not also refocusing the picture.

By using the back button to focus I will often just utilize the center focus point to get my subject in focus, and then release my thumb from the button while re-composing to frame the subject. It’s much faster than hunting for a specific autofocus point, and allows me to take the photo at the exact instant I want -not when the camera thinks the subject is in focus. This focus-and-recompose technique works great for a variety of situations, but there are certainly times when I like to utilize one of the built-in AF points. When that happens I just go through the motion of selecting one and then taking a picture like normal while using the back button to focus. In essence, using the back button to focus simply gives me more options when taking a photo, which allows me to think more about the pictures I’m taking instead of fiddling with the camera.

I was able to snap a few photos of this husky by holding my thumb down on the back button to continually adjust the focus, and pressing the shutter to snap photos whenever I wanted.

I was able to snap a few photos of this husky by holding my thumb down on the back button to continually adjust the focus, and pressing the shutter to snap photos whenever I wanted.

Taking the Power Back

Most cameras have a few common focusing modes: Single, Continuous, and Manual. In Single mode, the camera focuses once and then won’t re-focus again until after you take a picture. This is how many photographers use the focus-and-recompose method without using the back button, and it works fine in a variety of situations. The Continuous method forces your camera to constantly adjust focus while your finger is held down on the shutter button, and doesn’t stop until you snap a photo. Manual, as its name implies, leaves all the focusing duties to the photographer who must adjust a ring on the lens in order to nail the focus without any assistance from the camera. All three of these methods have their uses, and you will often encounter situations in which you need to switch from one to the other (for example, switching quickly from Single to Continuous). Doing this requires digging through menus or flipping a dial on your camera, and it can be a bit of a pain.

Using the back button combines all three focusing modes, giving an incredible amount of power and control to the photographer:

Manual: Take your thumb off the back button and focus by rotating your lens barrel. (Note: do not do this if your lens doesn’t have a “M/A” focus setting. If it is in fully autofocus you will be forcing the gears)

Single: Press your thumb on the back button until your camera is in focus, and then lift your thumb up to keep the focus locked until you press the button again.

Continuous: Hold your thumb on the back button as long as you want, forcing your camera to continually adjust the focus until you take a picture. (Note: you must be using Continuous focus mode for this to work).

Nailing this shot of falling water drops required a lot of switching between automatic and manual focus, and would have been virtually impossible if the shutter button was used for focusing instead of the back button.

Nailing this shot of falling water drops required a lot of switching between automatic and manual focus, and would have been virtually impossible if the shutter button was used for focusing instead of the back button.

You can effortlessly switch between all three methods without doing anything at all except moving your thumb away from the back button, which means you can spend far more of your effort on things like composition and framing, instead of digging through menus on your camera.

Finally, one of the most overlooked benefits of using the back button to focus is that it frees up your shutter half-press to do other functions like lock the exposure. You will have to enable this option using your camera’s settings menu, and you might not use it on every shot, but it’s yet another tool in your photographic arsenal that can help you get better photos. When your subject is in danger of being over or underexposed, you can quickly point your camera at something else to get a better exposure, press the shutter button down halfway to lock the shutter/aperture/ISO values, and then recompose to get the image you want. This trick, combined with back button focusing, has saved my proverbial bacon more times than I can count. Normally this exposure-locking function is handled by its own dedicated button, but I have found it to be far more useful to use the exposure-lock button for locking focus and the shutter for locking exposure – effectively reversing the default behaviours of both buttons, but making your camera much more versatile in the process.

All this talk of button-switching and extra finger-pressing might seem inordinately confusing, but it’s much easier than it sounds. Though it might seem counterintuitive at first the more you use the back button to focus the more it will make sense and help you unlock new creative possibilities with your camera.

If you can’t figure out how to set it up on your camera, try and quick YouTube search for “setting up back button focus on a _________” and fill in your camera model.

Do you like to use back button focus? What other tricks do you have up your sleeve to help you get better photos? Leave your feedback in the comments section below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Simon Ringsmuth is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as sringsmuth.

