Portland, Multnomah County, Oregon

Moving (reprogramming) the Auto Focus Function Away from the Shutter Button in Bird Photography

Welcome to my first entry to my new site category: Articles!

When I first began photographing birds in 2006, one of the major customizations I made to my Canon DSLR settings was to move the auto-focus function away from the shutter button and back to the ‘star’ button (by default, the AE-Lock button) on the rear of the camera.  [This is not a new feature on Canon cameras as it has been around for years on their EOS line of bodies.]  The ‘star’ button on Canon DSLR’s is located in the upper right corner of the back of the camera, in perfect reach of most peoples’ right thumb.  Alternatively, the auto-focus function can also be moved to the rear AF-ON button if the location fits better for you (just to the left of the ‘star’ button, if your EOS model has the AF-ON button).

[I’m not familiar with Nikon DSLR’s (or any other brand for that matter) but from images I’ve seen of Nikons, the AE-Lock/AF-lock button is located much further to the left and pretty close to the eyepiece, which could make it harder to reach with the thumb for many people.  Still, it may be worth experimenting with this customization with other brands of bodies as well].

Many of you may be asking yourselves about now, “Why would anyone want to remove the auto focus function from the shutter button anyway?  That’s where it’s supposed to be!  Why would anyone want to change the ‘standard’ placement of the auto focus function that we’ve all come to know and love?”

I’m going to attempt to explain why I made this change.  I probably got the idea from someone on the Internet–tried it, and after I got used to it, ended up really liking it.  There’s no going back for me!

My reasons for the auto-focus customization:

  • The shutter button operates only the auto-exposure function (and of course, the shutter).  The ‘star’ button on the back of the camera operates the auto-focus function and is conveniently located just within my thumb’s reach so that works out nicely for me.  Two functions–each operated by its own button.  This just seems logical to me.
  • When shooting birds, I primarily use the single center focus point (except in some flight situations).  I always shoot with my camera in high-speed burst mode and control the number of shots with the shutter button.  Even if the bird is stationary, I rarely take more than 5 or 6 frames after I’ve focused the lens on the bird’s eye.  Here is my series of events when taking these “short burst” sessions.

a) place center focus point on bird’s eye

b) achieve focus by pressing the ‘star’ button with my thumb, then let go of the button

c) re-compose the shot, if necessary

d) fire between 2 and 6 frames (if I’m using fill flash, this is usually limited to 2 frames)

e) repeat the sequence, starting at (a) until I think I have enough shots or, until the bird flies away,         whichever comes first.

What’s nice is that the lens will not refocus regardless of how often I push or release the shutter button.  I rarely focus, then shoot say, fifty shots, without refocusing every 2 to 6 shots (unless some unusual action unfolds in front of me).  If the auto-focus happens to be off by a little bit, then I’ve just wasted 50 actuations of the shutter and some time reviewing the shots.  Rather, I like to perform the sequence listed above as many times as it takes to give myself good odds that some of the frames will be in focus.  I prefer 50 shots taken in separately focused groups of 2 to 6 shots rather than 50 shots all taken with the same auto-focus achievement.  The latter is placing all my eggs in one basket, so to speak.  The point here is that “I” control when the lens focuses without having to worry about keeping the shutter button halfway depressed.

  • On most Canon DSLR battery grips that I have owned over the years (3 separate models– for the XT, 40D and 7D, 7DII, 5DIII), there is a ‘star’ button located on the grip in the same relative position as it is on the back of the DSLR.  This makes focusing portrait oriented shots with the thumb just as easy as landscape.  The button on the grip retains the same customized function as does the camera’s ‘star’ button.
  • With the auto-focus function set to the ‘star’ button, I do not have to continually hold the shutter button halfway down while waiting for the best time to shoot.  In my early days shooting, I was always afraid I would accidentally, or even unknowingly, lift my finger from the shutter button, causing the camera to refocus on something in the background when I didn’t intend it to, ruining the shots up to the point where I re-focused.  I mean, there are already enough things I can do to mess up a shot and the depression of the shutter button to focus doesn’t have to be one of them.
  • Say I choose to manually focus a shot maybe because the bird is farther away than I would like.  Canon L lenses have a full-time manual focus ring.  If I use this ring to focus, then push the shutter button down to shoot, the camera will re-focus if the auto-focus function is on the shutter button, defeating the purpose of manually focusing.  Obviously, I could get around this problem by switching the lens to MF or halfway pressing the shutter button but I don’t have to do either one of these extra steps with my auto-focus customization combined with the full-time manual focus ring.
  • With my auto-focus activated by pressing the ‘star’ button with my thumb, I can focus on a bird’s eye, take my thumb off the focus button, then recompose knowing that the camera will not attempt to focus again until I press the ‘star’ button again.  This is similar to point #2 above but there’s another benefit I haven’t mentioned yet.  Say the bird is one that is nice enough to give me several minutes of shooting on a single perch (this happens occasionally!).  Many times the light will be such that only certain head and body positions of the bird give a satisfactory shot (i.e., eye not in shade).  With the camera in burst mode, I can wait comfortably (without having to keep the shutter button depressed halfway to hold focus) with my finger placed lightly on the shutter button ready to shoot the instant the bird moves nicely into the best light.  It’s so much easier on your index finger and your nerves while you’re waiting for the right pose to shoot.
  • I have on-the-fly control in AI Servo mode where I’m tracking a moving/flying bird.  When I want the lens to keep focus on a moving bird, I just keep the star button depressed.  When I don’t need that function any longer, I just lift my thumb a little.  The less this function has to do with the shutter button, the better–at least for me.

