Has Mirrorless Killed Back Button AF?

So, there I was, diligently working on a Z series version of my AF book when I came to the Back Button AF (BBAF) chapter. Within moments I found myself running head-long into an instructional blockade.

As I was confidently outlining the benefits of BBAF, it occurred to me that one of its primary benefits has virtually disappeared with mirrorless cameras. In fact, within a week of updating that chapter, I had received several e-mails about the topic as well. Apparently I’m not the only one thinking about it!

So, what changed? Simple – AF points are now all over the viewfinder. The need to focus and recompose is mostly gone (depending on how you shoot).

Think about it. The primary reason for BBAF is so you can focus and recompose in AF-C mode. In fact, the only operational reason to use BBAF is so that you can avoid switching to AF-S mode and leave the camera in AF-C mode all the time. (Of course, some people just like the ergonomics of it better – see my BBAF video and free guide for more background info).

For this image, I used BBAF and the focus + recompose technique to keep the eye sharp. However, each time the barbet moved, I had to focus + recompose again. (Nikon D5, Nikon 600 F/4 + 1.4TC, 1/1600th, F/5.6, ISO 450)

Of course, focusing and recomposing is critical with a DSLR since the AF points are clustered towards the center area – and this is especially true for full-frame shooters. Sometimes, there’s just not an AF point where you need it.

So, with DSLRs, we need a speedy way to focus and recompose – without switching to AF-S constantly. Enter BBAF. We can focus on our subject, release the AF-On button, and the focus distance will stay the same as we recompose and shoot. Pretty snazzy.

However, in a world where AF points laugh at limitations and span the entire viewfinder, it’s a different game. After all, we can just as easily move our AF point to where we want it in the image, focus, and shoot. Even if you find yourself in a situation where you would have normally switched to AF-S, you can stick with AF-C since the AF point is on the spot you want it.

And, as a bonus, that’s how I prefer to focus!

For example, when chasing down wildlife images, I always try to move a focus point to the eye of the subject and keep AF engaged while I shoot. That way, any slight movements on my part – or the animal’s part – are instantly compensated for by the camera (again, as long as it’s in AF-C).

Since this image was vertical, I was able to stick an AF point right on her eye – and I kept it there as she stretched, changed position, and moved her head. (Nikon D4, Nikon 600 F/4 + 1.4TC, 1/250th, F/7.1, ISO 4000)

With my DSLRs, this was an issue since the eye frequently falls outside the AF field – and no amount of frustrated joystick pushing (or cursing, as it turns out) can get an AF point to the subject’s eye when it’s outside that AF field. So, I’d use the focus and recompose technique.

With mirrorless, I don’t have to do that anymore. I always have an AF point that I can easily place on my subject’s eyeball.

Plus, with shutter release AF, your thumb is free to wander around the back of the camera and play with other controls as you shoot – like the little AF joystick for instance. This, of course, makes sliding those AF points around the viewfinder much easier – and I can do it while keeping AF active.

In fact, one immediate Shutter-Release AF advantage I enjoyed was when dealing with an animal that can’t keep its face still. For example, take a preening bird. One second its face is low working over some wing feathers, the next moment its head up up high checking for predators. When you’re chasing the eye with a single AF point, having your thumb free to jog that AF point around is a life saver (and a game-changer).

This burrowing owl was startled by something behind me and came up to attention. (No, it wasn’t me – I’d been sitting with him for an hour). With shutter-release AF, my thumb was free to keep the AF point on his eye as he bopped up and down. (Nikon Z7, Nikon 500PF, 1/500th, F/5.6, ISO 220)

I know what you’re thinking – if Steve is shooting shutter-release AF, is the devil picking sides for a snowball fight at this very moment?

Well, probably not just yet. ๐Ÿ˜€

The thing is, while I can see the benefits of shutter release AF, there are still times where BBAF is beneficial.

For example, BBAF is still handy when you want to “lock” focus at a certain distance. Maybe you’re shooting a landscape and you don’t want the camera trying to re-focus every time you take your finger from the shutter release – even if it is focusing in the right place (especially if that place is sometimes obscured – like by waves, blowing leaves etc).

Perhaps you have a tricky AF situation and the camera sometimes gets a lock and sometimes struggles. In those instances, it may be better to achieve focus and then release the AF-On button. You don’t want to see the decisive moment in the viewfinder only to discover your camera picked that instant to start struggling with focus!

