What Is Back Button Focusing and How To Do It

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Hello, Thursday!

If you have had your DSLR for any length of time or you spend any time at a photography forum board, you surely heard someone mention “back button focusing.” Or, if you made it through my marathon post on focus and getting sharper images, you may have heard me talk about it. You probably thought “what the heck are they talking about?”

The name explains it, really, but I’m going to reword it a bit so it makes more sense….

Back button focusing is using a button on the back of your camera to focus.

Typically to focus you have been depressing the shutter half way, right? Then once your shot is how you want it, you press if all the way down to release the shutter and take the picture. Since that works fine and dandy why would you consider changing it?

If you focus-and-recompose, like me, you might let up on the shutter release and lose the focus, not even knowing it. Then you end up with an out-of-focus image.

The basic concept behind the back-button-focus is that you give one button the job of focusing and one button the job of releasing the shutter.

Now, let’s see if I can “‘splain” how to back button focus on a Nikon and Canon. Other camera model users, I can feel your shoes being thrown at me…I am sorry, I just know NOTHING about your cameras. But, I’m sure you’re using toΒ  having to “go it alone” and you will figure it out like always. Kisses!

Nikonians – you are in luck! I can tell you how to back button focus on just about every Nikon model out there.

Let’s start with the easiest ones first (for my sake if nothing else):

  • Nikon D700, D300s, D300, D200 – there is a button on the backside that dedicated to focus. Look at the scroll wheel you use for metering and right beside it is a button that says AF-ON. Guess what? It focuses! Yay! Yes, it is that easy.
  • Now, go into your menu, to the Autofocus menu, to A1 menu and set it to Release
  • If you want to really get in the habit of using the back button to focus, you need to pull focus away from the shutter release button. How to do that? Go into your menu system, into the Auto Focus menu (look for pencil icon, then go to the A menu). On the D700 it is A5. Go into that and choose AF-ON only.

Image is from http://nikonusa.com (yes, I'm a model for them)

On to the not-quite-as-easy cameras to switch:

  • Nikon D40, D40x, D60, D3000, D3100, D5000, D5100, D90 and D7000 – you can back button focus via the AE-L/AF-L button that is right beside the viewfinder (where you squint your eye to take the picture).
  • Hit Menu on the back/left and go to the pencil icon. For the D40 thru D5100, it MAY be #12, the AE-L/AF-L button. Once you are to that menu item, hit Okay and then choose AF-ON and hit Okay.
  • If you have any model except the D60 and you change to back button focus, please let me the menu item it was for your Nikon camera body and I’ll add it here to the post. Thanks!

Image from http://nikonusa.com

A really helpful post I found while searching for additional tutorials for you last night is at Luminescence Photo. He has tips and a video tutorial for Nikon camera bodies.


Canonites – you are not in as much luck, I do not yet own a Canon (plan to buy a used one soon so I can have “dual citizenship” like I do with my PC and Macbook), so I cannot give hands on instructions.

Canon 5D, 7 D, 60D, 50D, 40D models:

  • If you are on a “Creative Zone” for exposure, meaning Program, Manual, Aperture or Shutter Speed, you can simply press the AF-ON button
  • I am not certain if you can pull focus from the shutter release button like on a Nikon


Image is from http://canonusa.com


Canon Rebel models:

  • On the Xs canon rebel xs: Menu-custom function 9-select 1-AE lock/AF. This allows the button on back with star above it to activate the auto focus and the shutter button to meter exposure. (Thank you, Susan!!)
  • If you know the specific instructions for a different Canon, please feel free to add them to the comments and I’ll include them in the post.

Image is from http://canonusa.com

There is an extremely helpful tutorial via Canon USA, which gives you the menu to look for on each model. Go straight to page 3 for specific instructions for your camera model.

For some additional help with Canon back button focusing, check out this post at Melissa Jill.

I realize that there will be a bazillion questions and I will try to answer each one. If you are a Canon user and have a question, leave it and I will ask Canon users I know BBF to come and answer your question.

Now, you know no post is complete at Everyday Elements anymore without a video tutorial, so here it is. Enjoy!

About Amanda

I am passionate about helping others learn how to use their DSLR cameras and editing programs. More information about me can be found at my About page, or by visiting my personal blog.


  1. Brilliant!
    Thank you πŸ™‚

  2. Thanks for explaining that and the links. Here is what I found out on my canon rebel xs:
    Menu-custom function 9-select 1-AE lock/AF. This allows the button on back with star above it to activate the auto focus and the shutter button to meter exposure. So glad to learn something new.

  3. Thanks Amanda! I’m BB focusing exclusively now. Look at my grip on the camera in this picture! Sorry about that! When I use the short primes with my battery grip, I tend to hold that way for stability! ; )

  4. Thanks!

  5. You are so awesome, I have been spending all my free time in the car (read: the only uniterrupted time I have to figure this stuff out) trying, trying, trying to figure out what I was doing wrong with back button focusing!!! And you told me how in like 2 seconds.

    For my D90 steps were as follows: menu>pencil>a> *a6 AE-L/AF-L for MB-D80>AF-ON>

    THANK YOU!!!!

    • My D90 would not work going through a6. I was getting a little frustrated but then figured out I had to go to f (Controls) then f4 (Assign AE-L/AF-L button) then AF-ON. I must have something set differently on my camera that prevented me from doing it your way.

