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.

108 Comments

  • Abi Ellson says:

    Thank you for explaining this so clearly – will definitely be giving it a try! Happy New Year x

  • Courtney D. says:

    This is a great post. I have been using BBF for a couple months now, but this reaffirms that I have been doing it correctly. I was super confused at first on which custom setting to use. I have a Canon 60D and have been using Setting 2 (b/c my thumb seems to be too short to make it past the * for focusing). ;-) What is the reason you chose setting 3? I am trying to figure out what is the best solution and wondering if I should change settings. Also, thanks for showing the example of you and your boys. So often I am behind the camera and my hubby is too scared to pick up my camera for me to be in a picture – I want to get a tripod and remote to try this out. Would you mind sharing how you focused? Did you use the center point focus or did you have it on automatic selection where all focus points are selected? Thanks again for sharing! – Courtney

    • Aga says:

      Courtney, I also have canon 60d and was wondering about which setting I should use. Does the setting 2 work for you?? I’m not sure how to check which one is correct.

  • Kim says:

    Thank you for your article! I have a question. In the image of the boy running towards you… You press the back button let’s say setting the focus point on him – then hold it down as he comes toward you and you snap your pictures. He’s moving – do you have to keep the focus point held on the same point on him as he moves? Does that make sense?

  • Shannon says:

    Thank you! I am constantly moving while Photographing children. I am excited to try this out!!

  • Thank you all <3

    @Courtney D. : setting #3 is for the 5D Mark II body, but menus are not always the same from one camera body to another, so I don't want to give you the wrong advice for your 60D. I hope a 60D user will pop in ;)
    Regarding focusing, I always use single point focusing, and I toggle my focal points to choose the one that will fit my composition needs.

    @Kim: Yes, you are perfectly right! I follow his movement, making sure that my focal point remains on him all the time to ensure perfect focus when I press the shutter :)

    • Courtney D. says:

      Thanks Lisa. I find it had to do the single point focus when photographing my moving boys. I can’t seem to keep it on the point I want it to. Maybe I need to increase my shutter speed. I will play around with it. Thanks again for your advice and for responding! :) Happy New Year!

  • Julie says:

    On the D3100 you press the menu , and go into the setup menu. Then scroll down to Buttons, AE-L/AF-L button and then AF-ON and press okay. Then your back button focusing is on.
    Hope that is clear enough :)
    Just switched my on and It will take some getting use to but I’m always willing to try new things :)

  • Linda Graham says:

    Do you use AF-S or AF-C. Or do you change between them
    Depending on what you are shooting?

  • Thank you so much Julie for sharing!!

    @Linda: I always use Ai-Servo (the equivalent of AF-C) when there is fast movement involved, but I will change it for still portraits.

  • jennifer says:

    Thank you for these tips Lisa! Love your work!! <3

  • Great tutorial Lisa! I love using BBF and cannot see myself going back! Your pic shares are so fun.

  • Britneye Ladner says:

    Thank u so much! For more on settings (especially 60D) look here: http://betterfamilyphotos.blogspot.com/2011/09/back-button-focusing-what-why-and-how.html?m=1

  • Thank you so much for your sweet words <3

  • Kaylin says:

    Lisa, is that your house?! Gorgeous!

  • CGR says:

    Thank you for this great post! I’ve been wanting to try this all year! Playing around with it today- it seems you press AF-ON to lock and then HOLD it down while snapping the shutter. Maybe I set it up the wrong way. Is this correct? You hold the back button the whole time you want to stay locked on the subject? Because then I don’t understand how you were able to do the remote shots (which are AWESOME, I’m never in any pictures and all attempts are out of focus). :)

    Thanks again and a very Happy New Year!

  • @CGR: You don’t need to hold it down unless you want to constantly refocus (if your subject is moving for example). On a still subject, you just need to press the button, release it, and your focus will remain locked where it is ;)
    Thank you for your kind words <3

  • sarah c. says:

    Great article, Lisa!

  • CGR says:

    Oh that makes sense! Thank you so much Lisa! You’re awesome! Really hoping this will help me achieve some of my 2013 photography goals (I have a 2 & 3 yr old- so YES I’m sure BBF will help!). Many thanks!

