back button focusing tips

by Lisa Tichané

If you are an active member of the Clickin Moms photography forum, you have probably heard of it several times. When members are asked what their major AHA moment was, Back Button Focusing is often on top of the list. It was definitely one of my very own major light-bulb moment when I discovered it.

So what is back button focusing?

It’s a very simple thing that might change the clarity of your images forever.

When you auto-focus with your DSLR default settings, here is how it basically works: you press your shutter half way to auto-focus, and when your focus is OK you press your shutter a second time to take the picture. There is an alternative to this focusing method: you can decide that another button (the famous BBF, or “back button focusing”) will handle your focus.

Depending on your camera, you can use the AF-ON button (this is the one I am using on my Canon 5D MarkII), or the AF-L button for Nikon users, or even the star (*) button.

back button focusing tips photo

Why would you do that?

Simply because it separates your focusing from your shutter. Instead of asking your index finger to deal with two different things one after the other, you give it one single task (pressing the shutter at the perfect moment) while your thumb will deal with focusing.

There is a debate about BBF. Some have tried it and swear that they don’t see any difference. If you mainly photograph landscape or still life, it’s very likely that BBF won’t change your life. On the other hand, if you are a portrait photographer, and if your model is potentially moving fast (those who have a toddler at home, I can feel your attention growing!!), BBF is probably going to be your best friend.

Let’s try to understand why. Here is an image of two cute boys playing knights. They’re happily running towards the lens.

back button focusing tips photo

If you place your focal point on the first boy, press your shutter half way to focus and then press the shutter, there is a fraction of seconds between those two steps. This very short moment can be long enough to let the first boy step out of your focus zone. Especially if you were using a wide aperture, thus having a very shallow depth of field. As a result, you will get an unsharp image.

Fortunately, I was using BBF when I took this image (I use it all.the.time). I was also using a dynamic autofocus mode (Ai-Servo, the equivalent is AF-C if you are a Nikon user). Thus, I kept my thumb on the back button all the time, allowing my camera to continuously autofocus and follow the boy’s movement. When my index hit the shutter, my thumb was still pressing the back button so both actions happened simultaneously. As a result, my focus was spot on.

So BBF will guarantee a more precise focusing with any image involving a fast movement, like Hayden flying in the air or my boys jumping.

back button focusing tips photo

back button focusing tips photo

 

This is why BBF is very often used by sports photographers, or wildlife photographers (in order to capture a flying bird for example).

Note: this article is not covering all the aspects leading to sharpness, but don’t forget that to get a crisp image with a fast moving subject you also need a high shutter speed in order to freeze motion, like 1/500s or 1/640s in the two examples above.

Another interest of BBF is that it locks your focus.

If you press your thumb on your back button and release it, your focus won’t change until you press the button again. This is something that I use a lot with my recent self-portrait project.

Let’s look at this image of my sons and me:

back button focusing tips photo

I placed my camera on a tripod in front of my bed. I asked my sons to sit on the bed, and used them as targets to meter and focus. Once my exposure and focus settled, I didn’t touch my camera anymore. I joined them on the bed (making sure I was standing close to the focal plane they were in when I focused), and the only thing I had to do is snuggle with them and snap away with my remote. We took a series of 10 images without having to care about anything else than having fun, my focus was locked so I knew it would remain faithfully where I wanted it to be!

How do I start?

How to set BBF depends on your camera, so check your user manual.

On my Canon 5D Mark II menu, it is found in custom function IV (C.FnIV), and I selected the 3rd option (AE Lock/Metering + AF start).

If you are a Nikon user, you should go into your custom settings menu, select A (autofocus), select A5 (AF Activation) and then choose AF-ON only.

For those of you already using BBF and loving it, please share your settings in the comment section of this article to help new users find the right path!

So, now it’s your turn! Switch to BBF and play to your heart’s content. You might need a few days to get used to it, but soon enough you will wonder how you could live without it! I swear it’s worth trying because I’ve been nailing my focus ever since I discovered it.