Oh, and if you’ve ever shot wildlife on a windy day, you know that there are times when grass, reeds, branches, or even Spanish moss will drift between you and your subject. You can often get the shot during clear “windows” when this happens, but it’s helpful to have locked focus on the subject and not risk the camera trying to refocus on the foreground at the wrong moment.

Finally, I often give a gentle tap on the shutter release, pressing it to that half-way mark to keep the EVF active during a pause in the action. I really don’t want the camera trying to focus every time I do that (although, I could train myself to push another button I suppose).

Of course, assigning a button for AF-Lock duty can overcome all the problems mentioned above and allow you to use shutter-release AF. However, I’ve personally never liked that option. For the way I’m wired, it’s more intuitive to press a button to make something happen than to press and hold to keep something from happening.

Still, in the end I may eventually, and somewhat ironically, assign my AF-On button to AF-Lock duty one of these days. Especially if I decide that, for my style of shooting mirrorless, there are more advantages than disadvantages to shutter release AF.

At any rate, what’s right for you?

Honestly, at this point I’ve been switching back and forth and haven’t even decided what’s right for me! The thing is, I have never believed in blindly adhering to a technique or methodology when new circumstances or information present themselves. If things change it’s worth reevaluating our techniques.

That’s where I feel like we are with this.

BBAF? Shutter Release AF? Does it matter? Use the method that gets you the shot with the least amount of hassle. (Nikon Z7, Nikon 600 F/4 + 1.4TC, 1/1000th, F/5.6, ISO 320)

I think for some mirrorless shooters, BBAF still makes sense, however, for others, I think the time has come to reconsider shutter-release AF.

The way I look at it is if you’re shooting mirrorless, you need to weigh your options. Basically, I think it comes down to what you want your thumb working on – focus or AF position.

With BBAF, your thumb is sort of married to AF. Sure, you can move your thumb to adjust AF point position, but then you’re no longer focusing. (Note – yes, I know you can assign the joystick on the Z series to focus and move the AF points – but – you can only do one or the other – move or focus, you can’t do them together. With shutter release AF, the camera will keep focusing as you move the AF point.)

With shutter release AF, you get to move your AF points and focus at the same time – but – you lose the ability to just take your finger off the AF-On button to “lock in” the focus distance.

In the end, I think it really comes down to how (and what) you shoot and what gear you use to do it. Since I still use a combination of DSLRs and mirrorless, for now I’ll probably (mostly) stick with BBAF just for muscle memory purposes. However, when the day comes that I go entirely mirrorless, all bets are off ๐Ÿ˜€

Thoughts? Comments? Let me know below ๐Ÿ˜€

PS โ€“ If you enjoyed this post, I think youโ€™ll REALLY like my e-books and video workshops! Thousands of pages and hours of videos filled with tips, tricks, and techniques – all my best content!ย Check โ€™em out โ€“ click hereย (hey, itโ€™s free to look).

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Ante Vukorepa
Guest

I’ve got something that might bring you back to loving BBAF on Z6/7 – assign AF-ON to joystick press. That way, you can have your cake and eat it too – you can move the AF point where you want it, press the joystick in and – bam. The only worry is – if you haven’t been using it that way on DSLR bodies, you might not be used to pressing it in without accidentally moving it to one of the sides occasionally. That just takes a little bit of practice and getting adjusted to, though. As an aside –… Read more »

Nitin Madhav
Guest

As someone who switches between a D850 and a Z6, I like to have all my controls situated similarly, so I donโ€™t waste time futzing. While I see the logic, I fear it will screw up my muscle memory.

S. Hunt
Guest
S. Hunt

I tried using a Sony A9 with front focus photographing Northern Spotted Owls in the forest with low light. The Sony had a terrible time focusing on the owls’ eyes, and focus kept jumping around–to their perch, the leaves in the background, etc. I quickly went back to back-button focus and that fixed that problem. Interestingly, my Canon consistently focuses better than the Sony in low light.

