3 Situations That Will Convince You Back Button Focus Is The Only Way To Use Autofocus

Back Button focus is awesome. This simple tool makes capturing sharp images a lot easier. It’s time you started thinking about switching your camera settings and using it! Once I learned how to use this nifty little feature, my life as a sports photographer became much easier.

Then I started to experiment further and I discovered back button focus is useful for all types of photography. Here’s why…

I used back button focus when I shot this landscape photo. The boat was moving fast enough that I need to track it. The sihouette needed to be tack sharp for this image to be a success.
I used back button focus when I shot this landscape photo. The boat was moving fast enough that I need to track it. The silhouette needed to be tack sharp for this image to be a success. Photo by Erin Fitzgibbon

What is Back Button Focus?

When you purchase a camera, it comes loaded with default settings.  One of those settings, includes having the autofocus function and the shutter function connected to the shutter button.

We all know that to activate autofocus you can press the shutter button halfway down to compose your shot and then complete the image by fully compressing the button. It’s simple and easy to use. For most basic situations it works quite well. However, as you become a more practiced photographer you’ll find yourself in increasingly demanding situations which will require more complex camera operations.

“One of the best examples of when to use this is sports photography, but it’s also useful for night photography, portraits, wildlife, weddings, candid shots, just about any thing you might do, back button focus can make it better. ” -Tony Northrup

This is where back button focus comes in handy. Essentially, you are separating the shutter and the AF focus into two separate operations. This will give you greater control over your camera and once you practice the technique it will speed up your ability to compose shots and ensure images are tack sharp. With back button focus, you won’t need to refocus every time you press the shutter button.

If you’re a more visual learner, check out this video from Tony Northrup. In it, he demonstrates just how useful back button focus is by bring us along on an outing to photograph his daughter playing softball.

Now, if you’re still not convinced back button focus is right for you, read on. I’ll give you three completely different shooting situations where this cool little feature can be a lifesaver. We’ll also discuss how to set it up on Canon and Nikon cameras, so you don’t have to go out on a wild goose chase via the internet to learn how to use it. Let’s get started!

3 Situations Where Back Button Focus Improved My Photographs

It’s time for some practical examples of why back button focus is so darn awesome. It’s up to your chances of capturing the action, making sharp images quickly, and keeping an object in focus amidst chaos. Let’s take a look at these situations. They’ll help you to understand the practical uses of back button focus.

Situation #1 – Sports Photography

When shooting sports I often need to focus in on one specific player. Recently, I was shooting photographs of goalies. I needed to ensure throughout all the shots, the goalie remained in focus.

If I were to have used autofocus through the shutter button, I ran the risk of having the camera focus on the wrong player. Instead, I turned on back button focus and locked onto the goalie. I then released the button and started shooting.

My focus remained locked on the goalie despite the number of players that circled around her net. If I had not used back button focus, my camera would have tried to focus on the players moving around in front of her rather than on the goalie. I wouldn’t have captured as many amazing photos without the use of back button focus.

Goalies always have lots of traffic in front of their net and this can confuse the focus on your camera. Lock onto the goalie and remember to adjust your focus if he moves further out of his net.
Goalies always have lots of traffic in front of their net and this can confuse the focus on your camera. Lock onto the goalie and remember to adjust your focus if he moves further out of his net. Photo by Erin Fitzgibbon

Situation #2 – Family Portrait Session

I often use back button focus when I’m shooting family portraits. It’s really quick to use. I’ll direct the family to position them appropriately, then move to my camera. I quickly compose the shot and lock the focus.  As long as the family doesn’t move closer or farther away from the camera, I can recompose my shot and stay confident that my focus is sharp.

In this way, I don’t have to worry about checking my focus while the family stands and waits for me every single time I want to take a photo. I can snap several different images without worrying resetting the autofocus. This is pretty important when doing little kids’ photography sessions. They don’t have much patience and I have to be quick. Really quick.

In this case I used back button focus to make sure my camera locked onto her face not the tulips.
In this case, I used back button focus to make sure my camera locked onto her face, not the tulips. Photo by Erin Fitzgibbon

Situation #3 – The Jazz Festival

I don’t shoot a lot of street photography, but when I do, I almost always use back button focus. It’s incredibly useful in this type of situation. Particularly if you’re shooting in a crowded or busy location.

In the case of the photo below, I was shooting at the Orangeville Jazz and Blues Festival. This tiny town north of Toronto, Canada nearly doubles its population over the weekend. People flock to the town to see all the different bands and street performers.