  • Solene says:

    Thank you so much lisa for sharing this. It will be of a great help !!

  • Julie says:

    thank you for a great article! Just figured out how to set my camera & experimented a bit. I think I like it already! Can’t wait to get out & practice with this my kids.

  • Rachel says:

    Thanks for this great article! I am excited to try this. I noticed that when I do this, I am unable to select a focus point, is that correct? Should my AF Selection Point be set to Auto Select instead of my usual manual setting? I hope that made sense!

    Thanks again!

  • Karen O says:

    This is a GREAT explanation!! Do you get good results with BBF while Shooting wide open? What is widest open you suggest?

  • Thank you all <3

    @Rachel: something should be wrong with your settings then. I use BBF and toggle my focal points at the same time, so you should be able to select yours. Did you find a solution?
    @Karen O.: if you combine BBF and toggling your focal points, you should be able to nail your shots at any aperture, including the widest. It's a little trickier when your subject is in fast movement though, I generally avoid shooting wide open with wild toddlers :)

  • Vanessa says:

    So much easier to understand than I thought, thanks for this!

  • Rachel says:

    Thanks for the reply, Lisa! I have my settings on the custom function #3 that says: AE/AF, no AE lock. I think that’s the right one, right? I shoot with Canon. I just needed to play around with it. I will still always focus on the eye closest to me, correct? However, if the subject moves a bit and if I’m using the BBF, then they should still have sharp/in focus eyes, correct?

    Thanks again for this article. I think I’m gonna love this, but just getting used to it will take some practice.

  • Rachel says:

    ps…I love your work and am now following you on FB. Thanks!

  • Lexi says:

    I use back-button focusing for nearly EVERY picture I take since most of my images involve children. I swear by it! Unfortunately, I used it so much that my button is now stuck and I have to send in my camera to be repaired:(

  • I’ve been shooting for years and never really “got” BBF because no one ever explained it in a way that made sense. This makes perfect sense, so I’ll definitely give it a shot and see if I can tell the difference. I have friends who swear by it and I’ve always wondered if it was all they swore it was.

  • Thank you for the clear explanation! I know I should try BBF since I keep hearing awesome things about it, I was just scared to leave my focus/recompose rut. I’m going to go set this up on my camera right now :)

  • Natalie says:

    I have tried bbf but always have trouble. This explanation makes me want to try again but I’m still confused. Especially when it comes to using it to lock focus. Once it is locked if I move myself in any way do I have to refocus? If so then how is that better than just using your shutter button?

  • Monica says:

    This is a very clear, helpful tutorial, Lisa! Thank you! Re self portraits, will the focus stay locked with any remote? I read in some tutorials to focus on something, then switch your lens to manual focus so that it will not re-focus. But your way sounds MUCH easier! Also BTW, I love your work!

  • Miss B. says:

    I love learning new ‘tricks’, thank you! The photo of the boys running in caps is magic!

  • Tish says:

    This is a fabulous article! Thank you so much. I’ve only just recently even heard of BBF and am looking forward to practicing it! I already think I’m going to love it!

  • This is a wonderful tutorial, Lisa, thank you. I love BBF and now I should take another step forward and take some pictures with me in the frame with my children. :)

  • Deanie Swynnerton says:

    Thanks for a great tutorial. I have the Nikon D5100. I have set it to AF-ON in the Controls menu and providing I keep my thumb pressed on the AE-L/AE-F button, after I have focused, it does what it is supposed to do. If I however take my thumb off to recompose as you do with your Canon, the shutter button won’t even click! I think this is how it is meant to work, but it would be interesting if there were any other D5100 users out there trying BBF in this way. Then again, please help if I am doing it wrong! Thanks again.

  • Emily says:

    I am almost embarrassed to admit that after years and years of practicing photography, I only recently discovered the amazing benefits of back button focusing. It works wonders when photographing my energetic five year old, lol.

  • Lauren says:

    I have fallen in love with BBF! But I know I still have lots to learn…even after reading this I learned to capture movement I should hold down my thumb while simultaneously holding the shutter, I can’t wait to keep practicing! I just like how I can focus and re-position my camera so quickly and not worry about pushing down the shutter to loose focus!

