5k & Back Button Focus

Runners smiling

Photos from my first event shooting with back button focus

For awhile I heard about this back button focus thing. It seemed confusing, and I was accustomed to focusing with the shutter button so why bother changing? Well, you know how you can hear something a million times but then someone comes along and makes it sound so simple? That’s what happened to me. I can’t remember the specific article, but I have heard it mentioned several times on the Digital Photo Experience podcast.

smiling group of runners

The standard way to focus most cameras is to push the shutter button halfway down. Once the image is in focus (usually denoted by a beep) you push the button down completely and the camera snaps a photo. Now you’re ready to take the another photo so you follow the same process. Halfway down for focus, completely down to take the photo. You can hold down the AE-L or AF-L button to hold the focus, but you can disregard this if it makes it more confusing. With back button focus you can simply snap the next photo without refocusing. (If you move the camera around, forward or back for instance, you will still need to refocus.)

woman and children running

Ok, so if I’m not using the shutter button to focus, what do I use? I’m going to refer to the settings on my Nikon D90 but this should be easy to translate to your camera. (Google or camera manual, ftw.) I used the custom settings to set the AE-L/AF-L button to focus my camera. What is the advantage of this? There are actually several. Like I mentioned earlier you don’t have to push the shutter button halfway down to focus every time. Let’s say you’re taking a series of portraits. You want to be quick and not spend your time refocusing for every shot. Another big advantage is the ability to shoot still or moving objects. You’re sitting in the park. You think to yourself, “Oh look at the way the light is hitting that beautiful tree. I simply must have a photo to commemorate this special occasion.” Hit the AE-L button to focus and snap away. “Oh look, a pretty birdie is hopping around the tree. I simply must capture the spirit of this bird. It’s flying straight at me!” Hold down the AE-L button, follow the bird, and snap away. The focus is now in continuous mode, tracking the subject, and continuously changing the focus. Voila, you are able to switch quickly between still and active subjects without having to change any settings. Yay!

Girls smiling at 5k race

They are stoked about back button focus

Now back button focus isn’t the end all be all. It really depends on what works for you. I recommend practicing on your own time. Old habits are hard to break, and you don’t want to miss focus on an important client shoot. Try it at least a few times before you decide whether or not this method is for you.

A few issues I ran into that caused the camera not to focus… 1. The AF setting accidentally got bumped from AF-C (continuous) to AF-A. 2. I bought a new grip for vertical images and forgot to change the settings specifically for the grip.

Do you prefer back button or traditional focus? Does anyone know if there is a setting to make the camera beep once achieving focus using the BBF method? The beep provides reassurance to my anxiety ridden soul.


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