AF-On And Back Button Autofocus

Posted on by Steve

Try a better way to focus your DSLR! Using back button autofocus is a faster, easier, smarter way to get great AF results from your DSLR. This video will show you how AF modes work – and why decoupling autofocus from your shutter release can take your photography to a whole new level.

This method works both for camera with a dedicated AF-ON button or by reassigning a button on the back of your camera for autofocus.

 

 

Follow Up Notes and FAQ

This turned out to be a really popular topic and I’ve had quite a few questions come in regarding this technique. So, I’ve put together some notes and a few commonly asked questions that should make the transition from shutter release AF to back button AF much easier.

 

Q:
When I try this technique on my Nikon, I focus and recompose, but my camera won’t fire. The only way I can get the camera to take a picture is if the AF point is right over the spot that I focused on.

A:
This behavior occurs when the camera is set to “Focus Priority” for AF-C under the custom functions menu. By default, most cameras will use what’s called “Release Priority” when they are switched to AF-C mode, so most users will not run into this issue.

However, sometimes a camera is set to “Focus Priority”, meaning the camera will ONLY fire if it has a 100% focus lock under the current AF point. This behavior is fine when you’re locking in focus with the shutter release or you happen to have the AF point right smack dab on the area where you want to focus. However, with Back Button AF it causes an issue since you can no longer focus, recompose, and shoot (the AF point may no longer be over an area that’s in sharp focus).

So, make sure your AF-C focus Priority is set to “Release” under your custom menu. Usually it’s the first option for most Nikon cameras.

 

Q:
With shutter button AF, my VR was activated when I pressed partway down on the shutter release to focus. When I use the back button, VR no longer activates when I focus. How do I handle this?

A:
The answer to this is going to depend on your camera. If you have a newer Nikon body (like a D800 / D4 etc), using the back AF-On button will actually activate VR. For older cameras, it’s only activated with a half press of the shutter release.

However, don’t let that stop you!

I used this method a long time before it was linked with the shutter AF-On button on the back of the camera. In fact, I prefer VR to be available with a half press (it still is with newer cameras, it’s just been added to the AF-On button).

The reason I prefer it with a half press of the shutter release is that I can keep VR active before the action starts. This is critical since VR needs a few seconds to stabilize before you start shooting. If you simply focus and shoot at the same instant – before VF has had a chance to stabilize – you’ve lost all the benefit of using it. So, use your back button to AF, and hold halfway down on the shutter release until and wait for that perfect moment. Then, just a little extra presser from your finger snaps the shot.

 

Q:
What about using dynamic AF? Like d9, d21, or 3d tracking?

A:
No worries – it works exactly the same as if you were using your shutter release for AF. The next question is why / how to use those dynamic AF tracking modes, but that’ll be another video. (hint – most people should probably start with 21pt)

 

Q:
My camera used to beep for focus confirmation, now it’s not doing it – what happened?

A:
Unfortunately, this is one downside of this method, you’ll no longer get that focus confirmation beep. However, I’ve learned to keep an eye on the AF confirmation dot in the viewfinder and have never really missed the beep. Besides, for the most part you can see if the subject is in focus or not right in the viewfinder. Old school style :)

 

Q:
Do you always focus with just the center AF point and recompose?

A:
Nope, I did it that way for the video to keep things nice and simple, but most of the time my recommendation is to select the AF point that the closest to the spot you’d like to focus on. Sometimes you get lucky and you’re able to put the AF point right over the area you want to focus on, other times you’ll need to recompose, but at least it’s a minimal amount. Either way, this method has worked great for me.

 

Q:
Are there any limitations when using flash units?

A:
Under normal circumstances, no, this works just like shutter release AF. However, this is one exception to the rule and that’s if you use the AF Assist Illumination feature – this method doesn’t support it (at least with Nikon).

 

Q:
Why do all these questions seem to involve Nikon cameras? What about Canon?

A:
Unfortunately, I don’t own any Canon cameras at this time, so I can only speak to what I know about the Nikons and encourage Canon users to apply the concepts to their cameras. I do plan on getting a Canon body down the road for instructional purposes.