Dave
Guest
Dave

Is the D5 your last DSLR? Great article. I have a D6, D500, D850, and a Z7 and I never thought of switching to shutter button focus when I got the Z. For me I never need to focus AND move the points. Itโ€™s sequential- move the point and THEN focus. I dont care if the intermediate points are in focus anyway. Only the final focal point matters since that is the only place I want to take a photo. Btw – I watch all ur videos, read ur web site and bought ur Ebooks to support your work.

shareece
Guest
shareece

For now I will continue to BBAF as I just purchased the Z6. Too much to think about changing habits at the onset. Perhaps later I’ll try different techniques. Thanks so much for these videos. They are soooo helpful.

Patrick Infante
Guest

I think it might be faster to BBF and recompose, than to first compose and then have to move the AF point around to the point where you want it (using the joystick).

Michael Davis
Guest

I follow your posts religiously. I have a question about mirrorless that is more or less on this topic. I know you are an avid Nikon shooter, and I also know that your feelings are that the Z series Nikon cameras are not up to the needs of action wildlife shooting, at least not yet. I shoot with the D5 and the D850, so BBF will stay in my arsenal. My question is — there’s another mirrorless that DOES have the needed characteristics for wildlife action and that is the Sony A9, A9ii. Is this the way to go now… Read more »

Jerry jaworowski
Guest

I shoot with the A9 & 400mm w1.4x zero IQ loss

Michael Davis
Guest

Jerry, what prompted you to choose the 400 w/ tc instead of 600mm?

jerry
Guest
jerry

More universal. Plus the 2.8 is nice for low light situations. If it was any other camera system Iโ€™d go with a 600mm. The Sonyโ€™s 400mm with 1.4x is that good with IQ

Michael Davis
Guest

As you can see from my comments to Steve, I am strongly considering moving from Nikon to Sony. I realize that the Nikon has a 400mm f/2.8, however, it’s almost exactly 2 pounds heavier. Given the benefits of of mirrorless in weight as well as other general photography benefits, it’s something I am strongly considering. However, I shoot in dusty environments, and even the Sony a9ii with its better environmental sealing, is highly prone to dust. Have you seen this issue? Would love to continue this discussion in email: [email protected]

Alfredo
Guest
Alfredo

I started to use BBAF from that day I missed a good closeup shot of a Goshawk that landed (with interest) on a tree where I was photographing a Great Spotted Woodpecker nest! Just a half click on the shutter button, the D7000 tried to get focus and got it on a very nice branch full of leaves way in front of the Goshawk, it was so out of focus that i didn’t even notice that branch looking through the viewfinder! A second later the Goshawk was gone… And it was quite sharp in my viewfinder before pressing that damn… Read more »

Rob
Guest
Rob

Steve, good article thanks for your thoughts. I think there are more reasons for BBF. I do it about 80%, turn it off when I am sharing my camera!!

Does your AF ebook cover the Z6?

Ehud Elhanaty
Guest
Ehud Elhanaty

if my focus point is in the middle and i point it to the point i want in focus then i can move the camera and recompose/ so why use bbaf for not moving subjects ?

DanirTX69 Dunnum
Guest
DanirTX69 Dunnum

I can see your point for wild life. Freeing up the thumb could help a lot, but for wide area AFC when you are using face or eye detect BBAF works great. That along with the Fn1 button assigned to activate the target works together amazingly well.

You are making me think hard on this. I think I will stick with BBAF for now, but I will be messing with the change a bit.

Patrick Molloy
Guest
Patrick Molloy

Wow. Iโ€™m a huge fan of BBF thanks to you….and now youโ€™re about to blow my mind! Oh noooooo

Mind you, I just sold my DSLR for the glorious Z6 hmmmm

Mark
Guest
Mark

Steve: I shoot the A-9 and A7r-3 and don’t see the advantage of giving up BBF. With these Sony cameras the and the Focus mode set on Eye Detection the focus remains in place. Also with a non-mammal subject (Bird) the AF-Lock option permits another nice option to lock in the focus point and then move the subject into a crosslink PowerP{point within the grid.

