Setting up Rear-Button Focus

A lot of people ask me about back-button Auto-focus.  I figure it is time to write about this.

Generally we autofocus from half-pressing the shutter button.  When we finish pressing the shutter button, an image is made.  This is great and how just about all cameras work.  There comes a point where you might find yourself in a situation where you want to autofocus, but you want to make multiple images without the focus resetting or changing every time you press the shutter.  For instance a studio set up or a landscape scene.  Another instance would be a scene where your subject is not changing distance but you want to capture multiple shots or expressions and not refocus.  Sure you could put the camera in manual focus…but if you prefer autofocus, or need to autofcous but just not on every shot…why not have an option?  As it turns out most cameras do.

We can remove the focusing from the shutter button and move it to another button.  On most cameras this means a button on the rear of the camera near the thumb position.  This allows you to focus with your thumb and fire the camera with your finger on the shutter.  Once you have tried this, it might become your favorite way to work.  A lot of people shoot like this.  I personally go back and fourth depending on my subject matter.

Let me elaborate a little bit on how I personally use this feature, and then we’ll explore how to set up your camera.

I generally move the focus to Function Button 1 on the rear.  This lets me focus with my thumb.  I normally set the camera to S-AF+MF.  This lets me autofocus with the rear button, but then also manual focus at will from the lens if I need to refine or adjust.  It allows me to manual focus and then shoot freely, but if something comes up and I need to autofocus quickly, I still have my rear button ready with my thumb over it.

I have a secondary function set up as well.  Olympus cameras are the only ones i’ve worked with that let us customize ANY button to be a focus button.  Thank you Olympus!  I do a lot of ground level shooting.  I like low perspectives, and often when shooting landscape or nature macros I have the camera virtually on the ground.  This makes holding the camera traditionally very hard.  The focus button is easy to trigger from on top, but the rear focus button becomes more difficult.  So I have also programmed one of the top custom buttons (the record button) to be a secondary focus button!  All I have to do is press the record button and my camera focuses!  This makes waist-level and ground level shooting a breeze.

I will say personally, the shutter button feels a lot more responsive and quicker to action than any other button on the camera.  If you need sharp decisive focus without any delay, the shutter button still feels best for this.  The rear buttons have a different “press” feel.  It’s slightly more effort to press, and they aren’t as large.  Small trade-off.  Often when I use continuous autofocus I will switch back to shutter button focus.  Again, it comes down to personal preference.  I would try both and see which works best for you.

So how do we set this?  We do it in 2 steps.

1. Menu Button > Custom Menu A1 > AEL/AFL > S-AF > Mode 3

This establishes that you want to move focus duties away from the shutter button and move it to the AEL/AFL command. The next step is to assign AEL/AFL  (Auto-exposure lock / auto-focus lock) to whatever button you choose.  This would make that button your focus button.  You do that with this next step.

2. Menu Button > Custom Menu B > Button Functions > Select a button and set it to AEL/AFL option.

Any button in the menu can be customized to the AEL/AFL option.  Again, I set Function Button 1 to AEL/AFL and I ALSO so Rec Button to AEL/AFL.  I have two focus buttons in this way.  You can set focus to whatever button you like.  You could even set your lens button to be your focus button!  Fancy that!

Some times handing a camera to someone else…they don’t “understand” rear button focus at first.  So if they are taking a picture of me or a family group shot, they end up being out of focus since they think the shutter is focusing.  Even when I tell them.  I have a custom mode saved that has focus on the shutter and face detection on just for handing the camera to others!  All my main working modes have Fn1 as Focus, and Rec as focus.  My lever changes from S-AF+M  to Continuous focus but on the shutter.  Kind of complex but it works great.  You can actually set continuous focus separately from single autofocus.  That is set up by repeating step 1 above and selecting continuous AF assignment.

What is your preference?  Do you find one faster than the other?  Are there any other buttons you use as focus, and if so what benefit do you get or what specific scenarios call for this?



17 responses on "Setting up Rear-Button Focus"

  1. Dear Tony

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on setting AF with the ‘Back Focus Button’. I only started using this technique over the past few weeks and there’s one thing which I’m unclear about.