  6. Catherine Harper says:

    That little tip rocked my world this morning since I’m a photography enthusiast but relative beginner. I’ve wondered so many times about that button but never enough to break out the book. On my D40x, it is submenu item #12 as you stated. Thanks so much!

  7. Sandy Young says:

    I can report that you absolutely can pull focus away from the shutter button on the Canon 60D. It’s through Customer Function IV menu. There’s a 3 or 4 options for setting up your buttons that are found there. πŸ™‚

  8. Thanks for this post Amanda. I find the BBF difficult on my D700 but will continue trying.

    I viewed the Luminescense video and one thing that I think is key that I didn’t know is that you must depress shutter release half way to activate VR lenses, even using BBF.

    • I did not watch the video, but my 60mm lens is VR and I do not have to depress the shutter, in fact I never do and 50% of my pics are with that lens.

  9. Thank you. Amanda: loving your new site.

  10. Thanks, Amanda! I have a Nikon D3100 and found the setting under Set-up (Tool icon) > Buttons. I’m hoping this will help me improve my focus. I wish my brain had an Auto Focus button :~/ Can you still use the same button for Auto Exposure?

  11. You have the Canon 5D listed (no, I’m not talking about the 5D MII, just the 5D). I’ve just purchased a used one and I’ve been frantically trying to find out if it has back button focusing available (heard about this AFTER my purchase). I got so excited when I saw this. BUT… my camera doesn’t look like that on the back and after pouring over my manual (again! I hate learning by reading) the only option it gives me is to hold the shutter button down halfway and recompose the shot. Am I missing something here or does the 5D really not have the ability to back button focus? πŸ™

  12. oh ya, and my Rebel Xsi doesn’t seem to either πŸ™ lucky me

  13. IGNORE THE MY LAST TWO COMMENTS, LOL! I followed the link you have at the end and I think I figured out how to change the INTERNAL settings to do this. It’s gonna be a freaky ride to try to switch over but hopefully I’ll get enough practice in before my next shoot, lol!!!!

  14. With AF on, does continuous shots still focus and how about metering for exposure?

  15. Thanks so much for the tips! I have tried this several times over the last year and haven’t ever done it right. I’ve now got it set up correctly on my Nikon D7000- a1 change AF-C priority control to Release (this is the step I skipped before), f5 change to AF-ON.
    According to the video for Nikon shooters on Jason Odell’s site (thanks so much for that link!), your AF mode ALWAYS stays in Continuous and you initiate focus with the Back Button, then RELEASE it (and recompose)for still subjects or HOLD it for moving subjects. I never understood that before! Brilliant!
    I am following this to see how others like BBF- I can’t wait to really get out and use it tomorrow! Thanks again, Amanda!

  16. Naicole Watts says:

    Thank you so much for this tutorial. This was very helpful and has improved my focus greatly. I appreciate all that you do with educating others.

  17. I’ve been using BBF for awhile now and really like it. I shoot with a Canon 50D. I would like to find a battery grip for my Canon that has the same capability. From what I’ve read, the Canon grip for my model doesn’t have this function available. Does anyone know of a grip with BBF for the Canon 50D?

  18. Thank you so much for posting! I just entered a new world of BBF and I must say I’m in love! Thanks again!

  19. Oh my, I got it. How easy is that! Thank you so much!!!

  20. I’m so bummed! I have the original Rebel (300D) and it doesn’t have this feature. It appears that it’s the only Canon DSLR that doesn’t have it. I want to upgrade so badly and this is just one more reason. Thanks for sharing the information.

  21. You’re welcome! I appreciate you stopping by to comment. Thanks!

  22. Amanda! I love your new site! Thank you for this blog post on BBF!

  23. Amanda, I just found your site and this is a GREAT tip. I really NEEDED to use back button focusing. I have an OLD Nikon…the D50 and in my menu screen it’s #14 if anyone has an old DSLR like me. Thanks again…I can’t wait to use this now.

  24. I am so excited to have found this article via pintrest! I have been trying to figure out how to set up Back Button Focusing on my Nikon D5000 for a few days now, and this is the first helpful thing I’ve found. Thank you so much!

  25. I changed it on my D7000 and it was F-5. Seems awkward to use at first, but I guess I’ll get used to it.

  26. Stacy Morin says:

    Can someone please share the link fr Jason Odell for me?? Thanks!!!

  27. Tanisha Pintkowski says:

    Not sure if someone has already let you know the specifics for the D5100, but I thought I would just toss it out there for someone to stumble upon.
    Menu > Custom Setting Menu (Pencil) > f Controls > f2 Assign AE-L/AF-L button > AF-ON (very last option)

  28. I have figured out what settings to change for back button focusing on my new Nikon D5200. Though I don’t understand if when you press the AF-On button if what you are focused on is suppose to remain highlighted in the view finder even after I have released the button? I really want to try it but I must be doing something wrong. If possible, am I able to get step-by-step instructions emailed to me please?

  29. This is a great tutorial. Thanks much. One question though. I have a Nikon D90. And went into the menu and turned on the AE-L/AF-L, however, my shutter button (when partially depressed) still focuses. Any idea how to eliminate that?

  30. Can this feature button be used while shooting in manual?


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