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64 Responses to AF-On And Back Button Autofocus

  1. Maria Sacadura says:

    Thanks for your video but as I nolonger have Canon ou Nikon Cameras I would like your help to use the back button on my Fuji X-E1. Should I use the Continuous foccus? I’m afraid of doing something wrong and be unnable to correct afterwards.Thanks in advance for your help.

    • Steve says:

      Hi Maria –

      Sorry, I’m not familiar with the fuji, so I can’t get too specific. However, I can tell you for sure that any camera will need to be set to continuous in order for this to work. Hope this helps :)

      ~Steve

  2. Maurice Prokaziuk says:

    I am using the AF-ON button for focusing on my nikon D7100 and I love it. My only issue is when I use my battery pack the AF-ON doesn’t work on my battery pack, the focusing reverts back to the shutter button. Is there something I am missing in the setup?

    • Steve says:

      Hi Maurice –

      Hmm – not sure on that one – I don’t have a D7100. I wonder (and am guessing) maybe there’s a separate menu setting for the grip – in fact, I seem to remember something like that when I had my D7000 and a grip. Wish I still had it, I could figure this out, but take a look at the custom settings menu a little closer, I’m guessing it’s there.

      ~Steve

      • Sam Feinstein says:

        When you attach a battery grip, the option to assign this function will appear in your menu system under “Controls” on the Custom Settings menu. Just assign “AF On” to the button on your grip. This applies to all Nikon cameras that accept a grip, as far as I know. Look for the model of your battery grip in the menu (such as “Assign MB-D11 AE-L/AF-L”) and that’s where you make the change.

  3. Denny Larrisey says:

    I have a nikon d7000 an would like to know if i use the back button focus method, if I am following a moving object,do I keep the af button pressed when I take the shot? or release af button then take shot? many thanks.

  4. Denny Larrisey says:

    Hi Steve, I have a Nikon d7000 and I have assigned the AE/L AF/L button so I can use it as a back button focus.When I focus then re-compose,the camera will not fire.I have set the focus priority to RELEASE but it still wont fire.Help.

  5. Denny Larrisey says:

    Update, I forgot to set the camera to af c on the camera itself.I have done this and all working fine now, many thanks Steve.

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  7. Bill Sotak says:

    Steve,
    My Nikon D5100 and I must be missing something here. I’ve set the AE-L/AF-L button to AF-ON, the Focus Mode to AF-C, and the shutter to Release – as posted. Wnen I press the now AF-ON button, my focus point lights up RED as usual. Then, I release the buttonto supposedly lock that focus on the specific subject. However, when I recompose and press the shutter, the focus point lights red on a different spot. When I checked my focus point on test photos into View NX2, the focus point is NOT what I focused on with the AF-ON button. There MUST be something else I have to do.
    Need some help on this one as I like the idea of B Button Focus. Thanks!

    • Steve says:

      Hi Bill –

      I’m not overly familiar with the 5100 (my wife has a 5000), but I’ll take a guess. The only thing I can think of is if the 5100 is on one of the full auto or scene modes – I think this only works properly when it’s in Program, Aperture Priority, etc.

      • Bill Sotak says:

        Steve,
        More about my issue with BBF.

        For some reason, I cannot recompose after pressing BBF Button-as red focus light still comes on when I press shutter 1/2 way down after recomposing. It seems I need to find a way to cancel shutter focusing so BBF will work the way I want.

        I believe I’ll have to follow the following steps as opposed to focusing, holding BBF and recomposing.

        Step 1: Find best composition.
        Step 2: Move one of the 11 focus points appropriately.
        Step 3: Press BBF Button & release to lock focus.
        Step 4: Press shutter all the way.

        Bill Sotak

      • Bill Sotak says:

        Steve-per Nikon Support “Thank you for contacting Nikon. When using the AE/AF button on your D5100 the exposure settings will lock (aperture, shutter speed, and ISO). However, this camera will not allow you to lock the focus point by pressing the AE/AF lock button.”