Happy BBF!

back button focusing tips photoLisa Tichané, France
CMU Instructor | CM Mentor
website | facebook | pinterest | google+ | mentoring | ask a pro | daily project
Maybe it’s because she’s “a bit silly” or maybe it has to do with her being “a child at heart” but Lisa has an incredible talent for photographing babies and children in her fun, clean and playful style with her Canon 5d mark III, 35L, 50 f/1.4, 24-70L and 135L. She is the instructor of CMU’s Shooting 204: Capturing Joy and the author of Photographing Toddlers | a recipe for success. Marseille, France is the place she calls home along with her boys where they love to play, jump, run, make silly faces contests and wild pillow fights. She does enjoy some quiet once in a while where she can browse the web with her coffee and chocolate. Laughter is a must have, though, as she states, “a day without a good laugh is definitely a lost one for me.”

Read all photography tutorials form Lisa Tichané.

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104 Responses to “back button focusing tips”

  1. Krista Frohlich
    Feb 19 2013 at 12:05 am #

    This is such a great explanation. I’ve been using this on a 5d Mark II for about 6 months and love the BFF. It took a week to get used to it but I swear by it now. Thanks for the great article!

  2. Feb 19 2013 at 4:53 pm #

    I’ve been meaning to try this…I’ve read a bunch of explanations BBF and yours was by far the best. I better attend one of you Breakouts! Thank you! :)

  3. Jorge Morales
    Feb 23 2013 at 10:33 am #

    I don’t catch it.

    What’s the advantade of BBF in the first example (children running towards camera) if you set the AI servo option?? AI Servo runs while you press half way the shutter button; and when you get the moment, you just have to press it a second time. This way you have not to manage TWO buttons…

    • Feb 23 2013 at 11:48 am #

      Hi Jorge. The advantage of BBF here is that you focus and press the shutter simultaneously, therefore ensuring the most perfect focus possible. If you do it the way you suggest, there is a very small delay between the moment you focus and the moment you press the shutter. If your focal plane is shallow (if you use a large aperture, for example), this small moment can be long enough for your subject to step out of the focal plane.
      Hope that helps!

      • Richard
        Apr 15 2013 at 2:38 pm #

        Assuming you have focusing set to the shutter button I think AI Servo focuses all the time even if you press the shutter button all the way down. At least in continuos shooting mode so why not in single shot mode as well. So BBF doesn’t offer any real advantage in this situation.

  4. Albert
    Feb 24 2013 at 8:19 pm #

    The thing that I don’t understand about BBF is that using it for portraits. Let say if you are using a fast prime indoor with aperture wide opened at F/1.4 or F/1.8. The DOF will probably be probably be anywhere from 1/2 inch or at most an inch. In your last example, self-portrait with your two sons, will not any movement, like snuggling with your sons and having fun with them, move the subjects out of focus? Or if you hand held the camera and use BBF, will not recomposing in between shots also move the subjects out of focus? How is it possible to use wide open prime and BBF without changing the distance between the object and the camera while recomposing? Thank you!

    • Feb 26 2013 at 6:01 am #

      When handholding your camera, you can keep your BBF pressed the whole time, thus re-focusing every time you move your frame. That way, your focus will always be acurate. If you shoot wide open, I would suggest toggling your focal points, in order to be sure that the active focal point will be placed on the eye of your subject when you press your BBF and shutter.
      Regarding the self-portrait issue, you are absolutely right, the slightest movement can result in an OOF image. Which is why I would not recommend using a very wide aperture for self-portraits, unless you are sure that your subject(s) will stay still. I always use the smallest aperture possible (given the lighting situation I am in) and crank my ISO if necessary to get the widest depth of field possible.
      Hope that helps.

  5. Albert
    Feb 26 2013 at 7:07 am #

    Thank you so much, Lisa! That answered my question. When you said, “When handholding your camera, you can keep your BBF pressed the whole time, thus re-focusing every time you move your frame,” do you mean that you select AI Servo? Else why would the camera re-focus every time you move your frame? If you select one-shot, the focus should be lock when you press BBF.

