PetaPixel

AF-ON & Back Button Autofocus: This May Just Change the Way You Shoot Forever

Perfect Pounce

Still autofocusing by pressing halfway down on your shutter release? Well, suppose I told you there’s another way that you might even like better? Sound interesting? Read on.

The technique is called Back Button Autofocus and it can really change the way you use your camera. Rather than autofocusing with your shutter release, you move the autofocus function exclusively to a button on the back of the camera. When you first hear about this technique, it’s natural to greet the idea with a bit of uncertainty, but once you get used to focusing with this method, you may never go back.

See, Back Button AF turns focusing into an almost instinctive act for many photographers. It’s a fantastic alternative to switching between single shot AF for static subjects or continuous AF for action. With back button AF, you can do whatever you want – instantly. I’ve been using it for years, and I’m confident in saying that this technique has helped me land some of my best shots.

Naturally, this is a case of personal preference, however, wouldn’t you like to see if you should add this tool to your arsenal? Check out the video below for details. Oh, and don’t worry – nearly every Nikon DSLR supports the feature and the video shows you exactly how to set it up. Why not give it a try for a couple weeks and see what you think?

Video

Sample Photos

Below are a few sample shots. As a wildlife and landscape photographer, Back Button AF really comes in handy, but keep in mind it’s just as effective on portraits, sports, street, architecture, or whatever style of photography you enjoy. By the way, all were resized using my web sharpening technique you can find on my YouTube channel.

Shooting Action Photos

One of the best uses for Back Button AF is when a static subject suddenly decides it’s time to run, leap, jump, or sprint. You’ll find that going from static shots to action shots isn’t just instantaneous, it will also become instinctive in a very short amount of time. Beats trying to switch back and forth from single shot AF to continuous AF, that’s for sure.

Shot with a Nikon D4 and Nikon 600mm F4. This started off with him simply posing for a few portraits, and then he took off running after a female. Back Button AF allowed me to instantly track him as he sprinted in front of me.

Shot with a Nikon D4 and Nikon 600mm F4. This started off with him simply posing for a few portraits, and then he took off running after a female. Back Button AF allowed me to instantly track him as he sprinted in front of me.

Shot with a Nikon D4 and 500mm F4. This egret was busy flying from spot to spot on this little pond, so when he came close I knew what would happen. Back Button AF allowed me to shoot portraits by focusing and recomposing until I could see he was ready to take off. In a split second my finger was holding down the AF-On button and I was tracking the takeoff. Never took my eye from the viewfinder, never really even thought about focus.

Shot with a Nikon D4 and 500mm F4. This egret was busy flying from spot to spot on this little pond, so when he came close I knew what would happen. Back Button AF allowed me to shoot portraits by focusing and recomposing until I could see he was ready to take off. In a split second my finger was holding down the AF-On button and I was tracking the takeoff. Never took my eye from the viewfinder, never really even thought about focus.

Shot with a Nikon D4, 600mm F4, and 1.4TC. This coyote was busy hunting and Back Button AF made it simple to grab focus and recompose for portrait shots, and then instantly switch to continuous AF when he pounced.

Shot with a Nikon D4, 600mm F4, and 1.4TC. This coyote was busy hunting and Back Button AF made it simple to grab focus and recompose for portrait shots, and then instantly switch to continuous AF when he pounced.

Shooting Static Photos

What about when the action stops and you want a static posed shot? No worries, just focus on the point you want, release the AF button, recompose and shoot all you like. The focus will stay at that point no matter how many times your finger comes off of the shutter release. No more refocusing and recomposing between each and every shot.

Shot with a Nikon D4 and 600mm F4 + 1.4TC. Back Button AF saved the day here. I was easily able to switch from tracking the bull as he moved to focusing and recomposing when he stopped. This moment only lasted a second - no time to fiddle around with AF settings. Back Button AF allowed me to instantly lock focus on his eye and make the shot.