        I am truly disappointed as I thought this was a very cool focusing method. Oh well. By the way-You probably should change your video as the heading references D-5100 even though you say D-5000.

    • Mark Keohane says:

      This may be all a bit late but I’ll post anyway. I have a D5000 and was keen to set this up for back-button focusing; the short story is – as Nikon confirmed for the 5100 – that it doesn’t work as a true AF-ON button does; you can’t focus and recompose as you would with AF-ON. I’m a big AF-ON fan; I have since moved on to a D300s and D700 now (both have AF-ON) and wouldn’t use any other focus method. It’s brilliant. Matter of fact, lack of AF-ON would be a deal-breaker for me, even on those cameras where the AF-ON can be assigned (e.g. D750).

      Happy shooting.

      • Bruce Perrault says:

        This may be helpful also. I have a D5100 and have been using it set as AF-ON. All you need to do is set it to AF-ON in the custom f2 menu. The red light still comes on for the chosen focus point when you press the shutter, but it does not affect focus. It does show which point you have active if you have spot focus assigned, which I frequently use.

        Trying experimenting in M mode and make the farthest focus point from the center active and move it over a black area and notice the exposure meter fluctuate. This has no effect on exposure in manual mode as you set your exposure based on spotmeter readings that you take in the viewfinder. The red light just shows that point is active.

        Granted if you use other than the M mode (A, S or P) it will readjust your exposure, but has no effect on focus. When you hold the AF-ON button down it will continually focus as you move around the scene, but let off and it stops focusing and you can take a picture even if it is out of focus, sort of like MF. This was brought out in the video. Anyway, try this and see how it works for you.

  8. Bill Sotak says:

    Steve-I do have it in aperture priority.

  9. al gould says:

    Can I get a written copy of these instructions?

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  11. sephen hughes says:

    hi very new to this had a stroke on my left side but just love photography
    this may sound silly but does the af -on button act as a shutter realease
    as well or does it just help focus

  12. irwin lakin says:

    steve, i have the canon t4i and will set it up for BBF. I like to shoot images of hummingbirds at my feeder. Is bbf a good option to take these bird images as they move pretty fast over the flight of a seagull etc.Any special instructions here for taking them using BBF? Thanks!!

    • Steve says:

      Hi Irwin –

      I use it exclusively, no matter how fast my subject. Once you get used to it, you’ll probably find it’s actually faster to use the front button AF – at least that’s been my experience. A few weeks of practice and you’ll never look back.
      ~Steve

  13. Wilson says:

    Hi Steve, first of all great article, thanks for the great tips. I do want to ask about metering while using AF-ON button for auto focus. When using spot or center-weighted and using AF Continuous to track the moving subject. It appears that the metering uses the first focus point for metering and does not move with the focus point when the subject moves. So in the case of high contrast subject and background, the metering might be off while the subject was successfully tracked by AF. How do you get around this issue so that the AF and AE points are in sync (i.e. metering on the correct subject along with auto focus)? Thanks.

    • Steve says:

      Hi Wilson –

      To be honest, I usually use matrix / evaluative metering, but the moment I see an issue, I’m pretty quick to just shoot manual and avoid the whole problem. Years ago I’d mess with spot and centerweighted (OK, years ago we ONLY had centerweighted), but I just don’t use it that much for the exact reasons you cite. Just easier to shoot manual, you just need to keep an eye on the light and change your settings as it changes.

  14. cj says:

    Love using this method of composing, but recently ran into a problem. My camera in AF-C mode, will not allow me to select a different focus point. Up until a few days ago it was functioning normally. All other functions of the camera are fine. Curious is this could be a firmware issue, or possibly something more. Any tips or info would be appreciated.

  15. Prabir Birr Sen says:

    Focusing on the bear’s eye and releasing the AF-ON button .. that’s fine. But what about locking the exposure?

