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Back Button Focus for Nikon

Yesterday our friend Melissa Jill wrote a blog post about using back button focus to achieve the sharpest possible images. Because she shoots with Canon equipment, she posted a link to a thread on Open Source Photo that talked about back button focus for Nikon equipment. What’s kinda of funny about that thread is that it all started because we couldn’t figure out how to make this work on our Nikon cameras back in 2007! Wow, things have changed a lot since then! Denise and I have been using back button focus for years now and it has made a huge difference in the way we work.

By separating the act of focusing with taking the actual photo (shutter release), it allows you to choose your focus point, lock it in, and have the ability to recompose your image without refocusing. For all you Nikon users out there, here’s how you can set it up in camera because unfortunately it is not the default setting. These settings should be pretty much the same on the D300 & D700 and possibly the D3 model.

Separate Your Focus & Shutter:

Step 1: Go into your custom settings menu

Step 2: Select A (autofocus)

Step 3: Select A5 (AF Activation)

Step 4: Choose AF-ON only

D700 AF On Back Button Focus for Nikon

Now, you can use your AF-ON button to set your focus and the shutter button will only release the shutter. Once your focus is set you can release the AF-ON button and reframe the shot. By separating those two functions, it allows you to be more creative and think outside the box when it comes to composing your images. It also, helps in getting the sharpest possible photos.

Lock Your Center Focus Point:

We also used to manage our focus location by moving the focus points all around with the dial. When your camera has 51 focus points, this method is slow and frustrating. Once we started shooting with back button focus, we locked the focus in the center by turning the lock focus dial to the L position and never touched it again. This part of the set up isn’t required to use back button focus but we have found that it works well for us and simplfies the process even more.

D700 Focus Lock Dial Back Button Focus for Nikon

Now you can simply put the subject in the center, lock in the focus, release the button and have the freedom to recompose them in the frame. If any of our fellow “Nikonians” have any other questions about this, feel free to leave us a comment or send us an email. Hope this has been helpful!

NOTE: Based on the comments below, we thought it may be helpful to add a quick note about a few common questions:

1) If you’ve set all of your camera settings as we’ve described above, but you can’t release your shutter, try changing your Focus Priority Selection (Custom Settings, Autofocus).  If it’s set to focus priority you will probably have some issues getting things to work right.

2) Using back button focus does take a little practice.  If you’re images are turning out soft when you release the AF-On button, you may be inadvertently changing the distance between you and your subject.  You can only recompose the shot after locking in the focus – if you move too much (take a step forward, lean in closer, etc.) than your focus will need to be locked in again.  You have to be mindful of this at first, but knowing how much you can move does become second nature after using it for a while.

3)  BBF works in either AF-S or AF-C mode.  We shoot in AF-S because we feel like this setting produces more consistent results, but others have said the same about AF-C.  We’d suggest that you try both and see what you’re more comfortable with.

Caitlyn - February 7, 2010 - 10:44 am

Thank you so much for this post! I recently bought a D700 and I have been curious about how to use back-button focus. One question though… our cameras still have the ability to press the AF-ON button and then let go of it when shooting a stationary subject correct? In the past I have just constantly held it down (on my D60) and it sure would be nice to let go of it with stationary portraits! Thanks again :)

Denise - February 7, 2010 - 11:27 am

Hi Caitlyn! Glad you found the post helpful! To answer your question: Yes you can release the AF-ON button after setting your focus for stationary portraits. (Thanks for asking! We also reworded this in the post to make sure it’s clear for other readers.)

Denise George - February 8, 2010 - 4:52 pm

LOVE that you guys are Nikon. I always feel like I’m the only one… : (

Ryan - February 8, 2010 - 11:25 pm

Us too! Yay for Nikon users!

Julie Fletcher - February 9, 2010 - 5:26 pm

Hi, I was wondering if anyone can tell me how to do this on my trusty old D80? Thanks in advance!

Denise - February 9, 2010 - 8:26 pm

Hi Julie :-) On the D80 it’s, 1) custom settings, 2) 18 AE-L/AF-L, 3) set to AF-ON.
That will disable the AF abilities of the shutter and enable you to use the AE-L/AF-L button on the back. Hope this helps!

Ron Anderson - February 13, 2010 - 9:46 am

Just curious about a few of things…

1.) What would the advantage be for stationary subjects versus Having the camera on S-focusing, and Pointing the center point at the subject, then recomposing while keeping the shutter button depressed half-way, and then fully tripping the shutter?

2.)What is the advantage of photographing moving subjects using the back button versus depressing the shutter button (in C mode) half way, therefore tracking focus until you press the shutter all the way down to take the photograph?

3.) This question may not be able to be easily understood, as I may not explain it well, but here goes…Does recomposing in an arc (ie. focusing o down at a child’s eyes with the center focus, and then swinging the camera down more to include the child’s feet) keep the eyes in focus, since the sensor has moved slightly in relation to the focus point?

