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Back Button Focusing: Do you BBF?
Equipment, Manual Mode Tips

It has been a couple of years now since I first discovered BBF or “Back Button Focusing”. From what I hear it is really one of those things that you either LOVE or you HATE. For me, it was looooove!

What is Back Button Focusing?

The default focusing button for cameras is the shutter button. On DSLRs, we learn to press the shutter half way, focus, then completely press the button to release the shutter. BBF simply stands for Back Button Focus. This is a term that describes using a button on the back of your camera for focus, thus separating focus and shutter from each other.

I heard about back button focusing a couple of years ago when the topic seemed to take a forum that I belong to by storm! It is one of those things that you will either LOVE or HATE. I happen to LOVE it and it really changed the number of in focus images that I get!

Pros:

1. The focus and shutter buttons are separated.
No accidental firing of the shutter or missed focus by not pressing the button quite hard enough, or lifting prematurely. When using BBF, the subject is in focus, until you purposefully press it again.

2. Easy to use when using AF-C or AI-Servo modes.
Hold the button down while you track your subject and press the shutter button when ready. There is no lapse between focus time (even as minimally as it can be) when using 2 buttons instead of one. Depending on what you read, you’ll find some people will say that using back button focusing, you should leave your camera on AF-C or AI-Servo all of the time. I disagree with this. AF-S or Single Shot will also work while using BBF. I continue to switch between the different modes depending on the subject that I’m photographing.

3. Using the thumb on the back of the camera helps stabilize the camera.
This can result in fewer out of focus images due to camera shake.

Cons:

I had to really think about the cons because I really haven’t run into any issues with it!

1.Moderately difficult to re-train yourself.

Instructions on setting up back button focusing:

In Nikons, the AF-On button is turned on.

The instructions for the D700 are as follows:

Press Menu > Custom Setting Menu >a Autofocus > AF-ON > OK

Instructions for the Nikons without an AF-ON button:

The AE-L/AF-L button can be programmed to function as an autofocus button.

Menu > Custom Setting Menu > Controls > Assign AE-L/AF-L Button > AF-ON

or

Menu > Set Buttons> Assign AE-L/AF-L > AF-ON

For Canon Users: (please correct me if I’m wrong!)

Canon Mark II

Custom Function 4 > Operation/Others > Set #1 to #3 AE-Lock Metering + AF Start > Set #2 to 1:Enable

If the settings are different for other Canon models, please consult your manual and look under Custom Functions. The lingo should be similar to what is written above. In reading, I am under the impression that autofocus can also be assigned to the * button on Canon cameras. Sorry that I’m not more help with back button focusing on Canon cameras! If you have questions, I promise to do my best to help!

If you are going to give back button focusing a try…

1. Give it a MONTH!
It will not seem natural to begin with. A month is a good amount of time to see a difference and realize if you love it or hate it! No one that I know that has used it a month has ever gone back!

2. At first, you will at times forget that you reassigned your buttons and think your camera is broken. It’s not! Just use the AF-On or AE-L/AF-L or * button and I promise it will work! With Canon users, pick the button that is most comfortable and natural for your thumb (whether it be the AE/AF-L button or the *).

2. Remember your camera isn’t broken!!!! I’m saying this again because I literally freaked out a dozen times before it seemed natural.

Have fun with this new trick! And I’m here to answer any questions! Canon Users: If you are having problems, I will do my best to help!

To go back to using the shutter button to focus, Nikon users:

Go to Menu> Custom Settings Menu> a Autofocus >a5 AF Activation> then Shutter/AF-ON (instead of AF-ON only).

And it isn’t a photography post without a picture….these are a few images that are close to my heart….and yes my boy is wearing girl clothes….go figure ;)

63 Comments
  • Cristin
    July 27, 2012 at 8:18 AM

    I LOVE BBF! In my first Clickin’ Moms WS, I learned about this amazing feature on my camera! Since my most easily accessible subject is my extremely active 2 yr. old son, this made life a million times easier! I haven’t changed my settings since! Thanks for the article!!

