Using the AF-ON focussing technique with the Nikon D800


_DSC2487Unlike our usual blog posts about our photographic escapades in general, this one is a more technical one aimed at Nikon D800 shooters in particular, but also at users of other Nikon DSLR’s in general.

Listening to fellow photographers and surfing the web I noticed that there is much uncertainty and confusion around the use of the AF-ON button found on Nikon bodies (and other brands for that matter), so this is my modest attempt at clearing up much of the uncertainty.

First of all – much of the confusion can be cleared up by distinguishing between the simple use of the AF-ON button to initiate auto focus, and the technique that became commonly known as the “AF-ON focussing technique”.

Using the AF-ON button to initiate autofocus by itself has limited use and is perhaps the reason why most photographers simply ignore it, as I did initially. It just did not make a lot of sense to me to use a separate button to activate autofocus when the shutter release button was equally capable of doing just that.

However, the AF-ON focussing technique is a completely different animal and once mastered becomes an extremely useful and time-saving technique. It is this technique that I am describing below. It is certainly nothing new and many photographers have been using it very successfully for years.

_DSC2472Purpose of using the AF-ON technique

The purpose of using this technique is a simple and very useful one – it allows the photographer to set some focus parameters once and never again – using it for most (if not ALL) shooting conditions and circumstances without having to think or consider what settings your camera is set at, at any moment in time. You can literally set up your focus settings only once and leave it there. It is most useful for (but not limited to) photographers that need to alternate between shooting stationary and moving subjects – wedding photographers jumps to mind.

Whether you are a portrait-, landscape-, wedding-, or sports-photographer – you can shoot with confidence, knowing exactly what to expect from your AF settings, and not having to remember what settings are in effect. Sounds unbelievable? Not so – it works and it works well!

It does mean that you need to practice using this technique once you have your camera set up, but it is worth the effort as many photographers using it can testify. Mastering it is reasonably quick, even I got fluent in it’s use after a day or two of practice.

How it works

The principle of how it works hinges around the combined use of the AF-ON button and AF-C (continuous focus), plus some other settings that I will describe later. In essence it boils down getting used to doing two things:

1. Using ONLY the AF-ON button to activate autofocus (with AF decoupled from the release-button), and

2. Once focus has been achieved, press the release button to take the shot. If you need to focus and recompose, then you need to release the AF-ON button once focus has been achieved to lock focus, recompose and press the shutter release.

The purpose of using the AF-ON button (and decoupling autofocus from the release button) is so that you can focus, release to lock focus, and recompose without the camera refocussing when you press the shutter-release.

This is quite different from the normal way of shooting where autofocus is initiated by a half-press of the shutter-release, recompose (with shutter-release still half-pressed) and shoot.

A few examples might illustrate the technique more clearly:

1. Action photography : Place the selected focus-point over the subject and press AF-ON. While following the subject you keep the AF-ON button pressed (AF-C will keep focussing and track the subject)  and when you need to take the shot you only have to press the shutter-release.

2. Wedding photography: Imagine the bride walking down the aisle towards you – you place your selected focus-point on the bride, press and hold AF-ON while she approaches (once again AF-C will maintain focus at all times), and you fire away at will by pressing the shutter-release.

3. Portrait photography: Place your selected focus-point on the eye of your subject, press AF-ON to activate autofocus, release AF-ON once focus has been achieved to lock focus, recompose, and shoot.

Notice that you can switch between shooting any of the example scenes above without having to change any focus settings? That’s the beauty of using this technique – no more fumbling with focus settings when you can least afford to!

How to set up the Nikon D800

Setting up the D800 for using this technique is pretty straight forward:

1.  Make sure that the small selector in the left front of the camera (marked  AF  M) is set to AF.

Set this button to AF - Autofocus.

Set this button to AF – Autofocus.










2.  Select AF-C (continuos Focus) by pressing the left-front AF/M button (see step 1 above) and turning the command-dial (rear dial) until you see “AF-C” displayed in the LCD.

Select AF-C (Continuous Focus).

Select AF-C (Continuous Focus).








3.  [Updated 30/1/2013] In the Autofocus custom setting menu, set AF-C priority selection (a1) to Release priority. This will allow the camera to fire with no hesitation regardless whether AF-ON is depressed or released, or whether the subject is in focus.

(This setting is mandatory with the D700 and other earlier Nikon models because focus/recompose do not work (with Focus priority selected) when the area under the selected focus point is out of focus after recomposing).

Setting AF-C to Release Priority will make for very smooth shooting and no hesitation when the camera might be adjusting focus while AF-ON is depressed, regardless whether the subject is stationary or moving. Don’t worry, using Release priority does not mean your images are necessarily going to be out of focus!

[Updated 25/02/2013] Although Focus-Priority will work just fine in most situations with the D800 it might still be preferably to use Release-Priority, especially if you are using previous generation bodies (D700, D3, D300) in addition to the D800. This way you will ensure that all your bodies behave in a similar manner.

