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Back Button Focus Explained

Updated: Aug 9, 2023


Back Button Focus

Welcome to the fascinating world of photography where technical nuances can dramatically transform your images. One such game-changing technique, often overlooked by both amateurs and professionals alike, is the back button focus (BBF).


In the bustling landscape of photo-shoot settings, knowing where and when to focus can make all the difference between a good shot and a masterpiece. That's where BBF comes into play, offering a level of control and precision that standard shutter release focus struggles to match. This method reshuffles your camera's control scheme, thus fundamentally changing the way you approach your shots.


However, the transition to using BBF can feel a bit tricky, as it requires deviating from what most photographers have been accustomed to. But once mastered, it promises a world of creative opportunities that can significantly enhance the quality of your work. I hope that this article will give you a greater understanding of back button focus.


I am RayCee the Artist, a professional portrait photographer and event photographer, and if you would like to schedule a photoshoot with me, please contact me at raycee@rayceeartist.com!


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Understanding the Basics


Back Button Focus

To fully appreciate the impact of back button focus (BBF), it's important to grasp the basics of focusing in photography. Traditionally, when you half-press the shutter button on your camera, two primary functions are initiated. First, the camera activates autofocus, which locks the focus on your subject. Secondly, the camera sets the exposure by measuring the light in your frame. Once these processes are complete, you can fully press the shutter button to take the photo.


This standard configuration works effectively in many situations. However, there can be scenarios where you might want to disconnect the act of focusing from the shutter button to gain more control. That's where BBF comes into the picture.


In the BBF setup, the focus activation is reassigned from the shutter button to a dedicated button on the rear of the camera. With BBF enabled, pressing the shutter button only controls exposure and captures the image, whereas the back button solely handles focusing. This means that the camera will only refocus when you press the back button, not when you press the shutter button.


The basic premise behind BBF is quite simple, but it fundamentally alters the way you interact with your camera. Instead of relying on a single button for two tasks, you now have separate controls for focusing and shooting. This separation of functions can offer increased flexibility and precision, enhancing your ability to respond to different shooting conditions and subjects. However, as with any technique, it's essential to practice and get comfortable with the new control scheme to make the most of BBF.


Advantages of Using Back Button Focus


Back Button Focus

Back button focus (BBF) has several key advantages that can be a boon to photographers in various shooting scenarios. These advantages largely stem from the separation of focusing and shooting onto two distinct buttons, providing increased control and adaptability.


Focus Lock


One of the main benefits of BBF is the capacity to lock the focus. Once you've focused on a subject using the back button, the camera will maintain that focus for all subsequent shots, as long as you don't press the back button again. This feature can be particularly useful in situations where you want to focus and recompose your shot, or when your subject remains at a consistent distance from the camera.


Efficiency in Tracking Moving Subjects


Furthermore, BBF can enhance the efficiency of tracking moving subjects. In continuous focus mode, the camera will keep adjusting focus as long as the back button is held down. This continuous tracking of your subject can improve the sharpness of your images in action or wildlife photography.


Reduction of Inadvertent Refocusing


Another advantage lies in the reduction of inadvertent refocusing. With the traditional half-press method, there's a chance that the camera might refocus when you press the shutter button to take the shot. This risk is eliminated with BBF, as the camera will not attempt to refocus unless the back button is pressed.


Streamlining the Shooting Process


Finally, BBF can streamline the shooting process in scenarios where you're using a tripod and your composition is not changing, like in landscape or still life photography. You can set the focus once using the back button and then take multiple shots without the camera trying to refocus each time you press the shutter button.


However, while these advantages make a compelling case for BBF, it's important to remember that it's not a one-size-fits-all solution. The value of BBF largely depends on your shooting style, your subjects, and the specific conditions in which you are photographing.

When to Use Back Button Focus


Back Button Focus

Choosing when to use back button focus (BBF) can greatly depend on the photographer's unique style, preference, and the specific shooting conditions. There are certain situations and scenarios where BBF can be particularly advantageous.


One such scenario is in the realm of sports or wildlife photography, where subjects are constantly on the move. In these situations, BBF can be used with continuous autofocus mode to maintain a sharp focus on moving subjects. The back button can be held down to keep tracking the subject's movement without worrying about refocusing every time a photo is taken.


Similarly, BBF can be an asset for event or street photography. These environments often involve dynamic scenes where subjects move in and out of the frame. By using BBF, you can maintain your focus for several shots without the camera refocusing each time you press the shutter button.


BBF can also shine in portrait or still life photography, where the subject's distance from the camera remains constant. Once the focus is locked using the back button, you can freely recompose and capture the shot without the risk of unintentional refocusing.


When photographing landscapes, BBF can be beneficial for setting a hyperfocal distance or focusing on a specific element in the scene. Once the focus is set, you can take multiple shots, confident that the focus will remain consistent.


However, it's worth noting that BBF may not always be the optimal choice. For instance, in situations where speed is crucial and there's no time to adjust, the simplicity of the half-press shutter focus may prove more convenient. Additionally, for photographers who are just starting out and are still becoming familiar with their camera's basic operations, introducing BBF might add an unnecessary layer of complexity. As always, it's essential to consider your own comfort level and the demands of your particular shooting scenario when deciding whether to use BBF.


How to Set Up Back Button Focus


Back Button Focus

Setting up back button focus (BBF) is a relatively straightforward process, although the exact steps can vary depending on your camera model and brand. Regardless of the specifics, the general goal is to reassign the autofocus function from the shutter button to a button on the back of the camera.