  • Magen
    July 27, 2012 at 9:09 AM

    Thank you for explaining this is a way that is easy to understand! I mostly photography my 9 month old right now, but also photograph other people’s children sometimes. Can you explain why bbf reduces blur when kids inevitably move? I usually just increase the shutter speed to reduce that blur. I’m still learning a lot, so maybe that’s a dumb question!

    • Laurie Flickinger - Contributor
      July 27, 2012 at 2:44 PM

      Thank you! And there is never a dumb question. I like to know the technicals too. It helps me understand better. Just switching to BBF will not exactly keep images from being blurry, but it can improve the number of in focus ones that you get. You are correct that increasing the SS will do the trick there. However, by using the BBF button and chasing a toddler, you can switch your camera to AF-C or AI-Servo and hold the BBF button down to track the subject. THEN, because your don’t need to stop tracking in order to press the shutter button—you can keep holding it down with your thumb–there isn’t even a fraction of a second that the subject can move before the shutter clicks. Does that make sense? So it is basically a time factor….all about how fast you can press the button. Obviously, using one button works for many people, but for me, having two separate buttons works best. Also, using the thumb and holding that button down gives me a little more stability of the camera in my hand, so I feel that it reduces camera shake at lower shutter speeds.

  • July 27, 2012 at 11:44 AM

    I’m going to have to try it since I’ve finally really gotten the swing of manual mode. Terrified to try, but it seems so worth it!

  • July 27, 2012 at 9:21 PM

    Ooh! I’m going to give this a try, thanks!

  • Valerie
    July 27, 2012 at 9:33 PM

    Sorry, Im new with my DSLR… do you mean, focusing by choosing dots using the menu buttons?

    • Laurie
      July 27, 2012 at 10:38 PM

      Hi Valerie! Choosing your focal point is a great way (best way) to improve your focus. BBF is using a button on the back of your camera to tell the camera to focus (which you would usually do by pushing the shutter button halfway down to lock focus). Then when you press it all the way own, the camera will record the image. Does that make better sense?

      • Valerie
        July 27, 2012 at 11:07 PM

        I have a Nikon D5000…… which button should I use… Im sorry Im soo lost….!

        • Edwin
          July 28, 2012 at 12:51 AM

          Valerie,

          You can assign BBF by selecting AF-ON to the AE-L/AF-L button through Custom Settings (pg 164 of D5000 manual).

          Edwin

          • Valerie
            July 29, 2012 at 3:14 PM

            Thank you for your help! Off to experiment!
            Thank you!!

  • Megan
    July 28, 2012 at 1:56 PM

    I have 1 other con – Nikons VR (vibration reduction) is only activated with the shutter button. When you use BBF then press the shutter to take the picture the VR doesn’t have enough time to stabilize – or do whatever it does. It’s really not that big of a deal as long as your shutter speed is adequately fast enough for the lens you are using but for some it might be an issue.

    • Neveo
      March 19, 2014 at 12:50 PM

      You can still press the shutter button halfway to activate VR. It still helps with AF-S and recompose because is is easier to recompose after focusing and not worry about locking the focus by keeping the shutter button partially depressed. When ready to shoot just don’t give one press to the shutter button but pause briefly half way. Also, I know you disagree with this one but not sure why, there is no need to switch to AF-S, as far as I can see, since pressing and releasing the button will lock focus in AF-C as well as AF-S. I actually use AF-A most of the time unless I am shooting sports or wildlife.

      • Megan
        March 19, 2014 at 2:48 PM

        You’re right that if you are using BBF you can still half press the shutter button to get the VR to activate. I’m not sure how you know I disagree with using AF-C since I don’t. BBF actually works better, IMO, using AF-C

    • Alden Taplin
      January 9, 2015 at 9:52 AM

      Hi,I have a Nikon d7100 and use bbf,when I press it vr does go on. Maybe its your settings?