Custom Setting a1 - set to "Release Priority".

Option a1 in the Custom Settings menu – set it to “Release Priority”.








4.  Set AF-Activation in the custom settings menu (a4) to AF-ON. This will decouple autofocus activation from the shutter-release button.

Option a4 in the Custom Settings menu - set it to "AF-ON".

Option a4 in the Custom Settings menu – set it to “AF-ON”.








5.  Optional – you can set the D800 to continuous shooting by adjusting the top left dial to either CL or CH if you want to take successive shots without having to press the shutter-release button repetitively. I suggest that you leave it in this position because a quick press and release gives you a single shot, while keeping the shutter-release pressed longer will give you a series of shots – very handy some times !

Set the top left dial to either CL or CH to enable continuous shooting.

Set the top left dial to either CL or CH to enable continuous shooting.










6.  Set your focus preference to Single, Dynamic 9/21/51 points, or 3D. Here you need to exercise some caution and consider your options carefully. Explaining these options can fill  a whole chapter in a thick book and I’m not even going to attempt the short version of it. Suffice to say that my own personal preference is to use single point only, unless I have very good reason to change and then I normally go for 9- or 21-point dynamic. Single point focus allows me to decide where focus should be  with NO interference from the camera. I will only switch to 9- or 21-point dynamic if I plan to shoot moving targets such as birds in flight.

I  suspect that Dynamic focussing underwent subtle tweaking in it’s behaviour in the D800 – slightly different from how it behaved in the D700, and something that I will need to investigate further. The D800 appears to employ the neighbouring focus points much more enthusiastically than the D700, thereby shifting focus slightly without the user noticing. This may be fine and desirable when shooting a moving subject, but may cause slightly soft images when shooting a stationary subject.

Final thoughts

The AF-ON technique described above is certainly not the alpha and omega in focussing techniques, but has proved to be exceptionally valuable to me. Since using it my rate of sharply-focussed keepers has increased noticeably. I do not stand perfectly still while shooting, and using AF-C compensates for any movement from me (slight forwards and backwards swaying), as well as any movement in the subject. That means that I have very good focus at exactly the moment the shutter is released. It has also been a real help when shooting weddings or other events when I simply do not need the extra distraction from having to figure out focus settings or options.

[Updated 30/1/2013]  Do not underestimate the value of using AF-C for achieving sharp focus. Since the D800 has such tremendous resolution the slightest movement of either yourself or your subject once focus has been locked will stand out like a sore thumb. D800 focus accuracy is probably no different than lower resolution cameras, but viewing your images at 100% shows up soft focus much more clearly. AF-C (provided AF-ON remains pressed) will enhance your chances of having excellent focus at precisely the moment the shutter is released. THIS is the single most important reason why my ratio of  sharp images has increased tremendously after I started using this focussing technique – it might just do the same for you!

An additional benefit is that the D800 will activate VR (vibration reduction) when AF-ON is pressed, giving the VR system some opportunity to settle while you are focussing and thereby increasing the chance of getting a sharp image. The D700 only activated VR with a half-press of the shutter release, which was a bit bothersome to me.

Although I described how to set up the D800 the same principle can be applied to other Nikon bodies that has the AF-ON (or AE-L/AF-L) button. Careful study of the user manual will tell you how to accomplish the same goal even though the actual buttons and custom settings will be different. Don’t be afraid to experiment!

By now you are probably wondering what the downside of using this method might be? I know of three relatively minor ones:

a.) Using AF-C disables the usual focus confirmation beep  that you might be accustomed to.

b.) AF-C also disables the focus-assist beam. This does not bother me because the D800 (like the D700) can focus in pretty dark conditions and I rarely need focus-assist.

c.) If you hand your camera to someone else to use you will need to tell them to press the AF-ON button to focus.

[Updated 16/5/2014] Final tip: Firmware release 1.10 allows you to reassign the Movie Record Button in stills mode to do something else. What I found to be particularly useful is to assign the Movie button to ISO, which allows you to change your ISO in exactly the same way as the normal ISO button on the left side of the camera. However I found that I can change ISO now much faster because I do not have to use my left hand to do so, it is a much more comfortable way of working.  This is done by setting custom function f13 to “ISO”.

I consider this post as a work-in-progress as I am sure some tweaks, changes, or corrections might be necessary when I start getting feedback from fellow photographers.

Please feel free to give me your feedback below. If this technique is working for you I would like to know – if not or you found some errors in my text, be gentle with your criticism !