Scott Braley
Guest
Scott Braley

Thanks for your continuing thoughts on BBAF, Steve. I’m not sure that mirrorless or not is the issue with BBAF. I shot 35mm film or APSC Nikon for 25 years, mostly events and photos for organizational websites. I almost always used BBAF on Nikon. I finally gave up on Nikon about a year before the very belated D500 showed up. Actually, the lack of the D500 wasn’t the problem. The lack of proper APSC lenses was the problem, and still is. However BBAF didn’t work well w my original Olympus E-M1, nor was AF C very good. With the E-M1… Read more »

Nancie Casey
Guest
Nancie Casey

I have a Nikon D500, D810 and the Z7. I always use BBF. I love to shoot dogs playing, running and swimming. I have been trying to bond to my Z7 but just don’t love it. I sit in the middle of a grassy field while my husband throws the ball and try to capture our dog as she runs towards me and past me. I never have any luck. If anything is in focus it is her side but never her head or face. I seem to have much better luck with the D500. Do you have any suggestions… Read more »

David Stank
Guest

Donโ€™t give up on the Z7. The latest firmware upgrade to 3.0 is a big auto-focus improvement and there are many more versions coming. I also have a D500 (bought AFTER my Z7) and everything everyone said about the D500 for wildlife and birds in flight is true, but Iโ€™ve gotten good photos with the Z7 though, yes, it takes work and some practice (and a bit of luck for now). The D500 and Z7 make up a great combination.

Brandon B
Guest
Brandon B

Hi Steve, Iโ€™m still shooting DSLRs (850 + 750) and one option Iโ€™ve found is to keep the right thumb on the focus joystick while using the programmable button on certain telephoto lens to initiate focus.

Thanks for your articles!

Jason Savelsberg
Guest

I have the Z7 and 300mm PF combo, and just use the auto-tracking mode. I place the middle of the admittedly large square over the eye and start auto-tracking it. Works pretty well for me most of the time. I don’t like having to use the joystick unless I am doing landscape or macro, which is of course completely different.

george hartnett
Guest
george hartnett

AF Points – I don’t undertand difference between mirrorless and DSLR regarding focus pts – are mirrorless pts anywhere in viewfinder? why can’t DSLRs do the same thing?

Michael Hesley
Guest
Michael Hesley

Steve, I sold my Nikon gear and went to Olympus, I just couldn’t handle the weight of my D850/vert grip and my 600mm. Most of your website still applies, I just have to convert it to a different naming convention. On my Olympus M1X and my EM1 M3 I use both. You have an easy to understand style, and man, to keep your thoughts straight like you do you must have a very hi IQ. I still read every post, and who knows, maybe I’ll switch back to Nikon when later versions of the Z-series appears.

Stephen mason
Guest
Stephen mason

Maybe you should have checked out the spec of the camera before buying it? My Olympus OM D does BBC pkus other options?

Michael Hesley
Guest
Michael Hesley

Yup, they do! But Stephen, you know how “poor” the image is out of M4/3… ๐Ÿ™‚ I can still use AF Single Focus, and BBAF with the flick of a switch or button. I sold everything I have Nikon, which was considerable! Now I’m using the M1X and the EM1 M3. I still loved my Nikon gear, but the 300mm f/4 was too good to pass.

Frank
Guest
Frank

Moving the AF point also gets rid of any potential parallax issues introduced by focus & recompose, and really good tracking may ultimately make it all moot…

I never shot a DSLR so for me it’s always been natural to just put the AF point where I need it, even the bodies that don’t have a joystick usually let you use the touchscreen (with the display functionality off) for that purpose even while peering thru the EVF (far more intuitive than it sounds, not unlike a laptop touchpad).

Jim Buckley
Guest
Jim Buckley

Hi Steve… On my D750 and D850, I use the the Fn1 button on the front of the camera for BBAF with my right ring finger, freeing up my thumb for back of camera things. After I got the D850, I experimented with assigning Fn1 to some other functions, but despite many hours of re-training, my ring finger steadfastly refused to cooperate on a consistent basis, so Fn1 remains BBAF! Perhaps some of your viewers might be interested in this approach.

Patrick Molloy
Guest
Patrick Molloy

Youโ€™ve invented FBAF!

Jason Savelsberg
Guest

I used to assign autofocus to a front button with the Fujifilm X-T3. But I found that the F1 button on the Z7 just isn’t optimally placed for FBAF.