  • July 30, 2012 at 4:01 AM

    Thank you for sharing in depth how to change the BBF on my Nikon. I had tried to do it about 2 weeks ago with no success and now have changed my settings. I am willing to give it a try!

  • July 30, 2012 at 11:22 PM

    Haven’t made the move to BBF yet but am doing it now. Thank you for the easy tutorial.

  • August 4, 2012 at 1:20 PM

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I wish I’d learned about this technique sooner. It would have saved me a lot of headache. Now to just remember why my camera isn’t focusing anymore when I press the shutter button!

  • Carol
    August 6, 2012 at 1:50 AM

    Thanks so much for the explanation!
    I have a d700 and was wondering- do you set the autofocus priority (pencil icon a1 and a2 setting) to “focus” or ” release” or ” release+ focus” ?

  • August 13, 2012 at 1:14 AM

    I took the CM class too and never understood it until I read this. I thought I had to hold it down continuously and try to shoot at the same time!! Can’t wait to try it again!

  • Paula
    August 14, 2012 at 1:21 PM

    I feel almost silly that I HAVEN’T been doing this now that I read about it – makes so much sense. Must try. Can’t wait to see how it works! Thanks for the tip.

  • September 8, 2012 at 11:27 AM

    information is very beneficial and beneficial
    nikon d700

  • October 18, 2012 at 1:24 AM

    Hi there – so once in focus as long as i stay within same ‘focal plane’ so to speak, don’t move my feet for example when using a prime lens… then whichever focal point I have set, should then focus correctly…continuously? Or am I understanding this all wrong? Of course I am readiing this at 1:23am lol (real life of mom/photog ;o) … I can’t wait till morning to try it out!

  • Michelle
    November 29, 2012 at 8:04 AM

    Thanks for the tips…I went ahead and tried it, and I enjoyed it :) I was using a camera that I had borrowed from someone else and I thought it would be easy to revert to non-bbf, but I can’t figure out how to turn it back…I’m using a Nikon d90….any tips on how to revert back to the normal setting? Thanks so much :)

    • November 29, 2012 at 8:20 AM

      Okay, it took a minute for me to figure it out! I have a D700, but it should be similar for the D90. Go to Menu> Custom Settings Menu> a Autofocus >a5 AF Activation> then Shutter/AF-ON (instead of AF-ON only). If it isn’t exact, the lingo should be similar. Hope this helps!

      • Michelle
        December 3, 2012 at 9:46 AM

        Thanks so much for the tip….it worked : )

  • Angie
    December 1, 2012 at 2:08 PM

    I just set my camera up to do this and going to try it out. Going to take some getting use to but hoping it helps! Thank you for your suggestions and tips!

  • January 5, 2013 at 6:38 PM

    Laurie,
    I have the Nikon D700. Can you tell me how to revert it back to normal settings? I was at a photo session today and my studio lights were going crazy and I think it was because of the bbf. I remember reading somewhere that you have to revert back to the normal settings to use studio lights. Thanks!

    • January 5, 2013 at 7:07 PM

      Go to Menu> Custom Settings Menu> a Autofocus >a5 AF Activation> then Shutter/AF-ON (instead of AF-ON only).

      I’ll add this to the post :)

  • January 18, 2013 at 4:16 AM

    THE BEST PIECE ON BBF SO FAR, U SUMMED UP A TRICKY ISSUE VERY SIMPLY :) EXPECIALLY FOR NIKON! GGRRREEEAT JOB!!! ;)

  • Brenda Gallant
    January 25, 2013 at 12:44 PM

    I wonder if this is a setting I can save on u1 or u2 …on my D600 ? ..will look it up in the manuel…but if you have the answer it would be helpful :) Thanks for the great info !

