3 Reasons Why You Should Switch To Back Button Focus

3 Reasons Why You Should Switch To Back Button Focus

Over the past couple of years I’ve become a huge advocate for making the switch to back button focus. It was one of the most revolutionary changes I ever made to how I take pictures. It seems like such a small thing, yet it’s such a huge difference in the way your camera works. I honestly don’t know why this isn’t the standard setting on all cameras because after getting acclimated to this setting, I honestly can’t understand the meaning for or use of the ‘shutter half way down’ method.

No More Switching Your Lens To Manual Focus

This little advantage takes some getting used to, mainly because for the first few weeks after switching to BBF you’ll likely keep switching your lens to manual focus out of habit. When your focus is set to your shutter button, you have to switch your lens to manual focus so your camera doesn’t refocus when you go to take the picture. Otherwise, you’d set your focus manually, then you’d press the shutter half way down and the camera would override what you manually set. How annoying! When you switch to BBF you no longer need the focus mode selector on your lens because the camera will no longer refocus when you press the shutter down. In most cases, your AF-ON button will be used for focus and focus only. So you’re free to use your shutter button as just that, a shutter!

For this shot in Riomaggiore, Italy I had my camera up on a tripod and dialed in focus manually using Live View on the back of my camera.

No More Refocusing Every Time You Let Go of the Shutter

This was one of the most frustrating things I ran into when I used the ‘shutter half way down’ method of focusing. Sure you can lock in focus by holding the shutter half way down, then focus will stay locked as long as you hold your shutter in limbo. But then you have to hold your finger there! If you really think about it, doesn’t that sound absurd? If you let go or accidently lift your finger just a little bit, the camera will refocus as soon as you press it down again. Or press the shutter a little too hard and you will take a picture before you’re ready.

With BBF, you can set focus and it will stay set until you decide to change it. For wedding photographers, that means that you can be at the end of the aisle while the bride and groom are giving their vows. You aren’t moving and neither are they. You can use the center AF point and focus on the brides face with your telephoto lens and then you’re set for as long as you’re in that position. With the old method, you’d have to refocus on the bride or grooms face with each shot. That’s how you end up with throw away shots where you accidently focused on the ministers face instead of the bride or groom. And let’s just hope you don’t have to hand over a set of photos of the kiss with a blury bride and groom and a sweaty, tack sharp minister.

Once I set focus on the town of Varenna on Lake Como I no longer needed to worry about focus (with a subject this far away focus was at infinity). With BBF I didn't have to worry about my camera refocusing when I was ready to press the shutter down.

Use Servo for Almost All of Your Focusing Needs

The two main types of auto focus on your camera are (on a Canon) One-Shot and AI-Servo. On a Nikon they are called AF-Single (AF-S) and AF-Continuous (AF-C). One-Shot means that when you press your AF-ON button (or the shutter half way down) your camera will set focus one time based on where the subject is at the given time. If your subject moves or if you move, you have to reset your focus. This method wouldn’t work very well if you were photographing your kids running around the sprinkler in the summer, or photographing a football game with fast moving subjects.

That’s why there’s another method of focusing called AI-Servo (AF-C on Nikon). This method blew me away the first time I discovered it. Servo focusing actually tracks focusing on moving subjects. So if you’re at the park with your dog playing fetch and your dog is running full sprint to bring the ball back to you, you can place a single focus point of him in Servo mode and fire off as many shots as your camera can take before the buffer runs out. Assuming that you have a fast enough shutter speed, you should have a very high percentage of sharp, in focus images.

So the thing I started to notice about having the camera in Servo mode is that I could use Servo just like One-Shot. You see, to use Servo focusing with BBF you have to constinuously hold down the AF-ON button to track focus. So if you have a still subject you can simply tap the AF-ON button and focus will stop adjusting when you let go of the button. I’ve found that if you have a still subject and hold down the AF-ON button in Servo mode, the camera will keep trying to work to find focus. So the subject will start going slightly in and out of focus because the camera thinks it should be looking for a moving subject. But again, if you simply tap the AF-ON button and let go when you see that your subject is in focus, you are good to go. When you practise this and it becomes second nature, it’s a very fast process that really takes no brain power or time at all.

When I photographed this helicopter it was headed straight for me, holding down the AF-ON button in AI-Servo I was able to track focus as it moved closer to me.


If you have any questions or input, as always, feel free to leave me some comments below. I’ll do my best to respond in a timely manner.

Further Reading on this Topic By James Brandon

Advanced Tips for Tack Sharp Images

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

  • Arli Joy September 17, 2013 08:50 am

    Is there any tutorial on how to do back button focus on a Nikon D5000?

  • chipbutty July 7, 2013 09:25 pm

    As usual with these kinds of things people like to become entrenched on one side of the fence. The fact is it's a case of horses for courses, you wouldn't just pick one of these methods and use it for every photograph you ever took, unless of course every photograph you took required the use of one of these methods. I use both as and when required.

  • Paul March 12, 2013 05:00 am

    I downloaded TSF. Great ebook. I was trying to go through the instructions you left for the Mark II and translate to a Mark III. Found the BBF, but the others are not as easy to figure out. Do you have instructions for the Mark III?

  • Elizabeth March 11, 2013 06:48 pm

    Thank you, Darlene. I will ask James. That is obviously the best solution!

