Canon EOS M3 Field Test

Numerous improvements take the M-series to the next level

by Jeremy Gray | Posted 10/16/15

29mm equivalent (EF-M 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM at 18mm), f/10, 1s, ISO 100
This image has been modified. Click for original image.

The M3 finally makes its way to North America

After being released in European and Asian markets earlier in the year, the M3 is the first M-series camera since the original to be released in the US. Including the new 24.2-megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor and Hybrid CMOS AF III autofocus from the Rebel T6s and T6i cameras, the M3 is a big improvement over the original M in a few critical ways. The impressive features come in a small package, with the M3 weighing only 12.9oz (366g) with a battery and SD card. For those looking to upgrade from an original M or for those looking to purchase their first Canon mirrorless camera, the M3 brings a lot to the table and merits consideration.

Key Features

  • 24.2-megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor
  • 3" tilting touchscreen
  • Weighs 12.9 oz. (366g) with battery and SD card
  • Has a traditional mode dial, front dial, and control dial
  • Hybrid CMOS AF III autofocus system that provides 6.1x faster autofocus than the original EOS M
  • Wi-Fi and NFC capabilities
  • DIGIC 6 processor

A compact camera body with plentiful controls

The M3 is small, but it does not suffer from many of the compromises that small cameras often make, such as foregoing a front grip and not having command dials. Unlike the original Canon EOS M, the M3 has a fairly deep front grip. While the command dials on the M3 are not exactly like those found on a Rebel, they allow for a similar level of control. Surrounding the shutter release is the "front dial," which operates like a traditional command dial in many shooting modes although it does not have the same high quality feel as you would find on a Canon DSLR command dial. There is also a "control dial" on the back of the camera surrounding the directional pad. This works like the control dial on other Canon cameras and works well enough for changing the aperture in manual mode, although it doesn't offer quite the level of precision that I would like.

The Canon EOS M3 with Canon EVF-DC1 electronic viewfinder attachment

On the top of the camera body is a built-in pop-up flash, hot shoe, exposure compensation dial, shutter release (with front dial), M-Fn button next to the shutter, and the exposure mode dial. The hot shoe can be used to attach the optional electronic viewfinder (Canon EVF-DC1). The electronic viewfinder works well, but does add a lot of bulk to the top of the camera. The EVF has a sensor that can tell when you're looking through it and shuts off the camera's display. The sensor works well most of the time, although it can struggle in certain lighting conditions and when the display on the back of the camera is tilted upward.

The M3's 3" tilting touchscreen display has 1.04 million dots and is quite sharp. The touchscreen capabilities of the display work well and the menu system is generally conducive to using touch for navigating the menus and changing settings.

Higher-res sensor delivers quality results

Using the same 24.2-megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor that Canon used in the recent Rebel T6s and T6i cameras, the M3 captures high-quality images. Images are sharp and have good colors. JPEG files look great straight from the camera, but RAW files can appear slightly dull and soft without processing. JPEG files with default settings are a bit more balanced than RAW files, with more detail in shadow areas and better control of highlights. RAW files, however, offer a lot more freedom to make adjustments to overall exposure and to shadow and highlight areas.

320mm equivalent (EF-M 55-200mm f/4.5-6.3 IS STM at 200mm), f/6.3, 1/320s, ISO 800
This image has been resized. Click for original image.

With Canon's Auto Lighting Optimizer, the M3 is able to automatically adjust brightness and contrast to better deal with shadow and highlight areas. I found that the Auto Lighting Optimizer, when set to Standard, did a good job of bringing detail back in shadow areas compared to RAW files without going overboard, but Off, Low, and High settings are also available. Using the Auto Lighting Optimizer can lead to increased levels of noise in the shadow areas, however.

Compact 2-lens kit offer a wide range of versatility

The Canon EOS M3 is available in a body-only configuration for less than $600 USD, but it is also available in two kits. The M3 with the EF-M 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM lens is currently selling for $700 USD. The M3 is also available with a second lens for around $930 USD, an EF-M 55-200mm f/4.5-6.3 IS STM lens. I used the M3 with both of these kit lenses, and they both offer impressive performance.

45mm equivalent (EF-M 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM at 28mm), f/11, 0.5s, ISO 100
This image has been resized. Click for original image.

The EF-M 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM lens is small and light at only 2.4 x 2.4 inches (60.9 x 61mm) and weighing 7.4 oz (210 g). The zoom ring, like with all of the zoom EF-M lenses I used, has a nice ridged grip. Unfortunately, the grip on the focus ring is much narrower. Despite the low weight, there are actually 13 elements in 11 groups in the lens. The lens performs well optically, with only minimal chromatic aberration issues and not a lot of vignetting when shooting wide open.

The EF-M 55-200mm f/4.5-6.3 IS STM lens is also quite small and light, with dimensions of 2.4 x 3.4 inches (60.9 x 86.5 mm) and a weight of 9.2 oz. (60g). The 55-200mm lens has 17 elements in 11 groups, including an aspheric lens and UD lens elements. The lens performs well, even when shooting wide open at 200mm. The maximum aperture being f/6.3 at 200mm can be somewhat limiting in moderately dim light. The lens is sharp and autofocused quickly most of the time, but there were occasions, particularly when shooting at or near 200mm when the lens hunted for focus despite there being more than enough light. One area of performance that really impressed me was the optical image stabilization on the 55-200mm lens. The 3.5-stop image stabilization did an excellent job and helped to counter the difficulties of shooting at f/6.3 in low light.

