How To Use Back Button Focus For Fantastic Photos

How To Use Back Button Focus For Fantastic Photos

fantastic photos from back button focus

Learn how to use back button focus for fantastic photos with me, pro photographer Don Orkoskey of WDO Photography. I began to experiment with back button focus a few years ago and didn't really understand how powerful it really is. Then just a few months ago, as more and more students began to ask about it, I tried again. What I found was that back button focus provides a ton of advantages when used correctly.

What Is Back Button Focus?

If you're new to the concept you may be wondering what back button focus really is. The most basic definition is programing a button on the back of your camera to control focus. Some cameras have a back button that already allows you use it to focus but to use it "properly" you'll want to turn off the shutter release focusing. That is, to remove your ability to focus with the shutter release button.

Why You Want Use Back Button Focus

  There are a few reasons you might want to use back button focus. It's most often used by wildlife photographers who take a lot of tracking photos. This is because the button we press on most cameras for back button is ergonomically positioned to help us create sharper photos.

The Mechanics of Photography

Because of the construction of modern cameras we can often be our own worse enemy. When we press our shutter release button we can slightly jerk our camera. This can give us issues with camera shake. Additionally, this jerking motion can cause our focus to slip as we're tracking our subjects. Lastly, it can make tracking them harder.

Squeezing The Camera

Rather than pressing down on our shutter button it's helpful to squeeze our camera. Back button focus helps us do this by giving us a point on the back of the camera where we're likely already applying pressure.

Equal Pressure help prevent that jerking motion I mentioned earlier. Because we're countering the pressure we're putting on the shutter release we lose the jerk and can track our subject better.

Multiple Focus Settings

Another huge benefit of back button focusing is the ability to program multiple focus settings into our focus buttons. On my Nikon D850 I have two back focus buttons and one function button in the front next to my lens programed. Each button gives me a different focus setting.

One of my front function buttons is set to single point AF. This is great for stationary subjects, especially if they're far off and/or in the middle of a lot of other stuff. I often use this with birds sitting on branches.

Both of my back buttons are programed for wider focus areas which allow me to track faster moving or harder to track subjects more easily. One of these buttons is the AF-ON button. The other is the joystick. On my D850 I can press down on my joystick and it acts as a button. Because both of these are right next to each other they allow me to put even pressure on the back of the camera when taking photos.

How To Use Back Button Focus On Your Camera

Each camera is different so finding out how to use the back button focus might require some googling. Many professional or high end consumer cameras will come with multiple programable function buttons. This means that not only the camera system but the model matters to figuring out how to set up you camera.

Setting Up Your Specific Camera

Read below for a quick bit of instructions about how to set this up for most Nikon cameras. If you don't use a Nikon I highly recommend buying one of these really useful pocket guides for your specific camera model.

Back Button Focus On Nikon

I'm a Nikon user so I can explain how to set up back button focus on most modern Nikon cameras. First you need to go into the menu's Auto Focus settings (under the pencil). From here choose AF Activation and turn that off. This will stop your camera from focusing when you half press your shutter release.

Setting Up Your Function Buttons

Once you've turned of your shutter release AF you need to program your other buttons. To do this on a Nikon you need to go to the Controls setting, (again under the pencil). Then click Custom Control Assignment and choose the button you want to assign an auto focus setting to. From here you simply select the button which you want to program. Then find the Af Area Mode + AF On settings and select the area you want to assign to that button.

Don't Forget What You've Done

When you've first turned off AF Activation you might forget the first few times. This happened to me. As a result, I would half press my shutter and wonder why my lens wasn't focusing. After a few minutes I would remember and feel like a fool.

For the most part this is just something silly that happens. However, if you've grabbed your camera and are quickly trying to squeeze off a shot it will really drive you nuts. For me that's exactly what happened the first few times. I'd show up to take some photos, get a photo lined up, and then wonder why my camera wasn't focusing on my subject. So don't forget what you've done.

Using Back Button Focus For Fantastic Photos

Back button focus produces fabulous photos Now we know why and how to set up back button focus. Let's talk about how to use it to create amazing photos.

Being able to switch between different focus settings or to focus and recompose means more sharp photos and more artistic freedom. Additionally being able to pre-focus or to focus on your subject then release leave that focus there even as your subject moves across the frame  is very helpful.

Cameras With Multiple Function Button

As I said earlier, I program different auto focus areas for each button I use to auto focus. I highly recommend setting at least one to single point focus. This is your smallest focus area and one that you should be using for stationary subjects.

When it comes to your other focus buttons you should choose a focus setting that fits the subjects that you're photographing. Alternatively you can set it to the auto focus setting that you feel most comfortable using most of the time.

One Button Back Button Focus

Not all cameras have a bunch of different programable buttons. If your camera only has one you'll want to set that one to a focus area that you're comfortable with. Alternatively you can switch this out to the most appropriate setting for the subject on any given outing.

Focus and Composition

Titmouse With Seed Back Button Focused Back button focusing allows us to separate our focus and composition. For me, this means uncoupling these in my mind, not just in my camera.

Since I've switched to back button focus I've managed to grab some really fun compositions. I've also managed to grab a few shots I would have otherwise missed. For example, this photo of a Titmouse with a seed in it's mouth.

This bird was sitting on a branch surrounded by small twigs. It was only there for a matter of seconds. If I didn't have a button programed for single focus I wouldn't have had time to change my focus settings to bring that up, change the point to the right location for the best composition, then get the shot.

Keep Learning

If you're interested in continuing to learn about back button focus or other fantastic photography topics consider signing up for a private photography class or just a simple consultation. You can also find loads of tips on my blog and through my monthly newsletters. I'm also happy to answer questions sent via my contact form.

February 28, 2023 | Don Orkoskey
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Nature Photography
Photography Tips and Tricks
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