  • Darlene March 11, 2013 01:46 pm

    @Elizabeth, sorry not sure then. Try asking James directly. He is on Google Plus and Twitter. See his bio right at the end of the article for links to contact him.

  • Uhane March 10, 2013 11:41 am

    Nor I, Elizabeth.
    How do we "disable(ing) the grid focus points and choose(ing) “Multi Focus Direct”, in a canon DSLR environment? Anyone know? thanks, Uhane

  • Elizabeth March 10, 2013 06:26 am

    Thanks for responding, Darlene, although that's not the problem, as I can do that. In his eBook, Tack-Sharp, James Brandon talks about disabling the grid focus points and choosing "Multi Focus Direct", but I can't seem to match that terminology in the 6D menu.

  • Darlene March 10, 2013 05:28 am

    @Elizabeth, changing which focus point the camera uses isn't in the menu. Hit the * (start) button on the back of the camera while looking through the viewfinder. You should see the dots show up. Then likely one of your wheels or joystick (not familiar with that model) will change the point. Play with that and see if that works.

  • phil March 10, 2013 03:17 am

    I use back button focus whenever I am hand held. I use the shutter button to focus with a off camera shutter release when my camera is on a tripod. On my D700 I have not had to make any program changes to use either button. Once I got accustomed to using bbf it was a no brainer. now i have to master my wacom. camera manufacturers would not put the button on the back if it did not have a use.

  • Krista March 10, 2013 12:21 am

    I've been using back button focus for several months now. I have the 5DC and have my custom settings at AE/AF, no AE lock. It's custom function 4 and the #3 setting but I've found those numbers are different in the different models. I grew up with nothing but manual focus and never had a problem with sharp portraits until automatic focus came out. I need glasses for distance so was excited to try it. I found toggling the focus points easy and great for rule of thirds but then disappointed when my shots were out of focus. I now only rely on the center focal pt. with BBF. I now am also using my manual focus to tweak if recomposing if needed and have a still subject to allow this while making sure to remember my glasses!

  • Elizabeth March 9, 2013 08:28 pm

    I already have your book, Tack Sharp, and it was the best purchase I've ever made. I went from despair over too many out-of-focus, or wrongly focused shots, to an absolute mastery of amazing in-focus shots, almost overnight, thanks to BBF and AIServo! I, for one, will never go back to focusing with the shutter button!

    I do have one tiny problem, though. I couldn't figure out how to set the Single Point AF Method, as I have a Canon 6D, and the menu terms are different. I will persevere with this, however, as this is definitely the way to go!

  • mark March 8, 2013 04:28 pm

    Well, I'm amazed that anyone who has tried this properly would ever go back to using the shutter for focusing. his technique revolutionised my photography. The only downside I can see, as mentioned above, is the difficulty when passing your camera to someone else, but that's hardly important! Each to their own.

    One other point that hasn't been mentioned here is the major flaw of using the focus-recompose-shoot method with the shutter button. So many people don't realise that the change in angle will change the focus distance and, therefore, render an out-of-focus shot if using a fast aperture.

    Great article James and great book - it was your book that made me make the switch originally.

  • uhane March 8, 2013 12:19 pm

    thank you so much for this. I am a very farsighted, eternal beginner with a canon T4i and this helped me soo much! I tried the mirror lockup up but that made the shudder speed (in AV mode) do some nasty 5 seconds shots that would have otherwise have been, perhaps, 1/2 sec. Perhaps I don't understand mirror lock. I wanted to use the display instead of the viewfinder and leave the mirror up but it didn't work.

  • Jim March 8, 2013 10:02 am

    I started using BBF a few weeks back and the only drawbacks so far are that I can't shoot from the hip or give my camera to non-camera types to take a photo. I really like BBF for stationary subjects.

  • linda March 6, 2013 02:24 pm

    got it! thank you so much, darlene!
    i also found a helpful video at

    BBF seems to have nothing to do with keeping the mirror flop from causing movement in conjunction with the shutter press, correct?
    what do y'all think about using mirror lockup?

  • Darlene March 6, 2013 11:23 am

    @linda do this . . .

    - Hit menu button
    - go to Custom Controls where you'll see options on how to set pretty much any button on the camera
    - choose the first one "Shutter button" set it on either of the second or third options so it does NOT focus and hit "set"
    - then decide which button you want to use to focus, the AF-ON one or the * one.
    - whichever you pick go in and set that one to Meter and AF start

    you should be good to go

  • linda March 6, 2013 07:10 am

    james, can you please explain STEP BY STEP HOW TO SET UP BBF on 5D MARK3?
    there are some differences from MARK2, which you explained in your TACK SHARP e-book.
    thank you SO MUCH! linda

  • Onebird February 11, 2013 07:32 pm

    I like the Artical James put out. We must be open minded to new ideas and concepts! I must admit the name back focus will throw people off because it is really a AF-ON button for the Nikon. It takes getting used to no doubt but I find it works extremely well. I picked up the technique from a Wildlife Photographer in Florida while attending a seminar, I knew it was on my camera but never explored the many advantages for myself.

    Like anything else, we all shoot differently anf others may not find it as useful.

    Thanks for Sharing James!!


