Are you having focusing problems with your DSLR?

Are you having focusing problems with your DSLR?

The solution is setting and using the back button focus on your camera. This way you can both focus recompose and continuous focus with the same button with no need to switch settings.

In this video professional photographer and author Tony Northrup teaches:

  • Why you should be using back button focus
  • The situations it works best in
  • How to set and use it

Check it out

334 comments

I am 38 yrs old and I live in Boulder, Colorado. I am a budding photographer and I recently got a Nikon D5300 and it is a big step up from my Nikon P500 Coolpix. And I am very much into Wildlife, landscapes and scenery. I would love to know how I can improve on remembering ISO settings in terms of the time of day. Some of my shots of my dog in the morning are great but then others are blurry.

Thanks Emily Gillis
Boulder, Colorado

I’m into the same type photography with my D3100.
As a general rule, I keep mine set at ISO 100, unless I’m in need of a faster shutter…only then will I raise mine to 200 or even 400.
The lens I use mostly is my 55-200 4-5.6G lens, so sometimes later in the evening that’s all I can do is raise my ISO, as I like to keep my aperture at it’s sweet spot of F8. For a entry level [D3100] it’ll hold it’s own @ISO 400. No noise issues to complain about. Just make it a habit of lowering it back to ISO 100 when your done with your shoot. I also shoot with my picture size setting at LARGE so my camera uses ALL of it’s available pixels.
HAPPY SHOOTING !!!

Hi Emily,

I have a Canon 60D and I made a small list of the best settings given the time of day, and cloud cover. Once you make the list, and get used to using it, the settings will come to you naturally.

Alan T

Number one on my pet peeves list of viral “you are using your camera wrong” topics. There are very few, very small differences between using BBF and SRF (shutter release focus). Saying that BBF is better is the biggest load of “holier than thou” photographer hogwash that ever existed. If you like using it, great, just remember that functionally is it almost identical to SRF.

I disagree Alex- If you’re trying to move from AF-S to AF-C there’s a time lag while you change your focus settings there. Try shooting my 1 year old son with with AF-S Eric. It does take some getting used to.

If you’re using AF-C (Auto-focus Continuous) on a single point you cannot focus recompose. You could change focus points but not recompose. This allows you to Focus Recompose OR Focus Continuous without changing camera settings in the menu.

I’ve heard about this. Thank you. Will try it today.
I needed this info yesterday as I went to shoot some dogs running and playing. Out of 40 shoots I got two decent pics. I felt so bad. I thought I’d just stick to portraits and landscapes lol.

No, back button AF is not a must. AF works just fine in front button. I leave my cameras in continuous AF but reprogrammed the back button to AF-OFF (aka Focus Lock). Ta-da! Now focus and recompose is easy.

Have been using this for years. I remember though, when I changed I actually forgot about it and thought my camera was broken as the shutter button wasn’t triggering the auto focus. Took me about 10 mins to remember that I’d changed it to back button focussing only πŸ™‚ you’ve been warned πŸ˜‰

Lots of DSLRs from just a few years ago don’t do video. My 40D in all it’s glory doesn’t shoot video but it does shoot faster fps than my 6D albeit with slightly lower resolution.

While the 50D does have completely different specs than the 40D I’m pretty sure one of it’s features was video.

There was a time when great photography was done using big wooden tripods, glass plates and magnesium flash guns. Doesn’t mean I’d want to still be stuck doing things that way …

Any photojournalist, sports photographer, bird photographer, paparazzi, or anybody else who has to take photos in a split second.

If your having focusing issues your thinking to much .. Even simpler then this ignorant article , and yes I read it ..soon as you hear the chirp of the camera telling you it is in focus shoot ..don’t think , just shoot , if needed put it on continuous .. If the light is to low for your camera to grab onto focus .. You need a mono pod or tripod and doesn’t matter what damn button you use .. Oh and I have an MFA in Photo and been shooting photo since 1984 ..

Gabriel if you were using Back Button you wouldn’t need to switch to continuous. That’s why so many of us swear by it. You can focus recompose OR shoot continuous without switching settings. You couldn’t have read it because it’s a video. You have to watch it.

You can focus and re-compose with shutter half press too. Seriously guys, they have exactly the same functionality. The only reason to use back button focusing is if you want to change the shutter half-press to an auto-exposure lock so you can lock exposure independently from locking focus.

