Back Button Focus: The Secret to Crisp Photos Every Time

Back Button Focus: The Secret to Crisp Photos Every Time

Ever have trouble getting tack sharp focus on multiple photos in a row?

It can be frustrating to have to refocus for each individual shot in a series, especially in tricky situations. (Low light, or sun flares anyone?)

You know what really makes things worse? It's how cameras force you to lock in focus by pressing the shutter down halfway.

I can't tell you how many times my finger accidentally slipped off the shutter doing this. Then I'd have to refocus all over again!

Not only that, if you press the shutter button down a little too hard, your camera takes the photo before you're ready. So you guessed it – I'd have to refocus yet again!

This need to keep refocusing for every photo held me back as a  new photographer. And I can almost bet it's holding you back too.

The need to continually refocus means that your photos aren't as sharp as they could be. Even worse, it means that you're missing great shots – like this one below by one of our students!)

 

Portrait above is by our student T.s. Gallant

Locking Focus With the Shutter Button is a Clumsy Process

Here is why pros don't use their shutter button to lock in focus.

Locking in your focus with  your shutter button means three tedious steps for every photo you take:

  1. Push down the shutter button half-way to engage the autofocus
  2. Wait for the light and beep that tells you that your image is in focus
  3. Press the shutter down fully to capture your image.

In other words, it's a time-consuming hassle to use your shutter to lock in focus each and every time you take a photo.

Overall, it's a very inefficient way to lock in focus. Worse yet, it's holding you back from taking the tack-sharp photos you'd be proud to show off.

Fortunately, there is a much better way to lock in focus. It was a game-changer for me, and I know it will be for you, too.

All you have to do is enable something called back-button focus. This moves locking in focus with your shutter to (you guessed it!) a button located on the back of your camera.

When you do this, the only time you'll press the shutter is when you're ready to take a photo. No more accidentally pressing shutter all the way down when you're only trying to lock in focus.

Back Button Focus Ends the Need to Refocus After Every Shot

Instead of having to stop and refocus after each shot, back-button focus allows you to set your focus once and then lock it in.

Once locked, you can move around your subject (as long as you remain the same distance away) without having to refocus.

Also, you can take photos of a particular person in a group of people, without worrying that the focus will wind up resetting itself to a different face (or someone’s shoulder, or hand, or chin!)

The result?

You’ll get crisp, tack sharp images more often, and miss fewer shots where you're tracking fast-moving subjects.

How To Enable Back Button Focus

Depending on the model of your camera, you'll either find a dedicated button on the back of your camera, or there will be a button that can be programmed to serve as a back button focus.

Reviewing your manual will help you figure out where this button is, and how to activate it.

Below is a quick guide that works for the most popular cameras brands.

Once you’ve found the button, you’ll probably notice that you only have to slightly change your hand position to focus – your thumb will rest easily on the button when you’re holding your camera.

Now when you take a photo, you’ll set your focus by pushing the back button, and then press the shutter all the way down to take your photos. It's that easy!

In the video below, I show you how to use your back button focus button to get those beautiful portraits during the golden hour.

If you're into any kind of photography where your subjects are moving, like sports or wildlife, then you definitely want to enable back-button focus.

Once it's enabled, your camera focuses continually if you hold down the back button.

This allows you to take multiple shots of a moving subject without needing to stop and refocus.

This is a huge help for sports and wildlife photographers – or even for those wanting to capture the action on the dance floor at a wedding or party.

Instead of needing to pause to refocus between each photo, you can concentrate on capturing the action unfolding in front of you.

You'll Never Look Back After You Switch to Back Button Focus

 

Using your back button focus takes a bit of getting used to, but I promise – once you see the results, you’ll never want to go back to the old shutter focus method!

By enabling back button focus, you'll capture crisper shots and enjoy photography more. It just takes a minute to set up – so why not give it a try?

If you'd like more camera tips and tricks, be sure to check out my free “Show Your Camera Who's Boss” training! Just click the red button below to get started.

24 thoughts on “Back Button Focus: The Secret to Crisp Photos Every Time”

  1. Would be great if you could do a short video on this!!
    I always find that I’m not always happy with the sharpness of my images, which can be very frustrating!

    1. Thank you! Can’t wait to try it out! ? When you focused and then moved Camera were you holding the button in all the time?

  2. Rhonda Kircher

    Thank you for this! Waiting is such a pain! You’ve given me so many reason to fall in love with my camera! I’m looking forward to more info, and when my schedule frees up, I’ll be dropping in on one of your webinars!

  3. Vanessa Pulecio

    I seem to have issues taking group photos and not getting everyone crisp. It’ll focus on one persons face than blur out everyone else. I need help figuring that out.

    1. Jane,

      I found it on my Canon SX 60HS point and shoot. Under Menu it’s called Servo AF.
      Not sure if it is called the same thing on other P&S cameras like your Nikon.

      But thought I’d let you know where I found it on mine ;). Good Luck!

  4. Andrea Van Briesen

    I am living these emails David!!!! I can not wait to try this as I shoot alot of action sports and wildlife. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge!!!

  5. I have a Nikon D60 old I know it has an AF-L AE-l button which I am summing is my back button. However in controls I do not know how to access the AF control. I tried but it would not allow me to do it. can you help with is issue. Id love to use that back button feature with my grandkids and when out in the mountains.

    1. Sharon Boehmer

      This might help, I have a d5000 and mine worked like this
      Using menu button on left side of camera, find the left side of the screen and look for a pencil icon. This pulls up the custom setting menu.
      Then find controls on the list, mine is f.
      Then you should be able to follow the rest of the instructions. However, on mine I did not have to do the last step, it wasn’t needed.
      I used the button you mentioned and it was really cool. Will take a little getting used to, but very helpful.

  6. So If I’m understanding this correctly, once you have the back button focus dialed in you don’t use 1/2 shutter release at all if you push the back button focus? I have still benn 1/2shutter focusing first then hit the back button focus, I think I’m doing double the focus work?

  7. Hi David, I have been trying my Cannon EOS 5 Mark 4, in the back button; I shoot Wildlife and it saves me a lot of time. Now also, a friend taught this, but if I remember Right he told me to switch back to manual after and it stays, I get confused about that cause will also set it in Alserveo for continuous shots are you also able to do so with the backbutton in use!

  8. I have used the back focus button on my Nikon d700 and love how it works. Thanks for this awesome tip. As others have inquired about, I am curious as to your ISO setting of 400. Can you explain why you chose this setting? Also, I’m having difficulty keeping everyone in my group photos sharp. The subject I use to focus on is sharp. What should I do to get everyone in focus?

  9. Which model of Canon is in the picture? I don’t have this button on my Canon Rebel T3i. I can’t seem to find a button that can be programmed for this purpose.

    1. David Molnar - Your Photography Mentor

      Hi Liz! You will need to go to your main menu and go to the second to last menu tab. Select custom functions (C.Fn) and scroll over to page 9. The default option should be set to “O:AF/AE lock” which means your shutter button is set to autofocus. If you change it to option 1:AE lock/AF, it will switch to back button focusing instead. 🙂

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