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  93 comments for “Using the AF-ON focussing technique with the Nikon D800

  1. Hazard
    August 6, 2017 at 20:24

    I am new to SLR and found this technique really good. But I am not sure if my D3300 activate VR by AF ON or just with press half way release buttun…

  2. Luiz Voss
    August 1, 2017 at 08:28

    Thanks for the excellent article. I have followed the steps to set back-button focus, but when I press the shutter release the focus green light dot on the view finder still lights up as if acquiring new focus. Also, by pressing the back AF-ON button and releasing it, the focus should lock: does it mean the green light dot on the view finder should remain on until a new press of the AF-ON button, or shutter release? In my case it does not. The green light dot disappears when I let go of the AF-ON button. I have recently updated the firmware to the latest release A:1.10 / B:1.0 / L:1.006. Any comment will be greatly appreciated.

    • Jacques
      August 1, 2017 at 09:10

      Thanks Luiz, I’m glad you found this useful.
      I will email you directly with an answer.

  3. Steve Bart
    January 26, 2017 at 23:49

    I have a Nikon D800 and took a photo expedition with National Geographic. The first thing they had me do was set camera up for AF-ON and the second was use Aperture Priority. This is how they shoot all the time

  4. Chetan
    November 23, 2014 at 15:17

    I doubt that on my D800E AF-ON button hunts for focus, when compared to the shutter release focus for the same subject. Any clue why it is so ?

    • Jacques
      November 23, 2014 at 21:57

      Chetan, the focus behaviour of your camera will be the same, regardless whether AF is initiated by the AF-ON button or the shutter-release.

    • alan
      June 21, 2016 at 09:39

      the camera will hunt for focus if you keep the af on button held in. once you establish your target let the af on button out. tap or tap and hold to track

  5. October 19, 2014 at 21:32

    Thanks for explaining where my “beep” and AF assist light went when I use BBF on my D800. I was wondering about that!!!!
    Great article and very informative. Would you comment on the idea of thumbing up to the top focus point, locking focus with AF-ON, recomposing and then releasing shutter thus tilting the focal plane less then using center focus point. The subject would be a model in a small studio and often getting nearest eye in focus and then recomposing for full figure can involve a bit of focal plane tilting. Nikon tells me that as all my lenses are faster then 5.6 all 15 of the center volume focus points are cross-hatched and should give me the same acuity….Any thoughts?????

    • Jacques
      October 19, 2014 at 21:46

      I often shift my focus point to the one nearest the eye when shooting a model in a studio. I don’t restrict myself to the 15 center points as I found the non cross-type points to focus just fine.
      I’ve never actually compared doing that to using only the centre point, so I cannot tell whether it is more accurate due to less focal planing. However when shooting a wedding for example, I tend to
      stick to the centre point and just focus on the mid body of the bride (due to lack of time for focus/recompose) and found my shots to be pretty well focussed anyway. So perhaps focal planing is not really a problem.

  6. Charlie Wilson
    October 16, 2014 at 19:32

    Unfortunately, my D7100 does not have an AF-ON button. I have to set my AE-L/AF-L button to be my AF-ON button. It needs to be a little more to the right to be better for me. I never used the AF-ON button when I had one on my now gone D300.

    After listening to several professional sports photographer explain how they shot with either Canon or Nikon using essentially AF-C w/AF-ON button pressed, I have never done it any other way. It took me more than a couple days to get it though. After shooting over 2K photos at Middle School football games, I think I’ve got it.

    • Jacques
      October 19, 2014 at 09:52

      Thanks for your response Charlie, I’m glad to hear this technique is working for you.
      I think many photographers will agree that once this technique is mastered there is no way going back.

    • Robert Long
      December 11, 2014 at 04:42

      For Charles Wilson. When I had my D600 with no AF-ON button I was uncomfortable with using the ae-l,ae-f button too so I assigned focus to the fn button and that worked great for me.

  7. Kevin Urbanek
    September 13, 2014 at 17:28

    This is one of the most helpful, useful articles on photography I have ever read. I have referred many people to it. Thank you!

    • Jacques
      September 15, 2014 at 13:22

      Thanks Kevin!
      I’m glad to hear that you found this useful.

  8. Jan Olsen
    September 8, 2014 at 09:22

    Hi all.
    I went along with this technic about 7 month ago, must say it rank high on my top 5 tip ever.
    Took me less than few hours of shooting to utilize, can’t ever imagine to switch back to “normal” settings. So what do I shoot ? I’m a real estate and portrait shooter, but especially for real estate HDR shooting it’s a bless just dialing in your focus, then being able to MANUALLY adjusting your bracketing without ANY time spend on focus for each new image in your bracket range ( yes I know you could set the bracket range to auto with preset stops, but in order to cover each dynamic range must efficiently with 3 image per range only , I was forced to set manual focus between each shot- but not anymore.
    Thx for a really great tip

    • Jacques
      September 8, 2014 at 22:19

      Thanks for your message Jan, I am happy that you found this technique helpful to you !