Mike, I have done this “some” but need much more practice at it.. By the way, thanks for this tip and all the others you shared with me at Springfield. As soon as warm weather gets here I’ll be practicing, practicing, practicing…..lol

Hmm, hate to say it, but I don’t have any issues with my D4s 99.9% of all images are in focus, regardless of setting. Only time I use the back button to focus is if I’m shooting through something, like trees, or flowers.

This has already been said but, The only reason to use back button focusing is if you want to change the shutter half-press to an auto-exposure lock so you can lock exposure independently from locking focus.

Not Really Katz The AE Lock is one benefit. The other is not having to switch between single and continuous focus. Hold the button down- continuous focus. Press the button to focus then release and you can focus recompose. You can’t do that with front shutter button.

I believe it separates the focus to a button on the back of the camera, leaving your shutter button to take the shot. You can program the shutter to lock exposure also or have it assigned to one of the buttons on the back of the camera.

Hmmm. I can still focus my camera the old school way. Turning the ring. Can you not tell when your shot is in focus? Maybe you bought too much of a camera; try usimg your cell phone, the auto focus works great…

This is the best description of how and why to use back-button focus I have read!! I have a Nikon D610. The focus and exposure lock button on the back of my camera is difficult for me to reach, so I reprogrammed the Preview button on the front of the camera to AF-ON. Didn’t understand how it could be used for continuous focus until now! Excited to try it!

When I went from film to digital I was not happy about the camera focusing it’s self and I am still not. I always thought focusing was an important skill and part of what made a good photographer. Anyway, my thumb is not so long that I can reach around to the back focus button so I simply rearrange the scenery for composition. Yeah trees and mountains too.

I’ve been a glamour/portrait shooter for a lot of years. I keep going back and forth setting my camera for back-button focus, then back to shutter-button focus, then back again. I haven’t really seen any difference in terms of missing or not missing shots. Whichever button I’m currently using is driven by little more than finger-ergonomics… or something.

On my 5DIII, I swapped the functions of BBF and the AE lock button. Made it easier as the original BBF was way to the left in that little valley. Love BBF. I focus then recompose and life is good!

Most amazing thing I see here. “This Camera brand is way better than that Camera brand.”

Here’s a fact for you.

I can take a photo of the same scene with each of the four major brands. Canon (yes, it only has one n in the middle), Nikon, Sony and Pentax.
I’ll print a 16 x 24 from each Camera and put them on a wall for viewing. I can guarantee you that not a one of you can tell me which is which.

Thanks, Trish. I too have vision issues and use a diopter. I used to be able to shoot full manual mode…night sports…adjusting both focus and exposure on the fly. I am no less a photographer today just because my eyesight isn’t what it used to be. Thank you for this video.

Me, too. I am also using a 70d. Learning how to use it with the view finder and with live focus. It shows where it’s tracking in live view. I’m guessing, like and in this video, using the view finder, you keep your focus point on the subject while it continually focuses…does that mean you don’t need to keep your thumb on the back button?

Plus, I like to use the magnification in live view. I’ve tried it with it also.

I’m vey much looking forward to or acting more. Just need a source where I can ask questions as I go!

I meant for this to reply to your next post. For some reason I couldn’t select copy so instead of rewriting it, I’m letting it post here.

Back button focusing is better for most pictures, not for stand alone subjects, anyone or any camera can focus on a non moving subject. This is an example of back button focusing

Where is no problem at all, it is just technique most profesional uses , be it Canon or Nikon. When you get used to it you would never go back. And comments like ” I have Nikon and I don’t have this problem” are irrelevant here πŸ™‚

There are, in fact, three ways this button can function. In addition to the aforementioned settings, it can also be set to stop focus search. I like it this way. Being a “pro” is not determined by how your custom settings are set. Now, if your camera beeps when focus is achieved, then you are definitely not a “pro”

Mark, when I shoot, I always bracket my shots, so the aperture varies. With every shot, I’ll probably have three-four different apertures. It doesn’t seem to make much difference.

That’s because your subject isn’t moving for one. Two, you aren’t using the rule of thirds in this shot. Two of the most common scenarios to use the back button focus on.

Brett, pro sports photographers DO NOT typically use manual focus. So unless you think you are more pro then NFL photogs, go ahead try manually focusing on a moving subject and not miss any shots.

I think he was referring to using the shutter button instead of the back button to autofocus… not manual focus over auto.

That being said there are a lot of areas in professional photography where manual focus is more common like commercial or portrait work.