Shot with a Nikon D4 and 600mm F4 + 1.4TC. Back Button AF saved the day here. I was easily able to switch from tracking the bull as he moved to focusing and recomposing when he stopped. This moment only lasted a second – no time to fiddle around with AF settings. Back Button AF allowed me to instantly lock focus on his eye and make the shot.

Shot with a Nikon D4 and 500mm F4. This girl was walking along the ice and then decided it was break time. I went from tracking her to making this portrait without worrying about whether I was in AF single or AF continuous focus. I just locked focus on the eye, took my finger off the AF-On button, recomposed, and took the shot anytime she looked my way. Had she decided to start walking again, I could have instantly started tracking her.

Shot with a Nikon D4 and 500mm F4. This girl was walking along the ice and then decided it was break time. I went from tracking her to making this portrait without worrying about whether I was in AF single or AF continuous focus. I just locked focus on the eye, took my finger off the AF-On button, recomposed, and took the shot anytime she looked my way. Had she decided to start walking again, I could have instantly started tracking her.

This was shot with a Nikon D4 and 500mm F4. Just seconds before this shot I had been using an AF point just above center to photograph one of the fawns as she moved towards me. When the next one walked up, my AF point was in the wrong spot, but no worries, I quickly focused on an eye, let go of the AF-On button, recomposed, and shot the photo. Had I been on continuous AF, I would have had to either move my AF point to one of their eyes or switch to single shot AF. However, this moment didn't last long, and the truth is I would have missed the shot because I was messing around with camera settings instead of shooting.

This was shot with a Nikon D4 and 500mm F4. Just seconds before this shot I had been using an AF point just above center to photograph one of the fawns as she moved towards me. When the next one walked up, my AF point was in the wrong spot, but no worries, I quickly focused on an eye, let go of the AF-On button, recomposed, and shot the photo. Had I been on continuous AF, I would have had to either move my AF point to one of their eyes or switch to single shot AF. However, this moment didn’t last long, and the truth is I would have missed the shot because I was messing around with camera settings instead of shooting.

Shooting Landscape Photos

Landscape photos really aren’t the type of subject that strike people as benefiting from this technique – after all, how tough can it be to focus on a landscape, right? Well, turns out Back Button AF really does come in handy. It allows you to focus on one spot in the photo, recompose, and shoot – all without the need to repeat the process each time you take your finger off the shutter release. This is especially handy if the spot you want to focus on isn’t under one of your AF sensors. Plus, it makes shooting with a tripod better, since you only need to focus and lock down once, not reset every time you take your finger off the shutter release.

This was shot with a Nikon D800 and 14-24. For this shot, my AF point was slightly below the last row of AF sensors. With Back Button AF, I was able to focus, compose, and lock everything down. I didn't have to refocus and recompose each time my finger left the shutter release.

This was shot with a Nikon D800 and 14-24. For this shot, my AF point was slightly below the last row of AF sensors. With Back Button AF, I was able to focus, compose, and lock everything down. I didn’t have to refocus and recompose each time my finger left the shutter release.

This was shot with a Nikon D3x and 24-70. In this situation, I needed to find a focus point that would keep both the rock in foreground sharp as well as the lighthouse (at my selected aperture). So, I found a spot on land that was just the right distance, focused, and released the AF-On button. From there, I composed the photo and shot away, never worrying about refocusing or recomposing.

This was shot with a Nikon D3x and 24-70. In this situation, I needed to find a focus point that would keep both the rock in foreground sharp as well as the lighthouse (at my selected aperture). So, I found a spot on land that was just the right distance, focused, and released the AF-On button. From there, I composed the photo and shot away, never worrying about refocusing or recomposing.

This was shot with a Nikon D3x and 24-70. For this shot, I wanted to focus on the rock just in front of where the waterfall breaks over the edge of the cliff. Of course, no AF point there, so I simply focused, recomposed and shot away. With AF-On I didn't need to worry about the need to refocus and recompose each time my finger left the shutter release.