  9. Amir
    August 4, 2014 at 12:52

    Thanks for this great article…it will probably useful for many future photographers. I would only suggest that people will most likely get soft images using center focus point and recomposing if using, for example, d800 and 85mm f1.4 lens with max or close to max f stop. As you stated, d800 is very tricky about focusing since even a slight move of a person can affect the focus accuracy, therefore, it may be preferable that d800/d810 owners use more than just a center point when recomposing with some lens/f stop’s combinations…agree?

    • Jacques
      August 4, 2014 at 21:56

      Amir I think at very wide-open apertures one need to be very careful and steady when recomposing, irrespective of how many focus points are being used. The D800/D810 will show up any OOF areas quickly when viewed at 100%.

      • Dr Dang
        September 9, 2014 at 21:29


        Thanks for great Article. I am confused between what you just said in this comment about OOF and wide-aperture…. in the article you said “I do not stand perfectly still while shooting, and using AF-C compensates for any movement from me (slight forwards and backwards swaying), as well as any movement in the subject.” ….Would AF-C not take care of that? if no, why?

  10. Claus
    July 27, 2014 at 17:06

    How does it work, when I use a cable release? Thanks for help

    • Jacques
      July 27, 2014 at 17:53

      Hi Claus,

      I suspect that this will not work with a cable release since you will not be able to initiate autofocus.
      If you need to use a cable release it will be better o set the camera to the default way of initiating AF – i.e. by
      reverting to assigning AF to the shutter release.

      • Claus
        July 27, 2014 at 19:14

        Thanks for your comment. Well, I will use this technique for wildlife shooting and have changed a custom bank.

      • Alyda
        September 5, 2015 at 20:02

        I don’t know why you think this wouldn’t work. Your article says you are using the AF-ON button for focus, yes? Therefore, the cable release does not need to initiate autofocus.

  11. SandraD
    July 3, 2014 at 22:19

    Also, how does the latest firmware update affect AF-ON? There was something in the notification about cases wherein the AF-ON would not work. It wasn’t clear to me how all that added up. I want to install the new firmware because of the ability to remap the record button to ISO. That would change my life! But there are consequences to AF-ON usability, and I can’t sort them out.

    Most thankful if you could take a moment to explain these new settings.
    Thanks so much!

    • Jacques
      July 6, 2014 at 09:55

      I did not really investigate what changed after the FW update regarding AF. Like you, I was more interested in mapping the
      ISO function to the Record button – which works very well by the way !

      Using the D800 after the update I did not notice anything that did not work properly.

      • SandraD
        July 7, 2014 at 05:24


        See below for what’s listed on Nikon’s firmware update page with regard to AF-ON. Is any of this important?
        Many thanks again?

        When AF-ON only was selected for Custom Setting a4 (AF activation) and the AF-ON button was pressed to initiate autofocus during viewfinder photography, focus remained locked even after the user took their finger off the button, and the shutter could be released at any time. However, ***specifications have been modified so that the shutter cannot be released under the following conditions if the camera fails to focus.
        Autofocus mode is set to AF-S (single-servo AF)
        AF-area mode is set to Single-point AF
        Custom Setting a2 (AF-S priority selection) is set to Focus***

  12. SandraD
    July 3, 2014 at 15:01

    Great piece! I still have one question.
    When I activate AF-ON ONLY, and press on back button, do I have to keep that button pressed all the time or do I let go when focus has been achieved? I’m still confused about this, about when to keep pressed and when free to let go and recompose. Adding to the confusion is the fact that the focus confirmation light goes off, when I let go of the back button, seeming to indicate that focus has *not* been achieved.

    Clarification very much appreciated, thanks!

    • Jacques
      July 6, 2014 at 09:58

      You can keep the AF-ON button pressed to ensure your subject is in focus all the time. You only need to release the button once you achieved focus, and want to recompose. Releasing the button effectively locks the focus.

      • SandraD
        July 7, 2014 at 05:19

        Hi, I started using AF-ON and love the ease with which one can obtain focus and recompose. Thanks!

  13. May 20, 2014 at 07:26

    Hi, I tried your technique after experiencing 1 in 5 out of focus shots using my D800.
    I used it at my last wedding with the 70-200 f2.8 and was totally amazed that every single shot was perfect. I use the D4 too but haven’t any issues with focusing, but I always had a few issues with the D800 especially with moving shots. I managed a sequence of 6 shots of a young boy running around and every one was pin sharp. So thank you for sharing your technique it is the best thing I’ve picked up in years.
    Kind regards
    Bob 🙂

    • Jacques
      May 20, 2014 at 09:12

      Excellent !

      • June 22, 2014 at 03:50

        Greeting from The United States:

        I am a little confused about this.

        Conventionally, both the focus and shutter is activated by a half press of the shutter. When you have obtained focus, the focus light comes on. If you now recompose while the shutter is still half pressed with AF-C and shoot (by pressing the shutter the rest of the way). Please note that is this method only one finger is used, that is the trigger finger on the shutter button.
        My understanding is that once focused is achieved, it will shoot continuously in second, third etc shots whether focus is obtained or not as it is using AF-C.