It depends on how the camera is programmed. With most cameras the shutter release doesn’t always lock the focus. If you focus and re-compose you will focus on something else that has more contrast. The camera will also take the picture even if accurate focus hasn’t been achieved. On my old Nikon D200 I could program the shutter release to not take the image until focus had fully locked. On the more modern D7000 I can only do this with the back focus. On most cameras at the default settings the back focus will be more accurate.

If you’re using the front AF button on your DSLR and you’re missing 50% of the “great” shots……. you need to sell the bloody camera and take up another hobby. Like knitting. Or whatever.

It doesn’t. If you are knowledge enough to know how to use your camera use which ever button you want for AF and you will never miss shots “because you used the wrong button.” This sort of article takes aim at the rank novice who bought a SLR in the first place because they believe by using a DSLR it will make them an expert photographer.

Sorry, I disagree about the back focus being more accurate. No disrespect intended. I know how my camera operates and I know how to use it. Naturally I have explored the back AF button but knowing how the camera works and knowing how to use it, determined that it is of no advantage and does not affect the accuracy of AF.

Well, I’m going to give back button focus a try. However, I don’t remember this being much of an issue until recently. It certainly wasn’t an issue with manual focus. If you needed to pre-focus, that’s exactly what you did.

I just figured this out recently and LOVE it!! My kids move way too much and too fast for my shutter auto focus to keep focusing and get shots. Back button allows me to capture way more photos of them in movement!

Most people are unaware that the button you use makes absolutely no difference to the speed of your focus. It is the focus mechanism that determines the speed of focus. The shutter button and the other focus button share the same wires to the focus system.

The major value is that you can effectively switch from one shot to continuous AF without changing camera settings. A single push sets and locks the focus whereas holding your finger on the back button allows continuous AF on a moving subject. This can be very valuable when shooting static subjects where the AF point is not in the centre of the image as it allows multiple exposures without focus and recompose each shot. It also means when shooting a wading bird for instance, as it takes off, you can just hold the focus button and it will track the bird and refocus between shots. This gives you the best of both worlds without having to change camera settings. I hope this explanation helps???

I have been doing this for years with Canon. The first thing I do when I purchase a new body is change this setting. I am not sure why they don’t’ ship them this way.

Back button allows superior focus control, there is no difference in speed or accuracy between the shutter button or the back button. I use back button, I do not like having my shutter button doing double duty. Old camera systems didn’t have back button focus and I would have angry times when it would want to refocus inappropriately.

The main benefit is you don’t have to switch between continuous focus and single focus when you want to shoot moving objects or focus recompose. I switched back and forth 3X before I finally got used to it. My toddler doesn’t want to sit still so I can focus recompose. However, when he does sit still I like to focus recompose. Without having the focus on a button other than the shutter I would need to go into the camera menu to switch modes. With focus on the back button I don’t have to do that.

Sometimes I’m shooting portraits outside with camera in one hand, a reflector in the other hand, then that technique isn’t easy to do so I will use the half-press shutter button for focus. All other situations when I’m holding the camera with 2 hands it’s fine.

Tried it. Don’t like it. No benefit for 90% of shooting. On my Canon, I use a button on the back to lock exposure, focus where I need, and recompose. If your shutter button isn’t as accurate or nimble, I can understand.

You still have to place the focus point where you want it and make a meter lock unless you 1) have the perfect scene 2) have constant lighting 3) want to fix it later in post.

I shoot sports a lot and I find using the back focus button is much more convenient. When the person I am focused on (while in play on the field) is static, I can release the ad-on button and have the shutter half pressed at all times without losing focus when other players run between myself and my subject. I have a 5D mkIII which has a much faster shutter than the entry and most mid level DSLR’s. And you would be very surprised how not having the fully press the shutter release button saves a lot of shots. This is especially so in the entry and mid level DSLR camera’s.

Sorry, but to say back button focus is aimed at rank amateurs who bought a dslr in the misguided belief that it will make them an expert photographer is complete crap. It goes without saying that if you remove the focus function from the shutter release button then you remove the chance of a misfocus, because the focus won’t change if you let your finger slip from that half pressed position. Back button focus gives you much more control by separating the functions. One shot focus stays where is it once you’ve focused, regardless of what you do with the shutter release, and servo focus is more consistent because being able to hold a button down and track a subject without worrying that slipping the shutter release button will lose your focus and you’ll miss the shot because the lens is hunting to focus again.