  • Dave

    Declaring back-button AF better is a bit of a stretch. Using Canon’s, I can do everything that you mentioned with the shutter button. I reserve the back-button to lock AF for recomposing. More likely, I’ll steer the AF point selection with the multi-controller. I take thousands of wildlife and bird images each month and, while I’ve tried back-button AF, I see no advantage in back-button AF.

    Everyone serious user should try it for themselves. Some like it and prefer it, while many of us prefer the shutter release button.

  • DeAnna Schmitz Roberts

    I switched to BBF when shooting hummingbirds. I was getting so frustrated that my shots were soft. It made a WORLD of difference and I don’t think I would ever go back!

  • Jim Myers

    Back focus and back BUTTON focus are two entirely different things.

  • Tim Lowe

    I wish my 4×5 had one of those…

  • Jaikumar

    Thanks for the detailed article on back button focus. I have been waiting to read article on back. Button focus.

  • Michael Blitch

    Good to know. I should have been more careful with my phrasing. I appreciate you pointing it out so I, and others, will be less likey to repeat the mistake. It has been a while since I’ve reviewed my Chicago Manual of Style.

  • Michael Blitch

    Wow you need some writing classes. Can write a sentence without such atrocious spelling or such grammar and syntax errors?

  • Michael Blitch

    That doesn’t mean that misinformation cannot be corrected or that the ignorant may not be properly informed.

  • Alan Ewart

    The word “really” is superfluous in your sentence. People in glass houses and all that πŸ˜‰

  • Alan Ewart

    You should use a comma after the word corrected in this sentence.

  • Alan Ewart

    “may not” syntax error

  • NJP

    Shouldn’t you always use continuous (AF-C/Servo) mode when using back button focus? One press and release is the same and single mode and press and hold for continuous mode. That’s the biggest benefit to separating focus from the shutter button. You leave it in AF-C and have all options available without fiddling with menus.

  • Doug

    Having read this article I thought it was worth trying and yes it has definitely helped getting focus exactly where I want it. The downside I didn’t tell my son that so when he picked up my camera to take a picture of me and my grandchildren they weren’t in focus.

  • Craig Forsyth

    Just solved all my auto-focus problems in one fell swoop. As an aside, I’m stunned to find trolls active even on such a helpful post as this. Personally, I have only gratitude to offer.

  • Skidmarks

    Get a life you dope! The article is about back button focusing not a grammar lesson!!

  • YES exactly!!! If I’m shooting a moving object I usually zone focus or an expanded point. It’s near to impossible to get the target where you want (in the middle) and then recompose when they are moving. If you don’t have zone I’d put it on multipoint focus so the camera can pick where to focus. It’s super hard to nail one focus point, any one – one a moving target.

  • Not necessarily. I use single shot when photographing non-moving subjects. When using continuous you do not get notice of focus lock. Some people like to hear the beep or know it’s locked.

    I’d say the biggest benefit is separating focus and the shutter release. It’s essential for night photography and I use it doing portraits so no need to focus and recompose for each shot.

  • pete guaron

    Having spent a lifetime without zooms & auto everything, coming into digital photography has been awesome. So much to learn, so many new things one can do.

    A glance at the introduction, and I was thinking “why not just use manual focus?” .
    Simon, I’d like to express my very sincere thanks to you, for writing such an informative and – I can’t think of any other way to say this – such a well-written article.

    By the time I reached the end of it, I was completely hooked. A lot of my photography centers around moving creatures – birds, animals, and so on – using your suggestions, Simon, looks like being a blessing, for me. And you’ve added a bonus, at the end of the article.

    Not only does it clear the way to using a different and useful alternative focusing technique, but it points the way to making better use of the camera’s exposure controls. I’ve gone back to using a manual exposure meter a lot of the time, because the exposure readings from the various cameras I use weren’t nailing it, with contrasty scenes, action shots, and so on. Taking the time to analyse the lighting with a decent meter provided straightforward answers as to “why”, but short of going totally manual, that has left me wondering how to marry the meter’s readings with the cameras.

    I can now see my way forward with that, too. Many thanks for a great article.

