Why I Don't Use Back Button Focusing

Back button focus has been compared to the invention of sliced bread, and many who went BBF said they never went back.  However, that was not the case for me. I acknowledge the advantages of separating the AF function away from the shutter release button, and this is a popularly used,  much highly regarded photography technique by many. Nonetheless, back button focusing just does not work for me, and my reasons may not be universally applicable to all of you, but I would like to explore my reasons why I still stay with the shutter button as my to-do-it all options. 

For those of you who prefer a video version, here is a short, 10 minutes version of me ranting about back button focus. For the first time in almost half a year, I was recording myself indoor, in the living room. Surely this was not my favourite way of doing a YouTube video, but I admit the convenience was too hard to pass. 

I am not a wildlife or sports photographer. I totally understand how the back button focus can make a huge difference in such shooting scenarios, especially when you don't want to keep refocusing before each shot, that will increase a chance of miss focus. Hence using back button focus, locking it and waiting for the action to happen, and when it happens immediately pressing the shutter button can minimize the risk of error.  This is applicable for wildlife, for example bird shooting, as well as sports where some of the players are holding their position and you wait for them to spring to action. However, I shoot events, weddings, portraits, and products, and back button focus just does not help in any way. I find myself rarely needing to wait for my shots, when I see something happen I normally have to react quickly, and have the shutter button released as quickly as possible. 

I find that when I use back button focus, the handling of the camera is compromised. This is true for Olympus cameras, and I cannot speak for other cameras. Olympus cameras, especially the OM-D cameras were designed with prominent thumb resting area, allowing comfortable and secure gripping if your thumb is resting tightly on the hook. The smaller size of the camera makes it even more difficult when back button focus is being used, moving the thumb away from the thumb rest, which means effectively only 3 other fingers (other than your thumb on BBF and index finger on shutter button) are used to hold the camera in such an awkward manner. Then camera then slides into the palm, and digs into it, which is very uncomfortable for long hour shooting. I have full day shoots (corporate events, weddings) and I need to have balanced, comfortable and secure handling without worrying about the camera slipping off my hand. I don't like to move my thumb away from the thumb rest!

I shoot insect macro and portraits a lot. Critical focus is priority when shooting close up.  For insect macro, even 1-2mm movement away from the focusing plane will throw the subject entirely out of focus. Similarly, when I shoot portraits of strangers on the street, I normally shoot wide open at F1.8 or F1.2, and any movement on the subject's part, even just a few centimeters can cause softness in my image. No amount of post-processing or photo manipulation can save an out of focus image. Having the AF assigned to back button means I need to lock AF first in one action, before capturing the image with another action by pressing the shutter button. The delay between AF lock and shutter release is increased when using back button focus. This is significantly improved when using the shutter button for both AF operation and shutter release, because after the AF is acquired, I can immediately fully press the shutter button instantaneously with almost no delay. This is of course less crucial for shooting landscapes, subjects that are perfectly still or anything that are too far away. For me, back button focus causes the slight delay which can amplify the chance of critical focus accuracy error. 

Finally, during my brief experience using back button focus, my thumb suffers cramps and sore after a long day of shooting. It happened a few times that I decided it was definitely not the right technique for me. Besides, most of my photography subjects are constantly in motion, I am always moving around, nothing stays still, and I need to refocus my shots all the time before releasing the shutter button. The index finger is already always on the shutter button, having another finger locked on another button just makes things a bit more complicated and uncomfortable. I will have to press the shutter button to capture the image anyway, why do I need to use another button? Doing everything with one button works more efficiently for me as I need to refocus almost every shot. 

I don't think there is any right and wrong technique, as long as you find the most suitable one for your own photography needs. Back button focus certainly is not for me, but if it works for you, then stay with it!

What are your thoughts? Share your experience!

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  1. There is another big downside for me: sometime you simply forget to focus! As an alternative I use the Fn button on the olympus pro lenses to temporary lock the focus. I suppose some would be happy to have this as a simple on/off switch. Also having this button switch to a "focus" button while in manual mode would be very nice for me (but I think it is not possible while the focus clutch is engaged).

    1. Hah, using single shutter release button for everything means you won't forget!

  2. Robin, you mentioned the two IMO critical points: you haven’t used back button AF for very long, and the E-M1 UI.
    Once you use back button AF for longer it becomes absolutely engraved in your DNA. And then you would NEVER forget to focus (Lorenzo!). And it’s best used with continuous AF. Press and the camera will focus whenever and wherever you need it. Let go and it’s set (and will react way faster than if it needs to still focus).

    I shoot events and weddings a lot and this method for me is great.

    Lastly unfortunately the E-M1 UI (except the X) is horrible for back button AF, as you mention. That's why I (unfortunately) don’t use it on my E-M1. I also shoot Nikon DSLRs and these cameras never see anything besides back button continuous AF.

    1. I shoot events and weddings even before Olympus went mirrorless, no BBF did not work for me then, it wno't work for me now. And I have great keeper rates with my current method of shooting. I am not denying that BBF works for some people, but it certainly does not work for me.

  3. Have you considered front button focus?

    I don't even know if it is possible to assign them to focus, but the E-M1.2 (at least) has two assignable buttons on the front of the camera that are conveniently accessed without moving your thumb off the thumb rest.

    I am not yet a BBF person, but I've been tempted when constantly re-focusing before a shot, becomes a problem, such as in low light or poor subject contrast. In the least, it sucks batteries.

    In event venues, I generally prefer "set and forget" zone-based focusing, where, in combination with an appropriate aperture, you don't constantly re-focus, but you merely ensure that your subject stays within the depth-of-field that you have pre-selected.

    1. I see no reason to separate the Af function to another button. I want speed and efficiency, so using the shutter button to do it all is the best solution for me.

  4. I'm not really joining the "debate;" I'm just happy to hear that you do walkabout street photography with your lenses wide open (f1.8 or 1.2). I'm the same! I often criticize myself for this, especially when I've missed a shot, as I've heard that the "pure" street photographers should use f5.6 or f.8. For me, living in Seattle it's often simply too dark for that, but I also like the separation of a shallow DOF. Anyway, it's reassuring to see that you do it too, even in the bright sunshine! Cheers.