Why Every Photographer Should Consider Using Back-Button Autofocus

Almost every camera in existence (at least every one I've ever used) comes out of the box with the autofocus activation linked to the shutter button. While this is generally fine for a lot of situations, there's a better method out there, and this great video will show you why and how you should use it.

Coming to you from Tony & Chelsea Northrup, this helpful video talks about back-button autofocus. Simply put, back-button autofocus means you program your camera so pressing the shutter no longer activates the autofocus system, instead moving that function to a button on the back of the camera, typically so your index finger still depresses the shutter and your thumb activates the autofocus. This makes your life easier and improves shooting in a lot of conditions. Furthermore, as they mention in the video, some cameras let you customize them to the degree that you can program different focus modes into different buttons. For example, I have my Sony a7R III set up identically to them, using the AF-ON button for normal autofocus and the AEL button (whose standard function I never use anyway) for Eye AF. This is great, for example, if I'm shooting an event and want to grab a quick portrait of someone. Check out the video above for the full breakdown.

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19 Comments

Doug Stringham's picture

This is the only way I focus these days.

Robert Nurse's picture

Ever since I found out about it, I look back and wonder how I got along without it. Especially, combined with AI Servo for moving subjects!

This guy (and gal) is tracing me. On every photography web page I visit is a video featuring Tony.

Jozef Povazan's picture

Only if you know how to do it right :) and how to keep your body at the same distance from subject once you acquire focus with back-button. I use it 90% time but there are moments when I get caught with softer image due to my mistake in unexpected move of my torso, and then regular focusing would have saved me haha... Happy shooting

Daniel Medley's picture

BBF in continuous. As long as you keep pressing the button, it continues to focus. It's particularly useful when shooting with larger apertures in which the DOF is small. I tiny movement by either you or the subject can result in out of focus shots.

Using BBF in continuous and keeping it pressed while shooting goes a long ways to alleviating that problem.

Jozef Povazan's picture

Yes it is for sport and wildlife for sure... at portraits of people I prefer AF S due to faster composing so then being precise and not to wiggle with camera while BBF is my approach :) Happy shooting

Daniel Medley's picture

For what I mostly photograph, BBF is hugely beneficial; especially when using larger apertures and shallow DOF. Put the focus point on the eye, press the BBF button, KEEP it pressed, fire away.

Kyle Medina's picture

That's if its set to continuous. Most people learning about this probably don't understand servo vs single.

Hot tips from a hot host ...

This video is very helpful for amateurs and professional photographers and videographers as it shows how wisely you can using Back-Button Autofocus.

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I can’t. Button is busy with EyeAF.

No, I’m not vegan :)

As I understand it AF S will give you more consistent results in portrait shoots, because there always is some hunting involved when using AF C. Using AF S with BBF makes no sense to me.

I am shooting BBF 95% of the time, but when I want to nail focus on the eyes of a relatively static subject I switch back to the "usual" mode.

Michael B. Stuart's picture

Tony Northrup has me officially convinced to try this now. Probably not until after this weekend's wedding though! Great video.

Chris Rogers's picture

I've seen a few articles and videos on back button focus but they really just said BBF is good USE IT. i like how tony gives you scenarios in which you would use BBF, why, and how. thanks for the post. Imma start using this more.

You can't keep pressing af-on and use the joystick at the same time

I agree. Everyone should be using BBF. For those late to the game you have to give it a chance. When I made the switch the next few sets (few days) of photos were terrible because my mind had not switched from the shutter release focus to BBF. But after I got through that transition period there's been no looking back.

The only downside is if I'm out casually shooting with the family and someone offered to take a family photo with my camera.... I'm like you can try but you'll never take a good photo with my camera lol. Happened at the Kennedy Space Center with one of the onsite photographers, he just couldn't get used to using the extra button.

amanda daniels's picture

Maybe I didn't give it enough time, but when I tried BBF I hated it. I just couldn't get it. I thought it was alot harder to nail focus using 2 different buttons. Maybe I need to give it more time

Setting your focus point then recomposing is not a problem unless you need to shoot using image stabilization which is activated by either your shutter button or back button focus. At least with Canon DSLR's