If This Doesn’t Get the Point Across, Nothing Will :) « Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

If This Doesn't Get the Point Across, Nothing Will :)

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This Black-winged Lapwing (formerly Black-winged Plover) image was created with the Todd-Pod mounted Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM lens, the Canon 2x EF Extender III (Teleconverter), and the Canon EOS-1D X. ISO 800. Evaluative metering +2/3 stop as framed: 1/1000 sec. at f/8 in Av mode.

Central sensor (by necessity) Expand/AI Servo Rear Focus AF on the bird’s eye and re-compose. Click on the image to see a larger version.

If This Doesn’t Get the Point Across, Nothing Will 🙂

The image above was made 20 seconds before the image below. How–when you are limited to the central sensor only–is it possible to create the two images above–one with the bird on the extreme left side of the frame, the other with the bird on the extreme right side of the frame, all while you are in AI Servo mode so that you are ready to track the bird if it begins to walk or if it takes flight?

The answer is simple and using autofocus there is only one way to do it: set your camera up for rear focus.

Rear Focus Tutorial Re-visited

With the 600mm f/4L IS II lens, the 2X III TC, and either a pro body or the 5D Mark, only the central sensor is active. (With both the 5D III and the 1D X you can choose Expand so that you activate the four sensors surrounding the central sensor.) Unless you know what you are doing having only the central AF sensor available can lead to problems. As I have written before, many folks become compositional slaves to the central sensor, especially when working in AI Servo AF (as opposed to using One-Shot AF and re-composing). Nikon folks, not to worry. Nikon also offers rear button focus. Please consult your camera body manual. Or better yet, get yourself a copy of our Nikon dSLR User’s Guide here. Note: Canon’s “AI Servo AF” is the same as Nikon’s “Continuous” (C) and likewise, Canon’s “One Shot” is Nikon’s “Single Servo” (S).

Rear focus involves focusing by pushing a button on the top right back of the camera (rather than by pushing the shutter button). You need to change a custom function or two to set up rear focus. And with some systems you set up rear focus via the camera’s menu. You can consult your camera body to learn to set up rear focus. Canon folks are urged to consult our camera User’s Guides for detailed information on exactly how I set up my cameras for rear focus. Set-up is similar with the Mark III and the Mark IV and with these bodies I recommend swapping the functions of the Star and the AF-On buttons. Set-up with the 7D is totally different. In each case the User’s Guide contains detailed instructions for setting up rear button AF. (Many folks are simply unable to decipher their camera body manuals.)

For many years I used both the shutter button and rear focus, depending on the situation. Often I got confused. I’d forget which was set on which camera. I’d press the shutter button and the camera did not focus. Or I’d press the rear button and the camera did not focus. About seven years ago I gave up and went shutter button AF all the way spending half my time switching from AI Servo to One-Shot and back again…. About three years ago I decided to go rear button focus all the time with all of my camera bodies. Some folks believe that when the shutter is released that AF tracking may be momentarily interrupted but that when you use rear focus the camera continues to track well even when the shutter is released. Canon’s top tech reps are noncommittal but concede that it could be possible.

Which is best, shutter button focus or rear focus? That’s an easy one: whichever works best for you.


This, the very same Black-winged Lapwing (formerly Black-winged Plover) image was created with the Todd-Pod mounted Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM lens, the Canon 2x EF Extender III (Teleconverter), and the Canon EOS-1D X. ISO 800. Evaluative metering +2/3 stop as framed: 1/1000 sec. at f/8 in Av mode.

Central sensor (by necessity) Expand/AI Servo Rear Focus AF on the bird’s eye and re-compose. Click on the image to see a larger version.

Your Favorite?

Which of the two images above is the stronger? Please let us know why? BTW, did I move to a new spot or was the bird in the same spot for both images. Please let us know what you think and how you can prove it.

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30 comments to If This Doesn’t Get the Point Across, Nothing Will :)

  • Julie Orr

    Both of these shots are amazing….I will say, just for the sake of conversation, that number one offers that odd little weed off to the right rear, as if Mr. Plover is looking back over his shoulder (do Plovers have shoulders?) Number two is “cleaner” in that nothing distracts from this lovely bird. I am brand new to rear focus; I just started using it on a trip to Yellowstone where I had someone show me how to set up my 7D to this function. I know that it will soon be second nature, but right now it always gets me when I press my shutter and get no lens response….I immediately want to know “what’s wrong with my equipment??? That said, I am learning to love it. As a strictly amateur photographer, I hope to get better and better as time allows on my quest for birds and mammals in their natural surroundings……I love this stuff so much. And as time and money allow, I hope to also take one of your amazing trips to Bosque Del Apache, one of my favorite places to shoot.


    • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      Hey Julie, Many thanks. Been there, done that with rear focus :). Good luck with your photography. artie

  • Gib Robinson

    First image (with weed) is stronger. 1. We read left to right so we focus first on the main subject and balance is better with the weed. Also, since the bird is looking toward the weed, there is a stronger internal integrity to the image. The objects themselves create a frame so the image is more “restful” to look at.

    Since the bird seems to be standing on the same bare spot, I assume you moved, perhaps in order to get better balance in the composition. If so, good thinking.


    • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      Thanks Gib. Agree on the first one being stronger but I never buy the left to right bit :). I just pointed the camera to the left. You can tell that the van did not move because the sun angles are the same. artie

  • Joe Moran

    I like the second picture because our brains lead our eyes to read left to right.. The negative space on the left allow our eyes to flow across the picture to the bird. I find this very pleasing . Nice job Artie.
    Joe moran

  • Donnette Largay

    It is comforting to know that I am not the only one confused as to which process to use. I am still working on it. Adding to the confusion is switching back and forth from the 5D MarkIII to the 7D.

    By the way, I sent my 16-35 2.8 lens to Canon for focus problem. It was sent back stating they do not have parts to repair it.
    They said Japan does not give them parts anymore. Really? Apparently they want us to buy the II version. I don’t want to do this.
    Do you know anyone who can repair this lens without sending it to Canon? Any help would be apreciated. Thanks.

    • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      Do not know. My advice is to be a good consumer. Ask for contact info for the person’s boss. If you do not get a good offer, ask for their boss and so on. I’d be looking for them to replace your lens with the newer version for about the cost of the repair. Don’t threaten of get angry, state simply that you paid good money for your lens and that you expect them to honor their unwritten promise to stand behind their products. artie

  • Jon

    Artie, you may recall I have made several attempts to embrace the rear focus technique but I have repeatedly ended up abandoning it. This was been primarily due to the fact that I felt that the current method I used was a) more instinctive/intuitive and b)I could achieve exactly the same effect albeit by alternative means.

    After all these years I think I have had a eureka moment (you can tell me told you so!)and now this point has finally registered I think I will end up converting to rear button AF.

    So what has finally registered?
    Using the shutter button to AF start and Using Rear AF button to stop focus is simply NOT the same as using the Rear AF button to start AF followed by the shutter button to release the shutter.

    In the first case I would be in focus, exposing and firing as soon as the camera was decided.
    In the second case I could focus/expose, then the shutter would fire independently when I decide.

    In the first case sometimes especially in low contrast the camera does not focus well or even at all and so I cannot fire the shutter because the shutter will not fire unless the subject is in focus. (not always entirely true occasionally it does fire when not in focus)

    It is just possible that the second case scenario gives the camera less to think about when focusing and is therefore quicker to focus – I don’t necessarily ascribe to this point, but as soon as I think the subject is in focus I can fire the shutter and it will fire.

    Importantly it is I decide when to actually take the shot, i.e. it is not at the camera’s discretion, it is me who is in greater control when using rear button AF.

    Just to avoid confusion for anyone new to the thread, the Rear AF button AF control can be assigned to activate or to stop AF as indeed can the rear * button

    • Hi Jon, there is an additional reason why I like the rear focus method over your method. For me it is much easier to press and hold the rear button to focus when taking pictures of moving subjects. With 800mm basically everything is moving so keeping the focus active is a good thing.
      My experience is that the 5DIII focusses much better even in low light than the 7D with long focal lengths. I don’t think it is the length of time the camera has to “think”, it is just the ability of the camera to predict the right focus when it starts.

      I use the AF button rather than the * because it is easier to remember and my thumb fits very well.

  • I’m curious about rear button focus. You have set-up your camera to have the rear button for af and the shutter for taking the photo-does this make picture taking a two-step process for you?

    Best Regards

    • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      Surely. But using the shutter button for AF and for shutter release is actually a two-step process also. You focus with a half-press of the shutter button and depress it fully to make an image. artie

  • Jon

    #1: I have not idea what you mean by this:

    “…however I feel that the method employed is open to a little more choice than you have indicated.” Please explain.

    Artie, I meant the ability to lock focus and recompose may be achieved by other methods -(one of which I indicated.)

    #2:re: “When I wish to half focus I press the rear AF button, at this point I can then recompose.” What function have you assigned to the AF button. As the camera comes out of the box you cannot do what you describe….

    Artie, When I wish to halt focus I press the rear AF button – I have reassigned it to stop focus as opposed to the original setting which is to start focus.
    This seems to work well for me, it seems more intuitive, start focus and shutter with forefinger, stop focus with my thumb. Have you tried it?

    • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      Hi Jon, Got it. Sorry for being so dense :).

      I have tried rear button to stop focus; it confused my brain.