        What is the differance then, between what you have described and the conventional method described above. Apparently, in the AF-On method, two fingers are used (one for shutter button, and one for AF-On Button), also AF-C is used, it is not clear how we get the Shutter Speed (of course it could be
        preset manually). Most importantly in the AF-On method, it is not clear to me, whether once the AF-On button is pressed to obtain AutoFocus, whether your keep the Button pressed all the time (while you are recomposing) prior to taking the shot. If the AF-On button is being pressed all of the time it is being recomposed, is the focus still remain on the original subject focus point, or it is moving to the recomposed focus point.

        I await your valuable response.

        • Jacques
          June 22, 2014 at 11:57

          Chance – I emailed you a response.

          • June 30, 2014 at 17:10

            I would like a copy of that email?

        • SandraD
          July 3, 2014 at 14:48

          I’d love to have a copy of that email, too. Thanks!

        • Jacques
          July 6, 2014 at 09:54

          Let’s consider the conventional focussing method (using half-press of shutter-release button) first:

          When in AF-C mode the camera will adjust the autofocus continuously to keep the subject in focus that is under your selected focus-point – while you keep the button half-pressed.
          If you now recompose (or just move the camera around) while still having the shutter-release half-pressed the camera will continuously attempt to keep whatever subject is under the selected focus point in focus.
          If you at any time take your finger off the shutter-release, the camera will stop trying to focus and effectively “lock” focus. However, as soon as you half-press the shutter-release again the camera will once again
          attempt to focus the subject under the focus point.
          This work very well when you want to photograph a moving subject that changes distance from the camera all the time, such as a person walking towards you because by the time that you fully depress the shutter-release the subject will already be in focus.
          The problem however is that by using this conventional way of focussing, you cannot focus and recompose while the camera is in AF-C mode, since there is no way of locking focus before recomposing.
          To solve this problem, we need to decouple the focus action from the shutter-release button, so that autofocus is controlled by only the AF-ON button.

          So – once we’ve set up the camera as I described in my article, the way in which you can now operate the camera is like this:

          You start by aiming the camera at you subject as normal, then press the AF-ON button to initiate autofocus. AF-C will start and the camera will now focus on the subject under the selected focus point.
          If you are shooting a moving subject (e.g. a person walking towards you) you keep the AF-ON button pressed (to maintain focus on the subject as it moves closer) while taking shots by pressing the shutter-release.
          This way you can shoot many images of a moving subject while maintaining perfect focus.
          However, if you want to shoot at a stationary subject then you can now do it because you can lock focus on the subject before recomposing !
          The way you do it is simple – you initiate autofocus as before by pressing AF-ON and focus on the subject under the selected focus point. Once the focus-confirmation dot lights up, you release the AF-ON button, which will now lock the focus,
          then you recompose and press the shutter-release to take the shot !

          The thing to remember when using this technique (and the camera has been set up as described in my article) is this:

          1. Autofocus is controlled OLY BY THE AF-ON button, the shutter-release does not initiate AF anymore.
          2. To shoot a moving subject, you need to keep the AF-ON button pressed all the time in order to maintain focus on you subject.
          3. To shoot a stationary subject WITHOUT recomposing, you can either release the AF-ON button after acquiring focus on your subject, or you can simply keep it pressed – it makes no difference.
          4. To shoot a stationary subject when you want to recompose, you press AF-ON long enough to acquire focus on your subject, then RELEASE the AF-ON button to LOCK focus, and only then recompose and take the shot.

          The whole objective of the AF-ON technique is to enable one to seamlessly switch between shooting stationary and moving subjects without having to change a single thing on the camera, or having to remember in what focus mode
          you are at any time !

          I hope I managed to answer your question – feel free to ask if I can help in any way.

          • jlem
            January 15, 2015 at 18:08

            I am confused about back button focusing using Nikon D 7000. After attaining focus of a stationary subject I release the button and recompose. When I preview the picture, should the focus point still be in the origional place where I focused?

  14. Daniel
    April 27, 2014 at 16:20

    Great article. Even on a D3200 you can use the AF-ON on the AE-L button, and transfer the AE-L to the half depressed shutter.

    It takes a while getting used to, but with back focusing I’m getting way more keepers. Especially when shooting action or children.

  15. eli
    April 7, 2014 at 13:38

    What an excellent story !

    I used this technique already for a few weeks on D700 and D800.

    For studio type of work I use AF-S though. Any risks?

    Also I found that with all my lenses the D800 needed to use a rather strong AF Fine tune setting. All of my sharpness problems are now caused by movement.

    • Jacques
      April 7, 2014 at 14:49

      You can use AF-S for studio work without problem. I prefer to keep my camera in AF-C, then I don’t have to remember or check in
      which mode it is at any stage, it is always in AF-C.