    • January 25, 2013 at 2:12 PM

      Hi Brenda! I just did a little research on the D600. And I don’t think that is what the u1 or u2 buttons are designed for. From what I understand, those are used when you want to set your camera up for different types of photography. Say you wanted your settings to be one way for Nature photography, and another way for Portrait photography, you could program u1 and u2 to specific settings and with the switch of dial your camera would be ready (instead of going into the menus and changing everything every time). Ken Rockwell, did an article that described that type of thing if your are interested in looking it up.

      You CAN set up your AE-L/AF-L button to back button focus. I think you should go to Custom Settings Menu>Controls>Assign AE-L/AF-L button>AE-L/AF-L button press>scroll to AF-ON>Press OK
      Just found it in the manual: Look on page 244 of your Nikon D600 Manual :) to set the AE-L button to back button focus for you! If you don’t like it, go back there to change it back!

  • Brenda Gallant
    January 25, 2013 at 5:27 PM

    I appreciate this wonderful and complete reply …so very helpful :) than you so much for taking the time …I will practice with the back button focus and see how it goes :) Thanks again Laurie :)

  • Ava
    February 22, 2013 at 7:26 PM

    Someone mentioned in the comments that the BBF can cause the VR not to work. If you use BBF all the time, then you wouldn’t necessarily even need the VR lenses, but could go ahead and use non-VR lenses with no difference in quality, right? (I haven’t done a price comparison between VR and non-VR lenses, but I assume the VR lenses are more expensive.)

  • Tom Streiff
    March 6, 2013 at 9:03 PM

    I am using a D700. FWIW in my use I have noticed VR works when using BBF and holding the shutter button down halfway as to act like you are focusing. VR kicks in and the image is frozen. I then depress the shutter fully to capture the image. BFF is doing the focusing. Half-press shutter is kicking in the VR.

    I usually keep mine set at AF-C single point, usually use center control point to focus and recompose. I use my Tamron 24-70 2.8 VC lens a lot with this method and it works great for me.

    Nice article BTW.

  • Gill
    March 16, 2013 at 11:24 AM

    Thanks for the great article, very helpful indeed. I have a Nikon D90 and have changed my settings to bbf and I’m liking it so far but was wondering if there was an easy way to revert back temporarily? if I hand my camera to someone else who is unfamiliar with DSLR’s they will never ever get it, they have enough trouble working the shutter half press focus :)

  • April 16, 2013 at 9:51 AM

    Great article! One “con” I have found to BBF is when you hand someone else your camera to take a photo you want to be in.. it is a difficult thing to explain ;)
    I have switched back to using the focusing button but maybe I didn’t give BBF a fair enough try. Will have to try again!

  • Dennis
    April 23, 2013 at 4:36 PM

    Great post. I’m two weeks into using BBF and already I’m seeing the benefits

  • Brenna Leuthold
    May 9, 2013 at 5:38 PM

    Just got the D600… Even the manuals had it wrong on how to change to BBF… 18 blogs later and you were the only one who got it right…. Bless you keep it up…

    • Laurie Flickinger - Contributor
      May 19, 2013 at 8:44 PM

      yay! thank you! You made my day :)

  • May 18, 2013 at 4:40 PM

    Hi!!!! just wondering if my D80 would have the BBF??? I do use the AE-L and AF-L sometimes and now change my focal point rather than recomposing… but this is diff than the BBF right??? I dont seem to have AF – ON

    • Laurie Flickinger - Contributor
      May 19, 2013 at 8:44 PM

      Hi Tara! My first camera was a D80! What a great camera! Go to page 94 of your manual. Setting up back button focus is in the Custom Menu settings. Basically you assign the AE-L/AF-L button to use as BBF button. Hope this helps! :)

