How to use Nikon’s AF-ON and back button autofocus

Perfect Pounce
This article on how to use Nikon's AF-ON button for AF is written by Steve Perry (website | YouTube | Facebook):

Still autofocusing by pressing halfway down on your shutter release? Well, suppose I told you there’s another way that you might even like better? Sound interesting? Read on.

The technique is called Back Button Autofocus and it can really change the way you use your camera. Rather than autofocusing with your shutter release, you move the autofocus function exclusively to a button on the back of the camera. When you first hear about this technique, it’s natural to greet the idea with a bit of uncertainty, but once you get used to focusing with this method, you may never go back.

See, Back Button AF turns focusing into an almost instinctive act for many photographers. It’s a fantastic alternative to switching between single shot AF for static subjects or continuous AF for action. With back button AF, you can do whatever you want - instantly. I’ve been using it for years, and I’m confident in saying that this technique has helped me land some of my best shots.

Naturally, this is a case of personal preference, however, wouldn’t you like to see if you should add this tool to your arsenal? Check out the video below for details. Oh, and don’t worry - nearly every Nikon DSLR supports the feature and the video shows you exactly how to set it up. Why not give it a try for a couple weeks and see what you think?



Below are a few sample shots. As a wildlife and landscape photographer, Back Button AF really comes in handy, but keep in mind it's just as effective on portraits, sports, street, architecture, or whatever style of photography you enjoy. By the way, all were resized using my web sharpening technique you can find on my YouTube channel.

Shooting Action Photos:

One of the best uses for Back Button AF is when a static subject suddenly decides it’s time to run, leap, jump, or sprint. You’ll find that going from static shots to action shots isn’t just instantaneous, it will also become instinctive in a very short amount of time. Beats trying to switch back and forth from single shot AF to continuous AF, that’s for sure.

Sprinting Pronghorn
Sprinting Pronghorn - Shot with a Nikon D4 and Nikon 600mm F4. This started off with him simply posing for a few portraits, and then he took off running after a female. Back Button AF allowed me to instantly track him as he sprinted in front of me.

Egret Takeoff
Egret Takeoff - Shot with a Nikon D4 and 500mm F4. This egret was busy flying from spot to spot on this little pond, so when he came close I knew what would happen. Back Button AF allowed me to shoot portraits by focusing and recomposing until I could see he was ready to take off. In a split second my finger was holding down the AF-On button and I was tracking the takeoff. Never took my eye from the viewfinder, never really even thought about focus.

Perfect Pounce
Perfect Pounce - Shot with a Nikon D4, 600mm F4, and 1.4TC. This coyote was busy hunting and Back Button AF made it simple to grab focus and recompose for portrait shots, and then instantly switch to continuous AF when he pounced.

Shooting Static Photos:

What about when the action stops and you want a static posed shot? No worries, just focus on the point you want, release the AF button, recompose and shoot all you like. The focus will stay at that point no matter how many times your finger comes off of the shutter release. No more refocusing and recomposing between each and every shot.

Nose To Nose
Nose To Nose - Shot with a Nikon D4 and 600mm F4 + 1.4TC. Back Button AF saved the day here. I was easily able to switch from tracking the bull as he moved to focusing and recomposing when he stopped. This moment only lasted a second - no time to fiddle around with AF settings. Back Button AF allowed me to instantly lock focus on his eye and make the shot.

Polar Bear Taking A Break
Polar Bear Taking A Break - Shot with a Nikon D4 and 500mm F4. This girl was walking along the ice and then decided it was break time. I went from tracking her to making this portrait without worrying about whether I was in AF single or AF continuous focus. I just locked focus on the eye, took my finger off the AF-On button, recomposed, and took the shot anytime she looked my way. Had she decided to start walking again, I could have instantly started tracking her.

Fawns - This was shot with a Nikon D4 and 500mm F4. Just seconds before this shot I had been using an AF point just above center to photograph one of the fawns as she moved towards me. When the next one walked up, my AF point was in the wrong spot, but no worries, I quickly focused on an eye, let go of the AF-On button, recomposed, and shot the photo. Had I been on continuous AF, I would have had to either move my AF point to one of their eyes or switch to single shot AF. However, this moment didn't last long, and the truth is I would have missed the shot because I was messing around with camera settings instead of shooting.

Shooting Landscape Photos:

Landscape photos really aren’t the type of subject that strike people as benefiting from this technique - after all, how tough can it be to focus on a landscape, right? Well, turns out Back Button AF really does come in handy. It allows you to focus on one spot in the photo, recompose, and shoot - all without the need to repeat the process each time you take your finger off the shutter release. This is especially handy if the spot you want to focus on isn’t under one of your AF sensors. Plus, it makes shooting with a tripod better, since you only need to focus and lock down once, not reset every time you take your finger off the shutter release.

Keeweenaw Sunset Breakers
Keeweenaw Sunset Breakers - This was shot with a Nikon D800 and 14-24. For this shot, my AF point was slightly below the last row of AF sensors. With Back Button AF, I was able to focus, compose, and lock everything down. I didn't have to refocus and recompose each time my finger left the shutter release.

