Back Button Focus Irrelevant in 2020?

In Master Photography Roundtable by Jeff Harmon8 Comments

What Is Back Button Focus

Back button focus sounds could sound like a difficult and technical thing, but it really is a simple concept.  It is changing the configuration of your camera so that the autofocus system is engaged by pressing a button on the back of the camera instead of pressing the shutter half way down.  

That is all there is to it as far as the definition.  But there is a lot more too it as far as why you would want to configure your camera to work this way.  I talk about that and go into quite a bit of detail in a Photo Taco episode I published back in May of 2015 called “Back Button Focus” you should check out if you want more information.

Controversy of Back Button Focus

As a shooting technique, BBF is kind of controversial.  There are kind of two camps with regards to back button focus, those who use it and those who don’t.  It is interesting to me to observe the two sides and how entrenched they seem to get in their camp. They pick as side and they are going to defend that ground and die there on whichever side they stand.  

Photographers get pretty passionate about this and to me it seems like a take it or leave it technique.  I think it is very worth understanding the technique and trying it out. If it ends up being something that helps you to create photos use it, if it doesn’t then leave it.  However, I do think every photographer needs to evaluate if they want to use back button focus as they move down that path towards mastering the art of photography.  

Some of you listening may have heard of back button focus as a shooting technique and have never really given it a try.  Some of you may have heard about this technique for years and never really gave it a try. I recommend you do that, give it a serious try, because for some of you it might just be a game-changing technique that will help you create the photos you want.  

When I say “give it a serious try” I do really mean those words here.  The BBF technique is going to interfere with the muscle memory you have built for taking photos.  It may not seem like a huge deal as I am describing this, but even if you are pretty new to photography you already have a technique you are using to create photos that you are more used to than you imagine.  BBF is going to interfere and feel extremely awkward, maybe to the point of missing some shots as you give the technique a serious try.

Why I use Back Button Focus

I personally use BBF.  I am a control freak as I shoot.  I think there is a place for semi-automatic modes like aperture priority for some shooting situations, but I shoot manual for the most part because I want to control all of the camera settings and don’t want to leave that up to the camera to decide.  I am not saying you aren’t a real photographer if you don’t shoot manual, because that is hogwash. I just like to have full control over the exposure triangle as I am shooting and manual mode allows me to do that.

I also don’t like shooting with flash in TTL for exactly the same reason.  I don’t want to have my flash be told to change power or zoom because of something my camera decided.  I want to be in control of when my flashes so I set them to manual mode. I am a control freak when it comes to how the photography gear I am using operates.

The same thinking applies to me with BBF.  I don’t like that the shutter button is doing two, and in some cases three, things at once when I press it.  It is supposed to trip the shutter and record an image to the memory card. I don’t want that shutter button to also mess with the focus and potentially exposure lock.  I prefer to choose for myself when the autofocus system should be engaged and when it should not. BBF works for me, but if it doesn’t work for you I am not offended and say go forth with your half shutter press autofocus and create awesome images!  I just think every photographer should make that decision for themselves and be aware of the BBF technique.

Is Back Button Focus Relevant in 2020?

The reason I chose to do yet another episode on this topic is an article from our friends over at PetaPixel where a photographer suggested that back button focus BBF as a technique may no longer be relevant here in 2020.  You can check out Is Back-Button Focus Becoming an Outdated Photography Technique?.  You should not only read the article but also to take a look at the passion raised in the comments.  That passion is something I really just don’t understand because in no way do I think any photographer is doing anything wrong by NOT using BBF.

In the article the author suggests that modern technology in cameras is making BBF irrelevant.  I am going to walk you through my thoughts of the specific technology advancements the author suggests may make BBF irrelevant in 2020, but first I want to point you to an article Canon released back in January 2013 and updated as recently as February 2019 called Back-Button Autofocus Explained.  

In that article Canon explains why it is that they have put back button focus as a capability into every camera they have made since 1989 and the 5 types of shooting where they have been told by professional photographers BBF provides an advantage.  I am going to refer to these use cases as we talk through the suggested technical features the PetaPixel author suggests make BBF irrelevant.