  • Darren Jones January 21, 2013 07:55 am

    Can someone please clarify, if I want to use AF ON (BBF) on my nikon, do I then need to turn off the focusing function of the shutter button? Also I am a bit confused... I take it once the AF ON button has been pressed I don't have to keep it held down?

    Sorry, I know this is a very beginner question but any help would be appreciated.


  • Johannes Compaan January 9, 2013 11:10 am

    Servo mode focussing is a very helpful thing if your subject is moving, but otherwise it is a terribly nervous and therefore not so reliable way to focus because it constantly keeps looking for stuff to focus on. It is peaceless, and you do not want to have your camera focus and refocus (and therefore, many times, unfocus) when you are already sure that you have your focus right at the moment and are just recomposing. To seperate focus from your shutter gives you the freedom to recompose and thus many times changing the metering whenever you please without the inconvient of automaticaly refocuss when you in fact only want to recompose and re-meter. It's as simple as that...

  • Chris January 9, 2013 09:48 am

    Great article.
    IOne quick question though.

    Am I missing something about #3?

    For situation 3 where we are tracking the subject in servo, shouldn't the default focusing (using shutter for both shutter and focusing) give same result as BBF and be easier on the fingers?

    What does back button give us other than the ability to stop focusing (in case subject suddenly stops - servo should stop automatically anyway)?

  • Photographer Orillia December 29, 2012 08:39 am

    I've just started trying this BBF technique and like most it's a work in progress - I continue to fall back on the shutter for focusing. Baby steps!

  • diane December 23, 2012 01:59 am

    Once tried, and mastered, you don't want to go back. I recently tried BBF with Servo on a dog photography workshop and the results were great.

  • fredder77 December 21, 2012 11:40 pm

    I recently gave BBF a try after being somewhat skeptic I have to admit but not to the "Marty" degree. LOL.
    Honestly, I love BBF and have switched both my 5dii and 450d. I don't really see a disadvantage to using this method as your thumb is in that vicinity anyways. You could still refocus every shot if you need if you just need to focus once it's better than switching to MF on the lens.

    Tracking moving subjects using BBF with Servo mode works great.

  • jamiwe October 30, 2012 05:02 am

    It is odd to me that people get so worked up about this! Remember, its photography, not politics... ;) I found this article to be very helpful and cleared up some things with back button focusing. Thank you!

  • Dimar October 11, 2012 12:25 am

    The problem is, the camera will not shoot each time it thinks that the object is not in focus. It makes me always have to press the BBF, and press the shutter button after that.. Why should I bother myself with two buttons, while one button could make it?

  • Krista September 18, 2012 03:19 am

    Thanks to everyone who answered my question. I've set my camera (5D) to AE/AF, No AE lock. I like this setting and went out yesterday to practice. I see it will take more than just one time out to get it perfected but I got good results.

  • Le simons September 17, 2012 08:09 am

    Hi James
    I am interested in back button focus, but I find nothing in my manual to discribe how.
    can you tell me how to use it on a Pentax k 100 D super
    thank you for your help

    Le Simons

  • Crystal September 17, 2012 04:43 am

    Re Sony Alpha. BBF is NOT available on the A55. But it is on the A700 and A900. So that's why I can't use BBF. (Thank you Google)

  • Jay September 16, 2012 08:10 am

    Hi Krista,
    On my Rebel XTi, I am able use any AF point selection for BBF.

  • Diane September 16, 2012 07:31 am

    krista, the back button focus will work with any AF point. You're just using the back button instead of half pressing the shutter button to focus. Then you can let go of the back button, and as long as neither you nor the subject move towards or away from one another, they will stay in focus. You can, of course, still focus using one AF point and recompose if you want to.

  • Darlene September 16, 2012 07:27 am

    @Krista you asked To use the back button focus method must one use the center focus and recompose or could I still choose a different focal point and have it stay there?

    You can still use any focus point you want, the point is not to have to focus and recompose. For portraits especially you don't want to have to refocus on every frame. Assuming your subject isn't moving nor are you you don't need or want to focus every shot cause nothing is changing. But if you use the focus and compose method you'd have to do that every shot which is really annoying, IMO anyway.

    @Crystal - What about a Sony Alpha? I don’t understand your terminology – although I have used continuous auto focus at the dog park, I don’t understand how it would work when the object doesn’t move.

    Isn't that a point and shoot camera? Not sure those cameras have this capability. Continuous focus can also be used with the BBF button. You're just focusing using your thumb, independent of the shutter release that's all.

  • Johannes September 15, 2012 10:36 pm

    Marty, you really don't get it, do you...

  • Richard September 15, 2012 07:19 pm

    Funny-this is a feature of my old Fuji that i miss, it had a physical dial to switch between single, continuous, manual and a button in the middle off it for a"one short" focus when in manual.simple but effective.

  • Marty Hirst September 15, 2012 01:30 pm

    A thing is not proved just because no one has ever questioned it.
    What has never been gone into impartially has never been properly gone into. 
    Hence scepticism is the first step towards truth.
    It must be applied generally, because it is the touchstone.
    Denis Diderot 1713-1784

  • James Brandon September 15, 2012 08:04 am

    Thanks for all the response to this article everyone, and thanks to my many fellow BBF'ers who are backing me up ;-). While I think it's a waste of time to try and argue with people on the internet, allow me to clarify one thing I said in the article that some people seem to have taken a little bit too literally....

