Canon EOS M Field Test

Too little, too late?

by Tim Barribeau | Posted 08/01/2013

Canon EOS M review -- Sample photo

The Canon EOS M is a decidedly late arrival in the already packed world of mirrorless compact system cameras. But so am I, having spent the bulk of my digital photography experience using primarily pocket cameras and DSLRs. I thought that would make us a perfect match, and I was eager to see if Canon's prowess in both interchangeable lens cameras and point-and-shoots would translate to their first CSC. Of course, I knew about the bad buzz surrounding the EOS M, but I wanted to approach my review with an open mind.

Design and construction. My first impressions of the Canon EOS M were good ones. Despite the negativity that abounded about its dreadfully slow Hybrid CMOS AF system, I desperately wanted to like the camera. Happily, upon opening the box and getting my hands on it, I found its design to be both sleek and solid. Rather than traipse down the retro path that we've seen Olympus and Fujifilm so thoroughly embrace, the EOS M was built with sleek lines and minimal interruptions. There's definitely a link here to some of Canon's point-and-shoots, most notably the compact and minimalist designs of the S110, SX280 and their ilk.

Canon EOS M review -- Front quarter view with lens

The Canon EOS M has an immensely pleasant balance and heft, with a feeling of solidity that's encouraging. The grip, unfortunately, is on the small side, comprised of just a small raised strip on the camera's front and a thumbpad on the back. Obviously Canon was trying to keep the body as small as possible, by forgoing a more substantial grip. Fortunately, the EOS M isn't heavy enough to feel like you're going to drop it, but it does get a bit uncomfortable to hold over a long period of time -- especially with the relatively sizable 18-55mm lens attached. I can only assume that if Canon puts out a proper telephoto for the M line, it'll be even more tricky.

Canon EOS M review -- Strap lugs

One small design feature I have to really give Canon credit for is the neck strap attachment points. It may seem like a minor touch, but speaks of an overall care for design. Rather than the standard loops that you have to awkwardly thread the strap through, the EOS M has small metal lugs resembling the head of a nail. The strap is simply placed over these and locked in place by rotating a bolt in place with a coin. For me, it was markedly less awkward than the usual style.

Unfortunately, as much as the design hits some rather nice highs, there are also some noticeable omissions. Primary among them is the lack of a built-in flash. Sure, full credit to Canon for including a standard hot-shoe in an entry-level system camera (and make no mistake, this is decidedly an entry level offering), but the fact that the company hasn't managed to include even a rudimentary flash is a bit bewildering. As we mentioned earlier, Canon did develop a compact accessory flash, the Speedlite 90EX, to pair with the EOS M, but it's an additional $149. Also, as of now, there's no add-on viewfinder option, which seems like a missed opportunity. More advanced photographers will have to decide if an LCD viewfinder (even an excellent one, like the EOS M's) is acceptable for their shooting needs and habits.

How good is the Canon EOS M's 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 STM kit lens?
Find out by clicking here to see our optical test results.

There's also the issue of lenses. Right now, even one year after the camera was announced, there are still only two dedicated lenses available for the Canon EOS M in the U.S. -- though they're both quite good -- an EF-M 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM and an EF-M 22mm f/2 STM (which has the smallest front element I've ever seen). (Note: There's also an EF-M 11-22mm f/4-5.6 IS STM lens that's not yet available in the U.S.) Of course, you can mount other Canon EF and EF-S mount lenses with an optional adapter, but that's a pretty minute lens collection for a new, compact format.

Canon EOS M review -- Camera with lenses

Canon EOS M review -- Graphical user interface

Display, interface and menus. Much like the design, the user interface is a mix of some excellent implementations and some questionable decisions. On the positive, the fixed-position, 3-inch LCD touchscreen is one of the best I've seen on a camera. It's seriously fantastic, responsive and sharp, with 1,040K dots of resolution. And it's easily readable even in bright sunlight. Now, the multi-touch capacitive touchscreen doesn't feel quite as quick as the screen on my iPhone-- something that's most noticeable when flicking through images on playback -- but compared to pretty much every other camera touchscreen I've tested, it's fantastic.

Most of the camera's core settings can be controlled through both the touchscreen and the buttons on the back of the camera, so you can default to the method that suits you best. The graphical buttons on the touchscreen are a good size, and easy to hit, so I rarely chose the wrong setting. The ability to tap to focus on a specific area on screen is always handy. You can also assign the touchscreen to act as a shutter, if you so desire.

Canon EOS M review -- Mode dial

But there are some serious downsides here. Perhaps my biggest complaint is that the EOS M doesn't have a complete mode dial. Make no mistake, there's a Mode dial, but all it switches between are Scene Intelligent Auto, Still Photo and Movie modes. To change to Program, Priority, Manual and Scene modes, you have to use the in-camera menu system. This makes no sense to me. After all, the dial is already there. All they had to do was add a few more clicks to get full PASM, and it wouldn't have taken up any extra space.