  6. Feb 26 2013 at 10:49 am #

    Thanks so much for this article. I use BBF and love it, but I never used the AIServo setting. Looking forward to using it with active toddlers.

  7. Mar 03 2013 at 2:21 am #

    Hi! Your tutorials are great! Do you have some advice for lenses and settings to use with birth photography. I have a Nikon D90 and several lenses but am quite a beginner with manual settings. I took a beginner workshop and learned to take off AUTO and work in Program mode, but when I arrived at the birth i could not get the shutter speed right with the lighting and ended up shooting in Auto most of the time to get the shots I wanted ( there a no second chances!) , but had to use a flash which I don’t want to do. Also the type of focus was off a few times even though i thought i had that set right not to focus on the closest object.
    Ugh. Its easy to take great images of birth, i have been doing it for years with a point and shoot, but I need to learn to get this camera off of AUTO now!
    Suggestions for a beginner??

    • Mar 04 2013 at 2:22 am #

      Hi LeeAnne!
      Birth photography often means to deal with low light situation, so I would definitely recommend a prime lens (50mm or 35mm) in order to be able to use wide apertures if the light is missing.
      To learn how to really take control of your camera, I would highly recommend Lynne Rigby’s 101 class. It’s simply amazing! You will learn everything you need to know to shoot in manual mode, and will get out of this workshop feeling empowered! Here is the link if you want to check it out:
      http://www.clickinmoms.com/cmu/archives/listing/shooting-101-the-best-darn-beginner-course-ever

  8. ASK
    Mar 03 2013 at 7:39 pm #

    Hi, LeeAnne, what lenses do you already have? For indoor, low light setting, it helps to have fast prime lenses like F/1.2, F/1.4, F/1.8, or F/2. You may also want to bump up your ISO to allow you to use slower shutter speed. You have to be careful to make sure the DOF is wide enough since if you set it too narrow, it is easy to get blurry shots with all the actions and commotions.

  9. Jorge Morales
    Mar 04 2013 at 1:58 pm #

    Ok, now I get it! Very very interesting trick!
    Thank U, Lisa!!

  10. Mar 06 2013 at 4:57 pm #

    Brilliant! Will try it tonight. Great post!

  11. Jenn C
    Mar 08 2013 at 12:53 pm #

    I have four boys. Think it’ll be useful? ;)
    I finally get this – thank you!

  12. Vicki
    Mar 20 2013 at 3:15 pm #

    I am having the hardest time with the bff.. I am a nikon user and for the life of me I cant figure this out. Am I supposed to keep my finger on the bff the whole time? Because when I take it off it is not working like it did.. I am at a loss. I really want to learn BBF but this is causing me to go back to shooting the other way since I can not get a handle on it.

  13. Mar 23 2013 at 1:29 pm #

    I’ve read this article once before, but read it again just now and decided to give it a try. I’m really excited to see how well I’m able to adjust to using this method with actual people (my daughter is napping right now, which is why I have time to learn!), but I really do think it’s going to change the way I shoot. I shoot a lot of moving babies with my business, so hope BBF will help me keep them in focus better (I used to be a focus and recompose shooter – which obviously doesn’t work well with anything but a still subject).
    I have a D600 and this article helped me get it set up: http://www.flickr.com/groups/d600club/discuss/72157631958556973/
    There’s a video listed in that article that helps explain the how and why of BBF too (useful for visual learners like myself!): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WyPv1bLkwqA
    Thanks for a great article!! – Erika

  14. Melissa
    Mar 29 2013 at 7:20 pm #

    OK, I’m using a Rebel T4i and I have my AI Servo set, I found the custom functions in my menu and have it set on 1:AE Lock/AF. When I depress the shutter half way it no longer focuses so I think my settings are okay – but when I press the AF button or the Star button, I can toggle my points, but the lens doesn’t focus. WHat am I doing wrong? I feel like I’m just missing one step to start figuring this out, but am at a loss?