    • Steve says:

      Really depends. Personally, I do one of two things. If the exposure isn’t changing as I shoot, I’ll leave it in Aperture Priority and dial in exposure comp as needed. If the meter is jumping around due to tricky exposure conditions though, I’ll just switch to manual exposure. With wildlife, you’re usually wide open or close to it, so really the only thing you’re adjusting is the shutter speed, so no biggie.

  16. Bruno says:

    Steve, I have been using your AF-ON tip for months now but when I rotate my camera in portrait mode to use my MB-D12 battery grip on my Nikon D800, my focus point keeps jumping around during exposure and as such I can not place it where I need to using the AF-C mode. My exposure mode is always MATRIX and my shooting mode is MANUAL so any idea what could be causing this and how I can resolve it?
    Cheers,

    • Steve says:

      Hmm – that’s bizarre. AF-On shouldn’t make any difference when it comes to AF points. The only thing I can think of is maybe your AF points are set to 3D or something. Try it with single point AF and see if it still does it. I use this method on my D8XX bodies all the time, sometimes with the grip, and never have run across this. Very odd.

  17. Robert lennon says:

    Hi
    Thanks for the tip looks interesting will give it a go for a couple of weeks to see how it works out
    Rob

  18. Bayou Bill says:

    When I tried BBAF shooting sports with my D7000 set to single-point autofocus I found that I was constantly moving my thumb to the control wheel to change the focus point and I couldn’t get it back to the AE-L/AF-L quickly enough to set the focus. What was I doing wrong?

    • Steve says:

      Hi Bill –

      This is one drawback using this method – you have to anticipate where you need your AF point. In doing most of my wildlife work, I find that I can reliably predict where I need my AF point to be at any given time and can easily jump to it between focusing. However, it does become tricker on more unpredictable subjects.

      The other thing is it really does take some practice to get used to it. First time out, most people are all thumbs (OK, my first few WEEKS out I was missing shots lol).

      Also, keep in mind that it’s simply a tool – for some people it works out great, others are really better off with shutter release AF. However, I’d give yourself a little more time with it before deciding if you just started using it.

      Hope this helps –
      Steve

      • Bayou Bill says:

        Thanks. Shooting high school football for the last couple of weeks, I have just set my focus point to one-up from the center position (“chest high”) with a 21-pt focus area and used BBAF. Got some good results, so I’ll stick with it for a while.

  19. Gary says:

    Hi I have a canon t5i when I take pictures in church they look orange, could you please tell me why. I am taking church pictures this Sunday Sep. 29 and i need help
    Thanks very much Gary

    • Steve says:

      It sounds like you have your white balance set wrong. Most of the time Auto WB works just fine for that situation. Are you set to maybe cloudy or incandescent? That would make things more orange. I’d recommend going into the church and taking some test shots at different white balance settings and see which looks the best.

      I hope I got to this one in time – I think you need it today form you post!

      ~Steve

  20. Jennifer Guerini says:

    Hi Steve – I have a Canon 5d iii and have just started using bbf. I shoot families walking/running away from and towards me. Just to clarify, as long I have my thumb on the AF-on button, it will keep focusing – correct? When I want to shoot the image, do I keep my thumb pressed on the AF-on button AND push the shutter release or do I let go of the AF-on button and push the shutter release button? Also I am a little confused about shooting in continuous with this. Should I be changing the focus/release priority? Thank you!

    • Steve says:

      Hi Jennifer –

      Sorry for the delay in getting back to you – I’ve been out on a photo trip and just now got back to my comments.

      To answer your question, yes, keep pressing the af-on button to track someone coming towards you. Also, keep the AF-On button pressed in as you shoot any type of shot where you need to track the subject (the subject is in motion). If you lift up, the camera stops focusing and the shot won’t be sharp if the subject continues to move. So, use them together. Now, if the subject isn’t moving, focus, take your finger off the AF-On button, and then shoot.

      For Nikon, I know it does need to be in release priority, so I’d say the same for Canon. As for continuous, are you referring to servo on your Canon? If so, yes, that’s the correct mode. If you’re referring to contentious frame advance, it works just fine in any frame advance mode.