  • Minnie
    May 20, 2013 at 9:08 AM

    Hi there, I’m fairly new to photography and started a photography course in January and am finally getting confident with my camera and its manual settings! My main passion in photography is toddler/newborn photography which i then came across click it up a notch for some amazing advice, inspiration and tips! And came accross BBF and thought it might be worth me trying it out since I have fidgety moving subjects – on the lens it says M/A (which I’m guessing is manual/automatic) and just M (manual) and M is what iv been shooting with, I noticed the BBF doesn’t work with it switched to M but only M/A, just wondering do many photographers who capture moving subjects use the setting M/A? I feel like its cheating almost aha because the camera is doing the focusing rather than me moving my lens to focus! Dying to give it a go on a moving subject! Thanks for the help! : )

  • December 6, 2013 at 1:57 PM

    I have a Nikon D600, do you know if I can switch back and forth from back button focus to depressing my shutter half way? I’m having focus issues and want to activate all my focus point so make sure my camera is focusing correctly.

  • January 5, 2014 at 8:20 AM

    How can I find out which button this is on my camera? I’m honestly not sure if I am using it or not!

  • February 17, 2014 at 9:02 AM

    This post was timely for me. I just learned about back-focusing and now I might give it a try! Thanks!

  • tony morris
    February 26, 2014 at 11:01 AM

    ok hi
    tried locating BBF on canon 7d got lost, would love to try it out, help?

    • March 1, 2014 at 3:44 PM

      Tony, I have a Canon 7D. There is an AF-ON button on the backside of the camera near the top right. If it’s not already turned on, then you can go into the Menu to turn it on.

      Click on “Menu” then scroll to the custom settings, denoted by the orange camera icon (just left of the green star icon)
      Scroll down to “C.FnIV:Operation/Others” and click on “Set”
      Click on “Set” again once you enter the Custom Controls menu.
      Scroll down to the AF-ON button, which is your “BFF” button, and click “Set” again.
      Scroll across to the icon for “Metering and AF start” and click on “Set”. This will turn the AF-ON so you can use BFF.

      Also, not sure if you are using the most up to date firmware, but Canon released an update for the 7D a couple of months ago, fyi. Happy shooting!

      • Kami
        November 2, 2014 at 11:57 AM

        Hi there! I found this article and comment very helpful. I have a Canon Rebel Ti5. I found the C.FnIV:Operations/Others but I do not seem to have the AF-ON button. My options are 0:AF/AE lock 1:AE lock/AF 2.AF/AFlock, no AElock 3. AE/AF, no AE lock. Can anybody help me out? Thanks so much!

  • Marty Z
    March 9, 2014 at 4:02 PM

    Thank you so much for tips. They have been helpful. I finally stopped to read them yesterday and got great results by going manual! I’ve read a few sites and books, but you really made it “click” for me. Thanks!

  • Samantha
    March 20, 2014 at 3:47 AM

    So I DON’T have to continually hold the button with my thumb when I’m shooting using BBF?? I can place it on the eye, hit and release the back button, and then shoot? I’ve had my camera in BBF for a few months now, but it still confuses the heck out of me :(

  • May 3, 2014 at 11:06 AM

    Totally agree with everything you have said here – I am going to link to your post if ok as it says everything I was going to and probably a lot more eloquently. Love the pages

    Pete
    x

  • July 8, 2014 at 11:44 PM

    Any Sony users know how to do this?

  • Christine
    August 10, 2014 at 10:30 AM

    I’m so excited to try this out. I’ve heard about it so many times but this is the first time it was explained so clearly. I bet this will make a world of difference in my photos :)

  • August 26, 2014 at 2:30 PM

    I had to laugh when you recommended trying it for a MONTH! I’ve tried it a couple times when I’m just taking photos of my kids, to practice and my results have been spotty. When I get to a real session, I always switch back, because I’m getting paid and I can’t afford to screw it up. I keep meaning to come back to it. I’m watching Tyler Wirken’s Creative Live course now and he did a segment on it. I found your article while googling BBF and trying to make sure I’m doing it correctly. A month….that’s SO hard! :) I’ll try again though – I know if I got the hang of it, it’d be worth it.