320mm equivalent (EF-M 55-200mm f/4.5-6.3 IS STM at 200mm), f/8, 1/320s, ISO 1600
This image has been modified. Click for original image.

Shoot excellent landscapes with the ultra-wide EF-M 11-22mm

Offering an 18-35mm equivalent focal length, the Canon EF-M 11-22mm f/4-5.6 IS STM lens is an excellent lens for landscape work. It is pretty small at 2.3 inches (58.2mm) long and it weighs 7.8 oz. (220g). The lens has 12 elements in 9 groups. I found the optical performance to be good, but there is light falloff when shooting wide open, especially when shooting at or near 11mm. The M3 has good in-camera lens correction that mostly addressed this issue, however. The 11-22mm does cost $400 USD, but it also provides the widest focal length of any available EF-M lens.

18mm equivalent (EF-M 11-22mm f/4-5.6 IS STM at 11mm), f/8, 1/50s, ISO 100
This image has been modified slightly. Click for original image.

Pocketable, pancake prime is super small, but not without fault

Canon's EF-M 22mm f/2 STM lens offers a 35mm equivalent focal length and an impressive maximum aperture (the largest maximum aperture of any current EF-M lens) for an MSRP of $250 USD. The lens is less than an inch long (0.9 inches, 23.7mm) and weighs a very light 3.7 oz. (105g). The focus ring is narrow, but it does rotate smoothly. The 22mm f/2 lens has 7 elements in 6 groups, and produces sharp images. The lens produces very good results overall but struggles with fringing issues around high-contrast fine details.

35mm equivalent (EF-M 22mm f/2 STM at 22mm), f/2, 1/20s, ISO 1600
This image has been resized. Click for original image.

Expand your lens arsenal with the EOS M Mount Adapter

With Canon's EOS M Mount Adapter, you can attach Canon EF and EF-S lenses to the M3. The adapter itself is fairly small and has a detachable tripod mount. Canon's newest EF 50mm f/1.8 STM, for example, works well on the M3 using the adapter. Autofocus performance remains fast, and the lens performs really well. The adapter adds some length to EF and EF-S lenses, but the 50mm f/1.8 by itself is 2.7 x 1.6 inches (69.2 x 39.3mm). The lens has impressive optics and does an excellent job of separating the subject from the background when shooting at f/1.8. The out of focus area itself also has a pleasing appearance. At only $125 USD, the 50mm f/1.8 STM provides excellent value. The EOS M Mount Adapter itself can be found for around $50 USD, so it is an affordable way to greatly expand the amount of lenses you can attach to the M3 and in my opinion is a must-buy accessory if you already own any EF or EF-S lenses.

80mm equivalent (EF 50mm f/1.8 STM), f/11, 0.6s, ISO 100
This image has been resized. Click for original image.

An enjoyable and easy-to-use camera

When using the M3 out in the field, the changes that Canon has made to the body and the controls layout pay large dividends. The M3, while certainly small, feels like a DSLR in many important ways. The front grip and exposure compensation dial in particular gave me a sense of control over the camera. The front grip is not very deep, but it's deep enough to make the camera comfortable to use with EF-M lenses and the Canon EF-S 50mm f/1.8 STM lens that I had with me as well. The Quick Setting menu, accessed via either the button in the center of the navigation wheel or on the touchscreen, allows quick adjustments to various important shooting functions in lieu of individual buttons.

18mm equivalent (EF-M 11-22mm f/4-5.6 IS STM at 11mm), f/4, 1/320s, ISO 100, Scene Intelligent Auto
This image has been resized. Click for original image.

Simple auto shooting modes with customization when you want it

The M3 performs well in Scene Intelligent Auto Mode due to impressive metering performance. Using a 384 zone metering system, the M3's evaluative metering setting does a consistently good job choosing the correct exposure for many scenes and conditions. There is also partial, spot, and center-weighted average metering modes, although the spot metering mode is stationary in the center of the frame rather than tied to an AF point. In particularly bright or varied scenes, there is also a Highlight Tone Priority option available within the camera's menu system that aims to reduce highlight clipping, but ISO speeds below 160 cannot be used when this is turned on. White balance metering is good as well, providing predictable results in many conditions. In addition to good metering performance, Scene Intelligent Auto mode works well because the face + tracking autofocus mode is quick and accurate and the camera does a good job at intelligently applying different settings in different conditions. ISO, shutter speeds, and aperture values are all automatically chosen to ensure that the given subject will be sharply captured. Additionally, RAW images can be recorded in Scene Intelligent Auto mode.

The M3 has an interesting Creative Assist shooting mode, which is designed to simplify various picture settings, and lets you adjust and influence the image through the use of simple on-screen controls and sliders. You can change the background sharpness, brightness, contrast, saturation, color tone (coolness and warmth), and monochrome settings. While this mode doesn't allow you to capture RAW images, it is still a nice inclusion that does an excellent job of simplifying picture settings and options.