    At wedding for example, yes BBF would allow you to set focus and then never have to refocus as long as you haven't moved and the bride hasn't moved.

    A few people are getting all worked up thinking that I'm promoting a mindset where you could set focus, go to the bathroom, grab a coke, take a phone call, come back and keep shooting away. While that actually would still work if no variables had changed, that's not what I'm saying. If you have time, by all means refocus. That's what I do.

    But in those instances where you don't have time. Where something unplanned happens that you absolutely must capture and there's only one shot at it and you know your subject is still in focus, it's a priceless advantage to just hold your shutter down and fire off as many frames as possible without having to refocus. Or, accidentally back focus because everything happened so fast that you didn't have time to double check ;-).

    The bottom line is this: I know this stuff works. I know it has helped me tremendously and has given me an edge over my competition. If people don't want to change or give it a try; that's totally fine by me. I'm simply presenting my opinion and people can take it or leave it. Cheers!

  • Crystal September 15, 2012 06:39 am

    What about a Sony Alpha? I don't understand your terminology - although I have used continuous auto focus at the dog park, I don't understand how it would work when the object doesn't move.

  • Johannes September 15, 2012 05:14 am

    Quote (Marty Hirst): "With BBF you could “forget” where in the scene you’d set it, from one batch of shots to the next, and if you’re using BBF for each and every shot you may as well be half depressing the shutter button anyway."

    Dear Marty,

    If you only touch your BBF button once during a series of shots, and than maybe again if you feel the change in your position in relationship to your subject (or vice versa) needs a refocusing, you'll get the point. What you'll gain is that you'll shoot without any delay (a huge difference especially in low light situations where the AF of any camera is still struggling today), your batteries will last longer and so will any mechanism in your camera that is moving because of AF.
    The point is: you will of course not stop focusing or even refocusing, you will just do it a lot less and not do it unnecessarily anymore. That's all.

    p.s. Please stop depressing your shutter, press it instead, keep it happy!

  • Darlene September 15, 2012 01:20 am

    I find it interesting how many people feel the need to trash this article and writing insulting comments. If you don't agree with the tip, then simply don't use this technique and keep doing it how you are doing it. End of story.

    I personally don't have time to go around and find articles on the internet that I disagree with and write rude and insulting comments on them. There is no need to trash the author and diss anyone using this technique just because you don't like it or disagree with it. Simply move on.

    What was it that Thumper's mother said in Bambi again? . . .

    Oh yeah, "if you can't say nothing nice, don't say nothing at all"

  • Krista September 15, 2012 12:30 am

    I am very interested in learning any new technique which will give a higher percentage of tack sharp shots. I mainly shoot portraits and use one shot AF and set my focus point over the eye. To use the back button focus method must one use the center focus and recompose or could I still choose a different focal point and have it stay there?

  • Johannes September 14, 2012 09:34 pm

    Marty Hirst,

    Where in heavens name did you get the idea that this is a forum? This particular section of DPS is called "Photography Tips & Tutorials". I believe the tips as well as the tutorials published in this section are meant as means to help people improve their photography skills, and not as topics or threads for smartasses to prove the contrary of whatever is written. The beauty of freely given information is that you can use it if it pleases you or not use it if it doesn't. The possibility of writing in reaction to the article can be helpful in case someone thinks to have additional information that might enrich the article even further, which is the case as follows:
    Not having the camera refocus over and over again on every shutter button touch, even if your subject is already in focus and not moving, avoids a considerable and unnecessary battery charge consumption.

  • darius September 14, 2012 07:33 pm

    "No technique is right or wrong for everyone. No need to get uptight about it!"

    Here, here, well said diane

  • JLaurilla September 14, 2012 07:00 pm

    In your book, on page 38, you said "when I got home I ran the image through Photoshop and applied a soft layer of Topaz Adjust." Could you elaborate more on how you do that? Thanks.

  • Diane September 14, 2012 06:51 pm

    I didn't see where it was being promoted as the be-all-and-end-all of photography, but it seems that some are misunderstanding the general principle. But if you've never used it, that's not surprising.

    I have used BBF (Canon 40D) for some time now, and I would never go back to using the shutter button for focus lock. I have configured my shutter for metering. If you are in one shot focus mode, then you can press the back button and let go - similar, as the article says, to half pressing the shutter and then switching the lens to manual focus - and the focus will stay put on the AF point you selected for the focus, even if you recompose and that point then moves to be aligned with the wall behind whatever you are shooting (given the example of someone in front of a wall mentioned above).

    For moving subjects, you select servo focus mode, align the chosen AF point with the subject, then keep your thumb on the back button while you track the subject, keeping them within that AF point, then just press the shutter when you're ready. I have never been able to get good results with this technique until I started using BBF, then it all clicked into place - excuse the pun! I had a child running towards me at a workshop a few months ago, and most of the shots were in focus - and I knew that she had drifted away from the AF point on a couple of occasions, so I could tell which shots they were.