For most DSLR and mirrorless cameras, the process usually involves navigating through the camera's menu system. Start by going into your camera's custom settings menu. Look for an option related to autofocus, which is sometimes labeled as "AF activation" or "Shutter/AF-ON priority". Once you've located this option, change the setting so that autofocus is only activated by the AF-ON button (or a similarly labeled button, such as AE-L/AF-L), not by the shutter button.


Next, you'll want to disable the autofocus function from the shutter button. This setting is often found under a "Shutter button AE-L" option or something similar, depending on your camera model. Change this setting so that the shutter button only controls the exposure lock and capturing the image.


It's worth mentioning that some cameras may not have a dedicated AF-ON button. In such cases, you can often assign the autofocus function to another button on the back of the camera. This reassignment can typically be done through the custom settings menu.


After setting up BBF, remember to practice using it before heading out for important shoots. It will take some time to get used to the new button configuration, so be patient with yourself during this learning period. If you're ever unsure about the process or encounter issues while setting up BBF, it's always a good idea to refer to your camera's user manual or consult with fellow photographers who have experience with this technique.


Tips and Tricks for Mastering Back Button Focus


Back Button Focus

Mastering back button focus (BBF) can provide a noticeable improvement to your photographic technique, but it requires practice and familiarity. Here are a few tips and tricks to help you navigate this transition and use BBF more effectively.


Practice Regularly


The shift to BBF can feel awkward initially, as it involves breaking long-established habits. To build new muscle memory, practice focusing with the back button regularly until it becomes instinctive. Start by practicing with stationary objects, then gradually move on to more dynamic subjects.


Understand Your Subject


BBF's effectiveness can vary depending on the subject and scenario. For subjects that move unpredictably, such as children or animals, BBF with continuous autofocus can be a great asset. For stationary subjects, like in landscape or portrait photography, BBF can help you set focus once and shoot multiple times without worrying about refocusing.


Explore Your Camera's Customization Options


Some cameras allow you to customize the back button focus feature. Explore these options and tailor the settings to suit your shooting style and the conditions you're working in.


Remember, It's a Tool


Back button focus is just another tool in your photographic toolkit. It's not a magic bullet that will instantly improve your photos. Remember to evaluate the shooting scenario and decide whether BBF or the traditional shutter focus method will yield the best results.


Switch Focus Modes When Necessary


Back button focus can be used with both single and continuous autofocus modes. For stationary subjects, using it with single autofocus mode allows you to lock the focus until you decide to change it. For moving subjects, using it with continuous autofocus allows you to keep adjusting the focus as the subject moves.


Keep Experimenting


Lastly, don't be afraid to experiment. The best way to get comfortable with BBF is to use it in a variety of shooting situations. Over time, you'll develop a sense of when to use BBF and when to opt for other focusing methods.


As with any new technique, mastering BBF may take time. However, with patience and consistent practice, it can become a valuable addition to your photography skill set.


Real-Life Examples of Back Button Focus Usage


Back Button Focus

To truly comprehend the practical applications of back button focus (BBF), it's helpful to consider real-world examples. Let's delve into some scenarios where BBF has proven beneficial for photographers:


Wildlife Photography


Wildlife photographers often have to track moving subjects, such as birds in flight or animals on the move. In such cases, BBF can be used with continuous autofocus to keep the subject in sharp focus. For instance, a photographer capturing a bird in flight could hold down the back button to continuously adjust the focus as the bird moves, ensuring clear, sharp images throughout the bird's flight path.


Portrait Photography


When taking a portrait, the photographer often focuses on the subject's eyes. With BBF, the photographer can lock focus on the eyes and then recompose the frame as needed without worrying about the camera refocusing when the shutter button is pressed. This technique is especially useful when using a shallow depth of field, where slight shifts in focus can significantly affect the image.


Sports Photography


In fast-paced sports events, athletes are constantly moving, and capturing sharp images can be challenging. Using BBF with continuous autofocus allows the photographer to track the movement of the players and keep them in focus, regardless of their speed or direction.


Street Photography


Street photography often involves unpredictable movements and compositions. A street photographer might use BBF to prefocus at a certain distance, then wait for a subject to move into the frame to take the shot, ensuring sharp images without needing to refocus each time.


Landscape Photography


When photographing landscapes, a photographer might use BBF to focus on a specific element in the scene. Once the focus is set using the back button, the photographer can take multiple shots knowing the focus will remain consistent, even if different exposure settings are used for each shot.


Low Light Photography


In low light scenarios, achieving sharp focus can be tricky as cameras often struggle to focus due to inadequate light. This is where Back Button Focus (BBF) can be invaluable. With BBF, you can manually focus once using the back button, locking the focus in for the entirety of your shoot. This prevents continuous refocusing in low light conditions, allowing for better control over your shots. Whether capturing cityscapes at twilight or shooting a dimly lit event, BBF can help maintain sharp focus amidst challenging lighting conditions, ensuring your images remain crisp and well-defined.


Conclusion


Back button focus (BBF) is a powerful tool that can offer photographers enhanced control and flexibility in their focus strategy. The ability to separate the focus function from the shutter can be a game-changer in various scenarios, from dynamic wildlife to static portraits. However, it's not a one-size-fits-all solution. The effectiveness of BBF depends on the photographer's style, comfort, and shooting conditions.


Mastering BBF requires practice and understanding. Like any new technique, it may feel unfamiliar at first, but with time and patience, it can become a valuable addition to your photographic repertoire. Remember, photography is about exploration and continuous learning, so keep pushing your creative boundaries. Whether you choose to embrace BBF or stick with the traditional half-press focus, the goal remains the same: to capture the world around you in the most beautiful and meaningful way possible.


I am RayCee the Artist, a professional portrait photographer and event photographer, and if you would like to schedule a photoshoot with me, please contact me at raycee@rayceeartist.com!


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