This was shot with a Nikon D3x and 24-70. For this shot, I wanted to focus on the rock just in front of where the waterfall breaks over the edge of the cliff. Of course, no AF point there, so I simply focused, recomposed and shot away. With AF-On I didn’t need to worry about the need to refocus and recompose each time my finger left the shutter release.


About the author: Steve Perry is an award-winning fine art nature photographer based out of NW Ohio. He’s been doing photography for the last 30 years and continues to travel the country each year seeking out new and exciting landscapes, wildlife, and macro imagery. You can find more of his work on his website, YouTube and Facebook. This article was originally published here.


 
 
  • Christopher

    I just set this uπ on my Sony a99. It already set-up to use the joystick nub for AF on so one need only turn off AF on the shutter button. The joystick works well because it is very easy for the thumb to find.

    I’m hoping this method works out because it will allow a user to use AF-D mode without it being continuous (except when desired).

  • Erick

    You mean you turn your camera on and set it to Auto?

  • Brendan

    Is that some sort of go-to insult when you don’t know what to say?
    I handed my camera to another photographer the other day and quickly realised that he wasn’t familiar with back button focus before – which he hadn’t. I linked him this today – the how is not so important as much as the ‘why.’

  • MarvinB7

    If you watch the video carefully, you’ll see what he’s getting at. Basically it isn’t so much about ‘quicker’ as it is ‘what I want’ the focus to do. I would like to use AF, but I don’t want it to activate for EVERY exposure. This method allows me to us AF, and then leave it alone for multiple exposures.

  • JLeon

    Clarification: Is this technique recommeneded when shooting wide open? f1.4 for example? Thanks.

  • MrT

    But doesn’t turning focus to continuous mode mean the camera will still fire when a subject is below the minimum focusing distance? Is this a downside to this technique?

  • Michal Rosa

    Some of the above examples employ bad technique. The “back button” autofocus technique works well for action, portraits etc but landscape examples are just silly. It’s easier, and IMO better, to switch to manual focus.

  • Brian Pratt

    These pictures are incredible.

  • D.G. Brown

    Sounds really good. I’m now very tempted to try this on my 1DX (I shoot lots of sports and I’m really curious with how it will work).

    That being said, I’m not quite buying it for landscape (though I don’t think it would hurt). If you’re shooting landscape by focusing and recomposing, you really need to learn how to select a different focus point (it will make your life soooo much easier).

  • Rainer

    That hits the point. This way used, AF can be better than MF.

  • Sharon

    I’ve tried this method before but this article makes the benefits and usage much clearer. Thank you Steve.
    Thing is that in Canon (5D3 in my case) when I set the focus to AI Servo (AF-C in Nikon) I don’t get an indication on focus lock (nither a beep nor visual).
    I’ve looked through the settings but couldn’t find anything to resolve this.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/lensjoy Marcin

    The AF-ON technique is good for dedicated outdoor action photographers, but it also has its serious drawbacks, which the author fails to mention. I used AF-ON for about a year and went back to shutter focusing. Here’s why.
    First of all, if camera is in AF-C (continuous autofocus) mode, the AF-assist illuminators (the camera’s built-in AF-light and/or the infrared beams in the attached external flashes) will not work. Consequently, indoors at short or medium distances the camera focuses faster and more accurately with AF-S or AF-Auto.
    Secondly, optically stabilized lenses do not engage the vibration reduction mode when the AF-ON button is pressed. The VR mode only switches on when the shutter is pressed. This makes handheld framing and focusing at longer distances harder and also makes it more difficult for the camera’s phase detection system to find the accurate focus.
    Thirdly, when your right thumb is responsible for pressing the AF-ON button, it cannot be used to select the appropriate AF point at the same time. In the video Steve Perry only focuses with the central point and then recomposes with the whole camera, which is potentially less accurate at shorter distances and sometimes slower than choosing an AF point from the grid.
    Lastly, when you ask someone to take a picture for you with your camera, they know how to use it.
    Because of the above limitations, I focus my camera with the shutter button. I typically use AF-C outdoors and AF-S indoors. However, I keep the “AE-L AF-L” button on my Nikon D7000 assigned to AF lock. This means that when I do not want to refocus in AF-C mode, I just keep that button pressed. Aso, when I shoot landscape from a tripod, I use manual focus (magnified as needed in LiveView).
    I believe this approach works better for an amateur like me, who shoots a variety of subjects both indoors and outdoors.