Thanks for the post, I am getting a bit more curious to try : )

Abby - February 17, 2010 - 5:55 pm

I really want to try this but am not sure my camera supports this function….and I’m still too scared to mess around in the custom settings without guidance. Any idea how I can set my d5000 this way?

Denise - February 17, 2010 - 10:51 pm

Hi Abby! We’ve never had or used a D5000 so I’m basing this off of what I’ve read in another forum, but this is where you should be able to find this in the menu: 1. Custom Settings Menu, 2. Setting F2, 3. Set the AEL/AFL button to “AF-ON”. Hope this helps!

Kathy - February 20, 2010 - 10:30 am

I’m really curious about how this BBF works with moving subjects. If I’m at my kid’s soccer game and want to do this, do you continuously press the AF-ON button and then take the shot or ??? Not sure of the steps or if BBF is an advantageous with moving subjects. Thanks for any help!

Kelly - March 12, 2010 - 7:35 pm

I set my camera to do this, and it works, but only if I continue holding the AF-ON button down when I press the shutter. If I let it go, the shutter will not release. Any ideas?

Desiree - June 23, 2010 - 12:10 pm

Hi, this was SOOOO helpful. Before I wanted to do this but didn’t get it. I’m also having the same problems as Kelly. But it’s a start. I’ll use my manual from here. I just did a wedding, SOO wish I had grasped this concept before. Thanks again.

leila - July 31, 2010 - 8:36 am

same issues as above. If I release the AF-ON button as suggested, recompose and then press the shutter button it will not take a picture. What control is it that I need to change

Denise - August 2, 2010 - 1:41 pm

If you’re shutter won’t fire when you release the AF-On and recompose, try changing the focus priority selection (Custom Settings Menu under Autofocus). If it’s set to only shoot when your in perfect focus that’s probably what’s holding you up. Hope that helps!

Sandy - November 4, 2010 - 9:46 am

Denise, you said that on the D80 you would go into the setting and basically set it to use the AE-L/AF-L button. Is this because the D80 does not have an AF-ON button? Because my camera is the new Nikon 3100 and it does not have the AF-ON button so I thought that I could not use this back button focus feature.

So, you are saying that I would use it exactly the same except I would use the AE-L/AF-L button instead of the AF-ON?

Denise - November 4, 2010 - 11:15 am

Hi Sandy. I’m not familiar with the 3100, but you can probably use the AE-L/AF-L button (like on the D80). You’ll have to try it and see. Sorry I can’t be more help on that particular model!

Back Button Focusing | Click It Up a Notch - January 30, 2011 - 6:38 pm

[...] Back Button Focus for Nikon [...]

Zoe D. - January 30, 2011 - 8:34 pm

Thank you for this! I’ve been wanting to try this out but couldn’t make sense of it in my manual (or field guide). This was a perfect, simple explanation.

Christa Taylor Photography - February 11, 2011 - 3:51 pm

This is amazingly helpful, you have no idea how helpful!

Beth - February 13, 2011 - 2:35 pm

Thank you!!! Incredibly helpful!!

Beth - March 3, 2011 - 5:07 am

I did everything above, but when i push the AE button, nothing happens. When i push the shutter, it focuses. Maybe i missed something?

Denise - March 3, 2011 - 9:49 am

Hi Beth – on some models you may have to disable the focus function on your shutter. You can email us with the model of your camera and we’ll do our best to walk you through it. (studio@simplyknotphotos.com)

Nicole - March 4, 2011 - 9:27 am

I know this is an older post, I’ve had it bookmarked for awhile and just upgraded from a D5000 to a D700. The other “commenters” are correct, you have to hold down the AF-ON button when recomposing once you focus. The instructions say to release it- are we missing something? Thanks for this great post/instructions.

Denise - March 4, 2011 - 9:53 am

Hi Nicole – you do NOT have to hold down the AF-ON button when you recompose the shot. If you do, it isn’t really locking in your focus as your camera will continue to try to focus as long as the button is held down. If you are finding that your shots are not coming out clear when you do release it, you may have to be extra careful about not changing the distance to your subject when you recompose. (See #2 under the bolded “Note” area of the post). There is a bit of a learning curve here so it may take a little bit of practice.

Nicole - March 4, 2011 - 11:02 am

I figured out why I couldn’t release the AF-ON button while recomposing. In the custom menu—-autofocus—-AF-S or AF-C priority(depending on which you use) has to be on “release”. If this setting is on “focus” the shutter won’t release when you recompose without holding the AF-ON button (it detects the center point is out of focus and will not take the photo). With it set on “release” I can put what I want to focus in the center, push AF-ON to focus, RELEASE the AF-ON button, recompose, then shoot. Yipee.

Andrea Kinter - May 2, 2011 - 6:11 pm

What a great way of explaining BBF, I have been using BBF for a couple of months now and absolutely love it.

