Back button focus completely changed my photography business. I know I know, that seems a little over the top…but it’s kind of true. A couple of weeks ago I talked about the different camera focus modes and focus points. And focus modes are hugely important, but the biggest change I made with focus was when I found this trick for back button focus about a decade ago. And since then I have never gone back. Not a single time. Never. Once you go back button you never go…back? (Okay, maybe there is no silly saying to input here.) But let’s dive into why I went with back button focus, what it actually is, and why I have never gone back to any other method of focusing.
Why Use the Back Button Focus Method
Have you ever stood there photographing a person (a client or maybe even a wedding couple) and your camera just isn’t focusing correctly? You are sure you are on the right setting for your current scene and still the darn camera won’t focus? Yeah, I have been there my friend. Many times. Well, actually only many times before I learned the trick of back button focus. I don’t personally need my photos to always be tack sharp. As a portrait & wedding photographer I’m not obsessed with focus, and I don’t think you should be either. Sometimes the moment is more important than how in focus the shot is. Especially when it’s an important moment—like the bride and groom walking back down the aisle laughing together, or your child laughing hysterically while you tickle them, or a couple running through a field together. There are lots of reasons to focus on *moments* instead of *sharpness* in your photography. But using back-button focus will allow much more precise control over your focus, so not only will you no longer miss any shots, but your control over focus will improve dramatically.
Traditionally with digital cameras and mirrorless cameras the focus is tied to the shutter button. You press the shutter button halfway and it focuses the photo. Well, when you or your subject is moving, each time you go to actually take the photo the camera needs a millisecond to refocus the photo and you could miss the shot. Or worse, it’s a great shot but the camera thinks it’s not quite in perfect focus and won’t even take the photo (oh man this one really upsets me). When you separate the focus from the shutter release then you can continually press the rear focus button and only take the photo when the moment is perfect. Even if that moment is slightly out of focus. Also, because back button controls the focus separately you generally get sharper photos for everything you photograph.
How to set up back button focus on your camera
The easiest way to do this is probably a google or youtube search for your specific camera model, but I will show you where it is on most cameras. Search for the AF button on the back side of the camera. If you have a button on the back of your camera that says AE-L AF-L or AF-ON, that button can be selected for focus—hence the name. But you have to go into the menu of your camera and set it up so the shutter release does nothing but take the photo and is not set up for focus control as well. Easy peasy. Seriously…that’s it!
Cameras with an AF-ON button: If your camera already has an AF-ON button then that button automatically assigned to focus, you just need to remove the AF from the shutter. That is done in the custom setting menu (the pencil). Enter custom setting menu>autofocus>AF activation>AF-ON only.
Cameras without an AF-ON button: If your camera has a back button that says AE-L or AF-L you can assign focus to that button. By default it is set to lock autofocus but back-button focus is much more useful, in my opinion. You can assign focus through the setup menu (the wrench). Enter setup menu>buttons>assign AE-L AE-F>scroll down to AF-ON.
Now you can choose whatever focus mode you want and voila! you have started using back button focus. Just a note that your shutter release will no longer focus. So at this point you can accidentally take all the out of focus photos known to man, so be sure to always be using the back button for your focus. But once you get used to it you’ll never want to switch back. It makes photographing so much nicer by allowing completely separate controls over focus and shutter release. Kind of like the olden days of film cameras…remember those?!?! That’s me joking because I learned on a 1970’s Olympus OM-1 (obviously my favorite camera for nostalgia reasons).
On the right here you can see me actually using my back-button focus on a wedding just a couple of months ago. My camera has a vertical grip, which also has an AF-ON button that is assigned to focus for me, and here I am composing and focusing just before I took the image.
This is a quick read on why back button focus is a highly effective tool for any photographer serious about capturing the perfect shot. It’s becoming increasingly popular because of its ability to keep the focus controlled, consistent, and very precise. With back button focus, you’re able to modify settings quickly, respond to changing situations faster, and be more creative with your shots. With back button focus, you’ll have the tools you need to make your photos even more extraordinary and unforgettable. There’s no better time than now to give it a try and see the difference it can make. I promise this one is a game changer!