  • http://www.eriklaurikulo.se/ Erik Lauri Kulo

    You don’t have to refocus every exposure just because you’re using the shutter button. Just keep it half-pressed after every shot. I really don’t see the benefit here – and I have been using both techniques.

  • Troll

    “Photographer gets a photo in focus” more news at 6

  • GoodJobNotLikingThing

    Great Post!

  • RandomCircumstance

    lol, yes but now I can’t feel whether I’ve pressed it or not ;)

  • Christian DeBaun

    Thanks Steve. I’d love to see a video actually shot through your view finder, so that we can see how you compose and focus. Thanks, and I enjoyed your article and video.

  • Steve Perry

    Thanks for the detailed comment :) As I mention in the article, this is kind of a personal choice thing, just something to try that may be useful for some photographers.

    You’re right about the AF-C + AF Assist illumination. I use a flash so rarely that it never crossed my mind when I did the video / article.

    On newer Nikon bodies (D800, D4, etc), VR does engage with both a half press of the shutter release and the AF-On button. Older models it was just a half press of the shutter, which, actually, I like. My finger is generally there anyway in anticipation of the photo and this lets me keep VR engaged and stabilized even if I don’t need AF at the moment.

    Also, in my experience, selecting a different AF point and using this technique really hasn’t been an issue. In the video I use a single point because it makes a better illustration, but in practice I generally switch to an AF point that’s at or near the spot I want to focus on. I’m constantly switching from one to the other and using AF-On – which does work well for the type of action (wildlife) I shoot.

    100% right about handing the camera to someone else :)

  • Gary Rowe

    I think the best of both worlds is to use the back button to disable auto-focus. Its all about what you want as default behaviour and what you want as temporary

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/lensjoy Marcin

    Steve, thanks for your response, your shooting style obviously works great for you. For me, AF-S is more reliable indoors (especially with the IF beams) but apparently AF-C is way better on higher-end FF bodies.

  • sherrylynn

    how do you do the settings on the d7000 5 try to figure it out and I can’t thank you

  • Mantis

    I was unfamiliar with this technique and am glad that PetaPixel brought this to my attention.

  • Andrew Kandel

    The thumb resting position is different on a Nikon. The AF Button on both my D700 & D800 are just left of the thumb controlled main command dial which adjusts shutter speed, making is a very ergonomically friendly set up.

  • Mantis

    Then don’t read the article and move on.

  • Joey McClain

    Thank you so much, just switched both my cameras the D800 & D200 to back button auto focus. Works great,

  • Jackson Cheese

    Because everything works better on Canon cameras.

  • http://mhord.blogspot.com/ Mhord

    On higher end models sure, the AF-ON button sits in the middle and it’s reachable in the resting position, but most of my students have Dxxxx models or even older Dxx Nikons, where you need to setup the AE-L/AF-L button as AF-ON and it’s a struggle for some with short thumbs. I have no problem with the button as I have large hands, but I really feel Canon wins in the ergonomic side of cameras; even Scott Kelby admits it heh. But Nikon still wins in some other areas though.

  • Dream Art’s

    Work perfectly with the GH3 lumix. Great Idea it will be useful to me ! Thanks a lot for the tips !!!

  • 6BQ5

    I use the shutter release button pressed half way and I use only one focus point – the middle and I shoot in Av mode. Maybe I’m special or something but I can hold the shutter release half way to keep my focus locked while using my thumb for rear wheel control, AE lock, etc and my middle finger for front wheel control. I see no need for back button focus.

  • Eugene Chok

    tough? 3 nikon bodies grips came off in one wedding season? one is a manufacturing fault at 3 out of 4 bodies its a design flaw, will agree with the ergonomics and tackiness

  • Joe Gunawan

    I do the same on the a7R. I just have it to switch from AF to MF via the back button.