  16. Guido
    March 22, 2014 at 19:50

    thank You very mutch for this clear explanation about back button focus.
    Now it is absolutly easy for me to use it,and I enjoy it!

    Kind regards,
    Guido Nuyttens,

  17. Thanh
    February 24, 2014 at 16:27

    I have tried the AF-On technique for a while and find it more useful than using half-press shutter button. However, I am still not quite convenience with AE-L that you did not mentioned in your article.

    Because I usually use Spot-Metering therefore I also need to control Metering besides Focus. What you may advice for the following cases:

    – Using AF-On to get and lock focus, then recompose, and shoot. Metering is still acquired at the sensor of focus, which is now not subject anymore because of recomposing. How to get Metering at the subject point?

    – To fix the above issue, I assigned AE/AF-L into AE-L_Release only. So I need to point my camera to the Subject and press AE-L to lock Metering, then press AF-On to get focus, then recompose and shoot. It’s fine if I just take one photo; but if I want to recompose (just a little) again and shoot some other photo, I need to do Metering again for each shoot. What is your advice to lock both Metering and Focus for several shoots?

    – OK, to fix the 2nd issus, I assigned Function button to AE-L_Hold so I can press and hold Fn button to lock Exposure when I need to shoots multiple. What is your advice to make this more convenience?

    I am still playing with this technique to advance it, and appreciate any advice to improve it.
    Thank for your sharing.

    • Jacques
      February 27, 2014 at 09:16

      The camera will by default lock exposure when you press the shutter-release. If you want to lock exposure before recomposing then you will have to press the AE-L button and then

      Depending on your shooting style you will have to decide how to configure the AE-L as you described, and use the setting that is most suitable to you.
      Unfortunately I don’t know of a more convenient way of doing it other than what you described.

  18. Daniel
    January 21, 2014 at 15:52

    I have the D800 on AF-C (3D or Auto Area with Face Detection) and CH-burst.

    With a moving subject:
    – Half-press the shutter release to place the focus point
    – Keep half-pressed, camera tracks subject while waiting for best moment
    – Full-press for burst of 4 photos (or more)

    What is the difference to the AF-on technique?

    • Jacques
      January 22, 2014 at 10:13

      Daniel, the scenario you described works well with moving subjects and the AF-ON technique will not make it any better.
      However, if you need to take a shot of a stationary subject where you want to do focus-recompose then you will need to switch to AF-S
      to do so. With the AF-ON method you you don’t have to change anything, with AF decoupled from the shutter-release you can flip-flop
      between shooting moving targets and stationary targets without changing any setting.

  19. pohon beringin
    January 15, 2014 at 12:57

    I’m use d800.i have problem “AF-C” not displayed in the LCD. when i use focus button modes switches.. thanks

    • Jacques
      January 22, 2014 at 10:14

      The LCD should indicate AF-S or AF-C depending on what mode the camera is set to. If not, then the camera might be faulty.

  20. January 4, 2014 at 04:43

    Thanks so much for this easy to understand article, have been suffering with softer images since getting my D800, hoping this makes a difference for me 🙂

  21. December 15, 2013 at 01:41

    This article was most informative! I spotted that little error too, as I was testing my D800 while reading this article. I’l be rummaging through the archives to see what other useful nuggets of information I can find.

    Thanks Jaques!

  22. Roy
    December 14, 2013 at 23:44

    Thakyou for your clear explanation on back focusing I am now fully converted. You mentioned the disadvantages of the focus beep and Af point illumination not working using this method. Can I assume that these functions will work using back focusing if I change to single server rather than continuous. There may be occasions when may want a beep or in the dark some illumination so a click to change from the continuous to single would redeem these features.

    • Jacques
      December 15, 2013 at 10:07

      Thanks for your comment. Yes, if you switch back to AF-S then both the focus confirmation beep and focus-assist light are enabled again.

  23. November 27, 2013 at 20:53

    Hi Jac, thanks for this AF-ON focussing technique with the Nikon D800, but a little what metering mode according to you would work best in this setting?

    • Jacques
      November 28, 2013 at 08:54

      You can use any metering mode that you find most suitable for the situation, I use centre-weighted metering most of the time, but that is just what I find works best for me in most situations.

      • November 28, 2013 at 11:55

        Thank you so much Jac. I am really grateful to you for this post as I find this technique working nicely for both of my DLSRs D800E &D800 now.

  24. November 27, 2013 at 20:51

    Hi Jac thanks for this wonderful tip. Little confusion here, “While using this AF-ON focussing technique with the Nikon D800, what metering mode work best”?

  25. November 22, 2013 at 01:26

    Is there a way to make the AF-ON also lock exposure? I do the focus, recompose method. Thanks!

    • Jacques
      November 22, 2013 at 10:12

      Hi Todd,

      No, as far as I can see one cannot use AF-ON to also lock exposure. I suggest that you use the AE-L/AF-L button for this.
      Frame the area on which you wish to lock exposure, and press and release the AE-L/AF-L button. Then continue to focus
      and recompose as you would normally.