  • Beautifully explained article, Simon. Loved it. πŸ™‚ I never used the back button and is probably hearing about it for the first time. You described its functionality and significance so clearly that I am feeling bound as well as excited to use it.

    Thanks a ton for sharing this article with us. πŸ™‚
    Best Regards
    Anshul Sukhwal

  • Lucy VP

    I think the responses to the “Begging the Question” issue were meant to be funny, but I agree with you regarding gratitude. And I also admit that I too am annoyed when people use that phrase incorrectly. In fact I’ve never seen it used correctly since I first learned it in 1982.

  • Dan Howell

    I finally decided to give BBF a go and I like the flexibility it gives me – especially as someone who photographs theatre, it will be a great addition and I think it will give me much better results. My only issue so far, though, is that on my Canon T2i, when using the viewfinder, I have to press the shutter button twice to get a shot – I press it once, the mirror locks up, I press again and the shutter releases – instead of just pressing and getting a shot. I can’t seem to find a way to change this, it will prevent me from using BBF in most situations. Also, this doesn’t happen if I use the LCD to take shots (but I never do this, so its not an option…). Any help is appreciated!

  • Traci A

    I use back button focus and have for quite awhile now, but when I upgraded my camera (Pentax K-3) I discovered that the button is closer to the viewfinder & since I am left eye dominate, it has taken some getting used to, having my thumb under my right cheek bone while focusing!

  • Michael Blitch

    Actually, it was not an error and I intentionally chose my wording. I had said “That doesn’t mean that misinformation cannot be corrected or that the ignorant may not be properly informed.”

    ‘Can’ is ‘the ability to’ and ‘may’ is permission based. My point was that misinformation is able to be correct in discussions and the ignorant are still allowed to be corrected, since there is no prohibition against it. You don’t have to create a long thread since a single correction would suffice.

  • Craig Forsyth

    If humour was intended, it’s difficult to spot. I’m much less precious about incorrect usage, particularly when it’s so pervasive as to perhaps warrant recognition as common parlance. Our language is evolutionary, after all.

  • I’m the same way. Doing Landscapes the subjects are often static so I think using the back button to stop focus is better. I actually have mine toggle it off so I don’t have to hold. Then I can recompose on my subject at will. When I re-position or choose new subject I can turn AF back on (or just focus manually).
    But I can see how the article’s method would be helpful in street or sports type shots with moving subjects and fleeting chances.

  • Lucy VP

    At the risk of beating I dead horse, I was referring to the responses that followed the Begging the Question complaint. I think people were being picky in an ironic way after that. I agree, language does evolve but when something that’s incorrect becomes the norm I feel it’s de-volving. But then again I’m trying to keep “chesterfield” in play and rallying for the return of “slubberdegullion”. πŸ˜‰ Obviously your skills are much appreciated here so I hope you can ignore the nitpickers.

  • Craig Forsyth

    To flog the horse a little further, the phrase “which begs the question” was used incorrectly in the new Ant-Man film, and I think you’d be pushed to find more than a handful of people who cling to the original usage. I do understand your point, but I quite like that our language is in constant flux, whether that’s through evolution or devolution. In fact, if you’re playing for the return of something, surely that would be devolution of a sort. I take it you’ll not be communicating via emoji any time soon…?

  • Michael Blitch

    It was not an error. It is correct as written.

  • Lucy VP

    Well I admit to using smiley and winkey faces but I don’t think full emoji communication is in my future. I’m quite happy to agree to disagree on the other. I like to think I’m open minded when it suits me πŸ˜‰ and I will take your devolution suggestion into consideration. Not surprised to read your Ant-Man comment. I think the “begging” situation is an uphill battle, and not a hill I’m prepared to die on. As for the new and annoying “conversate” I’m prepared to be fully engaged.

  • blondebobbi

    Darn it! I tried sharing this, and it share other things. Darn.

  • blondebobbi

    Darn, my too long nails missed the d in shared!