Joyce A Stevens
Guest
Joyce A Stevens

I was able to set up BB focus on my Nikon Z50. Can’t live without BB focus

F P D Cotterill
Guest

Thanks Steve, for this topical article. For outdoor genres, the Z system is world class for macro and landscapes, but it falls too short in other key areas ie AFC and the still-unfixed customization options. Since October 2018, I’ve used the Z7 side by side with the D850. I persist with BBAF on the Z in all cases. Muscle memory and consistency is one reason. Second, it is too often swifter to keep the AF cursor on the eye of flighty subjects by slight reframing instead of “lateral-pushing’ its relocation. The exception are large mammals and similar subjects that fill… Read more »

Alan
Guest
Alan

Changing to a different AF sensor will likely reset the cameras subject tracking information. Perhaps not a big deal for a stationery subject but more so if the distance between camera and subject is changing. Please correct me if I’m wrong – I’m not up to date with the latest AF systems.

Alan
Guest
Alan

Some cameras let you use a back button to *pause* the continuous AF. The front button keeps the AF going except while the back button is also pressed. I have found this works better for me.

Gene Duprey
Guest
Gene Duprey

I use the bbf to lock on to a subject and track it until I am ready to take the photo.

stig madsen
Guest
stig madsen

I have now used BBAF in a year on a D500 – but I see your point about the focus points filling all the viewfinder. But that goes for my camera as well doesn’t it ?

Andrew Washington
Guest
Andrew Washington

Hi Steve, I enjoy your videos and admire your images. Trouble is your a Nikon shooter and I’m a Canon man. always have been since my film days, just carried on I suppose. My problem is trying to follow your suggestions and advice on a Canon. Do you know of any Canon shooters that do what you do please ? I use a EOS R but for wildlife I and sports I go back to using my 7D mark 2 as I find for the same reasons as your Nikon guys. Although I love the R its not really a… Read more »

Kelly
Guest
Kelly

Steve… how do you know if you are using BBAF correctly? Have a D500. Ive read alot of your stuff and even watched your vids.

David Mollenhauer
Guest

Been using AF-ON as focus lock for years on D-500 with shutter-release focus. Love the freedom of thumb movement, as you suggested, for focus point movement. The occasional times I need to lock focus is readily available with the AF-ON. Great article as always!

Abhijit K Choudhury
Guest
Abhijit K Choudhury

I must be missing something….
With my Nikons – Z6 and DSLRs – for landscape photography, I often use BBF to focus on a subject in the shade, and then
move my focus point to the bright sky to meter so that I don’t blow the highlights. How would I do that with the shutter-based focus ?

Roland
Guest
Roland

When doing landscape photography, you could also:
a) switch to MF after you focused, to make sure the lens stays set to where you set it.
or, alternatively:
b) meter FIRST, set for the exposure, and don’t correct that after.
of course besides the already proposed
c) use a button configured to lock AF

Tom
Guest
Tom

Hi Steve, I have been shooting the Z6 for sports for almost 9 months now. I set it up this way at the very beginning: I press the AF-ON button and hold it down the entire time that I am shooting an action shot. I also have the shutter set for release priority so that now I can get the entire sequence from just prior to the action and all the way through until that sequence ends. I love my Z6 for sports.

Carlos Calderon
Guest
Carlos Calderon

Thanks so much for this explanation since Iโ€™m in the same boat. I switched from 850 to Z7 Iโ€™m still trying to get as proficient as I used to be with the D850. Is there any chance of you making a video about this subject since I find myself learning easier and faster with your videos. Thanks so much for continuing to share your vast knowledge in photography with us.

Francois Petit
Guest

Thank you again steve for your brillant explanations about the BBAF. Its very rare to find in one person artists qualitys and a real honnest and scientific way to anlyze problems. I think youare this person ! ( with a great sens of humor). But i think some day we all will switch to mirrorless, but this day hasn’t allready come for me, because i think its still marvellous to see birds flying away in reallity (with the ovf) instead of seeing them on a television , even the televison has a great quality( with the evf).thanks again

Robert Olson
Guest
Robert Olson

I’ve recently taken to trying to shoot birds in flight with my D500 and Z50 with Nikon’s 500mm, 5.6 lens. In fact, I was doing just this this morning chasing Osprey in the sky over a small lake. If I’m understanding this correctly, I should/could be moving the camera’s focus point around with the joystick to put it on the bird (using either BBAF or a partial push on the shutter release) and then press the shutter release down fully. My problem (perhaps due to my 78-year-old reflexes) is that moving a focus point around while tracking a bird racing… Read more »

