Wondering why you should use back button focus?

Back button focus usually confuses photographers at first but once they “get it”, they love it! If there is anything I wish I had known sooner in my journey as a photographer, it would be this one simple thing: Back Button Focus.

Back button focusing has been quite possibly the biggest game changer in my photography journey. Since I set up back button focusing, I have noticed a remarkable difference in the accuracy of my focus.

child jumping from couch

What is Back Button Focus?

Within your camera’s menu settings, you have the ability to assign certain functions to different buttons on your camera. With most DSLR cameras, by default, you half press the shutter button down to set the focus. This article is intended to explain photographers the benefits of assigning the task of focusing on one back button other than pressing the shutter button.

Back button focusing simply changes the method of focusing by assigning the focus function to one button on the back of your camera (this button will differ depending on your camera model, but it’s often on the button on the back of the camera).

Back button focusing means that your index finger is now solely responsible for releasing the shutter, and your thumb is now responsible for focus.

And while many photographers would argue that this makes it more complicated, I would have to disagree. While at first to set up back button focusing may be different than you are used to, using your thumb and index finger simultaneously is certainly no more complex, easier once muscle memory kicks in. Simultaneous use of fingers is something photographers do all the time in everyday life!

Before we get started, I’d like to explain that there is nothing “magical” about how to set up Back Button Focus. However, there are many situations in which utilizing the methods below will make better use of your camera and its capabilities.

A lot of times, many photographers just don’t know what those capabilities are. This article & video below is intended to help explain some of these capabilities, enabling you to have a higher degree of focusing accuracy in your photos.

Why use it?

There are a few reasons why I prefer to use Back Button Focus over focusing with the shutter button.

1. Your Focus will Hold (even if you release the shutter button).

When you remove the focusing function from the shutter button, you no longer need to worry about how to press your shutter button down to maintain focus on your model.

How many times have you focus a shot, accidentally removed your finger from the shutter, only to have the camera refocus (and usually not on your intended model) once you pressed it down again?

Set the camera shutter button to obtain focus requires that you continually find that perfect pressure balance of holding the shutter halfway down without 1) releasing the button and losing focus entirely, or 2) half press or pressing the button too firmly and taking the shot before you were ready.

Placing the focusing function on another button on your camera entirely allows the shutter button to only be responsible for releasing the shutter.

This way to set focus on your camera may not seem like much of a game-changer but think for a moment about photographing a subject moving (sports or family and child photographers, anyone?). In the millisecond you need to focus and then shutter release, your model may have moved.

The result: a blurry and out of focus model. By separating the focus and shutter functions with this setting on your camera, you can focus and get the shot simultaneously. Gaining back those precious milliseconds via back button focusing allowed me to nail focus and get this shot as the family jumped from rock to rock.

family walking across path over water

2. Focus and Recompose with Ease

Additionally, when you remove the focusing function from the shutter button on your camera, you enable yourself to focus the shot and then recompose the shot as needed, while your model stays in focus.

When the back button controls the focus on your camera, as soon as you recompose the shot and press the shutter, the camera will attempt to refocus again, leaving your intended model out of focus.

Sure, you could bypass this by locking focus, then switching your camera lens into manual focus, but locking focus on the camera and switching your camera lens into manual focus is a hassle.

Some photographers would say that the manual way to focus and recompose should be avoided and that you should just toggle your focus point. I agree, and I toggle my manual focus point in all situations.

However, I also remember how few manual focus points some cameras have, and sometimes the area of manual focus points falls outside of the focus point. Being able to recompose in those situations is key.

For more on recomposing your shots with the back button focus on your camera and manual focus, be sure to scroll down and check out the graphic below!

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3. More Versatile Focusing

What I really love about Back Button Focusing is the ability to pair the back button with a continuous focus mode for accurate and quick focusing in all situations.

Back button focus alone is beneficial, but if you frequently photograph moving subjects, you can really take your ability to nail focus up a notch by utilizing a focus mode along with back button focus.

A continuous focus mode (AI Servo mode for Canon, AF C for Nikon) allows you to track a subject moving and keep it in focus while you take a picture.

