An Alternative Focus Method: AF-On

I have been focusing my camera a little differently lately thanks to a little used feature on my Nikon DSLR, the AF-On button.  This button that hangs around the back of the camera doesn’t get much love from most photographers but I think if you give it a try you might find that it becomes your primary focus method.

What it does -

When the AF-On feature is activated in the camera, the focusing function is taken away from the shutter relaease button and assigned to this button on the back of the camera. When the button is pressed, the camera’s auto-focus system will activate and focus using whatever AF mode you have selected. It also means that pressing the shutter release button will now only activate the shutter, not the auto-focus.

Why you should use it -

You might have come across a circumstance where you are shooting a subject where there are obstructions that move between you and the subject but you still want to continue shooting with your subject still in focus. If your camera is using the shutter release button to focus you might have trouble maintaining focus because the obstructions are now in front of your focus point. If you use the AF-On feature, you can focus and then release the button and then take your picture with the shutter release button. You can keep taking photos using the shutter release and the camera will not try to re-focus until you press the AF-On button once again. This is also handy if you like find yourself focusing and then recomposing a lot. Usually this means that you have to hold the shutter release down halfway. With the AF-On button, simply place your focus point where you want it, focus the camera, then let go. No you can recompose and not have to press the shutter release button until you are ready to shoot.

It might seem a little weird to use this feature at first but I bet that once you start using it, you won’t want to go back to the old way of shooting.

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  • John Caradimas

    I’ve switched to the AF=ON button at the rear of the camera, when I purchased my D700. And I must admit I loved it.

    When I got my D90 though, I set it up again, in a manner similar to the D700, which however was not as trouble-free. The AE-L/AF-L button, on the D90 is very close to the eyepiece and for a glass-wearing person like me, it means that my thumb (used to press the button in AF-ON condition) is constantly hit by my glasses. Also, the LV button is also under my thumb, so several times I end up activating the LV feature. I wish Nikon would give us a new firmware for the D90, which would allow to totally deactivate the LV function or even better, assign that button to AF-ON.

  • Kerri

    I tried this shortly after buying my Canon dSLRs, and fell in love. Shooting just seems so much more natural now, and I’ll never, ever give up being able to move my focus away from the shutter release. I was, needless to say, ecstatic when I found out my Olympus PEN E-P1 would let me do the same thing (though not quite as ergonomically).

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  • Serge Van Cauwenbergh

    Since Thom Hogan explained the purpose of the AF-ON button in his Nikon D3 eBook, I use this button as well to focus. As you said, it takes the focus away from the shutter relaease button which is a very interesting feature. I fell in love with the AF-ON button since.

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  • Peter Gamba

    While I agree with you, I use this button to lock on exposure, for much the same reason.

  • Jim Poor

    Interesting, but I’m not sure it is all that much different than using AF-lock after focusing with the shutter button. Am I missing something?

  • Paul White

    Jeff, thanks for great tip. Because I tend to have the equivalent of the golfers “yipps” when it comes to pressing the shutter release button I frequently resort to using my tripod and a remote cable release. Does the AE/AF lock button on the Nikon D-5000 work with the cable release? BTW, Your Snapshots to Greatshots for the D-5000 has been a wealth of great information.

  • Rob Yelland

    This is a great technique. The Image Doctors’ podcast on Nikonians, May 29, 2008 has a great discussion on this subject.

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  • Marco

    Interesting. I will give this a try on my D80.
    Thanks for sharing.

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  • Iskandar Azaman

    Great tip…I changed my af button a few years back and have never looked back…

  • Brian Hudson

    Great tip–I’ve been doing this for years and haven’t looked back. Having the shutter release in charge of focus, metering, and shooting just doesn’t give the photographer much control. Much better to split them and have individual control over each function.

  • Spodeworld

    ” It also means that pressing the shutter release button will now only activate the shutter, not the auto-focus.” Won’t the auto-exposure be activated by the release button too?

    • jeff

      True, I was speaking in terms of auto-focus but you are right about the meter.

  • adriana lopetrone

    loving this tip!

    thank you!

  • darrell

    Yes but when you recompose your exposure will change which may be a problem if you are requiring accurate exposure say for a portrate

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