    With the split use of back button and shutter, to take landscapes, for example, I can point the camera to where I want to meter from, and half press the shutter to lock the metering, keeping it held down, then I recompose so that my AF point is where I want the focus to be, press the back button AF and let go, and can still move slightly knowing that the focus will not move, which is not as much of an issue with landscapes as it is with portraits. I find this easier than locking metering with the star button and focus with the shutter, as the BBF button is in a better place to reach, at least on the 40D, without taking my eye from the viewfinder, than the star button is.

    I agree that this technique is not for everyone, but these are just my experiences of using BBF and I have no issues with it at all. It does take a bit of re-learning, I admit. I am not so sure I could get used to releasing the shutter button back to only half way, and would probably get more errors using that technique, so it all boils down to individual preferences. No technique is right or wrong for everyone. No need to get uptight about it!

  • bogdan September 14, 2012 06:04 pm

    I don't know where all the fuss about BBS originated, but it seems like many have adopted it and promote it as a holy bible of photography.
    What nonsense!
    I never use BBS and i always get my shots in focus.
    You know, the shutter button actually has TWO stops! Yeah, for all you BBS supporters, you should try it, there really are TWO positions on the shutter button. You don't have to lose focus when you press the shutter button unless you are a noob, because you can focus by pressing the shutter half-way, then frame or whatever while keeping it pressed and when you want to shoot, just go down the other half.
    And also, you don't have to lose focus when you release the shutter button, cause no one makes you lift your finger all goddamn way up to the top! You can just lift it for half and keep focus, then shoot again!

    Voila! No need for BBS, you can achieve all that with just clever use of the good old two position shutter button which everybody is accustomed to.

  • Marty Hirst September 14, 2012 02:21 pm

    Phew, not just me then with one or two doubts about this. Be careful, Kieron & Brian, you may evoke the wrath of Randi (see earlier comments).

    Duke, my point earlier was that you seem to be replacing a single finger technique with a finger & thumb technique. Spot focusing on the nose of your subject, with your index finger on the shutter button, recomposing while half depressed and taking the shot seems to me to be less cumbersome than the two-step method required with BBF. with the added security of having each shot refocused "on the nose", as has been brought up earlier.
    If some of your shots are focussed on the wall behind the subjects then maybe you should work in your aim a little.

    Its not all negative, there is a big advantage with BBF that I can see.

    Continuos Focus mode is a useful option in certain situations.
    Selecting C With that awkward little Focus Mide switch there at the front, and then switching it back to S, without inadvertently going to M can be a bit hit-and-miss in a fast moving situation. If you find yourself in a situation where Continuous Focus mode is preferential for one shot and then Single Ficus mode would actually be better in the next couple of shots, then the following may be useful:

    With the camera configured to BBF, select "C" on the Focus Mode switch and leave it there.
    When focussing on your subject a shiort dab on the rear button will be your Single Focus mode and a longer "Hild" will be your Ciontinuous Focus mode.
    A little awkward, I know, holding thumb & forefinger at the ready, but perhaps less awkward than messing with that little front switch and certainly more "immediate".
    I'll be carrying on giving that a try, but as I said earlier - the jury's still out.

  • Duke September 14, 2012 12:56 pm

    Brian, et al,

    I've been using AF-ON (BBF) on my D300 for several years. It's total habit now. I shoot a lot of group meetings of people, usually two or three chatting, whatever. Before BBF, the camera would often focus behind the subjects (unless your focus points were on one of the subjects). With BBF, you aim at one person, or the key target, tap the AF button, then frame the shot anyway you want. The key subject is tack on, every time. I keep my focus points in the viewfinder in one place (center) all the time; just point it at what you want to feature, tap the button, then frame and shoot.

  • Brian Phillips September 14, 2012 11:48 am

    I thought the same thing that was mentioned by Kieron... I would hate to base all my photos on one focus point and assume it was 100% spot-on and continue shooting dozens of images based on the focus of the first one. Refocusing with each shot would seem to give more peace of mind that you're going to get more keepers. Still, I just read the artcicle on the Canon site (http://www.learn.usa.canon.com/resources/articles/2011/backbutton_af_article.shtml?categoryId=121#showAll) and just switched my camera over to BBF to give it a try. Maybe I'm confused on how it would be better in shooting sports when your subject is continually moving.. don't you need to constantly have your thumb on the back button at the same time you're using the shutter with your index finger? Not sure if I"m that coordinated... I can see this will take some getting used to.

  • Kieron Nolan September 14, 2012 08:58 am

    Interesting article, though I'd add caution to trusting one shot to be in focus at the end of an aisle in a wedding then basing all subsequent shots on that! You say that throw away shots are caused by focusing on the wrong thing such as a minister's face, I'd argue the best way to ensure you don't do that is to re-focus for every shot. Especially if you're shooting with a wide aperture because of a dark church - the shallower depth of field can mean small movements from the subjects putting the shots out of focus. Often I've thought a shot looks great on the LCD screen on the camera only to discover later it's very slightly blurred. I even refocus during the first kiss (which can typically last 3 to 4 seconds, plenty of time to refocus), you don't want to miss that shot!

  • Michael Hughes September 14, 2012 02:07 am

    Hi Pat,

    On your Nikon ( well, mine at least !! ) you have a button on the back labelled AE/Lock or something similar. You can change the function of this in your menu to either lock teh focus, the exposure or both. Setting it to both is the same as your half shutter press ( and is the default )

    By using the focus and recompose you also set the exposure. By changing the setting of the button to exposure lock only allows you to set the 2 indipendently.

