Setting Up Back Button Focus on your Digital Camera

Andrew Beck Andrew 6 Comments

Firstly, I want to thank everyone for the kind comments and feedback on my Back Button Focus in Wildlife Photography post. It seems that somehow this feature and mechanism was not well known or spoken about in photographic circles.

Before I get struck onto the details on getting this feature setup, I must let you know that it is almost impossible for me to go through this process for each and every brand and model. Instead, I will give you a broad guideline on how to set this up on a Canon and Nikon system. Most camera models should allow this setup and the process should be pretty similar to that which I will describe below.

Setting up Back Button Focus on a Canon Camera

In the Canon camera menu, you’ll look for an option called “Shutter/AE Lock Button” or “Custom Controls”. Within these menus you will have a number of options.

Back Button Focus Canon-2
Back Button Focus Canon-5

[space height=”15″] If you’re using custom functions, then you will be able to look at each of the buttons on your camera and assign functions to those directly as per the image below:

Back Button Focus Canon-5

What you want to do is assign the “Metering Start” function to the shutter button, and “Metering and AF start” to the AF-On Button.

Back Button Focus Canon-6
Back Button Focus Canon-7
Back Button Focus Canon-8
[space height=”15″] If you’re using the “Shutter /AE Lock Button” menu then you will simply select the  “Metering Start / Meter + AF Start” or the “AE/AF, no AE Lock” option. How this is displayed will vary depending on the model of your camera, but the options are essentially assigning functions to the Shutter and then AE Lock Buttons on your camera and are separated by the / symbol.

Back Button Focus Canon
Back Button Focus Canon-3

[space height=”15″] If your camera has a dedicated AF-On button you might find that, from an ergonomically perspective, the AF-On button is not where your thumb rests naturally. I have taken this one step further and switched the functions of the AF-On button and AE Lock button ( * ). You will find a menu option to switch the functions of these two buttons, or you will be able to assign the function of each within the custom controls menu. I find that using the AE-Lock button for AF is more natural for me, and this should also address any issues around the lack of AF-On buttons on battery grips (the custom setting should pull through to the battery grip allowing you to use the AE-Lock button to engage AF, even in portrait orientation).

Back Button Focus Canon-10

The following is a cheat sheet from the Canon Learning Centre, where you’ll find the menu option on your Canon camera to set up back button focus. If your camera isn’t listed here, just poke around a bit and I’m sure you’ll find it easy enough.

  • EOS 60D: C.Fn IV-1 (option 1, 2, 3, or 4)
  • EOS 7D: C.Fn IV-1 (Custom Controls — Shutter, AF-ON, AEL buttons)
  • EOS 6D: C.Fn III-5 (Custom Controls — Shutter, AF-ON, AEL buttons)
  • EOS 5D Mark II: C.Fn IV-1 (option 2 or 3)
  • EOS 5D Mark III: C.Fn menu screen 2 (Custom Controls — Shutter, AF-ON, AEL buttons)
  • EOS-1D X: C.Fn menu screen 5 (Custom Controls — Shutter, AF-ON, AEL buttons)
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Setting up Back Button Focus on a Nikon Camera

Setting up back button focus on a Nikon camera is pretty simple. For some of the newer models with an AF-On button, you simply enter your “Autofocus” menu, scroll down to “AF Activation” and select “AF-On Only”.

Back Button Focus Nikon

Back Button Focus Nikon-3

Back Button Focus Nikon-4

Back Button Focus Nikon-5

Some of the older models, and those without a dedicated AF-On button, can still be setup but in a slightly different manner. Enter the “Custom Setting” menu and scroll down to your “AE-L/AF-L” option. Scroll through the various option in this menu until you find “AF On”, and assign this function to your AE-L/AF-L button. The autofocus function will automatically be disengaged from the shutter.

Back Button Focus Nikon-6
Back Button Focus Nikon-8

Back Button Focus Nikon-9

Back Button Focus Nikon-7
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There you have it!

Most digital cameras should allow you to separate the autofocus from the shutter, and assign it to one of the rear buttons on your camera. Depending on your exact model it may not be as simple as the steps above, but there are a number of videos and tutorials online for specific camera models. If you don’t come right then let me know!

Andrew Beck

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Comments 6

  1. Pingback: Wild Eye Photography The Power of Back Button Focus in Wildlife Photography » Wild Eye Photography

  2. Teri

    I totally appreciate your thorough explanation of this “new” to me procedure! Truly your expertise far exceeds my abilities at present but you can be sure, I am following YOU NOW!! Thank you so much for the illustrations and detailed explanations.

    1. Post
  3. Jens

    I am actually setting up my camera the other way around. I have continous focusing on the shutter button and when I press the back button the focusing stops. This works better for me as I can follow a moving subject and the when it stops i can press the back button and recompose.

  4. BathlaaGs

    Hi There,

    Thanks a lot for this informative tutorial. I have one query though. I did all this and for once it worked – the focus moved how I wanted it to but the problem is the custom saving do not stay saved. They go back to the default everytime :(. Also, in my case the lens is still doing auto focus – maybe I missed something.

    Could you please help.

    Thanks a lot,

  5. Pingback: The Power of Back Button Focus in Wildlife Photography - Wild Eye

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