Back Button Focusing - Jason Lau

11/02/2015 1:37 pm


Why You Need to Try This Focusing Technique

There are many reasons I enjoy revisiting my old manual film cameras but one of the main ones is the way it forces me to manually focus my image. Something wonderful happens when I do this — I start to see my viewfinder more as a canvas rather than a spotting-scope. Instead of pressing my shutter button to focus and shoot, these functions are separated. This allows me to be more creative with my compositions, as once my image was focused I was free to reframe and shoot multiple shots without worrying about my lens refocusing somewhere else.

Jason Lau - Back Button Focusing

Unfortunately, manual focussing can sometimes be slow and inaccurate, especially shooting with wide apertures, and modern lenses don’t tend to have the same feeling of movement. Luckily most modern DSLR cameras have a separate focusing button at the back of the camera. Normally located at the top right section at the rear of the camera, this button when pressed engages the autofocus function, leaving the shutter to capture pictures. Didn’t know this? Perhaps it’s a hidden function yet to be discovered.

How To Do This

I predominantly shoot with Canon gear and most if not all Canon EOS DSLRs have his function. The prosumer and pro cameras have a separate AF-ON button while their consumer range have this function available as a custom function. Nikons are similar in this respect and some other brands offer this function too. Check your instructions and you may be surprised how easy it is to enable this function and take greater control of your focusing.

Once you have this function enabled, using your thumb, simply press and hold the button down to focus your image and shoot with your shutter button. To refocus, just let go of the autofocus button and press it again. As long as your thumb is holding down the back button, autofocus is disabled on your shutter button. If you choose to ignore that back button the shutter button will function as normal.


As mentioned earlier, not jumping into autofocus every time you press the shutter button means that you can be more in tune with what you are capturing, allowing you to be more courageous and creative in the way images are composed. With your subject off centre. Capturing that decisive moment is more immediate as you are waiting for one less function to occur. Shooting moving subjects can be easier too as you can start focus tracking them without worrying that you are going to accidentally take a shot.

Your camera is not a gun and it doesn’t have to be used as a point and shoot. Back button focusing takes time to adjust to, but once mastered, it becomes very natural to think about your focus and shooting separately. It can speed up your shooting because you don’t have to wait for the camera to refocus every time you shoot a photograph. Most photographers I know who have switched to this method have not switched back. Give this technique a go and hopefully you will start seeing your scenes as compositions rather than targets.

Jason Lau - Back Button Focusing

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I have a Canon EOS 60D which has the AF-ON button as illustrated. I have tried to follow the instructions in the paragraphs above the picture, but I can't make it work. The camera insists on refocusing whether or not I am holding the AF-ON button or not, and whether or not I have the shutter release button pressed half down. On my previous camera I could use the auto focus, and them simply hold the shutter release half way, and move the camera without it refocusing. I would love to able to do this with the 60D.
Comment by Charles Rowland - 16/04/2015 9:14 pm
Check your custom function menu
Menu #4 (operations/others)
Sub menu #1 (AF & meter buttons)
Your camera may be set on number 8
Where the AF-on button has no function.
Change it to number 1 and it should work.
Comment by Mark Griffiths - 26/04/2015 9:05 am
Are you sure you don't have your camera in servo mode?
Comment by Roy Barnes - 1/05/2015 8:26 pm
Hi Charles
After read your comments I immediately took my 60D out to try it and found it worked fine. I checked the manual which said on page 40 that I needed to be in a creative mode for it to work. I was in AV and it seemed to work fine. Hope this works for you, Tony
Comment by Tony - 2/05/2015 5:47 pm

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