  • Jim Wolff

    I really like this idea of using the rear back button. I’m surprised I didn’t learn about this before. On my D750, I just assigned my AE/L-AF/L button as a rear focus button and I really like it. I always shoot in manual mode anyway (using single focus point), so I never use my AE/L-AF/L button. Now, using the rear focus button, I can focus on my subject, then compose my picture and set exposure and aperture without messing up my focus. The focus stays locked until you take the picture (or hit the rear focus button again).Gives me lots of time to confirm settings and composition of the picture before actually pushing the shutter release. Way cool…

  • I use BBF on my D750 too, and it works like a charm. One trick you might try is putting your camera in AF-C mode which means it will continuously autofocus until you take your finger off the AE-L/AF-L button. It’s kind of like the best of both focusing types (single and continuous) all rolled into one πŸ™‚

  • Lexa Richards

    I’m still a relative beginner, especially after reading the posted comments. I found this extremely helpful as I did have the problem of the focus “doing it’s own thing” even though I was trying to “tell the camera” what to do. πŸ™‚

    Many thanks.


  • I’ve seen dozens of articles like this, and none of them seem to take into account being able to lock exposure without recomposing the shot as well. Also, no one seems to have a decent answer to my following question, hoping perhaps you can help.

    Via the workflow above, you have to recompose the shot for exposure (point to where you want to meter, half press the shutter, recompose, then take the shot). Is there a way to lock exposure as well, without the subsequent shutter release overriding that exposure? I know you can map AE lock to various buttons, but even when you lock exposure and then recompose, the exposure lock seems to get overridden by the shutter button. Sometimes you want to meter for something other than what you are shooting on the focal point selected.

    I’d like to be able to pick my focal point, lock focus, pick my metering point, lock that, then compose my shot without having to refocus AND without having to re-meter, and without having my metering point overridden by the shutter release. There are various menu options that in some combination appear to support this, but I haven’t found that combination yet. I hope this makes sense.

    I currently shoot a Nikon D810, but have shot high end Canons in the past, so feel free to explain in either parlance if this is possible. Of course I can move the focus point to whatever I want to meter, but would be so much fast to be able to just point the center focus point, lock exposure, then recompose and have that meter value used until I decide to choose a new metering point, all without the shutter release overriding it. I do realize the meter will turn off at some point, and I’ll have to re-meter then.


  • Lotta B

    Do you have any film for this?

  • CamiLa Teodoro

    many thanks for the article…
    My photographer friends told me about the BBF, but I didnt understand its real utility…
    after reading your article, I changed it in my cΓ’mera and I am already loving it! its awesome for composition!
    thank you!! πŸ™‚

  • Congratulations Camila! I’m so glad you are learning to take control of your camera and have found BBF to be useful πŸ™‚ Keep up the good work!

  • There is indeed a way to lock exposure, Jayson. I have my Nikon cameras set so that the back button locks focus, and the shutter half-press locks exposure. That way I can first lock focus on my subject, and then use the shutter half-press to freeze the exposure before taking the shot. This is really helpful if my subject is backlit, as I can point my camera down or off to the side to quickly expose for the shadows, then lock the exposure, and recompose so my subject is properly exposed.

  • Glad it was helpful to you, Lexa πŸ™‚

  • Strange that your T2i is doing this, Dan. I wonder if there is a mirror-lock-up mode that is being set on your camera? I think that would be one thing which would cause this behavior, though I’m not a Canon shooter and I could be wrong.

  • No problem at all, Anshul! I’m really glad you found the article to be helpful!

  • Dan Howell

    No worries – I eventually got it straightened out. There was a mirror-lock up mode that was turned on automatically when I activated the back button. Its been working great for me ever since!

  • Glad to hear you got it figured out, Dan πŸ™‚

  • Manas Tamhane

    Wow! Awsome explanation.
    This line nailed it “With this method you can hold the back button down as long as you want, which keeps your camera continually focusing on your subject, until you are good and ready to snap a photo.”

  • Tim Laborde

    What did you say? Please repeat.

  • Tim Laborde

    Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny

  • Matthew Burn

    An excellent, plain English article on using the back button. Thank you.

  • Thank you Matthew! I’m glad the article was helpful to you πŸ™‚

  • Matthew Burn

    Very; I’ve been using back button focus for a while now, but never really understood the relationship with using the shutter button for exposure until now.

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