    I am not sold on using it for focus lock as described in this article. It is "another" way of settign focus but I don't see it as better or worse, just different.

  • Pat September 14, 2012 01:58 am

    Are you talking about focus lock? I've never heard of "Back Button Focus"- at least with Nikon cameras.

  • Michael Hughes September 14, 2012 01:22 am

    I only speed read the article so am quite prepared for people to highlight that I've missed the point.....on Nikons you can use the BB for focus, exposure, or both.

    I use it for exposure becuase thart allows me to spot an exposure, hold the exposure setting, then spot on a focus, I am not sure you can do this in any other way while in A or S priority modes.

  • Ben Anderson September 12, 2012 10:19 am

    The only disadvantage to BBF is forgetting to also program the shutter button to begin metering only (I shoot both a 5DMII&7D, so I'm not sure if Nikon has or needs that change. Merely programming the AF-On button to begin focusing by default will not reprogram the shutter button, Without also telling the camera to only use the shutter button for metering start will frustrate some new users, as if in re-composition the focus point has shifted for one reason or another, a shutter button set to AF/Metering may negate the original desired point of focus.

    I bring it up only because I did this and for an hour or two I fought with BBF. Since that day a couple years ago, I've been BBF for all my AF needs.



  • Marty Hirst September 11, 2012 03:33 am

    reign yourself in a little there!
    Is offering-up an alternative opinion, a no-no on this forum? Should we all just go along with what's being said regardless of any doubt we may have?
    If my contra-opinion is "dismissive" and doing the forum "a disservice" then how should your aggressive, insulting, and patronising jibes in my direction be interpreted?
    Randi If you'd bothered to read my comments you'd see that, on a number of occasions, I stated that I would put this technique into practice and see how I go.

    I did reconfigure my dslr to BBF at the weekend and, well let's say the jury's still out.
    I can certainly see the advantages it has when combined with the Continuous Focus aspect (either holding or dabbing the rear button) but I can also see it'll take some getting used to.

    If you've been having a bad day at the office Randi, I suggest you go for a run or something, get it out of your system that way.
    Then let's have a discussion on which camera technique suits whom, under what circumstances and when. I promise I won't dismiss your opinion or make you cry in any other way.

  • Darlene September 11, 2012 02:35 am

    Randi, my friend is an ex-sports shooter for the local newspaper and she teaches a sports shooting class here and tells her students to use BBF or MANUAL for sports!!! Back in the day manual was all we had so you had to learn to pull your focus and anticipate where the subject would be when you hit the shutter button. It IS doable, cause it's been done way longer than autofocus has even existed.

    I also use BFF for portraits because my focus point may end up on the background when I recompose my image. I'm not going to focus, lock and recompose every single frame and the chances of the focus spot hitting the background and getting my people out of focus are high. So for portraits, especially on tripod I use BFF set it and leave it until I either move the tripod of the people.

    At night same thing. Your camera can't focus at night unless it can see something, a line to focus on. I do a lot of light painting stuff where my subject is basically in complete darkness. I have a helper go up to the subject and light it with a flashlight so I can focus using BFF then I leave it there until I change angles and do it again. Otherwise your camera will not be able to find focus and you'll just get a lot of really out of focus shots.

  • Mei Teng September 10, 2012 10:52 am

    Great article on back button focus. I will try this out.

  • Jim September 10, 2012 02:20 am

    I began using AF On to set exposure years ago and as many have said, once you get used to it you'll never go back. I use spot metering quite a bit so I also have my AEL button set to lock and hold so if I want, I can set exposure, focus and take the picture independently. Sounds complicated but it really becomes natural quickly.

  • Nikki September 9, 2012 10:54 pm

    Excuse my typos please. I meant "non-pro" and also please excuse my inconsistent parentheses. Thanks again!

  • Nikki September 9, 2012 10:50 pm

    I am a non-prom "mom with a camera" and I love back button focus! I find myself switching back and forth between traditional and BBF depending on if I'm holding the baby while chasing the older kids, and catching snapshots; or have more time to make my images (like I do with a manual or auto exposure modes. I wish my camera would let me save BBF settings as one of my custom modes, so I didn't have to dive into the menu to switch back and forth. Now I will try continuous focus with BBF, and hope to enjoy it. Thanks for this article!

  • 1Shutternutter September 9, 2012 07:18 pm


    On the Canon 5D III go to Menu > C.Fn2 > Custom Controls > Set > scroll to bottom right,Multi controller > set > if set to OFF-- switch to right > click SET. Done!!!

  • Randi September 9, 2012 07:07 pm

    QUOTE: "I think you’ve just described the ideal situation where manual focus would be the best option.
    It sounds to me a little like we’re trying to prove how “Pro” we are, by introducing a technique that is different to the norm (and therefore better?) and may have many a “wannabe” swooning with respect over our shoulder at our mastery of the machinery."