  • Phyllis says:

    Thank you for sharing the great tip! I was a little skeptical but I gave it a shot while my toddler and husband were outside. Needless to say it worked! Love this blog and love the helpful insights for mamarazzis :)

  • Sara says:

    @Deanie: try this website – http://improvephotography.com/4552/back-button-focusing/ – they have a video tutorial for your camera. I believe you have to set the autofocus priority selection to “release,” telling your camera to release the shutter even if it thinks you are not in focus.

  • Laura Froese says:

    This article is gradually helping me further grasp BBF. Thank you! One thing that I don’t get is, when I use it on a stationary object or person for practice, the red square flashes on my screen until the AF finally locks on the subject, at which point the square turns green and the camera (Canon T3i) beeps. This process takes my camera a long time. Not ages or anything, but if I was shooting someone moving fast, it would never be able to sufficiently lock on. I would have to have them stand still, hold down the back button with my thumb, wait until the AF found them(i.e. the square turns green), and THEN tell them to move. After which point, it would be fine and work as described above. Am I doing something wrong?

  • Liz Godfrey says:

    Fantastic article, I really enjoyed reading it & can’t wait to try BBF. I do have one technical question though – I’m sure the answer is staring me in the face but for some reason I need some hand holding for this one. :-) I also have a Canon 5d Mark ii – just getting to know it — when I choose Custom FN IV and press Set, it then gives me a list (0: Normal; 1: Image Quality; 2: Picture Style……etc) What do I do from this point? Sorry, am a bit lost. Many thanks again & can’t wait to try this out once I get my camera set up.

  • victoria says:

    I’m sure it’s beautiful!!

  • Liz Godfrey says:

    Hi Again! I finally figured out what I was doing wrong in setting up my camera functions. So please disregard my earlier comment. I can’t wait to experiment with BBF now. Many thanks again & fantastic advice!

  • susan ramos says:

    Lisa this is a fabulous tutorial. The most simple but perfect one I’ve seen – thank you for taking the time to do it. Your images are always so beautiful!

  • valerie says:

    great article Lisa!!! I love BBF, from the moment I tried it!!

  • If you have a D7000 here is how to do it: Back Button Focus on a Nikon D7000

    1) You need to assign the AE-L, AF-L button (yes, that button that you’ve never used before and always wondered what it does) on the back of the camera to be AF-On. To do this, go to your camera menu and look in the custom setting menu (the pencil). In the custom setting menu, go to Controls, and then choose F5 “Assign AE-L/AF-L button.” Within this menu, choose “AF-On.”
    2) Now you need to set up the camera so it will take a picture even when focus has not been achieved. This is preferable in most situations because you may have focused and recomposed the shot. To do this, go to your Custom Setting Menu and choose Autofocus. Within this menu, select A1 “AF-C priority selection” and set it to “release.” Then set AF-S priority selection to “release” as well.

    http://improvephotography.com/4552/back-button-focusing/

  • Deanie Swynnerton says:

    Sara, thanks for pointing me to that video. In it, the gentleman said you could take your finger off the AE-L/AF-L button and provided you stayed the same distance away from your model, you could recompose quite happily. However, on my Nikon D5100 I still wasn’t able to do this. So….

    I decided to try an experiment. I used BBF to obtain focus. Then, whilst still keeping the button depressed, I switched to Manual focus on the lens, (rather fiddly – have to get used to it), and then took my thumb off the AE-L/AF-L button and pushed the shutter button on its own – BINGO! I was able to click click click to my hearts content, and recompose, provided I didn’t change my distance from my subject (as mentioned in the video). I think this would work particularly well for portraits/still subjects. I think this could just be my Aha moment??!! Thank you.

  • Maureen Petru says:

    Lisa – I just had to find this post and jump back on here to thank you! I tried and tried BBF. I read 5 to 6 articles on it from good sources that I usually turn to for tutorials. But it was not until I read your tutorial that I finally got it! I always pushed the button once and let go. Since I am mostly shooting children, I was lucky to MAYBE get one shot in focus. None of the articles I previously read explained that you need to HOLD the button down if your subject is moving. With a month’s practice, I am now comfortable using BBF and just wanted to hop back and let you know!

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