Alan Roberts
Guest

Interesting topic thank you. At the moment, I’m completely torn. I used both a Nikon FX system with D810 & Z6 and an Olympus System with an E-M1ii and iii. I’ve used BBF on my Nikons and EM1ii for years and set my Z6 to the same mode when I bought it early last year. I attend a bird photography workshop with Scott Bourne this past December and was amazed to find that he doesn’t use BBF at all and, it clearly works for him having multiple thousands of stunning, selling results. Since I was so used to it, I… Read more »

Daniel Labranche
Guest

Excellent info. Here is the reason why I kept the BBAF way of life even with my mirrorless camera. I thought I would share this with you although my mirrorless is the DX Z50 There is no joystick on the Z50, only the multi-selector wheel at the back. That wheel does move the focus point but I find it a very slow process. Is it me ? Is a joystick on the Z6/7 faster ? I follow the BBAF with AF-On method on my D7500 i.e. BBAF and recompose. I found that using the same procedure on my Z50 is… Read more »

Ziggy
Guest
Ziggy

With BiF focus and recompose doesn’t come up and I’m working hard at keeping the bird in the frame centre anyway. The only reason for BBAF is if the feel of half v full press isn’t obvious (as with my Sony on a cold day).

Victor Berthelsdorf
Guest
Victor Berthelsdorf

With mirrorless, then would I lose the ability to assign the PV front button as well as the AF-ON button on the rear giving me the option of either group or spot focus? I use the front button for focus as much or more than the back button.

Steve Simon
Guest

I have been using back-button since it was first introduced with the F5 and I love the mirrorless AF point coverage to be sure. But I stopped “focus and recompose” because it compromised sharpness. Maintaining the “plane” of focus exactly after locking just did not work for me. If I’m critical, I just can’t maintain that exact plane when recomposing. I’m not a wildlife shooter but the main reason for BBAF for me is the ability to react quickly and intuitively, holding the button down to track or just focus and let go for non-moving subjects. Setting 1/2 points lets… Read more »

Janet
Guest

Well, now I feel sort of justified ๐Ÿ™‚ I have NEVER used BBAF, for exactly that reason you state–I want my thumb free to move the joystick. I have set my AF/ON button to LOCK AF, so I keep my cameras in AF-C at all times and use AF/ON to lock. It was actually a wildlife photographer I know from Zambia, Ed Selfe, who taught me this and it was a revelation. Another reason, I have small hands and I have always felt keeping my thumb on that button was awkward and got painful over long periods, especially hand-holding long… Read more »

Dave Jacobs
Guest
Dave Jacobs

Steve, When Matt Granger tried to use 500pf on a Z7, he reported that autofocus was terrible, yet I see you are using this combination. Since I’m thinking about getting a Z7 and I already own a 500pf, I wonder if you are experiencing this difficulty.

Joe
Guest
Joe

Good information as always!
Thanks Steve.

Stan Bysshe
Guest

With the a9 II I use both the AF-on and the AEL buttons for BBAF! AF-on can be set to whatever mode I need but the AEL button is set to a specific tracking mode that I like for BIF. That way I can just slide my thumb over and be ready for the action and still be focusing.
Then there is just the muscle memory issue; Not sure I can reprogram back to shutter release AF.

Tom Jones
Guest
Tom Jones

You hint at the end of the post that you expect to eventually go all mirrorless. Is that because you expect DSLR improvements (new models and/or firmware updates) to stop or because you believe mirrorless is, or soon will be, better than DSLR in capabilities and performance?

Howard Winkler
Guest

I’m 80 years old and just getting around to shooting RAW (I;m still set up for one card RAW and the other JPEG). Now this comes along!!!

Peter Allinson
Guest
Peter Allinson

I set up the joystick with AFon so when I am using tracking it is easy to lock things in with BBAF much quicker to lock focus

Ryan G.
Guest
Ryan G.

There is another reason that I started BBAF that nobody has seemed to mention. I started BBAFing because, for me, there is no tactile feel to “press halfway down” on the shutter release no matter which camera I tried. This is why I embraced BBAF for all my shots.

Tony Byles
Guest
Tony Byles

Would imagine you would still need to use BBAF with fast action sports photography.