Back Button Focus

7 Building Blocks of Photography 2

Videos, whispers and rumours about back button focus are everywhere. I’ve had shed loads of emails and messages asking to do a video about back button focus. Is it better? When should it be used, do I recommend it…?

So what is back button focussing?

Basically it’s the ability to separate focus activation from the shutter button and re-assign it to a button on the back of the camera. Pretty much all cameras can do it. Or to put it another way, I haven’t yet seen one that can’t.


I can’t tell you how to set it because all cameras are different. You’ll have to look in the dreaded handbook for back button focus, or search online. Someone somewhere has probably made a video explaining how to set it up on your camera.

Once set, you use your thumb to focus instead of your finger. Full auto, single point, single shot, continuous, modes work just the same, so you can combine them as you wish for the shot you want to take. But now they’re separated from the shutter button which now only takes the photo.

Some say it’s faster and easier to use. Often quoting sports as an example.

Let’s say you’re in continuous mode. When you press the back button the camera is continuously focussing as you compose shots. If you’re in full auto it chooses where to focus just as with the front button, in single point it continuously focusses on your chosen point. When you release the back button, focus locks and stays at that distance until you press the it again.

In single point, single shot, it focuses on on your chosen point, release the back button and it stays locked on that focal distance.

What are the benefits?  

Only you can say because In reality it’s only a benefit if you prefer it as a method of working. Like everything on a camera the only way you can learn is to give it a go for yourself. Test and practise until you know if it’s right for you.

I know how tempting it is to look for short-cuts by taking someone else's advice. When any of us are starting out, we have to ask those who are already experts how they do it. Learning from the experience of others makes complete sense and I wholeheartedly support it.

But remember it’s only their advice which they’re likely to be passionate about because it works for them. It doesn’t mean it’s the right way or the only way. In photography there are many ways to achieve the same result so begin by trying what the experts suggest, learn how to control your camera and make it do what you want it to and then you can make an informed choice about what is best for you.

There’s tons of free stuff out there online (my own included) but as beginners, wer don’t know which information we need in which order to be efficient and make things work seamlessly. We don’t know which order we need this mass of information. As a trainer I specialise in delivering it in sequence so the learning curve is smooth and fulfilling.

Going it alone is false economy because of all the wasted time, being overwhelmed and frustrated by too much - too soon. If you’re trying to get out of auto exposure, my beginners course will get you there on week 1 alone. It’s less than the cost of a cheap used lens and you can even get a free sample. If you’ve read down this far you’re serious, so go check one out.

Do I use or recommend back button focus?

I certainly recommend you try it out and see if you like it, see if it fits what you like to photograph and is easy and comfortable for you to use.

Personally I hate it. My thumb gets in the way, I find it awkward, uncomfortable and there’s nothing I can do at the back, that I already do from the front (including sports) by setting up my AF appropriately which takes just seconds. To me back button focus is the work of the Devil!

I use the back button for exposure lock because I find it invaluable for fast moving situations in changing light when there’s no time to fiddle with exposure settings.

But that’s only my opinion. You might try it and completely disagree!

Until next time..

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