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AE-L/AF-L: What, Why, and How

6 min read

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ae-l and af-l.
Quick summary

In this post, I will discuss the finer points of the AE-L/AF-L button on a digital camera, what it does, how to set it up in the camera menu, and when to employ it to lock exposure and focus.

This little-used function, the AE-L/AF-L button, allows the photographer to have precise control over exposure and focus settings. Those initials mean Auto Exposure Lock and Auto Focus Lock.

AE-L/AF-L is particularly useful in situations where you might want to recompose your shot after locking the proper exposure and/or focus.

With advancements in camera technology, these functions take on a secondary role with many photographers. Modern cameras feature sophisticated metering systems and advanced autofocus capabilities. Therefore, photographers can adjust exposure and focus settings on the fly without the need to lock them in place.

In this article, I will explain AE-L/AF-L and answer several questions: What is AE-L/AF-L? Why do we need it? How do we set it up and use it? I will also give you some ideas on how to work around it.

ae-l/af-l button.
The AE-L/AF-L button of a digital camera.

What is AE-L/AF-L?

The AE-L/AF-L button provides a handy tool to lock focus and exposure, and most cameras allow you to customize the button to lock only focus or just exposure. But the default setting is to lock both.

How this button is labeled varies with the camera model. Nikon and Sony use AE-L/AF-L, while Canon opts for the asterisk symbol *. Some FujiFilm cameras feature two buttons, one for AE-L and another one for AF-L. You’ll find this button on the back of the camera within easy reach of your thumb.

Exactly how the button works can be customized in the camera’s menu. It offers several variations of exposure lock. It can also be set for back button focus. Your camera’s user manual lays out instructions for how to customize this function to your personal preference or shooting situation.

ae-l/af-l settings in a camera menu.
The AE-L/AF-L menu options of a digital camera.

How to Set up AE-L/AF-L

This varies with camera brand and model, but here are the basic functions on a Nikon DSLR.

AE/AF lock – the default setting. This locks exposure and focus. It’s active while you press the button and becomes inactive upon release of the button.

AE lock only – locks exposure only and reacquires focus if you recompose. It is only active while you press the AE-L/AF-L button.

AE lock (Reset on release) – exposure locks when you press the AE-L/AF-L button and remains locked until you snap the shutter; remains locked even if you release the AE-L/AF-L button.

AE lock (Hold) – exposure locks at the half press of the shutter button and remains locked even if you take multiple shots. The lock releases after the camera is inactive for a time or releases when the AE-L/AF-L button is pressed again.

AF lock only – locks focus while the button is pressed and becomes inactive when you release the button.

Why Photographers Use AE-L/AF-L?

This function is active when you’re shooting in one of the semi-manual modes, such as Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority. In manual mode, exposure remains locked and you refocus as needed. 

In the photo below, I focused and set exposure on the mockingbird. Pressing the AE-L/AF-L button initiated the focus lock and exposure lock. Then, I recomposed the image to get the bird to the left in the frame.

image of a mockingbird with locked exposure and focus.
This photo of a mockingbird locked exposure and focus, then shifted the bird to the left.

As an alternative, you might shoot in AF-S (autofocus single). Lock focus by keeping the shutter button pressed halfway, then recompose. This becomes even simpler if you use Back Button Focus. Most cameras allow you to set the AE-L/AF-L button to lock focus only.

The AE Lock Option

I recommend that you set up the AE-L/AF-L button for Back Button Focus. Once you get accustomed to focusing with the thumb and snapping the shutter release button with the forefinger, this becomes a simpler and easier way to acquire and maintain focus.

If you’re not using Back Button Focus, set the AE-L/AF-L button for AE Lock Only or AE Lock (Reset on Release). This comes down to personal preference and what and where you are shooting, not a right or wrong way. Experiment and find what works best for you.

I shot the image below with AE-Lock. The sun was in the background and I exposed for the sky, locked exposure, then focused on the sea oats. Still, with the foreground underexposed, I darkened the shadows in post production to create this silhouette.

sea oats silhouette using ae-l/af-l.
This silhouette used AE-L/AF-L, exposing for the background, then refocusing on the sea oats.

Many photographers shoot in manual mode, giving them full control over exposure and focus settings without relying on locks. They fine-tune their settings based on their creative vision and the specific lighting conditions of a scene. This level of control often produces more personalized and visually appealing results.

When to Use AE-L/AF-L?

Let’s take an example of portrait photography. Imagine you have a subject positioned in front of a bright background. If you were to use the camera’s automatic exposure and focus settings, the bright background might cause your subject’s face to appear dark or underexposed.

By using the AE-L/AF-L function, you can lock the exposure and focus settings on your subject’s face, ensuring that it remains correctly exposed and focused even when you recompose the shot.

This applies to landscape photography as well, especially if you are taking multiple pictures to merge into a panorama. In the photo below, I merged five images in post-processing. I shot all five images with exposure lock to maintain a consistent look in the panorama.

city skyline panorama.
Multiple images of a landscape to be merged should maintain consistent exposure.

Do We Really Need the AE-L/AF-L Button?

Auto Exposure Lock (AE-L) and AutoFocus Lock (AF-L) were once popular features in digital photography. However, advancements in camera technology rendered these functions non-essential for photographers.

With modern cameras offering sophisticated metering systems and advanced autofocus capabilities, photographers can adjust exposure and focus settings quickly with no need to lock them in place.

af-on button of a digital camera.
The AF-On button of a digital camera.

Nikon’s line of mirrorless cameras eliminated the AE-L/AF-L button, replacing it with an AF-On button. This facilitates Back Button Focus. In addition, Nikon’s camera menu allows exposure lock or focus lock assignment to the AF-On button or to one of the function buttons.

af-on menu of a digital camera.
The AF-On button offers options for back button focus or to lock exposure.

Sony added the AF-On button but included a simplified AE-L button. Canon mirrorless cameras feature the AF-On button but retain a smaller Asterisk * button for AE-L/AF-L on the back of the camera body.

In Closing

In digital photography, the AE-L/AF-L button locks exposure and focus settings, allowing photographers to recompose their shots without the camera readjusting these settings. This operation proves beneficial in a variety of shooting scenarios, including landscape and portrait photography or any situation where the photographer locks focus and exposure, and then recomposes the shot.

Advancements in camera technology provided more options for customizing shooting modes, giving photographers greater control over their images. These innovations enable photographers to tailor their shooting experience to their specific needs and preferences. With the ability to customize shooting modes, photographers can experiment with different settings and techniques to achieve their desired results.

Hopefully, this article helps you understand the workings of digital cameras and improves your skills. If you have any comments or questions, please submit them in the space below.

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Daniel has been providing photographic and written content to websites since 1995. He maintains a photo gallery on, showcasing his most recent work. In addition, Daniel is active in stock photography, with portfolios on Adobe, Getty/iStock, and Shutterstock.
Daniel has been providing photographic and written content to websites since 1995. He maintains a photo gallery on, showcasing his most recent work. In addition, Daniel is active in stock photography, with portfolios on Adobe, Getty/iStock, and Shutterstock.

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