There are also frustrating inconsistencies in the UI. Earlier I mentioned that some settings could be controlled by both button and touch, which is great. But not all of them. And there's no real way to intuitively know which controls which, except for trial and error, or getting lost deep in the owner's manual. The learning curve isn't the steepest I've seen for camera menus and controls, but it's not easy.

Canon EOS M review -- Rear-panel controls

The other obvious issue is the small amount of buttons and other physical controls on the Canon EOS M. These are limited to just the Control Dial, a Four-Way pad, and five buttons on the rear (Q/Set, Menu, Playback, Info and Movie). For those of you not familiar with Canon controls, the four-way pad not only allows you to navigate screen menus, but also gives you instant access to settings as such: Left - AE lock; Right - Exposure compensation; Up - Drive mode; and Down - Delete.

The vast majority of settings require you to go diving into menus to tweak. Even settings as basic as white balance, ISO, and exposure mode all require using the LCD menus before you can set them. The fact that one of the few buttons is entirely devoted to recording movies -- to the point where it can't be used in other modes -- seems something of a waste to me.

Of the buttons on the Canon EOS M, there's also only one that can be customized on the camera -- the Down-arrow button on the Four-Way pad. In Record mode, this defaults to resetting the focus point to the center of the screen, although it isn't marked as such. It can, however, be repurposed to a variety of other tasks. You can also add frequently-accessed Menu settings to the My Menu. That's more handy than it is on many other Canon cameras, given the small number of physical controls -- and hence, the time you'll be spending in the menu system.

Canon EOS M review -- Creative Auto mode

Creativity and feature set. The Canon EOS M's built-in features are a decidedly mixed bag, though there are some interesting nods towards entry-level users. For instance, you have Canon's Creative Auto Mode, which simplifies -- and renames -- some of the controls in a way that might make more sense to a newbie. For instance, rather than adjusting the aperture to control depth of field, it prompts users to change the background from blurred to sharp along a five point scale.

But Canon seems to have kept a short leash on the available exposure modes. Where some cameras will pack a few dozen, this has just the basic Program, Priority, Manual, and then eight scene modes -- your usual smattering of macro, portrait, landscape and so on. The only two of note are Handheld Night Scene, which combines four images into one -- so you have to have a steady hand -- and HDR Backlight Control which is designed to retain more detail in high-contrast scenes by merging three consecutive shots into one.

Canon EOS M review -- Special effects

It would have been nice to see more of the fun, special effects filters that have become almost ubiquitous in other entry-level cameras slotted in here, too -- like maybe a Panorama mode. The EOS M offers fairly run of the mill Creative Filters such as Grainy B/W, Soft focus, Fish-eye effect, Art bold effect, Water painting effect, Toy camera effect and Miniature effect. They're all pretty lackluster in my opinion, but you can see a full range of them for yourself below.

 

Canon EOS M - Creative Effects
Canon EOS M review -- No effect Canon EOS M review -- Art Bold
No effect Art Bold
Canon EOS M review -- Water painting Canon EOS M review -- Toy camera
Water Painting Toy Camera
Canon EOS M review -- Miniature Canon EOS M review -- Grainy B&W
Miniature Grainy B/W
Canon EOS M review -- Soft focus Canon EOS M review -- Fisheye
Soft Focus Fisheye
Unfortunately, the Canon EOS M is rather spare on creative filters and special effects, and the ones it does offer aren't tremendously dramatic.

Much ado about AF. There's a lot to like about the Canon EOS M. Unfortunately, there was even more to dislike about it during my first shooting experiences with it. In fact, before the firmware update last month, the EOS M had a flaw so large that I couldn't in good conscience recommend it to anyone, as it was. Its autofocus speed was utterly abysmal -- truly, worryingly slow. For comparison's sake, I own a Canon SX200 point-and-shoot from 2009, and this 3-year-old point-and-shoot focused faster and more accurately than the EOS M.

And not only was the Canon EOS M sluggish to focus in bright light, but also it was an absolute mess when faced with dark shooting conditions. Low-light AF was glacial, seesawing back and forth as it struggled to find focus, and frequently downright failing to lock on anything at all. And when I shot with multiple-point autofocus on, the camera was slower still.

Canon EOS M review -- Front view

Even if you shot in bright sunlight, with just a single focus point, it was just barely usable. And it wouldn't catch anything fast moving. Simply put, I wasted too much time trying to get it to focus like I wanted it to. While the single focal point improved the situation, that point itself is placed by your finger on the LCD touchscreen, and so it has to be relatively large -- which makes getting pinpoint precision problematic.

But that was before the Canon fixed the AF problem. In late June 2013, Canon released a new version of the firmware, and we're happy to report the Canon EOS M's AF has been markedly improved -- in our tests we've found single-shot AF to be about a half a second faster across the board. However, we'd still only call the AF acceptable at best -- the EOS M is still not as speedy and decisive as most of its competitors. As such, its AF system remains a major shortcoming, though no longer a completely crippling one.

If the AF system still isn't fast enough for you, you can manually focus the Canon EOS M by setting it to manual focus mode and using the lens' focus ring. It's fairly easy and intuitive to use, and you can get either a 5x or 10x magnified view on the LCD touchscreen to make sure you're honed in on your target. In AF+MF focus mode, you can let the camera get close with AF and then you can turn the focus ring to get what you want razor sharp. There is, however, no focus peaking function to help you nail the point of focus.

