For most photographers, focusing the camera is intrinsically linked with half-pressing the shutter button. But there is another way to focus, which many photographers swear by. It’s called back button focusing. In this guide, we’re going to look at how it works and what it can do for your photography.
What many people don’t realise, particularly if they’ve only ever used digital cameras, is that the inclusion of autofocus on cameras is a relatively modern concept only introduced in the mid-1980s. The most common way of focusing a camera (and what we know as manual focus today) was by adjusting the focusing ring on the lens of a camera. Minolta were the first manufacturer to introduce autofocus that was built into the shutter button and the concept took off.
On modern DSLRs you’ll find a huge number of autofocus points – up to 63 on some models. There are a huge variety of ways to use them as well, ranging from selecting a single point, selecting groups of points or simply letting the camera choose the point it thinks is most suitable. With all these options, having another way of focusing may seem somewhat obsolete. But back button focusing can actually make focusing even easier and indeed more creative.
Back button focusing was invented by Canon in 1989 and first appeared on their EOS630 model. What it essentially allowed users to do was go into the menu and instruct the camera to use a separate button on the back of the camera to handle focusing. Although it wasn’t a great success, the feature has been included by all the major camera manufacturers ever since.
Many advanced cameras have an “AF-ON” button on the back, and if your camera has this, this is the button that will be used for back button focus. If your camera does not have this button, then you can program one of the other buttons on the back of your camera to handle back button focussing (often the AF-L or AE-L button).
To use back button focus, the focus function needs to be removed from the half-press of the shutter button and reassigned to a separate button on the back on your camera. This is done through the menu on your camera, and as each camera has a slightly different way of setting this up, the best option is to simply Google your “camera make and model + back button focus” for instructions on how to set this up on your particular camera.
Once back button focus is activated, you use your thumb to press the button on the back of the camera to focus, and your index finger as usual to press the shutter. It’s not something that you’ll get used to immediately, but it is worth learning about, as it opens up amazing new possibilities.