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What is the AE-L vs AF-L Button on a Nikon DSLR?

Last updated: March 13, 2024 - 6 min read
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Knowing what AE-L vs AF-L means on Nikon cameras is good know. That’s because cramming many tactile controls onto a camera body leaves little room to explain what each button does.
The AE-L and AF-L buttons on the back of a Nikon are prime examples. What does the AE button do? What about the AF meaning?
AF stands for autofocus, while AE stands for auto exposure. The AE-L and AF-L are button locks that preserve specific camera settings.
Learn how to use the AE AF lock on your Nikon camera in this guide.

Everything You Need to Know About AE-L vs AF-L

The AE and AF Lock button is a quick way to lock the focus and exposure on the subject. The button isn’t the only way to do this. You could switch to a different autofocus area mode and choose where to place the focal points. You could also switch to a different metering mode.
But sometimes there isn’t time to switch the autofocus area or metering modes. Other times, you would need to change the settings right back for the next shot anyways.
To use the AE and AF Lock, adjust the composition so that the camera can find the proper focus and exposure. Filling the frame with the subject works best. Press the shutter button halfway to focus. Now, press and hold the AE/AF-L button.
You need to press the button down until you no longer need the focus and exposure locked.
With the button pressed, you can adjust your composition and shoot. Do not change the distance of the camera to the subject or the shot will no longer be in focus.
This technique is excellent for shots where the camera has trouble locking focus or exposure. For example, most cameras have trouble focusing on an object on the very edge of the frame. The AE feature is also helpful for subjects that are backlit.
a Nikon DSLR camera

Adjusting the AE and AF Lock on a Nikon Camera

By default, the AE/AF button will lock both focus and exposure. But, you can change the setting to lock only one or the other. If you don’t use the AE lock or AF lock, you can assign the button to something else.
The exact steps may differ based on your camera model, but most interchangeable lens Nikon cameras follow a similar process.
In the camera menu, head to the Custom Setting menu, it’s the sub-menu that is indicated by the pencil option.
Next, choose the Controls option. Select the option that says “Assign the AE-L/AF-L button.” Other models have the same options inside the custom control option by choosing the AE/AF button.
From here, you can choose what you want the AE-L and AF-L button to do. The default is the AE/AF lock, which locks both.
You can also set the control to AE lock only or AF lock only. On some models, you can also change this button to do something else, such as AF-ON or back button focusing.
In the same control menu, you can also choose to use the AE-L, AF-L button as a function button. Look for an option that says “press + command dials” and select the setting you’d like.
Now, when you hold down the AE-L/AF-L button, the command dials will control your chosen setting instead of shutter speed and aperture.

a Nikon dslr camera
Photo by Liza Rahman from Pexels

Common AE-L and AF-L questions

What Does the AE and AF Lock Mean?

AE means auto exposure, AE-L is the auto exposure lock. AF stands for autofocus, so AF-L is the auto focus lock.

What Is AE-L and AF-L?

AE-L prevents the exposure from changing, even if the light changes or if you reframe the shot. AF-L locks the autofocus and prevents changes in the focus.

What Is Shutter Release Button AE-L?

The Shutter Release Button AE-L is a menu point in most Nikon cameras. This menu setting allows you to choose what pressing the shutter button halfway does.
By default, a half-press locks the focus and exposure until the button is released. If you turn this menu option off, the half-press will only focus, but not lock in the exposure.

What Is the Fn button on a Nikon Camera?

The Fn button stands for function. It can be custom set to different controls inside the camera menu and be used with the control wheel.
Think of the Fn button like the control button on a computer. By pressing and holding control, the Ctrl button on a keyboard has a different function.
Hold the Fn button down while using the control wheel to adjust to whatever custom option you selected in the menu.

How Do You Use AE Lock?

The AE Auto Exposure Lock is helpful for getting proper exposure inside the semi-manual modes. These modes include programmed auto, aperture priority, or shutter priority.
If the camera isn’t balancing out the exposure, zoom in on the subject and hold down the AE-L.
With the button still pressed, recompose the image and shoot. The exposure will stay the same even after recomposing the image with the AE-L pressed.

What Is AF-C Priority Selection?

By default, Nikon cameras prioritize getting the shot in focus over getting the shot fast.
When AF-C Priority is turned on, the camera will take the shot even if the camera isn’t properly focused. This prevents delays when shooting fast subjects, but in turn, can mean more soft images.

How Do You Unlock AE AF?

Pressing and holding the AE-L or AF-L button locks the AE and AF. Releasing the button will unlock.
Don’t confuse the AF-L with the focus button lock. The focus button lock is a switch on the back of many Nikon DSLRs. It is easy to accidentally hit, resulting in a camera that won’t change the focal point until you unlock it.

A Nikon DSLR camera
Photo by Nick Demou from Pexels


Photographers don’t have to use the AE-L/AF-L button to take great photos. But having this control is ideal for locking in the focus and exposure. It is also faster than adjusting the focus area or metering mode.
If you prefer spot metering, single point autofocus modes or manual mode, you can adjust the function of the button to another setting.
Check out our Photography for Beginners course to learn about all the functions on your camera!