There’s no reason to beat around the bush. If you’re a photographer who uses a DSLR and takes advantage of autofocus, then back button focus is for you. Regardless of what type of photography you shoot–sports, portraits, landscapes, etc—back button focus is light years beyond the typical autofocus method of pressing the shutter button halfway down, waiting for the lens to find focus, then depressing the shutter button completely.
To be completely honest, I’m not sure why digital cameras don’t come already setup to function using back button focus. It really is that much better. So rather than spending the next few paragraphs questioning whether or not you should be using back button focus, I’ll just tell you now. Yes. Yes, you should be using it–and here’s why…
While the ability to focus quickly isn’t necessarily paramount in some types of photography, it certainly doesn’t take away from the process either. With back button focus, you can focus in a much more time efficient manner. This is because you are given the ability to focus and shoot at pretty much the same time. As mentioned before, no more holding the shutter release halfway down and waiting before you can take a photo.
Back button focus lets you press a dedicated button on the back of your camera, relieving the shutter button of its focusing duties altogether. That means you can press the focus button while simultaneously pressing the shutter button to fire the trigger. When shooting moving objects and scenes—such as sports or even wildlife photography—this ability is beyond useful, it’s necessary. Street photography is another genre which greatly benefits from back button focus, as the subjects are likely to move about without a moment’s notice.
You’ll be able to take more shots in a shorter amount of time—the benefits of that need no explaining. While you may still miss focus on an occasional shot, one could argue have even a slightly out of focus shot is a lot better than having no shot at all.
Using Back Button Focus
Since different cameras makes and models will vary in the way back button focus is setup, it’s best to consult your camera’s user manual for exact instructions. A Google or Youtube search is usually also fruitful if you use a more widely known camera such as a Canon or Nikon DSLR. Generally speaking, setting up back button focus is usually nothing more than changing a couple options in your camera’s menu system. The entire process usually takes only a few minutes.
For many people, the most challenging task of using back button focus is retraining their fingers to use a different button to focus than the shutter button, which, for many, has become somewhat of a habit—second nature if you will.
But don’t be discouraged if the setup feels a little awkward first. After a few practice sessions, you’ll get the hang of it rather quickly. In fact, I’d go so far as to say, once you’ve got the new setup down, you’ll question yourself over why it took so long for you to adopt back button focusing. It really is that much better.