Find out more about the Canon EOS M's autofocus and other performance stats by clicking here to see our full battery of rigorous, objective speed and operation tests conducted in the IR Lab.

Bundled with the 22mm lens, the Canon EOS M could have been an excellent street photography camera for quickly snapping shots on the go -- but the slow focusing limits that dream. In my real-world testing, I also found the manual focus mode to be nothing special, and certainly not good enough to pre-focus with enough precision to shoot from the hip. Since the EF-M lenses use STM stepper motors for focusing, you can turn the focus ring eternally in either direction, which means you can't even take a guess at manually pre-focusing before lifting your camera.

Canon EOS M review -- Sample photo

Image quality. OK, after that downer, here's some much better news. I discovered the overall image quality of the Canon EOS M to be pretty amazing for a mirrorless model. Photos are sharp and vibrant, and the 18-megapixel APS-C sensor delivers a great deal of resolution -- more than many competitors. I was lucky to hit a run of warm, sunny weather -- rare for the Bay Area! -- and captured several images that show off what the EOS M can do in near-ideal conditions.

Canon EOS M review -- Sample photo
Canon EOS M review -- Sample photo
Canon EOS M review -- Sample photo
It's amazing how nice your images can turn out when you're not forced to shoot under overcast skies! Though I struggled with the Canon EOS M's sluggish autofocus, I was thoroughly happy with the resulting photos when I got the AF to lock on like I wanted it to.

The EOS M's low-light images surprised me. In particular, I thought the kit lens demonstrated stellar image stabilization, allowing me to be able to shoot down to one tenth of a second hand-held at night with very little blur.

Canon EOS M review -- Sample photo

I found the EOS M's dynamic range also to be decent. Maybe the small size of the camera had me thinking my shots would come out more like a point-and-shoot, but the EOS M captured the highlights and shadows I was looking for in most of my shots. I was even able to capture a street sign backlit directly by the sun and still have the image come out correctly.

Canon EOS M review -- Sample photo Canon EOS M review -- Sample photo
The EOS M definitely demonstrated good dynamic range, something that it borrows from its Canon DSLR cousins, and that separates it from most point-and-shoots.

View the IR Lab's in-depth Canon EOS M image quality test results by clicking here,
and see our side-by-side comparisons against the Canon EOS M's top competitors here.

Video. The Canon EOS M's Movie mode is quite fully featured. It records at Full HD (1080p) at up to 30 frames per second, and at 720p at up to 60fps. You can leave the EOS M on Movie Auto, or set it to Movie Manual for precise control over aperture and shutter speed. You can also customize a wide array of photographic settings while recording, including ISO and white balance. In Movie mode you can also enable wind noise reduction, audio attenuation, and watch the feed of audio coming through each of the stereo mics.

As I mentioned earlier, it seems a bizarre design decision that one of the few buttons on the rear of the camera is devoted solely to starting or stopping recording while in video mode. While on the positive side, it means you can shoot still images with the shutter button while you keep recording video, it also means that while in normal camera modes, one of the few physical buttons is out of commission.

One of the advantages to the focusing system that Canon instituted with the EOS M is that, paired with an STM lens, it's totally silent, so it won't interfere with your audio while filming. However, just like it is in still mode, the AF remains fairly sluggish, so you'll probably want to pre-focus whenever possible.

1,920 x 1,080
Progressive, 30 frames per second
Download Original (170MB MOV)
1,920 x 1,080
Progressive, 30 frames per second
Download Original (154MB MOV)

Wrapping it up. I wanted to like the Canon EOS M, I really did. But after my first few days shooting with it, I had given up hope. I was going to pan the camera for its slow-as-molasses autofocus system, which rendered it almost unusable. And I was going to knock it for its lack of a built-in flash, electronic viewfinder and physical exposure mode controls, not to mention its sometimes-frustrating menu and navigation quirks.

Canon EOS M review -- Front quarter view

But then a June 2013 firmware update finally came from Canon and put the spotlight back on what the camera does well. First off, the EOS M takes great still pictures, thanks to its 18-megapixel APS-C-type sensor that's related to those of the Rebel T4i, T5i, and SL1. It's also a very sophisticated movie-making tool, especially in Movie Manual mode where you can change aperture, shutter speed and more. I particular loved the bright-and-sharp LCD touchscreen, though sometimes I got confused on how exactly to change settings since the touchscreen and physical dials often seemed at war with one another.

I still want to like the EOS M. But I don't think it's for me personally. There are just too many other mirrorless options out there that don't have such a notable (and once fatal) flaw. The AF speed may be better, acceptable to a point, but it's still not what you'd expect from Canon.

However, if I were a Canon DSLR owner looking to add a compact backup body that was compatible with my all my lenses (thanks to the EF-M adapter), I'd probably seriously consider the EOS M. Especially at the $400 pricetag for which it's currently selling.

 

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