      Hope this helps :)
      ~Steve

  21. Jennifer Guerini says:

    Thank you so much for the information – I think this will help a lot!

  22. John Blackwood says:

    I have switched to the back button to focus and one thing that confused me at first was the continuous focus mode. An example may help illustrate where I was confused and lost some shots. I was taking shots of my grandchildren. One was close and the other a bit closer. I focused on the one furthest away, held the button down and took a picture. All is fine so far; now without releasing the button I moved the focus point to the nearer child and never released the focus button. The second child was out of focus. Am I correct that the AF-C only works when the original subject moves and not the camera?

    • Steve says:

      Hi John –

      As long as you’re pressing the AF-On button, the camera will focus on whatever is under the active AF point or area. If you release the button, the camera will no longer focus and the distance will stay locked in. However, if you or the subject moves, the camera will not require focus until you activate the AF-On button again.

      Think of it like a manual focus lens. When you press the button, it’s like you’re turning the focus ring. When you’re not pressing AF-On, it’s like having your fingers off the focus ring.

      Hope that helps

      ~Steve

      • John Blackwood says:

        I think my problem was more user error than anything else. In my zeal to keep up with running children while changing the focal length I may have neglected to keep the back button pushed. When I tried it again over the weekend in a calmer setting all worked fine. I just got a D750 and want to experiment with the different Area options as well. I still long for the day when I feel at home with the controls like I was with the F4 and to some extent the D90.

  23. Charleen says:

    not a reply but a question….been using BBF (Nikon D7100) all set up as per your guidance…but am finding I cannot move my focus square? Is anyone else experiencing this and can you enlighten me please?

    • Steve says:

      Hi Charleen –

      That’s really odd. The only thing I know of that causes that is if the “lock” is turned on with the little switch on the multi-selecton button on the back.

  24. Shawn says:

    Hi Steve,

    I have my back button focus functionality set. However, I am on AF-S as opposed to AF-C. The problem that I have with setting the back button focus on AF-C is that, when I have my AF-C Selection on Focus priority, it still takes a shot whether or not I am in focus. I am using the Nikon D810 and I would like my back button AF to work with AF-C selection on Focus priority. How do I do that?

    Regards,
    Shawn

    • Steve says:

      Hi Shawn –

      Unfortunately, this technique doesn’t work that way. In order for it to work properly, you have to have the camera set to release priority. If you don’t, then you can’t focus and recompose since what’s under the AF point may no longer be in focus, even though the initial spot you focus on still is.

      Hope that helps – let me know

      ~Steve

  25. J Carrasco says:

    Steve, I have a Nikon D600 and I configured it to use Af-On, following your directions. I tried using it on a stationary object and I was unable to lock focus using the AE-L AF-L button. I pressed the button once after I got focus confirmation. When I removed my finger from the button, it loses focus. How do I get the focus to stay locked? I am still showing the button trying to focus.

    J Carrasco

    • Steve says:

      I’m not sure I completely understand what’s going on. Once you release the back button, the focus distance should stay locked. If the subject moves, you’ll need to reacquire focus – or if it’s a moving subject, you’ll have to keep your finger on the button.

      Does that help?

      ~Steve

      • J Carrasco says:

        Steve, thank you for responding. I want to clarify my initial question.

        With the D600 configured to AF-ON and shooting a stationary object through the viewfinder, I press the AF-ON button and confirm that focus is achieved through the green dot on my viewfinder (although the green dots blinks). When I release the button, the green dot disappears. I then recompose and shoot. Is the focus still locked when I recompose and shoot so long as the distance has not changed?

        Also, when I press the shutter I notice that the green dot on my viewfinder comes back on. Is this a signal that the focus is still active? or is this indicating something different?

        Thank you for your help. Your article and responses to questions on this topic are very helpful.