Back-Button Auto Focus - May 4, 2011 - 9:14 am

[...] for setting up your back-button AF:For Nikon Users- Instructions provided by Simply Knot PhotographyStep 1: Go into your custom settings menu Step 2: Select A (autofocus) Step 3: Select A5 (AF [...]

lesley - May 27, 2011 - 10:18 pm

Hi Denise– Hoping you have time for yet another BBF question! I have been BBF for a while now, but have been holding AF-ON down the entire time until I release the shutter. Now, re-reading your post I’m noticing NOT to do that (in S mode). Curious, though, when I focus, let AF-ON go and then take the pic I notice that sometimes my LCD will show where the focus fell—but it really didn’t (it’s just where I recomposed to and the LCD highlighted focal point obviously isn’t in focus), when other times my LCD won’t show me where the focus fell at all. When I used to hold DOWN the AF-on, it showed me my focal point all the time. Does that make sense? Any insight would be greatly appreciated! Confusing, I know. ;)

Back Button Focusing | ElisaMichelene - June 21, 2011 - 9:47 am

[...] Here is a post I found for Nikon users. [...]

[...] doing some search online, I found this webpage. It has some great [...]

[...] Think Tank Retrospective Lens Changer 2 Pixel Pocket Rocket Canon Back Button Focus Tutorial / Nikon [...]

Rich Ramirez - June 9, 2013 - 11:24 pm

I just started to use the AE button with AF-C mode so that I get the best of both worlds. Holding it in on a moving subject and set my focus with the AE button then release for a stationary subject. What happens when I want to use a cable remote or pocket wizard? Thanks for your help!

Denise - June 17, 2013 - 12:25 pm

Hi Rich! Unfortunately, we don’t ever use a cable release, but everything works exactly the same while using a remote flash trigger like a pocket wizard.

Jeff Gettings - July 5, 2013 - 5:49 pm

Thanks. Great info!

[...] users should read these instructions, as the process requires some setup rather than just flipping a switch in the DSLR’s settings. [...]

Jimbo - July 22, 2013 - 3:32 pm

I own a Nikon D5100- I read the BBF tip but my camera doesn’t have the setting as in your tip- thought that’s a shame, but poking around the custom settings menu the camera does indeed have that function- just in a different place.
MENU>CUSTOM SETTING MENU> f Controls>f2 Assign AE-L//AF-L button>AF-ON
Now you can use the AE-L/AF-L button to autofocus. You also need to ensure you go into CUSTOM MENU> a Autofocus>a1 AF-C Priority selection>Release
Otherwise the shutter button won’t release if you’ve locked the focus and recomposed your shot. You’ll have to hold down the AE-F/AE-L to refocus which defeats the point.
Setting the autofocus to RELEASE allows the shutter to be released even when the camera isn’t in focus

Anyway thanks for the great tip

[...] users should read these instructions, as the process requires some setup rather than just flipping a switch in the DSLR’s settings. [...]

[...] users should read these instructions, as a routine requires some setup rather than usually flipping a switch in a DSLR’s settings. [...]

[...] users should read these instructions, as the process requires some setup rather than just flipping a switch in the DSLR’s settings. [...]

Alexandra - August 14, 2013 - 1:51 pm

I’ve been wanting to learn how to do this for months and this blog post made is super easy. Thanks so much!

Denise - August 14, 2013 - 8:07 pm

You’re so welcome! So glad we could help :-)

Raven - September 6, 2013 - 9:27 pm

Just want to let you know that this article literally changed my life.. well my life of photography. Thank you. I recently began shooting fully manual and using back button focus, but couldn’t figure out why I just wasn’t nailing my focus. I read this article “out loud” to myself and it just finally clicked! Thanks so much.

Shauna Bittle - September 8, 2013 - 7:41 pm

I have been pouring over my D800 user manual for the setting that would disable focus on my shutter button; but must not have known the right terms to search. This post is exactly what I’ve been looking for, and will most likely save me much frustration. Thank you!

Denise - September 9, 2013 - 12:58 pm

So glad we could help Raven! Let us know if you have any other questions!

Denise - September 9, 2013 - 12:59 pm

So glad we could help Shauna! Let us know if you have any other questions!

Denise - September 9, 2013 - 12:59 pm

YAY! So glad you found it helpful! It totally changed things for us too :-)

Robyn - September 24, 2013 - 4:23 am

I have a D5100 and I’m wondering if anyone has the issue I have – the AFL button doubles as a lock image button. So, if I happen to hit it right after a shot, and the last image is still in review, I accidentally lock the past image rather than re-focus; something I don’t want to do. I can turn off image review to avoid this, but I rather like having a short image review by default to double check my shots. I’m assuming full frame Nikons don’t have this dual lock function on the button? Has anyone encountered the same glitch and come up with a genius way to solve the problem? Anyone? Thx!

[…] users should read these instructions, as the process requires some setup rather than just flipping a switch in the DSLR’s settings. […]

Elizabeth Zimmerman - April 5, 2014 - 3:25 pm

Awesome! Thank you so much!!

Denise - April 8, 2014 - 2:20 pm

You’re so welcome Elizabeth! Happy we could help ;-)