By continuing to press the button, your Canon or Nikon camera will automatically readjust focus as your subject moves. This series of images below is a perfect example.

These were shot using the AI-Servo manual focus mode, and back button focus. As my son was swinging the bat, I was able to maintain focus on him (even while he was moving) and take a series of shots in quick succession.

I was able to do this because 1) the shutter was not trying to regain focus for each shot, and 2) my focus mode allowed me to track his movement.

child playing tball

In the photo below, I was able to track the movement of my daughter running towards me by keeping my thumb on the button as I shutter release with my index finger.

Even though she was running towards me and the plane of focus was changing by the millisecond, by utilizing back button focus and the continuous focus mode together, I was able to achieve excellent focus on an otherwise difficult shot.

young girl running down street

Can you use a continuous focus mode with the button as your focus button? Absolutely. But, you forgo the above other benefits and the flexibility they afford you in all situations.

This is why I love pairing Back Button Focus and a continuous focus mode—no matter what situation I find myself in, I have the ability to nail focus quickly and accurately.

If I have a moving subject, I can hold down my button to track my subject and shutter release at anytime. If my subject is still, I can lock focus with my focus button, recompose if I need or desire, and press the shutter to get the shot at any time. It truly is a versatile set up.

back button focus card

How to Set Back Button Focus

If you use a Canon:

Setting your camera to back button focus isn’t difficult, if you know where to go. I will explain how I set it on my Canon 6D, and the process should be similar for other Canon DSLR cameras.

Please note, every camera model is slightly different, you might have to consult your manual or google for how to set back button focus up on your specific camera model.

Step 1: In my Canon 6D, the custom settings can be found in Custom Function III (C.FnIII)

Step 2: Scroll to screen 5 for custom settings controls.

Step 3: In that camera menu, I set the button to “metering start.” (Turning if OFF of AF Start is what removes the focus function from the shutter, and this is a crucial step!!)

Step 4: Set the AF-ON button to “metering start and AF start.”

Look to the photos below for help with these settings.

How to Set Back Button Focus Canon
how to set back button focus canon mark iii

Custom Controls Menu for Canon 5D Mark III – the rest of the steps are the same as on the Canon 6D as outlined above.

If you use a Nikon:

First check to see if your camera has an AF-On button. If you do, then it’s quite easy to set the focus to a back-button focus! The photos below are from a Nikon D800.

Step 1: All you’d have to do is choosing your focus selection in the custom settings menu (pencil icon)

Step 2: Select “a – Autofocus”

Step 3: Select “a4 – AF activation” and

Step 4: Select “AF ON only” and you’re done.

How to Set Back Button Focus Nikon

If your Nikon doesn’t have a AF-ON button, you’ll need to assign AE L AF Button or select AF L button in the custom menus to use the AF L button as the AF-On button. Do this:

Go back to Custom Settings menu on your camera and then the Controls section. Choose Assign AE Lock button or Select AF L button and scroll down to AF-On. Press OK and then the AE L button or the AF L button at the back of the camera now acts like an AF-On button for back button focusing.

How to Set Continuous Focus Mode

6_BBF Canon6D AI Servo

The continuous focus mode for Canon is AI-Servo (Nikon is using AF C) To set this on my Canon 6D I press the AF C button on the top of my camera, and use the top dial to scroll to AI-Servo after I’ve pressed the shutter AF C button.

Note: If you typically photograph still subjects or are a landscape photographer, back button focus and a continuous focus mode may not make much of a difference for you. Separating the functions of focus and being able to track your subject proves to be most beneficial for those who photograph a subject moving.

Back Button Focus is a great tool that has a lot of benefits. Some would even say it feel more natural and intuitive. But is it for everyone? Not necessarily! If you have a focusing method that already works for you, and don’t have issues with accurate focus, by all means, do what works for you.

Now it’s your turn! Are you already an expert with the back button focus? I’d love to hear what kind of changes have you noticed in your photos since making the switch!

If you haven’t already made the switch, give it a try and let us know how you like it! It may take some time to get used to, but I think you’ll see a notable difference in your precision of focus!


back button focus infographic


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