    It seems to me, to be a little like the pot calling the kettle black! TRULY; who is trying to prove how "pro" they are? If you prefer a different technique and feel that it better suits your shooting style or situation, then that's what you should do. This article was presented by someone attempting to share their experience regarding a particular technique with the rest of photographic community. Your dismissal of valid tips and suggestions as having no value, through sarcastic and snarky platitudes, is arrogant and rude. AND, I can't imagine that you will grow very much as a photographer if you're unwilling to experiment and try new things, because you believe you already know everything.

    You then went on to say "It’s not that much of an effort to keep the shutter button half depressed while you wait for that..." (insert situation of your choice). This comment seems to imply that there can only be a limited number of shooting situations that might be encountered, so having more than one method of achieving focus isn't really necessary. I beg to differ because the variety of situations in which you might be shooting are infinite.

    I'm sure there could be more than a hundred different reasons why someone would choose to use back button auto focus, just as there is probably an equal number of reasons why that same person might choose to use the shutter release button for auto focus. Just a couple of examples to illustrate why you might choose one over the other:

    If I'm photographing seagulls in flight, I would choose the shutter release for auto focus in continuous shooting mode, in order to maximize my chances of getting the most images in sharp focus. I wouldn't try focusing manually in this particular shooting situation, because your subject is constantly changing it's position and distance in relation to your camera. I wouldn't use the back button to focus in this situation either because ergonomics, efficiency, and common sense would require that I use the shutter release to focus and shoot simultaneously.

    In contrast, I was recently shooting landscapes at a local arboretum and chose to use the back button to focus my compositions because I was bracketing my shots for HDR. This was the best option for me to achieve focus in that particular shooting situation. If I had "made the effort" to hold the shutter release button halfway to focus and then make my exposures, I would've been holding the shutter button for up to 15 minutes or longer, while waiting for other visitors to move out of my camera's field of view, so I could take my shots. That wouldn't have been comfortable or efficient.

    It's a disservice to the forum to dismiss another contributor's ideas or suggestions as having no real value, because it isn't something you would choose to do. It's an insult to the contributor to imply that they're trying to present themselves as something they're not. I would suggest that you work on your self esteem, as it's been my observation that arrogance generally stems from insecurity.

  • Jay September 9, 2012 06:15 pm

    I meant to say "seperates"!

  • Jay September 9, 2012 06:13 pm

    Wouldn't TheBBF mode also deprecates AF lock from AE lock? I can see how that would be useful.

  • Larry Youmans September 9, 2012 05:40 pm


    This link will take you to detailed instructions for canon eos systems

  • Eeps September 8, 2012 07:57 pm

    Darlene makes a good point when she compares it to using a Wacom tablet, but my main issue with this article is the same as Aadil. It would be helpful to have the steps on using this method before talking about the advantages. This would go a long way towards selling whatever you're selling, specially if you're targeting beginners or enthusiasts.

  • Dave Quail September 8, 2012 07:55 pm

    Been using AF-ON for Back button Focussing for a number of years now on both my EOS 5D MkII and EOS 7D. Could never go back to the old Shutter button focus!!

  • James Brandon September 8, 2012 02:26 pm

    Thanks Val and Darlene!

  • Rockie September 8, 2012 02:09 pm

    Have been trying to set this up on my camera I'm a totally beginner but am hoping this will help with my focusing!?!

  • Val September 8, 2012 11:23 am

    I switched to BBF (Nikon) a couple of years ago. Over time, it improved my number of 'keepers'. Yes, it took a while to get used to the feature. However, understanding that some of the 'best' professonals and 'advanced' amatures us this feature, it was worth 'forcing myself' to change my cameras setups, learn the technique, and practice, practice, practice. Whether I am shooting sports, group events (weddings, etc.), nature & landscape, or commercial/studio work, BBF is the only way I now focus on my subject. The message is, tack sharp has improved.
    Hope this helps.

  • mike September 8, 2012 10:28 am

    I'm torn. I hear what your saying and it sounds great but I use the exposure lock ALOT. I'm usually in AP mode and outside and I liek to use the semi-auto exposure contrils with the AE lock. I see that on my Canon I can use hte back button AF and set the shutter half way down to work as the AE. I'm having trouble visualizing how this would work so I think I'll give it a try. Might be fun if nothing else. Thanks for the idea

  • Steve Rubelmann September 8, 2012 10:12 am

    I read a great article on this subject on this site some months ago. Unfortunately, I don't know who to give the credit to. I set my Canon to BBF (it took about a week to get used to the technique), but I have never looked back. I got a new tip about using Servo mode from this article. Although I have used it before, I will leave my camera there and try that too. It took awhile to drill down into Canon's menus to discover how to do this and even then it isn't well explained, but after I experimented, I found it works perfectly. The shutter button does not power the focus at all, so I can preset my focus and forget about it. Love it!

  • Darlene September 8, 2012 08:00 am

    Absolutely! After you've tried it we can talk again :-)

  • Marty Hirst September 8, 2012 07:57 am

    As I said, I'll give it another try.
    That you tried it and found it valuable is fair enough.
    That I tried it and didn't see the same advantages is surely equally as valid?

  • Darlene September 8, 2012 07:31 am

    Sure there's a factor of getting used to it, but that's the case with anything you do that's new. I had to get used to using a Wacom tablet to edit in PS and LR. Did I need to - no. Was it cumbersome and awkward at first - yes. Would I go back to doing it with a mouse - NO!