    (1) After setting focus using the ‘Back Button’ > I release the button > take my time to wait for the right moment, the right smile, or the right expression, etc.

    (2) When I’m ready > I press the ‘Shutter’ release button and the ‘IBIS kicks-in’ > the image in the EVF normally ‘jump or jerk’ a little due to the image stabilization.

    *My Concern Is*
    Will the ‘kicking-in of the IBIS’ (after the shutter release button is pressed) ‘affect or alter’ the focus which I had earlier set with the ‘Back Button’?

    I hope to hear your feedback on this concern so that I can use this technique with confidence – which I really like and enjoy using :-)

    Yours sincerely,

    • Yes this little nudge from the sensor shaking is interesting…i’ve even had it adjust my composition a little when on a tripod. In terms of AF and dealing with this I would ONLY be concerned in very extreme macro scenarios. Situations where you are very close and working with a very shallow depth of field. Otherwise the sensor is just not shifting enough to move you out of the plane of focus, or introduce a scheimpflug effect. (tilt/shift) Or at least that is from my experience. If it could, that would be amazing to be able to utilize! Then again, the Pentax cameras can move far enough to handle astro photography for up to 5 minutes apparently. It is the Astrotracer feature. I have not used it…and I wonder what focal length is the max usable. Regardless…quite the tangent. If you are not up macro close, you have nothing to worry about in terms of focus shifting from IBIS.

  2. I shoot sports and marching bands/drum corps where there is a lot of movement and often lower light. There is a considerable amount of discussion about back/rear-button focus so I am thinking about trying it.

    I have two questions:
    1. I like to lock the exposure, then adjust with exposure compensation. This doesn’t seem possible when the AEL/AFL is set at the focus button. Is it possible?

    2. In the configuration I am using, I press the shutter button half way to focus, fully to make the exposure, then only bring my finger halfway up which maintains focus. I haven’t seen this technic written about anywhere and it seems to solve the problem you describe as a reason for back-button focusing. Am I missing something?


  3. Hi Bruce,
    To answer your questions-
    1. Yes this does work. I use mode 3 for the rear button AF. Custom Menu, A1, AEL, Mode 3.
    The only thing my AF button now is focus. Simple. I don’t even need to hold it down. I just press the button to focus, and it locks focus. That’s it. The shutter button is what is now locking exposure when you press it half way. If I press the shutter half way…I can still use exposure compensation by turning the dial. It will adjust it relative to where you locked it. This assumes you are in an Auto-focus mode.

    If you switch to manual focus only, the focus button will automatically become an Exposure Lock button. This will display a green AEL box on the screen when you press it. You can press your focus button again to turn the exposure lock off. With the lock on, it will retain even AFTER you make an exposure. Adjusting compensation while exposure is locked in this method still functions as before.

    2. To give my thoughts about this is interesting… You must have extremely fine touch ability. I cannot release the shutter after an exposure only half way. I either let go completely, or I end up making more shots, even with single shot selected. I just don’t have the dexterity to float in in the middle after a shot is made.

    For me, rear button focus is a way for me to set focus and not have the camera re-focus while I do other things or make additional shots. So I might make several exposures, or I might recompose, or light paint several shots, or change things on my subject for instance while leaving distance the same. It’s in fact just the same as me manually focusing and then not turning the lens ring again. Often for me, time can pass between exposures so this is not an instantaneous thing. Your technique listed can definitely, but it means you are keeping your fingers where they are in order to keep the shutter held half way. For me, I am often on a tripod and let go of the camera completely. So the shutter button removed from focusing makes how I shoot easier. In other scenarios, the technique you describe could be a more efficient I bet. Just depends what the end goal is.

    I hope the answers your questions. I will have to practice letting go of the shutter more carefully!

  4. Ok I may just be a numpty so bear with me. I attempted to separate focus to a back button (I like having multiple buttons as you say Tony as looking down on the body its easier to select the RECD button) while staying in S-AF & it failed to register on all occasions. I only achieved it with selecting MF in the A1 MENU (AF Mode). I’m using the new M1X & am relatively green on Olympus controls. So I may be doing something wrong though I followed your instructions here Tony. I was a sports shooter for 5 years and became a fan of back button focus using Canons it worked for me as I shot 95% of the time in manual so the shutter release never influenced exposure & it was the favourite method (though not the only method) from most I talked to in the circles I moved in at that time. But I since gleaned from my surfs around the net that few shooters (wild life) adopt it all the time. In fact from recent info I see many wildlife shooters stick to having the shutter & Focus button the same only reverting to back button for landscape work. This is just my limited input & sure I see the benefits and also see when it may not be ideal. I will be experimenting but my first point about AF mode is odd. Any feedback would be useful as I may have inadvertently set another function that overrides the settings Tony has proposed.

