Back-button Autofocus

Have you ever been completely over the moon about discovering something and tried to explain it to someone else, only to then have to explain why it’s “sooooo amazing!!”?

That was me last night trying to explain to my family how thrilled I was to discover back-button autofocus on my Canon 450D. I’d never heard of it before, I don’t know if that’s due to me missing something, or just that it’s not commonly known. But in my view it’s the greatest invention since… since the thing before they invented sliced bread.

The site I found for instructions is specific to Canon EOS. A quick search turned up some Nikon users discussing it, although I don’t know which models implement this. Here’s the link for Canon users.

I recommend reading through once quickly before trying to change anything as the article discusses back-button auto focus a lot, but doesn’t explain how to change any settings until near the very end. Also, the actual wording in your custom functions menu are likely to be different than the example ones on the site. You may understand it all straight away, or you may be like me and have to play with them until it makes sense and does what you want.

That’s great… but what is it? 

This is my cue to make a confession: I rarely use manual focus.

I’d love to have the confidence in my focusing skills but I tend to shoot fast, and often miss shots if I stop to mess with focusing. Like any photographer, I hate to miss out on photos because they’re badly focused. And modern auto-focus is often so quick and crisp that it seems a shame to waste it. Or maybe I’m just lazy and making excuses. Either way, I usually use auto-focus.

The problem with auto-focus is that I often find my camera’s focus drifting between the time I press the shutter button halfway to focus, and all the way to release the shutter. This is especially true when I try to lock focus on an object and re-compose the image before taking the photo. And if I have a stationary subject I still have to re-focus every time I take my finger off the shutter button. Well no more.

Back-button AF takes the focus control from the shutter button and puts it on a button on the back of the camera instead. Changing these settings has turned what was my AE lock button into a dedicated focus button, and I have set my half-pressed shutter button to be AE lock, so that feature is not only still available, but is far more accessible and useful to me now.

Once I’ve focused I can now recompose to my heart’s content, and take as many photos as I like without ever touching the focus. The Canon site gives a lots of examples of where this can be useful.

It takes some getting used to, but I love it already and doubt I’ll be going back to standard AF in a hurry. If you have a Canon SLR (or any other that has this function) give it a try and see if you like it!

Oh, and one last point. This function is only activated in the “creative zone” modes (P, Av, Tv & M), so if you click the dial to the “green box” auto mode, you can hand it over to anyone to use without having to explain how your focus works. Handy.

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How much is too much?

Watching this video makes me giddy with excitement. Think of all that editing power at your fingertips! It’s magic I tell you, magic!

Although, while I’m in awe of its shining glory, this video has created confusion in my mind.

While the main part of me goes, “Woooow! So cooooool!!!” a little part of me says, “Yea, cool… but it’s cheating.” Why is this? The outcome is the same. Whether you spend hours doing it by hand or spend a few seconds with this tool, both ways result in edited images.

I’ve always prided myself on accepting digital enhancements as part of digital photography, yet that little part of me looks at this video and thinks, “But where has the art gone? What’s so impressive about clicking a button?

It’s like Facebook (okay, it’s nothing like Facebook, but bear with me); I used to be the one who remembered all my friends’ birthdays. I still do. If asked, I could rattle off a list of about 20 of them without thinking about it. It was impressive and meant something to my friends when they received my birthday wishes on their day. Then Facebook came along and started listing everyone’s birthdays. Now I still remember them all, but it means less because people assume I merely saw it on Facebook like everyone else.

Maybe, like with birthdays, this is just my ego throwing a temper-tantrum and not liking the idea that, after years of fine-tuning my skills, a tool is going to come out that will mean that anyone can do it in moments, and no one will know how amazing my powers of Photoshop are. Maybe I want it to stay difficult so that only an elite group of people have the know-how to manage.

Okay, fine. I’ll stop being a snob, and I’ll rejoice in the creation of an incredible new tool. A tool that will save professionals, and myself, many hours of work, and yes, will bring the art of photo-editing closer to anyone of any skill level.

What’s your take on this? Art or cheating?

P.S. The “rule of thirds” grid in the crop tool, how cool is that? A nice little touch there.