        J Carrasco

  26. Haig Hachadoorian says:

    Steve,

    I have been using Back Button Focus on my D300 and D3s for years now and it is a great method. However I have yet to find a remote trigger (wireless or wired) that will focus the camera and then release the shutter. I have tried several, and all that they will do is release the shutter without focusing the camera. Do you know of a remote trigger that will both focus and release the shutter?

    • Steve says:

      There are none that I know of. You always have to set it back to shutter release focus for the remote to focus. I think the reason is that the button on your release is a replacement for your shutter release and behaves the same way. So, if your shutter release is set to focus, you can focus. If it’s only set to release the shutter, that’s all your remote will do.

      - as far as I know :)

  27. Mediaman says:

    Having a little issue setting up back button focus on my 5100. I have:
    – The A1 control on AF-C Priority/Release
    – The F2 control on AF-ON, and
    – AE Area-mode on Single Point AF

    What’s happening is:
    1) the i-button display is still showing AF-A ; its supposed to show AF-C per the video at 8:45 . If I try to manually highlight and change AF-A it via the i-button menu, it only offers me AF-A or Manual.
    2) The camera is behaving like its in back button mode ( ie it does indeed focus with the back button on not a half press of the shutter)….however in liveview, it is in the default (non back-button) mode, focusing with the half press.

    Did I miss a key step somewhere??

  28. Dave says:

    I have been trying the Back Button Focus method on my D300. I have read that with VR lenses on this camera, the back button will not activate the VR. The shutter must be pressed 1/2 way down to activate the VR. If I do this, will the camera maintain the focus point I chose with the back button or will it refocus based on the position of the focus point when I activated the VR?

    THanks

    • Steve says:

      Hi again Dave :)

      Once you have it setup for back button AF, the only time the camera should change focus is when you press the back button. I had a D300 and D3 and would use the half press with VR method all the time with back button AF. No worries.

      Have fun!

      ~Steve

  29. Mark Nicholson says:

    Just started using bbf. Only problem I have is the button sticks sometimes. Can I put a tiny drop of silicone lube on it or do I need to have my D300 repaired?

  30. Mark Nicholson says:

    Thanks Steve. I found some one that was having the same problem with a Cannon. They used a q-tip and alcohol dabbing and working the button wich made the problem go away. Funny thing is I have had this camera for years and just now started using bbf, it may have been covered under warranty if I had used it before now. I think I am going to try the Cannon users tip. Maybe I just got some dirt in there. I live in the desert so there is always dust and other debri in the air. Thanks for the VR tip too, should make my action shots better.

  31. Jane says:

    Steve: Without question the best explanation, video and response to questions of ANYONE who has tried to explain BBF. I have been using this method for over a year and it does require practice. However, I still have some questions and technique problems.. So, here’s the question I still struggle with. Should I be using the the center focus point locked position using the little lever, focus on what I want and then recompose. Or, would it be better to set my focus point using the selectors to move around that initial focus point. Seems if I am going to recompose it wouldn’t matter. Thanks for your reply. Jane

    • Steve says:

      Hi Jane –

      Thanks for the kind words. Personally, I move my AF point around as I need – usually as close to the eye as possible (most of the time I have it right on the eye).

      Focus and recompose can work, but I prefer to get the AF point to the right spot whenever I can.

      Hope that helps :)
      ~Steve

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  33. Cristin says:

    Hi, I have a D3300, and I’m confused lol. I don’t appear to have an option in my menu to set the camera to focus priority or release priority, and was running into the issue of it not taking a picture, even when it appears in focus. Also, I have two focus mode sections, and one of them doesn’t offer AF-C. The BBF only seems to work when I have my LV focus mode set to AF-S (as AF-C isn’t even an option when I’m in LV). I’m new to photography, so if it sounds like I don’t know what I’m talking about, that very well could be the case lol

    • Steve says:

      A quick look at a PDF camera manual for it shows that it does support AF-C (p74). However, there is a note on that page that says the camera will only release if the camera has a focus lock – so it actually looks like this method may not work as described in the video with a D3300. At least that’s how it appears to me – perhaps an owner of a d3300 will chime in as well.

      ~Steve

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