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Photography Tutorial: Back Button Focus (Reprise)

by Erin Peloquin on February 23, 2012 · 10 comments

Back Button Focus is one of those intimidating photography techniques that we hear about and think they might help, if only we could figure them out.  In my opinion anyway.

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I wrote about BBF a long time ago and used it for a couple of years, but have drifted away from it lately. So I’m going to talk a little bit about when it’s helpful for me (personally) and when it’s not.

This Canon article is the classic authority on BBF, by the way.  It will help you Canon shooters enable this feature and will give everyone an overview of the technique.

Back Button Focus Background

With our cameras set to factory defaults, we press the shutter halfway and the camera sets exposure and focuses on the center part of the image.  That’s great for beginners and many advanced photogs too.

But, there are times when you don’t want to re-focus each time you press that shutter button.

You want your focus set on a certain spot, and that’s that.

  • For instance, think about a birthday party or sporting event where you want to focus on one person, even if people might come into your frame that would normally change your focus.
  • Or, what about if you intentionally want a blurred shot, like the image above?
  • And, if you like to get creative with depth of field on a windy day, you’ll want to take Auto Focus off that shutter button as well.  I want my depth of field to hit the same spot on my frame each time in the shot below, but if the wind blows the flower backwards, my focal point will change (without BBF).

  • Or, if you want to focus the old-fashioned way (by using the focus ring on your lens.  Gasp.)

When you want to take focus off the shutter button in the situations described above, you assign the camera to focus only when you press a button on the back of the camera.

There are two reasons I don’t shoot with BBF much anymore for my general photography:

  1. I shoot in Manual Mode full time (I set exposure when I want to set it, and it doesn’t change.  One of the reasons to use BBF is to separate exposure from focus.  Shooting manual accomplishes this.)
  2. I select my focal point manually using the “joystick” on the back of my camera.  When I press the shutter button halfway, focus is achieved over the point I selected.

You guys might remember from my  Camera Settings write-up on my 5DMII that I have BBF set to the C1 setting on my dial.  So, whenever I want BBF, I can quickly switch over to it.

When to Use Back Button Focus:

  • To set focus with the lens ring.  Canon’s lenses let you change focus with the lens ring without switching the AF/MF switch. If don’t have Back Button Focus enabled, pressing the shutter button will trigger auto-focus and will override this manual focusing that you worked so hard on.
  • To blur intentionally.  Same principles as above apply.
  • When it’s hard to achieve focus – think about low light situations where your camera might struggle to focus.  Once you’ve got it, you don’t want to lose it.
  • Macro photography – another hard-to-focus situation.
  • If your lens is a slow focuser, BBF can speed up your shots (of still subjects) because the lens won’t search for focus each time.
  • Waiting for a shot – think about your child on a merry go round.  Once you finally focus in the right spot, you don’t have to refocus every time she comes around.  This applies to any situation where your subject is moving in a predictable or repeating way.
  • Back Button Focus is often helpful for people who shoot Aperture or Shutter Priority.  Exposure changes each time you press the shutter in these modes, but you don’t necessarily want focus to change each time.
  • In general, any situation where you don’t want to change your focus each time you press the shutter button is a good candidate for BBF.

I like that I have the freedom to easily switch between back button focusing and shutter button focusing.  It’s nice to focus with the shutter because it saves a button press.  But it’s even better to be able to Back Button in those situations where it helps.

So, what do you guys think about this?  I know there are some die-hard BBF’ers out there.  Is there any reason you can think of for me to go back to full-time Back Button Focus?

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Dianne - Bunny Trails February 23, 2012 at 1:22 pm

I stay on BBF all the time because it’s just easier. On rare occasions when I have switched to shutter focus, it frustrates me the next time I pick up the camera, attempt to focus on back and it doesn’t work. So I guess for me, it’s more a lazy issue. But that’s not to say that I don’t like it being there. I actually prefer BBF given the choice. Too often, I’d let go of the focus lock on the shutter and then I’d lose the focal point I’d already achieved.

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Nicole February 24, 2012 at 2:15 pm

I don’t use BBF, for all the reasons you stated. I shoot in manual. I’m a focus and recomposer, so maybe I need to rethink BBF for your example of a repetitive motion, such as a child on a merry go round. I shoot Nikon and have to flip a switch to manual focus anyway, when going for Christmas light bokeh, or a similar out of focus effect.