    • Apr 03 2013 at 8:18 pm #

      Hi Melissa! Have you double checked your camera manual to see if you have it set up correctly? If so, I would do a google search to see if someone else has had the same trouble or perhaps call Canon to see if they can help you.

    • Apr 07 2013 at 11:54 am #

      We did some digging, Melissa, and this is what we found…

      “how to turn back button focusing on your Canon T4i (650D)

      Press Menu
      Navigate to last yellow page (Wrench 4)
      Select Custom Functions (C.Fn)
      Navigate to C.Fn IV Operations/Other – Shutter/AE Lock button [6]
      Select Option 3: AE/AF, no AE lock

      This turns the * button into the focus button and the shutter button just meters and take the photo.”

  15. Jamie
    May 03 2013 at 8:49 am #

    Thanks for this great tutorial. If I use bbf do I still use the shutter to spot meter or is this tied to bbf? I have not been able to figure this out. I have a Nikon d7000. Thanks!

  16. May 23 2013 at 8:27 am #

    Thank you so much for sharing. Great tip. I use AI Servo all the time but never thought to use it in conjunction with the BBF. I am sure it will become my BFF! :)

  17. Rich Ramirez
    Jun 10 2013 at 2:39 am #

    Hello,
    I have my Nikon D800 set up to use the AE button with AF-C This way I get the best of both worlds. Focus and release for a stationary shot or hold AE when tracking a moving subject. You mentioned that you took a self portrait this way. How did you do it? also what happens when I use a cable release or a pocket wizard for a remote shot? thanks in advance!

  18. David
    Jun 24 2013 at 3:42 pm #

    This is by far the best (clearest) explanation I have read – thank you! I’m hoping to use this for concert photography where the artist moves around the stage, so it will be with Servo and my thumb on the AF-On button…

  19. Jul 15 2013 at 3:06 pm #

    Thank you for the wonderful explination of BBF!!! I can’t wait to start using it. One of my biggest issues seems to be blur when people are moving. I can’t wait to try this with reception photos. :)
    Thanks a million.
    Jeannie

  20. Deborah Mathison
    Jul 20 2013 at 4:40 pm #

    Finally! I’ve been taking photos of fast-moving grandchildren using BBF but couldn’t understand why so often their eyes were out of focus even though I was shooting in AF-C (Continuous/Nikon) and my shutter speed was fast. Thank you for pointing out what I was doing wrong: I was pressing the BBF button, focussing on their little faces and then releasing the BBF immediately instead of holding it down until I’d pressed the shutter release. So, I just ran outside and took photos of my golden retrievers (who will always move when they see a ball!). I focused on Coco’s eyes and held down on that BBF until I took the shot. It worked! Here’s a hint: I’ve gone to Playback Menu and checked “Focus Point” so I can toggle up through to a playback screen displaying the red-dot indicator with exact point of focus. Again, thank you!

  21. Aug 02 2013 at 10:03 am #

    It just goes to show how you must always open your brain to listen to something new. I have been a photographer for a very long time and rarely venture out of my comfort zone of shooting with what has worked for me for years ~ “if ain’t broke done fix it” my motto. However after reading your blog I became interested to try this BFF feature. Because your explanation was so clear and easily understood, it’s a new day for me! I love this feature and will be using it straight away! Thank you!

  22. Estela
    Aug 13 2013 at 9:23 am #

    Lisa. I am finding that BBF and toggling your points are contradictory. Examples:

    Still Subject: the benefit of BBF is to lock focus and be able to recompose as many times
    (as long as your distance is the same). But if you are going to be recomposing, then there seems to be no need for toggling points. Just use the middle point to BBF and recompose. Right?

    Moving Subjects: Ai Servo: In this case, you would keep your BBF pressed all the way while panning with your subject and shoot away. Again, you are basically moving your camera with your subject so it seems easy simply to use the middle point to BBF, keep it pressed and do what you explained.

    So my question is: Why would anybody want to toggle points when you focus and recompose. Again, it seems the main benefit of BBF is to be able to more comfortably Focus and recompose so why bother with one more thing: toggling points.