  • Tara
    September 23, 2014 at 4:03 PM

    I like to use spot metering on my subjects and usually use the AE/AF button for AE/AF lock. Any idea how this might affect how my camera meters?

  • November 4, 2014 at 12:30 PM

    Hi,

    I’m new to BBF myself and have begun experimenting with it this evening, using a D3200.

    Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be working. Using ‘show focus’ in Nikon’s own Capture NX-D my focus remains at the centre point, rather than the subject after recomposing.

    Another issue I have noticed is that my focus points are not illuminated by using the AE-L / AF-L button on this camera and are only illuminated once I begin pressing the shutter release to capture the shot; perhaps this is indicative of the facility not working on this camera, or that my settings or technique is off somehow.

    This camera in particular is limited to very few focus points; 11, so there are times when it can be quite tricky to get the focus and the composition I want, being able to recompose as indicated in this article would be of great help to me, however, as yet I’m not convinced and will have to resort to earlier methods on shoots until I figure this out.

    Any ideas anyone? Thank you.

  • Jason
    November 17, 2014 at 2:17 AM

    The only con I could think of – handing my camera over to someone else to take a shot of me and my family, and forgetting to explain BBF, or if they don’t use DSLR/BBF. And then watch them get confused.

  • Inka
    April 8, 2015 at 3:50 PM

    F AF lock only *
    FOcus locks while the MB-D80 AE-L/AF-L button is pressed
    A AF-ON*
    PRessing the MB-D80 AE-L/AF-L button initiates auto

    The above is from my Nikon manual. I understand the principle of the back button focus but wonder if the two settings above are just personal preference? I experience pictures are not as sharp if I use back button focus.

    • Laurie
      April 8, 2015 at 5:13 PM

      Hi Inka, as will all things, do what works for you. Many people find that BBF helps get more images in focus, but if you find it isn’t working I for you, switch back! There is learning curve and j encourage using it for a couple of weeks to a month. I find that there is no lag between focus and shutter using BBF. Thanks for reading!

  • Tonya
    May 1, 2015 at 8:15 PM

    Hi I have a D3100 and I tried BBF for the first time last night at a baseball game. It worked okay for the first few pictures and then I found that my camera was freezing up and literally would not take a picture!! It’s the first time that’s ever happened. I googled the issue today and found a couple of blogs that mention choosing “Release” instead of “Focus” in the AF-C Priority Selection. The D3100 doesn’t appear to have this option. Am I out luck for using BBF or was this a fluke incident of my camera freezing? User error?? Any info would be greatly appreciated!

  • Dean
    May 12, 2015 at 5:22 PM

    I dislike using the back button for focusing. I tried it for a couple of months on two different Nikons and found it a big pain. You said you had a hard time thinking of any “con’s.” Here’s some:

    If you wear glasses sticking your thumb up to work the back button makes things crowded. I look through the camera with my left eye so that puts my thumb totally squished against my nose (and it’s not a big nose or thumb.)

    Black button focusing is difficult to used in any position other than upright. If you are laying down or in any position that restricts arm movement — tight spot to get a macro shot — you can’t even focus because your thumb can’t reach the button.

    AND … it takes one easy operation and breaks it down into two. That is not only less efficient but increases the chances of not doing the sequence right and losing a shot. I think the technique is extremely overrated.

  • Bronwen
    September 2, 2015 at 6:48 AM

    Hi Laurie! I’ve been trying BFF for a week so far on my D3300. I’m trying to get my head around the best way to use it in conjunction with the focus points and moving children. Do you select a new focus point each time the child moves within the frame, hit the BFF then the shutter? I feel like this loses time and opportunities because it’s a 3 step process and the thumb has too much to do. Or do you hold down the BFF button down to activate AF-C, try to keep the selected focus point on the subject’s eye and crop later to fix framing? I find with a 50mm lens and my camera’s crop factor there just isn’t enough breathing room for this and something important always gets cut off. Does this make any sense? I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

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