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Caroline (Frogmum/TMFH) February 24, 2012 at 4:05 pm

I shoot BBF now and I don’t think I would go back to SBF.

ONE reason I might use to convince you to stick with BBF is that I have read a few articles that suggest that most lenses have the greatest accuracy of focus when set to centre-point. As soon as you start using the ‘joystick’ to select points other than the centre you will also lose some of the accuracy of the lens. I image the loss is minimal, but I am told it is there! Of course with BBF you can stick with the central focal point and then just recompose ~ thus resulting is supposedly sharper pictures. So, if in doubt… I stick with BBF & have come to love it. I have even taught my children how to use it (although it is a bit of a stretch for their little hands around my big camera!). Perhaps I need to see if I can customise a setting so that they can use SBF at the touch of a button!

Shooting on a Nikon D5000.

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Melissa Wolfson February 24, 2012 at 5:34 pm

Thanks for this. This may have changed my life. I am very new to photography — really, still only photography my kids. But I have been so frustrated in the past about always refocusing when I don’t need to and missing adorable faces just because my camera decided to refocus. I have tried manual focus several times but with kids, they move just a bit where I need to refocus sometimes — but I love the potential opportunity to be in AF mode but choose not to AF with the shutter button. Thank you so much for linking the article for reference. Now, I just have to play with it to see if this has changed my life as much as I think it might have.

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Back Button Focus Kim February 27, 2012 at 8:14 pm

I’ve never heard of this before until last year when I was surfing the net and found an ebook on how to do it.

Because it seems that every Canon camera I have had, (even using L lenses), there has been a focusing issue.

I use this way to focus now, and it really DOES work.

It took about 10 hours of straight shooting and practice to get comfortable with it. Now, it’s second nature. I feel backwards if I use my Lumix LX3 to shoot / focus with shutter button.

I think everyone should shoot like this.

I only use BBF FULL TIME..

I never want to lose a shot – and i’ve lost PLENTY.

I have the link to the ebook if you’d like to see it. I just want your permission to share here, as I don’t want to send people out of your site if you don’t want me to.

Let me know. :)

Side note: I am really surprised that this isn’t spoken about more. This is ONLY the second time that I have ever noticed anyone mentioning it. That’s not to say it hasn’t been mentioned anywhere before, as I am sure it has, but, I am pretty thorough when it comes to reading pretty much every thing I get. (yeah, i’ve got the time to do this as I work at home!)

I get about 45 + emails a DAY and about 30 + more weekly from what I think are the BEST blogs and websites out there dedicated solely to photography and post processing, gear, tips, tricks etc.

Yes, it IS information overload, but, it has taught me HOW to photograph. I’ve never had the $ to go to school or to pay someone to teach me. Even if you just pick a few to glance over, you will be that much more informed! There is so much that I don’t know, but every week I am a little bit smarter (at least with fotography!)

*not to get off topic, but…*

I am proudly 100% self taught. It has been difficult but the rewards immeasurable. I have some learning disabilities and memory retention problems due to Epilepsy. Learning photography has been major feat for me. As without these websites, blogs, etc. and without their newsletters, I wouldn’t have a CLUE what to do nor would I have this creative outlet. (so thank you Chicks for ALL that you do to help us become more efficient, creative, for the most part self-sufficient.)

This should be the ‘norm’ when it comes to focusing. I don’t get how this would be an exception to the rule, it should BE the rule.

So, yeah, I was happy to see this come around again.

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Tori King June 7, 2012 at 8:05 pm

I would like to know what ebook you found? Thanks! :)

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Jen February 28, 2012 at 3:57 pm

I have never heard of this (though I’m just an amateur) What a helpful tip for sports/action/moving kids shots. I love learning new things about my camera :)

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bobbie March 1, 2012 at 2:11 pm

i have a 7D and it is set to bbf but is there a way to go back and forth with the bbf and the top button without resetting? can anyone tell me …one reason i would like to do that is so that my husband and grandson can use my camera sometimes . they cant get the hang of the bbf

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Erin March 1, 2012 at 2:59 pm

Bobbie, yes, you can put the BBF on the top dial just like on the 5D. Read the article I linked to above. If it’s different on the 7d, look at your manual.

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Julie April 8, 2012 at 9:19 pm

Switch to green full automatic and shutter will engage for focus again when you hand to family or a stranger to use. Works on rebel and 7d for sure. I shoot in manual w BBF but not exclusively.

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