Back Button Focus: Guide to Sharper Images

Back Button Focus

Guide to Back Button Focus

Back Button Focus is a powerful feature on your DSLR camera that can help you achieve sharper images in certain situations.  In this post, I will explain what Back Button Focus is, how to find it on your camera, and demonstrate some situations where you may find it helpful.

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What is Back Button Focus?

In its most basic terms, back button focus (often referred to as BBF) is a feature that removes Autofocus from the shutter button and assigns it to a button on the back of your camera.  Your shutter button will still activate the shutter, but your lens's Autofocus will now be activated by a button on the back of your camera, separately from the shutter.

Since this feature uses a button on the back of your camera (hence the name, back button) to lock in the focus of your shot, you will NOT need to press the shutter button halfway before shooting in order to refocus every time you make an exposure.  This will help ensure that:

  1. Once you have achieved sharp focus, you will not lose it on your next shot.
  2. You will spend less time focusing and more time actually shooting.

Back Focus

Current DSLRs being manufactured by Nikon and Canon's EOS line have this feature.  Back button flash is also available on certain Sony and Pentax cameras, but you will need to check your camera's manual to verify that your camera has the feature.  If you do not have your camera's user manual, I have included links at the bottom of this post so you can find them. 

In this tutorial, we will be looking at how to activate BBF on the Nikon D7000, Canon 5D Mark ii, and the Sony mirrorless A6000.

Note: Back button focus should not be confused with "back focusing" - they are not the same thing!  Back focusing is an issue that arises when there is trouble with focusing.

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When Should You Use Back Button Focus

As with most photography techniques, there are certain times when Back Button Focus will be perfect to use, and there are certain times where it will not work well at all.  Here are some good examples of when you can benefit from back button focus:

Back Button Focus Scenario 1 - Portraits and Stationary Subjects

Back Button Focus is GREAT for portraits, as it gives you the ability to move your camera to recompose your shot without having to refocus.  The key is to remain the same distance from you subject (i.e. keep them on the same focal plane), or else you WILL need to refocus.  If you remain at relatively the same distance, though, you can move your camera up/down and left/right without the need to refocus.

Back Button Focus for Portraits

Back Button Focus Scenario 2 - Moving Subjects

While Back Button Focus may seem like it is best-suited for stationary subjects, it can also be very useful for moving subjects, as well, given that they remain at the same distance from your lens from shot to shot.

For example, let's say you are photographing a wedding, and, during the ceremony, the couple are at the altar for an extended period of time.  You can activate BBF, select your focus once and then continue to press the shutter without the camera having to refocuse for every shot!

By doing this, you will be able to more easily capture facial expressions and gestures which happen within a fraction of a second.  If you are continuously refocusing during the ceremony, you run the risk of missing some really great wedding details and split-second, impossible to replicate moments.

How to Back Button Focus

How to Set Back Button Focus on Your Camera

The way in which you activate Back Button Focus will vary from camera to camera.  Even though BBF is a simple concept, camera manufacturers do make setting up back button focus a bit complicated sometimes!

The common denominator, though, is that you will first need to know which button on the back of your camera will lock in the focus for you.  From there, you will use your camera's menu to find your back button settings, and assign the focus to the button on the back of your camera, so that instead of your shutter button being the command for your lens to focus, your back button will now focus for you!  Of course your shutter button will still activate the shutter.

Back Button Focus on a Nikon Camera

On a Nikon Camera, Back Button Focus is assigned to the AE-L/AF-L button (circled below):

Back Button Focus Nikon

Back Button Focus on a Canon Camera

For Canon cameras, the AF-ON button (circled below) is assigned the Back Button Focus:

Back Button Focus Canon

Back Button Focus on a Sony Camera

The Sony A6000 Camera uses the AEL button (circled below) for Back Button Focus:

Back Button Focus Sony

Refer to Your Manual to Locate Back Button Features

If you do not have your camera's manual, you can download a copy through the manufacturer's website.  Here is a list of popular camera manufacturers, with links to their camera manual libraries so you can locate yours easily:

    Make sure to check out some of our other favorite blog posts in the Guide to Shaper Images Series:

    Do you have any questions or comments about Back Button Focus?  Leave us a comment below - we would love to hear from you!  And PLEASE SHARE this post using the social sharing buttons (we really appreciate it)! 

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