This shot was taken during the Blues and Cruise evening. The main street fills with thousands of visitors. I locked my focus onto the young man and I was able to snap photos quickly. No longer did I have to worry about who might walk in front of the camera or crowd my view. I knew the dancer would remain sharp in each shot I took.

Photo By: Erin FitzGibbon
Photo by Erin Fitzgibbon

Setting up Back Button Focus on a Canon 5D Mark III

So lets’ talk about how to set up your camera. It’s going to take a little bit of effort to adjust your settings, but, trust me, you will love back button focus once you use it.

On a Canon camera, the back button focus can be set using the AF-On button. Some of the higher end Canon cameras will allow you to adjust your camera functions in the custom settings menu. Some entry level cameras may not have a dedicated AF-On button. In which case, back button focus is available through the options menu.

I’m going to be totally biased and write out the instructions for the Canon 5D. Other Canon cameras will be similar so you should be able to figure it out. If not, you can always consult that handy user manual your camera came with. The other camera brands  have similar procedures for setting up back button focus. We’ll take a look at Nikon as well. But let’s start with my favorite camera.

Start by entering the custom controls in your menu. On the Canon 5D Mark III, the AF-On activation is found in the second set of the custom controls menu. In order to activate AF-On, you will need to complete two actions. You will need to activate AF-On for the AF button and you will need to remove the AF option from the shutter button.

Part One: Activate AF-On

1) Enter the Custom Controls menu and use the wheel dial to scroll down to the AF-ON button.

2) Press “Set” then choose the AF and Metering option. Press “Set” again.

Part Two: Deactivate AF for the shutter button

1) Enter the Custom Controls menu and use the wheel dial to scroll over to the shutter button settings. Press “Set”.

2) Use the wheel dial to scroll over to “Metering Start” and press “Set”.

You have now set your Canon 5D to back button focus mode. Congratulations!

Setting up Back Button Focus on your Nikon D7100

In order to make back button focus work, you need to assign AF-On to the AE-L button. Head over to the setting menu on your camera. In the custom setting menu find “Controls”. Now choose F5 “Assign AE-L button”.  A second menu will open. From this menu choose “AF-On”.

There’s one last setting you need to adjust. You must now set your camera so it will take a photo even if the autofocus has not locked on to a subject. Go to your custom menu settings. You will need to select “Autofocus” . Inside this menu, select A1 “AF-C priority selection”. You want to select the option, “release”. After completing this step you need to select “AF-S priority selection” and repeat the same step.

This is important because you may lock your autofocus onto an object and then choose to recompose your shot. This setting will allow you to do so.

Congratulations your Nikon camera is now set up for back button focus.

The Camera Grip Changes when you use Back Button Focus

One of the things you will have to adjust is how you hold your camera. The use of back button focus requires a different grip. Instead of holding the grip with one hand and using your index finger to control both automatic focus and the shutter you will now need to use both the index finger and your thumb to control your camera.

Your thumb will control the focus while your index finger will trigger the shutter. Some beginners have mentioned they found this a little confusing at first.  They will start to focus on the action and forget to use the focus button. The results have been blurry images. Don’t get frustrated, keep practicing. The more you use the technique the easier it will be to manage.

Following the cat through the shot required the use of back button focus.
Following the cat through the shot required the use of back button focus. Photo by Erin FitzGibbon

Conclusion

As you become more experienced using the technique you may find that you never want to go back to using the default settings on your camera.

“This little experiment might lead you to try and customize more of the setting for your camera. That’s a good thing, it means you’re growing as a photographer and starting to utilize the most important tool you have–your camera.”

Push your abilities and the functionality of your camera. It will push you to make better photographs. You won’t break your camera by changing the settings and if you get stuck don’t sweat it. Visit your local camera store and they will help you reset it. Easy peasy. Plus, it’s okay to make mistakes, because how else are you going to learn?

So go ahead and experiment with back button focus. Try it out and let us know how it goes. I have a feeling you’re going to thrive once you get accustomed to the new focusing setup!

The girl could easily have shifted and my autofocus would have adjusted to focus on her body. In this case I locked onto the raccoon's paw with back button focus.
The girl could easily have shifted and my autofocus would have adjusted to focus on her body. In this case, I locked onto the raccoon’s paw. Photo by Erin Fitzgibbon

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About the author

Erin Fitzgibbon

Erin FitzGibbon is a Portrait, Sport, Fine Art Photographer and Writer from Ontario, Canada. When she's not taking photographs or writing articles she loves to escape to the backcountry for week long adventures with her family.

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