  26. October 25, 2013 at 00:23

    Hi Jacques,

    Thank you for all of your replies, and patience. I’ve been studying them and am still puzzled.

    What is the difference and advantage between the technique you describe and simply setting the D800 to AF-C and using the AE-L/AF-L button to lock focus?

    thanks again,


    • Jacques
      October 25, 2013 at 09:46

      Hi Mark,

      You asked a good question!

      Leaving the camera in default mode with the shutter-release and/or AF-ON button to initiate AF and then using the AE-L/AF-L to lock focus is certainly another
      way of shooting, and some folks may prefer it like this. The differences between that and the AF-ON technique as I see it are :

      1. With the AF-ON technique the exposure is metered when you press the shutter-release, whereas when you use the AE-L/AF-L button to lock focus, you also
      lock exposure metering – unless you change the AE-L/AF-L default setting to only lock AF and not exposure.

      2. With the shutter-release initiating AF you need to be careful when taking shots while tracking a moving subject,
      every time you release the shutter button the autofocus stops and will only be re-activated when you do a half-press again which might cause a delay to acquire focus again.
      This can be avoided if you do not release the shutter button fully and only move your finger to the half-press position after taking a shot, but it requires a bit more concentration on your part.
      With the AF-ON technique the camera maintains focus on the subject independently of you pressing and releasing the shutter button.

      I suggest you experiment with both methods to see which suits you the best.

  27. Marissa
    September 25, 2013 at 17:36

    I’ve had so many focus issues and found this article very helpful. I’ve changed my settings as described but when I press the shutter button 1/2 ways it also focuses. Did I miss something or is this normal?


    • Jacques
      September 26, 2013 at 07:51

      Marissa, if set-up correctly the shutter button should not initiate AF. Please refer to step 4 of “How to set up the D800”.
      You need to set custom function a4 (AF Activation) to “AF-ON Only” and remember to press “OK” when you’re done to register the change !

  28. Richard Ramirez
    June 10, 2013 at 07:48

    about using the AE button to focus and the shutter to take the picture, I like that way and have been using it. Just want to know what happens when you use a cable release or a pocket wizard? Do i need to go back to the half press for either or both of these? Thanks!

    • Jacques
      June 10, 2013 at 08:28

      Richard I have never tried using either of these in this situation but I suspect it might not work because both rely on a shutter half-press to activate autofocus. I would recommend that you revert back to using shutter half-press for AF when utilising a shutter remote release.

      • Jim
        September 10, 2013 at 15:54

        Is there a simple way to do that without using menu, so I can go back and forth between Release vs. Focus for shuttle priority?

        • Jacques
          September 10, 2013 at 16:09

          To my knowledge the only way to switch between the priority modes is to go via the menu.
          You can perhaps place that option on the “My Menu” menu item, not ideal but at least a bit quicker to get to it.

  29. Brad
    May 27, 2013 at 19:52

    I have not used this button yet and was unaware of its use prior to this post so thanks for that. I was wondering what the differences are in using this button compared to 1/2 press of the shutter button? Are you still pressing the shutter button 1/2 way along with the AF button? Thanks for clearing this up.

    • Jacques
      May 27, 2013 at 20:41

      Using the settings as I described effectively decouples the autofocussing from the shutter button, making autofocus independant from the shutter release. Therefore the shutter-release
      buttton will now only control the shutter and metering, and the AF-ON button only controls the AF function. So, with AF set to AF-C the camera will continuously adjust focus while the AF-ON button is pressed and
      you are free to fire a shot whenever you are ready by pressing the shutter button. To lock focus (if you wish to recompose) you simply have to release the AF-ON button (once you achieved focus) which will now lock focus, recompose, and shoot.

  30. Jim
    May 19, 2013 at 23:30

    Thanks, Dr. J,

    You just gave me a prescription to cure my focusing difficulty. I am not all there yet, but at least I know I my % will be much higher from now on.

    My question next is if this technique demands better faster AF lenses, since we never know it actually in focus now with release priority?

    Where miracles of art happen!

    • Jacques
      May 20, 2013 at 08:32

      No Jim, no need for new and faster lenses, the technique works with any AF lens.

  31. Raajan
    May 17, 2013 at 08:48

    I read your article “Using the AF-ON focussing technique with the Nikon D-800”. I tried it two weeks back, and since then I am using it regularly. It is pretty useful, effective and helps you stay clear from focussing issues. I must thank you.

    Having said that, I do not use AFC. I use AFS though. It works best for me.