  • How do you set up Rear focus for Sony cameras? thanks

    • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      Sorry. No clue. Consult your owner’s manaul and see if you can find a way of re-assigning the functions of various buttons…

  • John Armitage

    “The answer is simple and using autofocus there is only one way to do it: set your camera up for rear focus.”

    There is another way, although you might consider this only a variation of rear focus: as you know, Jim Neiger’s way is to use the big shutter button for focus, and focus-lock on a small button for re-composition. I like this even better.

    • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      Thanks for the reminder John. You are of course correct. I have tried that method and far prefer back focus rather than back focus lock. Again, it is purely a matter of personal choice. I am glad that you found a method that works well for you. artie

  • David Policansky

    Both great images but I slightly prefer the first, because of the turned head. Also the little dead plant adds some interest for me. You didn’t move as far as I can tell because the little patches/clumps of vegetation in front of the bird have the same relationship to it in both images. In addition, the bird’s shadow angle seems identical in both images.

  • Geoff

    My pick is #1. As others have stated, I like the engaging head turn more than the classic field book pose in #2. Looks like the bird is in the exact same spot judging from the ground in front of it. Shooting at 1200mm, I’d guess you stayed in the same spot and just moved the lens slightly between shots. Wouldn’t take much movement at 1200mm to move the bird from one side of the frame to the other.

    I’ve also been using back-button AF in AI Servo for the past 4 years. I find it works well for me and don’t find a need to go into one shot for wildlife. My only issue has been deciding if I should use the * button or the AF-on button. I used to use the * on my 7D and 5D3 but now with the 1DX the AF-ON button is much larger and nicer that I’ve switched to using it and then switched my 5D3 over to that one also. Otherwise I always forget. After a couple outings, muscle memory keeps me on track with hitting the right button.

  • Loren Charif

    I agree with Elinor about the balance provided by the bush in #1. I also prefer the pose in #1 where the bird is kind of looking over his shoulder as opposed to #2 where he’s looking straight ahead.

  • Jeffrey Friedhoffer

    Prefer the first image, like the bird looking in the direction opposite to way it is standing, the second picture seems flat to me. The bird is in the same location, determined by the ground and location of the grass relative to the dirt

  • Pieter van Kampen

    Both pictures are great! But I find the picture where the bird has turned it’s head more interesting, probably because there was an interaction between you and the bird, so it turned its head.

    About the rear focus, I have used it for a year now, and are really happy with it and the fine control over when to focus and when not. I found that this also works in Live view when making a movie. Just keep pressing the back focus button and the camera will try to keep the object under the superimposed rectangle in focus.

  • Mitch Haimov

    While I agree that subject looking right is more typical, and therefore comfortable, in western art. However, I personally do not have a preference for one over the other and do not flip my left-facing subjects. That said, I prefer the first image due to both the lapwing’s pose in that image and the compositional balance provided by the small bush. Could live without the torn up ground LR in the first image, though.

  • I like the first image better. The bush or whatever it is balances the bird nicely. Composition is more interesting with the bird on the left and looking right.
    It looks to me as if you stayed in the same spot, the bird stayed put as well. You just kept the camera in the same position except for panning it left enough to get the bird on the right side of the image. You were far enough away that the grass and shadow stayed in the same relation to the bird.

  • Alice Meronek

    I prefer the bird with the weed. Even though not quite in focus, the weed gives a touch of the environment and season giving a bit more info about the bird and adds interest for me. By the way, I set up my Mark 4 with your instructions and have never regretted it. Very helpful. I have been using the back focus since film days and love how fast I can get the composition I want. Everyone should try it for a full day to get a feel for it. I bet they don’t revert back.

  • Ingrid L

    The image with the bird on the right has too much empty space IMHO, I prefer the one with the bird on the left, as if looking at the shrub.

  • Gary Axten

    I prefer the bird on the left, I think looking right is a more comfortable position for Westerners. I was trying to imagine how the second image would look if you were to flip it so the bird were on the left, I think I would still prefer the first image though.

  • Artie I agree entirely that the ability to start and stop focus to allow for recomposition is highly desirable. I think the point you make is perfectly illustrated however I feel that the method employed is open to a little more choice than you have indicated.
    I have tried the rear focus technique several times but I always come back to leaving the shutter button to operate focus and fire the shutter and when I wish to halt focus I press the rear AF button, at this point I can then recompose.
    I appreciate this is a matter of personal choice and it is purely a matter of opinion and preference which is the better alternative. I am writing because anyone who has not tried both ways may be under the impression that the way you illustrated is the only option available.

    • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      #1: I have not idea what you mean by this:

      “…however I feel that the method employed is open to a little more choice than you have indicated.” Please explain.

      #2:re: “When I wish to half focus I press the rear AF button, at this point I can then recompose.” What function have you assigned to the AF button. As the camera comes out of the box you cannot do what you describe….