Focus Points Coverage

The first technology the author suggests makes BBF an irrelevant technique here in 2020 is the coverage of focus points in the latest releases of cameras by all of the manufacturers, but in particular the Sony a7R IV.  The Sony a7R IV offers 323 focus points to manually choose from that covers 99.7% of the image area vertically and 75% of the image area horizontally.

The author says that this reduces the need for BBF this way: “With my focus point always on the subject and no need to recompose my shots, I’m laying on the autofocus so that I’m always ready to release the shutter for the sharpest image. There is no advantage to adding a second button into the mix, and if anything it’s now obstructing a much better use for my thumb: focus point selection.”

The argument here then is that one of the reasons to do BBF was because we had too few focus points when we want the subject of our photo off center and have the control to press that shutter button half down and then recompose the shot without letting the button back up or pressing the button to far down and snapping the photo before you are ready.  Now that we have far more focus points available to us in modern cameras, the need to focus and recompose comes far less and what you really need to do today is have your thumb ready to change which focus points are active.

The author is right that this is one of the common use cases for the BBF camp to say you should use the technique to give yourself a better chance of getting focus and making it easier on your fingers.  In fact, it is use case number one in the Canon article.  

I also totally agree with the author that we need to have really fast ways to change the active auto focus points with our cameras.  I like the way that works with my Canon 7DM2 much better than with my Canon 80D camera.  

However, I think there is a little more to the BBF technique for this situation than is covered by the increased number of autofocus points in modern cameras.  When I am shooting and need to do focus and recompose I can grab focus once and then because I am using BBF I can take as many shots and recompose as many times as I like without having to worry about engaging autofocus again.  As long as I don’t change the focal length or my position in relation to the subject while I am shooting, I can set the focus once and shoot as many shots as I want knowing that the autofocus system won’t be engaged again until I want it to be.

Still, the point the author makes is a fair one.  With cameras supplying far more focus points here in 2020 than were available back in 2013, the emphasis or the help we need to get the most sharpness out of our photos and helping us to be faster may be changing from BBF to needing a really fast way to select which focus point is going to be active as you press that shutter half way down and engage the autofocus system.

Focus Point Selection

Going pretty hand-in-hand here with the first technology the author suggested makes BBF irrelevant here in 2020 is the second technology that has improved in modern cameras being how we can select which focus points are selected for use.

The author argues that BBF hurts you here.  If your thumb is pressing down the button on the back of the camera to engage autofocus, it can’t be used to change which autofocus point is selected.  You have to move your thumb down to the controls that can be used to change the focus point selected and then back up over the button do do autofocus, wasting valuable time and potentially missing the action shot.

The author points out that with modern Sony cameras you can use your thumb on the touch screen to change which focus point is active much faster than other cameras and the combination of that with the focus system be connected to the shutter button all of that can happen much faster to capture action.  In fact, with the Sony a9M2 you can have the focus mode be set to continuous, hold that shutter button halfway down to keep the autofocus system engaged, and then use your thumb to change which focus point is active as your subject is moving around.

The issue I had with this suggestion from the author that the ability to change which focus point is active MUCH faster makes BBF irrelevant is that I don’t shoot action photos this way at all.  When I shoot high school basketball games, I am not wasting any time moving which focus point is selected and I am having a really hard time thinking that even with the ability to change which focus point is active by the touch screen on the camera I would really be able to keep the focus point where I want it to be.  Then I thought that maybe the way my camera works has really shaped my technique and is making it hard for me to imagine that I could keep the focus point following the athletes as they get the basketball.

Think about it more, and reading the use cases in the Canon article for BBF, I realized the reason I prefer BBF when shooting sports doesn’t have to really do with focus points or even how continuous autofocus works.  Even my Canon 7DM2 that was released more than 5 years ago back in 2014 has pretty good continuous autofocus that means having a different focus point selected isn’t really a big deal.

The reason I prefer BBF is for the situation that comes up a lot as you are on the sidelines of sporting events, things suddenly coming into the frame that are between you and the athlete you are trying to shoot.  This is use case number three in the Canon article, “Less risk of focus error with moving subjects”. When a ref, a cheerleader, or a kid walking by to go to concessions gets between you and the athlete you are trying desperately to focus on, I can release the back button engaging autofocus and then as soon as they clear the frame resume shooting and know that the focus didn’t change.