  32. April 29, 2013 at 18:46

    Thanks for this valuable article
    One question just to make sure that I understood the whole thing properly:
    Using your “AF on” focusing technique on a D800 with:
    -AF permanently on AF-C
    -AF-C priority on “Release”
    -AF Activation on “AF-on only”
    -Focus preference to “Single”

    With these modes, let’s suppose that I focus with the center sensor for instance on the eyes of a cyclist coming towards me
    Will I get a sharp face of the moving cyclist if I focus on the eyes with the center sensor, recompose the frame to my preference and press the shutter release while holding the AF-on button, even if the reframing has put the center sensor far away for instance to the background audience, totally OOF of the face of the cyclist
    Or should I proceed differently ?
    Hoping that my english is clear enough !

    • Jacques
      April 30, 2013 at 08:04


      In the scene you described with the cyclist you should get properly focussed images when he approaches you while you have him under the selected focus point, and with the AF-ON button pressed to continue focussing.
      However, as soon as you recompose the cyclist will move OUT of focus as he approaches you because he is now not under your selected focus point anymore.

      Focus and recompose only works with stationary subjects. For moving subjects you need to keep your subject under your selected focus point and keep AF-ON pressed while shooting.

  33. Steve
    March 8, 2013 at 08:10

    Thanks for the article.


  34. Ismo
    March 8, 2013 at 01:14

    Nice article, but will lens field curvature affect when you recompose the image. If you use the center focus point to focus the image and then recompose so that your main object is in the side of the image it might not be in focus anymore. In some lenses the focus plane might not be streight but curved, especially in wide angle lenses.

    • Jacques
      March 8, 2013 at 07:51

      True in general Ismo, therefore it’s best to use the focus point closest to the subject for focus/recompose which will minimise the effect.

  35. Lee
    February 20, 2013 at 06:58

    Hello. Quick question. I’ve been trying your af-on technique because of my D800e focus issues. It’s helped a lot. At a kennel show ( indoor) , d800e ( 24-70 + 85 )lens.. CH shooting….I would take photos of a dog’s head. At home I noticed… 1-3 photos focused on his eyes… 1 or 2 shots would focus to my right / backfocus… the next few
    shots back to the eyes. Weird. It’s like the AF system decided to drift right/back… and return to normal. The next few dogs.. nothing. And it would repeat again after I moved on. Nothing else changed… both lenses. Absolutely random.
    Any ideas / suggestions? I’m glad I’m not shooting weddings… the bride would be upset.

    • Jacques
      February 28, 2013 at 13:58

      I suspect the camera is either set to AF Auto (face recognition) or 3D tracking where the camera will shift focus where it deems necessary, or else you have a defective camera.

  36. James Marshall
    February 13, 2013 at 21:38

    Does using AF-ON disable VR?

    • Jacques
      February 13, 2013 at 22:03

      No, AF-ON does not disable VR.
      On a D800 the VR is activated by either the AF-ON button or a half press of the shutter-release, whereas on a D700 VR is activated by the shutter-release button.

      • Tom
        October 19, 2013 at 22:43

        Sorry, that is not true: I have been using this technique for quite some time on a D700 and it does initiate VR.
        (In fact, I read somewhere this AF-On focussing technique was not possible on a D800, which made me google and this is how I found your site. I would not even consider the upgrade to a D800 if this possibility wasn’t there anymore!)

        • Tom
          October 20, 2013 at 21:18

          I was truly convinced my D700 did start the VR on AF-ON, but now I actually tried it, I must admit it is not the case!
          I have learned something new, after so much shooting with the D700 using this focussing technique.

  37. February 5, 2013 at 01:10

    Very good explanation Jacques. I am very familiar with the differences in the D800 and D300s firmware but not so much with firmware changes that Nikon implemented between the D800 and D700.
    Excellent technical blog post! I will be adding this page to my reference bookmarks.

  38. mikeb
    January 30, 2013 at 00:57

    “3. In the Autofocus custom setting menu, set AF-C priority selection (a1) to Release priority. Even though the D800 will fire (if AF-C priority is set to Focus priority) when recomposing to an out of focus area after the AF-ON button has been released (once focus was achieved), you might encounter some hesitation to fire if there was the slightest shift in focus distance.”

    If I understand this correctly then I beg to differ. After the AF-ON button is released the focus is effectively locked. Thus when Focus Priority is selected there is no hesitation to fire even when recomposing to an area that is grossly out-of-focus. Therein lies a significant difference between the D800 and earlier Nikons where the shutter would refuse to fire under these conditions (unless Release Priority was selected).

    • Jacques
      January 30, 2013 at 10:49

      Thanks Mike for pointing out my mistake !
      I have updated that section and hope that it reads correctly now.

  39. Jaunine
    January 29, 2013 at 19:47

    Oh mister Technical! You have been trying to convince me to use this technique for years. You did a darn good job of convincing me this time. Who knows, perhaps you can scratch disadvantage #3 from your list soon ’cause I am actually tempted to try it!

    • YHB
      January 29, 2013 at 22:55

      Good for you Jaunine!
      It’s about time that you try it, you might be pleasantly surprised 🙂

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