Discovering Back Button Focus

*** myPhotoWalk — Photo Tech Talk ***

I recently watched a video tutorial on Performance Tuning for the Nikon D810 at from one of my favorite photographers and teachers, Steve Simon. He is a photojournalist who has worked on assignment in more than 40 countries and has won many international awards for his work in photography. The point is, Steve Simon is a pro and when he speaks, I give attention to what he says. And he shoots Nikon exclusively so I trust him even more since I am a Nikon girl and love my Nikon cameras.

So in his class, he recommended some customization of settings on my Nikon D810. One setting he said would literally change the way I shoot is to use back button focus. I was intrigued to say the least. I have always focused with my shutter release button which is the default factory setting on every camera. And I must say, I have experienced frustration as I watch my camera re-focus when I press the shutter release button to actually capture the photo. By focusing with the AF-ON button on the back of the camera, once you have focused, your focus is locked, and you can recompose without having your camera focus again. It made sense, but I was afraid, because it changes the whole experience of composing and shooting out in the field. Steve Simon encouraged in his class that it would change my experience for the better.

So I went out early in the morning and decided to try the back button focus method. I changed the settings in my camera to take the focus out of the equation when I press the shutter release button. I can tell you that I promptly forgot that I had created that new setting when I pressed the shutter release to take my first photo. Nothing was in focus. And then I remembered. “Oh yeah, I changed everything. I’m focusing with the AF-ON button.” This was going to take some time. I hate change, especially with things that seem to work okay for me. But I was willing to give it a try.

I had the perfect subjects for my back button focus experiment. Some geese and five goslings were roaming the area where I was set up to take photos. I promptly took my camera off the tripod to get closer so I could capture images of these wonderful creatures. I didn’t have my long telephoto unfortunately, so I had to get close because these birds are not going to stay in one place and pose for an image. They’re always moving. Especially if I’m close. They immediately know you’re there and start moving in the opposite direction. What that meant is I had to increase my ISO, use Continuous High, lower my aperture and get as fast a shutter speed as possible. And I was trying this new method of focus.

Here’s the result of my experiment. Steve Simon is right. Back button focus affords you something special when you need to control the focus independently of the shutter. I was able to keep the back button pressed in so that my camera was remaining focused and following my lead as I moved all over the place following these geese and capturing images. Instead of constantly trying to find focus as I pressed the shutter release button, the camera was able to keep up with me and I captured more frames per second. It’s a perfect setup for photographing wildlife. The only thing better would have been my longer Nikkor 80-400mm lens.

The saving grace was that I have 36.3 megapixels to work with on my camera and was able to crop in and have a close-up of the mother and her goslings. In post-processing this image and working in the crop, I actually extended the canvas by an inch all the way around, selected the photo, inverted my selection to grab only the white one-inch border, then filled it with a content-aware setting. I cleaned up areas of the border with the clone stamp tool. Then, I added some contrast and a mild vignette using Nik Pro Contrast and OnOne Software filters.

I discovered I am going to need to work more with the back button focus to get used to it out in the field. Old habits truly die hard. I heard Moose Peterson, renowned wildlife photographer, and one of my favorite teachers, say that he tried back button focus and just couldn’t get used to it. But many other photographers use it exclusively in their photography.

It’s fun to learn something new and give it a try out in the field. So the next time you’re out capturing images, you might want to try back button focus. And in the meantime, happy photography!

♥ Blessings and Grace to You!


myPhotoWalk Devotional

The LORD says, “I will guide you along the best pathway for your life. I will advise you and watch over you.”
Psalm 32:8

myPhotoWalk Technical

  • Title: Watching Over You
  • Description: A Canadian goose watching over her goslings in Palm Desert, CA, USA.
  • Creator: Catherine Martin
  • Date Created: 05/20/16
  • Camera: Nikon D810, Nikkor 24-120mm, FL 120mm, ISO 6400, f/5.6, 1/1000sec.
  • Photoshoot: myPhotoWalk PhotoShoot in Palm Desert, CA, USA.
  • Post-Processing: Adobe Camera Raw, Adobe Photoshop, Nik Software, On1 Photo 10 Software.
  • Copyright ©2018 Catherine Martin – myPhotoWalk™ – Quiet Time Ministries. All Rights Reserved.
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