Maybe this ability to change the focus point selected would be so fast you could let up on the shutter to stop focusing and then get the focus point right back to where you need it to be after the ref has gone back out of the frame and you can press that shutter button back down.  I would have to test that and see, but I have my doubts the ability to very quickly move which focus point is active solves the problem the same way BBF does.

Autofocus Tracking

The last technology update that the author suggests makes BBF irrelevant here in 2020 is autofocus tracking.  I think a direct quote from the article is the best way to frame the argument being made.

“Behind all of these new tracking abilities is continuous autofocus, and behind continuous autofocus is a button being held down to activate it. These days I’m almost never pressing the shutter without also autofocusing at the same time because all the technologies behind AF-C have made it the smartest and most accurate way to shoot. I get a near real-time update in focus at all times which gives me the highest chance at a sharp image.”

I think I have to fully agree on this point.  The advancements that have been made in autofocus tracking a really big deal.  If autofocus tracking is a critical thing to getting your short, this may be a very valid reason for upgrading your camera so that you can get the very latest technology to help you have the best chance at a sharp image.  It really doesn’t make a ton of sense to break your muscle memory to go to BBF if you want continuous autofocus to always be engaged as you are shooting, unless your finger does get tired trying to have that control to keep the shutter halfway down over long periods of time.

Conclusion

There are the arguments that were made in the PetaPixel article and how it is I thought about them trying to keep an open mind.  Let us know what you think. You can email the show, you can reply to the post I’ll make in the Facebook group. You can add a comment to the show notes on the website.

Doodads

Jeff: My doodad of the week this week may not apply to a lot of you out there but is something I am finding tremendously helpful as I am working so hard on testing Lightroom with different configurations of external drives and where the catalog and photos are located.  I need to capture the screen as I am using lightroom plus all of the performance graphs as I go through my testing and a lot of the screen capture solutions take a lot of resources on the computer that was impacting my results. My good friend Steve Brazill suggested I look into NDI you can find for free over at NDI.tv.  It allows you to send your screen over the network to another computer where the recording can be done. This allows me to do recordings I can share in YouTube videos of the testing I am doing without it impacting the system performance metrics. I am really excited about it.

Reminders:

Comments

  1. Even new cameras can have issues focusing in low light. Separating focus from shutter lets you lock in the focus and shoot at the peak of the action. Transiting objects can result in even more seeking time in these conditions.

    In my case, low light venues with bands have moving guitars, microphones etc. Shooting over ISO 40000 still gives good results.

    Cameras used, Sony A7RIII / A9II

  2. Don’t rent an a9 II. Rent an a7 III. Much more main stream.

    I agree there are a few use cases where it is an advantage. I rarely encounter them. If I do, I may miss a couple of shots out of 10 in a burst. I don’t want to have to switch back and forth. I have tried it and just never saw the overall benefit.

    You are a great information source for many newbies. Do you worry that you are teaching outdated methods? I’m including Manual exposure and ETTL. Certainly everyone must learn Manual. There are many cases where it is called for. But to use it walking around in changing conditions is ignoring the very capable abilities of modern cameras.

    1. Author

      @Mike, thanks so much for listening!!! Yes, I totally agree that aperture priority in particular is the right mode for some situations. I tried to make sure to mention that.

  3. Jeff, thanks for this new view of back button focus (which I use)

    I was surprised about you losing focus on an athlete when the ref gets in the way, I use Nikon (D850) focus tracking with lock-on (custom setting). I can tell the camera to ignore something (a ref or a tree) that gets in-between the focus point for a certain period of time (1 sec, for example). So, it tracks the subject even when something temporarily gets in the way.

    It may be time to upgrade from your now 6 yr old camera😎

    1. Author

      @Brien,
      I should have been more specific. The focus tracking in Case 4 can work quite well to keep tracking an athlete when a ref comes in between the camera and the athlete on both of my Canon cameras. Just not always and I like having the control over when autofocus is engaged and when it is not separate from the shutter just to make sure. I don’t like leaving it up to the camera.

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