Split Rock Lighthouse Moonrise
Split Rock Moonrise - This was shot with a Nikon D3x and 24-70. In this situation, I needed to find a focus point that would keep both the rock in foreground sharp as well as the lighthouse (at my selected aperture). So, I found a spot on land that was just the right distance, focused, and released the AF-On button. From there, I composed the photo and shot away, never worrying about refocusing or recomposing.

Hocking Hills Lower Falls
Hocking Hills Lower Falls - This was shot with a Nikon D3x and 24-70. For this shot, I wanted to focus on the rock just in front of where the waterfall breaks over the edge of the cliff. Of course, no AF point there, so I simply focused, recomposed and shot away. With AF-On I didn't need to worry about the need to refocus and recompose each time my finger left the shutter release.

If you have an interesting idea for a guest postyou can contact me here.

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  • Sean Crane

    This is the way I shoot as well. Well explained, however, another advantage is in the case of a creature that might be walking through tall grass. The camera’s auto focus points can sometimes get confused and pick up the foreground grass rather than the subject. In such a case, just take your thumb off the back button and manual focus.

  • Jeff Clow

    Outstanding video, Steve….full of “how to” and “why to”….you did a superb job on this video. My sincere compliments.

  • Daniel Stonek

    Using MB-D14 battery pack you also have to set AF-ON in f9 (D600 settings)

  • Joe G

    Great information and video! A question regarding exposure setting when using back button focusing… on my d7100, custom setting C1 if set to “On” allows me to get exposure with a half press of the shutter button and keep that setting locked by keeping the button half-pressed. (As opposed to having the exposure metered and calculated continuously when the shutter button is half pressed.) Do you have any recommendations for which setting might be best or whether you would have C1 on in some circumstances and off in others?

  • amateur

    Can anyone tell me how to do this with a Sony a77? I’ve been trying to figure it out with trial and error as well as a web search, but remain confused. Thanks!

  • Luis Barreto

    I use this technique with my Nikon Coolpix A. The only difference is that the button is in the front of the camera. It’s also very useful for video recording, because you can refocus whenever you want.

  • Randy

    I switched over to this within days of moving to a D800 when I had the option. It made more sense right when I saw the button and I haven’t gone back. I agree with the writer, it does take some time to adjust, but in the end it makes for a far smoother, more natural, and more controlled process. I can’t recommend it enough; the only annoying part is having to switch back to the half-shutter mode when you want to let people use your camera!

  • Simanta

    Mr Steve, [BB A/F], is a great technique I’ve just learned from you and I think I’m going to stick to it for the rest of my life. But as a D800 user I’m just a wee bit confused as to how many A/F points to use in this case. i.e. S/9/21/51 if I were to shoot a fast moving subject ?

  • 5SpeedGuy

    My Nikon D5100 and I must be missing something here. I’ve set the AE-L/AF-L button to AF-ON, the Focus Mode to AF-C, and the shutter to Release – as posted. Wnen I press the now AF-ON button, my focus point lights up RED as usual. Then, I release the buttonto supposedly lock that focus on the specific subject. However, when I recompose and press the shutter, the focus point lights red on a different spot. When I checked my focus point on test photos into View NX2, the focus point is NOT what I focused on with the AF-ON button. There MUST be something else I have to do.
    Need some help on this one as I like the idea of B Button Focus.

  • Just got around to trying this AF technique. It works much faster and smoother than my previous process. Thanks.

  • Useful information but I am under the impression that you can be in AF-S mode and the back focus button can simulate the AF-C mode. Is this correct?

  • Phil

    Will this method work if I am using a wired or wireless remote? Also if I set it for one shot do I have to set it each time for the next shot if nothing has changed?

  • Gryfnngurl Toney

    WOW Thanks for sharing this technique. I take a lot of pictures of fiddly kids; I think it will make composing my photos so much easier.

  • MiguelHP

    Hi Steve, so do you keep your finger on the AF Button to continuously focus while tracking a moving subject?

  • Michael LeBlanc

    I just recently started using this type of fucusing and still takes some getting used to, but i can certainly see it’s advantages. I still have my U1 and U2 settings set to the normal focus mode. That way I have both depending on what I’m doing.

  • Avalonica

    What AF-Area mode (single, dynamic, etc) should you use with this technique if your subject is likely to move?

  • Irwin

    Great tip… great presentation

  • doc

    I have a Nikon D5000… but my camera does not give me the option of selecting “AF-C”. It only gives me AF-A and MF. Is it not capable of creating the back button focus? You demonstrated this option in the video using your D800 and D5000 but you looked like you were holding in your hand the D5100. Can you help?

  • Roger Mosley

    I have a Nikon D810. I have set up the AF-ON button for back button focus, and the focus mode set to AF-C, “release”. The problem is my shutter button still focuses and over-rides the back button focus. How do I disable the shutter button focus?

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