    The point is, anything new is clumsy at first. How about riding a bike or driving for the first time? How about learning to drive a standard? You have to "get used to" all those things too but that's part of the learning process.

    You decide if it's worth it - we've just shared with you that we tried it and find it valuable. I learned a long time ago if you keep hearing advice from various different sources and it's the same over and over, I probably need to at least try it. You make up your own mind.

  • Marty Hirst September 8, 2012 07:09 am

    I'll give it another try and get back to you.
    But if it's a matter of "getting used to it", then I still don't see the point. I could "get used" to operating the camera left-handed, or scrolling through the menu with my nose, would probably work great, eventually, but why would I?

  • Darlene September 8, 2012 06:55 am

    Marty, I'm going to play devil's advocate, because I don't think that's what James is doing at all. I'm in the same boat as he is, I never used it. UNTIL I used it! Now like James I won't go back. I use BBF for everything!

    I find it more convenient for moving subjects (works better actually) and easier for stationary ones. For portraits I wouldn't do it any other way and the lock focus just doesn't work in that situation.

  • Marty Hirst September 8, 2012 06:49 am

    James, I think you've just described the ideal situation where manual focus would be the best option.
    It sounds to me a little like we're trying to prove how "Pro" we are, by introducing a technique that is different to the norm (and therefore better?) and may have many a "wannabe" swooning with respect over our shoulder at our mastery of the machinery.
    Half-depressing the shutter button, focus set to spot, on the important part of the scene and recomposing the shot is no real hardship. It's not that much of an effort to keep the shutter button half depressed while you wait for that eye-contact or "the kiss".
    And I think that continually re-spotting and shifting the composition has an important security element, you know from one shot to the next exactly where you're focus is fixed upon. With BBF you could "forget" where in the scene you'd set it, from one batch of shots to the next, and if you're using BBF for each and every shot you may as well be half depressing the shutter button anyway.

  • James Brandon September 8, 2012 04:43 am

    Sure, I definitely agree that it would be hard to trust it. But what if your camera was on a tripod or something? You could set focus and then basically walk away from it completely. Depending on the distance to your subject, the aperture used, the light available, etc you could have a depth of field of a few feet. So coming back to the camera with the subjects in the same spot would almost guarantee that you'd still have focus achieved. I'm not saying I would always trust it either, it's just the principal of the matter. If you have ample time and nothing is much is going on, you may as well refocus to be certain, but where this helps is in those clutch moments when a moment happens that you MUST capture. And again, this is just ONE example. I was in the same boat as you a while back, I didn't see the point. But after switching I would never even consider switching back to the shutter half way down method.

  • Darlene September 8, 2012 04:41 am

    Jason, depends on the subject. Mountains rarely move and in a scene like that even if you move a couple inches infinity is still that far away.

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer September 8, 2012 04:18 am

    Thanks for the examples James. I can see how that would be helpful, but I think I could never take my lens away from the subject and swap a memory card, etc and still be able to trust that the focus remained locked on the subject I wanted and that I am still the same distance away. I would have a really hard time trusting that and not just refocusing anyway.

  • James Brandon September 8, 2012 04:01 am

    But that's just the problem Jason, you have to hold your finger there in limbo if you want to keep focus locked. With the BBF focus method you are free to let go of the camera if you need to. What if you need to mess with some of your settings to tweak exposure, or reach into your camera bag to get a new card, or clean a smudge off your lens? With BBF you would able to any of these things freely without problem, with shutter half way down you'd have to let go and refocus.

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer September 8, 2012 03:56 am

    I was wondering if this article would suddenly reveal some as to yet unknown miracle of using the AF-ON button, but I am still perplexed by the existence of the button and why would one choose to use two buttons (AF-ON & the shutter) to get a focus lock & shot instead of just one (the shutter).

    When using AF-S (One Shot) you do not need to keep resetting the focus on the bride's eyes in the example given as long as once you set the focus (pressing the shutter halfway) then take a shot (press the shutter all the way) you only release the shutter back to the halfway position. You will remained locked at the original focus distance.

  • Darlene September 8, 2012 03:45 am

    Paul what mode are you shooting in if you are using Servo for weddings? For a moving subject like that, especially one coming towards you that's when the Servo and auto focus really shines.

    Also take a look at which zone you're focusing on? Is the camera picking or are you using a single spot to select where to focus?

  • Paul September 8, 2012 03:35 am

    Great tips. It gets frustrating at times to focus on the wedding party walking down the aisle especially when there isn't sufficient light. I'm going to experiment with al servo mode. Looking forward to checking out your book. Thanks.



  • Darlene September 8, 2012 03:25 am

    I'd really love to be able to directly share articles on Google Plus but you have no G+ button on the site. Hint!

  • Don September 8, 2012 02:43 am

    One of the nice things about my Sony a700 is that it has a dedicated back button for focusing. I use this technique all the time and it works great for many situations, especially when your subject is static.

  • Aadil Kurji September 8, 2012 01:42 am

    Interesting article, I'm gonna go try this out.

    Just a thought though, it would have been nice to get the steps to set BFF on Canon/Nikon and save us some digging.


  • Steve September 8, 2012 01:24 am

    It should be known that if you're a left-eye shooter like me, it's not always comfortable to use the back button to focus. Still a great tip, however!