[Update 7Mar2016: I’ve had the Canon 7D Mark II for about a year.  This body allows me to set two different AF point configurations to the back of the camera.  I have the ‘center focus point only’ set to the star button on the back of the camera. I use this for most static bird situations.  The button to its left, the AF-ON button, has the center focus point plus four points around it, which I use for most flight shots. This comes in real handy and keeps me from having to change the star button AF settings back and forth between flight and static shots.  Wish they would have thought of this for the 5DIII!]

There are many articles written about this specific customization on the Internet but I tried to make mine relative to bird photography.  This customization can be very applicable to other genres of photography, too, including macro photography, so don’t overlook it just because you have other photography interests.

One of the best articles on this subject is from Canon itself and can be found here.  It explains which custom functions to change depending on which model of EOS camera you have.  As an aside, EOS cameras also give you the ability to change the settings so that auto exposure is either activated separately for every burst shot, or, for just the first shot of a burst, applying the same exposure setting to every shot in the burst.  This is outside the scope of this particular article but could be of some significance in certain situations.

So whether you’re a seasoned shooter or new to DSLR’s, at least consider trying this configuration for activating your camera’s auto-focus.  I and many other photographers are already sold!

If you’re new to my site, please take a minute to check out my Bird Gallery and Non-bird Gallery for some of my favorite photos.  I’ve also reported many of my past wildlife photo shoot adventures on The Blog with even more photos.

If you enjoyed this post please feel free to leave a comment.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, December 27th, 2011 at 9:50 pm and is filed under Articles. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

6 Responses to “Moving (reprogramming) the Auto Focus Function Away from the Shutter Button in Bird Photography”

  1. jen says:

    Wow, that’s a really great concept.. I might have to try it if I can figure out how to change the settings. Thank you for sharing this tip!

    • Dennis says:

      Glad you’re considering at least trying it, Jen. There are many good articles online that will show you screen shots of the settings necessary. Your model of camera is likely in there somewhere. I suggest you note your current settings before changing anything to make it easy to go back if you decide it’s not for you. On the 7D, I made changes on the Custom Function IV (1) menu…it could very well be in a different spot on other models.

  2. This is a very useful article Dennis and is really good advice in my opinion. The use of a back button for focus has been a staple of sports shooters for a long time. The follies of using the shutter button to focus on moving subjects and consequent re-focus when recomposing are well documented. Learning to use a back button to initiate and hold focus is a great skill to acquire and aids the success rate of images in focus a great deal.

    As a Nikon shooter (D700, D200 and D90) I can testify that the back button focus works well on Nikon as it does on Canon. Your observation that the AE-L/AF-L button is further to left is correct. What you miss though is that there is another button to the right of that one. The AF-ON button sits perfectly for access by the right thumb. Nikon has the ability to set the shutter release function for both high speed bursts (my preference) or low speed bursts. On high speed the release can be set to occur only when the lens is focused or when the lens is focused and the button released. I keep my camera set on “focus” so the only time the shutter works is when the back button is depressed and the lens is focused. Yes, I hold the button down constantly but, like you, release it between bursts and repress to freshen up the focus. For in flight shots I hit focus with the back button and never let go….even between bursts. This way the cameras focus tracking is working and I don’t risk hunting for focus each time.

    Like you, I use center point focus for in-flight shots. I vary my focus point for stationary or pre-focus compositions. But then I shoot with zoom lenses rather than primes and that may play into my experience of what works for me.

    I hope my input about the Nikon side of this is helpful. Your ariticle will help people successfully get better bird photos. Kudos

    • Dennis says:

      Bruce, thank you for bringing me up to date on the Nikon side of things in regard to back-button focus. This information is sure to be helpful for Nikon users. Good stuff!

  3. I’ve read about this along time ago but have never gone into my 7d settings to change it….probably because I wasn’t a seasoned 7d user at the time. Now after reading this I can see that I really need to adjust mine as I have lost so many shots due to the focus being linked to the shutter release.

    Thanks Dennis and welcome to NBN – the blog post welcoming you will be up on 4th of January. Hopefully you’ll get some more visits from the NBN community.


    • Dennis says:

      Hi Rosie, glad the article helped nudge you into re-looking at customizing your 7D for auto-focus, back-button style. I think you’ll like it once you get used to it. And thanks for the welcome to NBN! It’s good to be part of a quality blog network like NBN. I’ll be looking for my welcome post!

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