    Can you please explain Lisa.
    Thanks, great article
    Estela

    • Aug 15 2013 at 9:25 am #

      Hi Estela,
      I’m not sure I fully understand your question. Focus/recompose and toggling are 2 opposite ways of achieving focus.
      I personally never focus/recompose, because toggling is much more reliable in my opinion. Unless you use a small aperture (and thus have a wide focal plane), when you focus/recompose you have a high risk that your subject will end up out of your focal plane because of the modified distance between your lens and your subject. Let’s say that when you focused with your middle point, and the distance between your subject and your lens was 5 feet. Then you recompose to get a pleasing composition, and to do this, your lens ends up being 5 feet 1 inch away from your subject. 1 inch of difference is enough to get an OOF image if you were using a wide aperture.

      So I always chose a focal point (the one allowing me to place my subject where I want it to be in the frame), place it on my subject, and focus/press the shutter at the same time. That way, I am sure that my focus will be spot on every single time.

      Regarding your specific examples (still subject or moving subject), the other reason why I would not use focus/recompose is that I try to achieve the best composition possible on camera, and placing my subject at the center of my frame is rarely my favorite choice.

      Hope that helps!

  23. Brandy
    Nov 30 2013 at 11:20 am #

    Hi! This helps me a whole lot! I recently had a session with two toddler girls, so there was a lot of moving and such. So I use a Nikon 50mm 1.8 which firstly is slow when it comes to focusing and every time I focused and recomposed or focused and the child moved, this pictures were completely out of focus! I was so upset with the results of the images.

    Anyways, I have a question! Will I set my camera to AF-A or AF-S to get the results that you described? Also, do I ever have to refocus my camera or do I just get the bbf button pressed the whole time? Thank you!

    I have a Nikon D3000 with a 35mm 1.8 prime (equivalent to a 50mm on my cropped sensor)

  24. Jan 05 2014 at 1:43 pm #

    Awesome tutorial on how to use bbf and why one would use it. I am still figuring out how to select a different focal point without messing up bbf.

  25. Jul 09 2014 at 9:18 pm #

    I LOVE BBF!!! I learned this about a year ago and it completely changed my images. I borrowed a friend’s camera for a few images and she had it set to not use BBF and i felt completely lost :-)

  26. Jul 17 2014 at 5:15 pm #

    I still find I have several soft images despite using BBF :(. Maybe it’s because I’ve used it since almost the beginning and I don’t know how many more soft images I’d have shooting the regular way?

  27. Kelly
    Jul 21 2014 at 8:33 am #

    I’m going to have to try this. Love learning new things about my camera that I didn’t know before.

  28. Davina
    Jul 23 2014 at 3:59 am #

    I don’t know what I would do without bbf. It has truly changed my life. Great tutorial!

  29. Kimi
    Jul 24 2014 at 2:00 pm #

    This is a WONDERFUL tutorial on BBF! Wish I had come across this one first, very easy explanation. I have been using BBF for about a month now and I will NEVER go back.

    I currently shoot w/ a Nikon D90. To make the switch to BBF:

    1. Access your Menu Settings (from back of camera)
    2. Access/select your pencil/edit icon
    3. Access/select “f controls”
    4. Select f4 “Assign AE-L/EF-L Button”
    5. Highlight and select AF-ON

    Happy BBF!! You’re on your way. And if you don’t like it, just switch it back via your menu settings.

  30. Jul 24 2014 at 3:54 pm #

    super helpful explanation! thanks :) i’m in the mastering manual class and LOVING it!

  31. Ella
    Aug 10 2014 at 10:53 pm #

    Hi Lisa, I know this article was written a long time ago but I hope you can still answer. After reading your article, I have been practicing the BBF in AF-C with a Nikon D610. It seems to work when I recompose but I still don’t understand how to ‘toggle’ my focal point to have the subject not in the center. I think you mentioned you toggle your focal point before pressing the BBF and shutter. Could you explain the steps you take in doing it? thank you.

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