Sorry, but to say back button focus is aimed at rank amateurs who bought a dslr in the misguided belief that it will make them an expert photographer is complete crap. It goes without saying that if you remove the focus function from the shutter release button then you remove the chance of a misfocus, because the focus won’t change if you let your finger slip from that half pressed position. Back button focus gives you much more control by separating the functions. One shot focus stays where is it once you’ve focused, regardless of what you do with the shutter release, and servo focus is more consistent because being able to hold a button down and track a subject without worrying that slipping the shutter release button will lose your focus and you’ll miss the shot because the lens is hunting to focus again.

I shifted to back button focus last year and find it so much better. If you’re taking a number of shots e.g. bracketed exposures you don’t have to worry about switching to manual focus to stop the camera trying to refocus every shot. It’s also useful in a low light situation such as a nightclub where you’re taking a few shots to avoid blinking and the camera may have had to hunt in the first place.

On some cameras it isn’t obvious – you have to designate a button to be the AF button, through the menu system. I use the * button on the back of my Dad’s that I borrow for photographing moving objects….

Alex W. Their explaining a different method you can use for different photography. If your shooting wildlife for instance, you can focus on a particular area, then when your subject hits the point you have focused on, you can recompose your shot and not have to hope your auto focus is fast enough to re-focus.

I need help with sharp focusing from subjects coming from both direction (left and right) at the same time, so far that’s the only sharp focusing I have troubling with.

I can’t believe that someone needs to write an article about it, it’s so obvious that you’d be crazy not to use it. I use it mostly because it is just so much more comfortable

I changed to B/Button focus a few mths ago on my 5Dmk2 Idont seem to be able to access my quick screen and my focus point changed from central to automatic selection , not sure what is going on here ?

I did the same thing twice untilI finally pushed through and got used to it. I recommend going out and just practice shooting with it when the shots you’re taking really don’t matter. Once you get the hang of it you’ll be glad you did.

I shoot a lot of fast moving objects, airplanes, etc. Having two cameras, I changed over to back button focus on the camera I use for the fast action…wow, it really is an improvement. My other camera is set up for portraits and I usually have it mounted on a tripod with a remote shutter release…so it has not been changed.

What Modern Lens Magazine said. It took only a short time before I was clear that I would never return to shutter button focus. Makes it a little difficult sometimes when handing the camera off to someone else for a shot, but that’s a small problem compared to the great results I’m getting from back button focus.

I have a 7D II and the back button focus options are really good with this camera. Since this camera allows you to assign many different functions to many different buttons, it is very versatile. Here is what I have done. The AF-ON button is assigned to Servo continuous focus, and it is also assigned to the center point and all the points surrounding the center. I use that button when shooting birds in flight or at a sports event when people are running toward you. I have set the button to the right of the AF-ON button (the * button) to one shot and center focus.
Now if I am shooting people or objects that are still and I am still, then I focus with the star button and never have to focus again until one of those changes. If a bird flies over and I want to shoot it, I simply move to the AF-ON button and hold it down to shoot in Servo and multiple AF points. Very handy and quick.

One of the first things I do is set my cameras to back-button-focus. I sold a Nikon D7100 to somebody with it set like that. Later he emailed me to say that the auto-focus wasn’t working. Later, yet, he emailed me again to say that he figured out that I had the camera set to back-button-focus instead of the factory default half-press shutter button focus.

If you really want to learn about action photography come on out and shoot an indoor rodeo or barrel race event. Between the poor lighting and dust kicked up you’ll become real good friends with ALL your cameras strong and weak points…especially focusing..

I have a D7000. By default the shutter release doesn’t reach full lock before releasing. You have to change the settings in the menu so the shutter release will not release until focus has locked 100% My camera will focus perfectly every time using the shutter release.

i started using back button about a yea ago and i keep it there most of the time , so much faster focus on moving subjects , I like it πŸ™‚ and good for focus and recompose .

Mark one of the main advantages is that you can be in AI Servo/Continuous mode instead of one shot and still focus recompose. Then if you need to use AI Servo/Continuous you don’t need to switch modes.It took me a while to get used to but now I wouldn’t shoot any other way. Switching back and forth between the two modes is time consuming when you could be shooting instead.

You can focus, recompose, adjust exposure, etc. and then take your shot without the shutter impacting the focus. I would think it is best for static images. Ironically it seems to be marketed as the cure all for fast moving images where, IMO, it is least effective. Having said that I pump that button as I chase the athletes around the field/court.

Really? Why would a crop sensor have anything to do with the convenience of using BBF? I can’t see where It has anything to do with sensor size. I use it on my crop sensor camera and will never go back to shutter button focusing.

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