  5. Thank you Tony for your article. I also have a Nikon D850 DSLR, and wanted to set BB Focus the same. There is one difference however; with the Olympus, it does not show the related aperture and shutter speed when pressing the BB Focus.

    I’m just getting used to this camera for when I want to shoot with a lighter and smaller (mirrorless) camera.

    One thing I find extremely annoying is when you navigate through the menu, it keeps blocking the visibility of the selections with a description of the current selection. Is there any way to turn this off?

    • Hi Jim. Yes, when you are in the menu…press the info button. It toggles the description on and off. It’s good when you can’t remember something…but in the way otherwise. Luckily it’s easy enough to hide or display. As for the BB focus question… i’m not sure I understand. The Olympus doesn’t show the “related aperture and shutter speed?” The aperture and shutter speed are displayed in the viewfinder and on the rear screen at the bottom. Pressing the rear focus button simply focuses. What does the D850 do when you use the rear focus button? I’ve only used a D810 once so I can’t remember anything specific.

  6. Hi, is relevant for the em1? i dont have those menu options I can fine..I’m a new Olymyus user. thanks very much

    • Hi Marion, Yes this does apply to the E-M1. In fact, the directions are exactly the same. The only thing different is that on your camera there is no custom menu A1… it is just listed as “A.” Go to custom menu A and select AEL/AFL option for the first direction. The rest of the instruction is the same after that. Let me know if you need any further assistance!

  7. Thankyou :) sorry i just saw your reply today, worked a treat

  8. This article is very helpful. I haven’t used BBF much, but do want to try. My question is: Is there a way to assign BBF to a function button so it could be toggled on and off or is a dive into the menu to find myset the only way to access it?

    Also, is your answer emailed or do I come back to this page to find it?

    thanks so much

    • Hi Nancy! You can’t make the BBF a toggle… but you can set it in custom modes. So you could have two identical custom modes for instance, one with BBF and one without. That would be a quick way to adjust.
      The only other way it acts as a toggle in a sense is if you change the setting for BBF on continuous and single to be different. Then switching between those changes it. There is no way to make a custom button a toggle switch directly to turn BBF on or off though.

    • Old post but…another fairly easy way to switch back and forth (that works well for me, generally using S-AF and not C-AF) is to have S-AF set in Mode 1 (half press focuses) and then set up MF in Mode 3 (half press locks exposure, and AFL/AEL button triggers S-AF), and then set a function button to toggle MF.

      Then, if I’m handing the camera to someone else, or want to use the default half press arrangement, I leave the camera in S-AF. If I want full control of focus, I switch to MF, and then I have both the use of the manual focus ring and the ability to back button focus.

      The only other permutation is that (if I recall correctly – will have to check when I get home) if I snap the focus ring back to the mechanical manual focus position on one of the Pro lenses, no autofocus is possible so the button doesn’t do anything. But in MF with the ring in the forward, focus-by-wire position, it works as described above.

  9. I had set my Olympus OM-D EM1 Mkii so that (1) when the ael/afl lever was set to position 1, it operated in its default setting to lock exposure, and (2) when the ael/afl lever was set to position 2 it was back button focusing. How great was that! I could go to or leave bbf with the move of a lever…no menus. Also, I still had exposure lock. But after I installed firmware 3.1, I had to restore all default settings and now I can not remember how I accomplished this. Any ideas.

  10. I have switched to BBF (I previously used it on my Canon 7D MK II) but find one problem. The BBF button turns on auto focus but not IBIS so it is difficult to hold the focus point on the target. With front button focus, holding the shutter button halfway down also turns on the IBIS. Is there anyway to make this happen with BBF? This makes a huge difference using centre point focusing on small birds.

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