  • Jackson Cheese

    Sure. But the manual will only tell you how to do this.
    It won’t tell you why, or give you examples of practical applications.

  • Steven Wade

    Or use the focus lock button?

  • Mike

    I really like this idea but there is one problem I’m trying to deal
    with. I’m shooting with a Canon 40D with the battery grip. I can set
    it up so that the AF ON button focuses, which is great for shooting in
    landscape mode, but when I turn the camera to shoot in portrait mode, I
    no longer have easy access to the AF ON button. Perhaps there is a way
    to designate the * AE Lock button as the AF ON button but I haven’t
    found that yet. Does anyone else have this issue?

  • Jon bugg

    I use the back button to turn autofocus off. That way if I need to take a series of shots and don’t want to re-focus I just hold it down. Same concept almost, just sorta backwards. Works well for me.

  • Renaud Robert

    Well considering that the AF-ON Button is usually a AF-Off by default, you can stop your focus on continuous AF as well by pressing the AF-ON.

    Back button AF doesn’t give you anything more in terms of control, it just makes it more complicated in portrait or still life because you have to press two buttons even if you are on single shot AF.

  • djurbino

    “Oh, and don’t worry – nearly every Nikon DSLR supports the feature and the video shows you exactly how to set it up.”

    How did you know only Nikon users would be reading this article ?

  • Ryccardo

    It’s indeed less precise, but only by default and if you use it the traditional half press way: the “priority” settings that allows shooting when out of focus is set to Focus (“wait for green light”) in AF-S and either Release (“shoot whenever you fully press the button”) or an intermediate condition (if your camera supports it) for AF-C — remember that after all it’s the sports/action mode…
    If you wait for the motor to stop there should be no reason for it to be inferior.

  • Chris Durnin

    3 grips came off in one wedding?! Please. Sounds like you’re trolling. There’s a reason why the military and NASA use Nikon. They tested both and Nikon held up better so that’s what the military uses in the field.

  • Eugene Chok

    one wedding season, those guys are making the switch to canon, better to be on the same team anyway, this way they can share lenses with the video teams, just like the military why use 7.52 when you are out of ammo and we all have 5.56, i am going to assume you mean the US military because plenty of other militaries use plenty of other camera systems, in fact didn’t petapixel have a post about how awesome the military guys found pentax?

  • Ryker

    Why not just use the arrow pad to move your cameras focus point? No recomposing required…
    And using af for landscapes and stills seems kind of silly to me, but to each his own i guess…

  • Marius

    I have an D3100. In the first minutes that I’ve seen this oportunity I rapidly do this for my camera. I’m begining to accept the way it works, and in somne ways this is so much better than the old fashion way. One big but! I’m guessing that on the low range of dslr’s, like is the d3100, this tactic doesn’t work that well. I’m having problems in taking a 4th or 5th picture, after the button is released. I don’t know why but my camera just freezes and do not take any picture, except if I’m waiting for it a matter of few seconds. Any ideea why? I’m guessing the problem is the camera it self and it’s low range capabilities, maybe?

  • Charles OOI

    I have set my Canon 6D AF-On and managed to focus. But I felt weird, each time when I press the shutter release button, it is like re-focus again like the old norm of focusing. Is it suppose to be like that? Am I suppose to turned off any focusing settings in the shutter release button?

  • Charles OOI

    How do I disable the AF function release button in order to use the AF-On?

  • Tiffany Brook

    Now that I am using the AE-L/AF-L button for focus strictly, how do I control exposure?

  • Sasha

    Hope this doesn’t sound daft but I was told that in al servo you can’t recompose once you press your shutter half way cause the focus will be off and that that only works with one shot. So are you saying if you use BBF you can hold it and then recompose? (this sentence confused me came it seems to contradict what I was told by a wildlife photographer “This coyote was busy hunting and Back Button AF made it simple to grab focus and recompose for portrait shots, and then instantly switch to continuous AF when he pounced.”) thanks