80mm equivalent (EF 50mm f/1.8 STM), f/4.5, 1/200s, ISO 100, Creative Assist
This image has been resized. Click for original image.

Unlike Scene Intelligent Auto, Scene mode allows you to manually select the scene you are photographing. You can choose from Portrait, Landscape, Close-up, Sports, Handheld Night Scene, and Food. Depending on the chosen scene, the camera will apply different image setting parameters. In Scene mode, the M3 will record RAW files only in Portrait and Sports scene modes. There is also a Creative Filters option available on the mode dial that allows for various artistic effects, such as capturing HDR images. Within the HDR option, there are Natural, Art Standard, Art Vivid, Art Bold, and Art Embossed HDR options. I found that the HDR mode worked well, although Natural and Art Standard are more to my taste. There are a variety of other creative filter options, such as Fish-eye, Water Painting, Miniature, Toy Camera, Soft Focus, and Grainy B/W. Like Scene mode, all of these Creative Filters options are recorded only in JPEG images. Surprisingly, there isn't a panorama shooting option available.

34mm equivalent (EF-M 11-22mm f/4-5.6 IS STM at 21mm), f/8, 1/250s, ISO 100, HDR
This image has been modified slightly. Click for original image.

External controls are a great idea but fall short of a DSLR's

While I lauded the dual command dial controls of the M3 above, their designs do lead to some minor issues when shooting in Tv, Av, and M exposure modes. In Tv and M modes, the front dial is used to adjust the shutter speed. Whereas in Av mode, the front dial is used for changing the aperture. While this front dial is similar to the dial you'd find on a Canon DSLR camera, its location surrounding the shutter release and its general feel make it a little more challenging to use in the field for quick and accurate adjustments. I found that the front dial was a bit stiff and not every click felt like the same distance. The rear control dial, on the other hand, rotates more easily than those on a DSLR and doesn't have distinct detents between each adjustment increment, making it difficult to do small, one-click-at-a-time adjustments. Nonetheless, the dual command dial arrangement is good, and it's valuable to have that level of control on the camera body itself.

The 3" tilting touchscreen works well in the field. It is quite reflective, but the ability to tilt the display makes it easier to avoid glare. It would be nice if the display were fully-articulating though. The display works really well when using the M3's new focus peaking feature while manually focusing. I also liked to use the M3 with an electronic level and live histogram on the display. While the camera's display works well for taking photos in many situations, the optional EVF really shows its value in bright conditions and when trying to keep the camera steady when using longer focal lengths.

Fun to use in the field with great battery life to boot

Overall, I found the M3 to be an enjoyable camera to use in the field. It provides a good amount of physical controls in addition to its Quick Setting menu to ensure that you will always have easy access to the most important settings. You'll also be able to use the M3 for a decent amount of time in the field, as the M3's battery life is acceptable on paper, providing approximately 250 shots (360 shots in Eco Mode). In practice, the battery life actually felt a bit better than that.

Hybrid CMOS AF III provides quick autofocus performance

The Canon EOS M3 uses a Hybrid CMOS AF III autofocus system that utilizes both phase and contrast detect AF points. There are 49 AF points that cover 80% of the frame vertically and 70% of the frame horizontally. This relatively large number of AF points and good coverage of the frame help to give the M3 impressive autofocus performance.

320mm equivalent (EF-M 55-200mm f/4.5-6.3 IS STM at 200mm), f/6.3, 1/320s, ISO 1250
This image has been modified. Click for original image.

Autofocus is quick when shooting still images. In fact, Canon claims that the new autofocus system is up to 6.1 times faster than the autofocus performance in the original Canon EOS M camera. I can't verify that claim, but I certainly found the autofocus performance to be quick and accurate. In good light, the M3 snaps onto stationary subjects very quickly. In dim light, speed naturally decreases, but the M3 remains impressive in its ability to find and focus on a subject in difficult lighting conditions.

Single point AF works well on the M3, especially when using the touchscreen to move the AF point around the frame. Moving the AF point using the directional buttons, which requires first pressing the AF frame button, is pretty slow due to the high number of AF points in the frame. In low contrast and low light situations, single point AF does an effective job of achieving focus on the subject. With 49 AF points to choose from, the M3 also does a good job with focusing on a small subject.

320mm equivalent (EF-M 55-200mm f/4.5-6.3 IS STM at 200mm), f/6.3, 1/320s, ISO 1600
This image has been resized. Click for original image.

For moving subjects, the Canon EOS M3 offers a Face + Tracking AF mode. In addition to being able to tap on the subject on the display, the M3 does a good job at automatically selecting the subject. The tracking performance is good, but it can struggle to keep up with a quick subject or maintain focus on the subject in difficult conditions such as low light or low contrast. The M3's Servo AF mode works well with single point AF, although the Servo AF limits the camera's top shooting speed to only 2.4 fps. When using Servo AF, the M3 continuously focuses while half-pressing the shutter -- just like a Canon DSLR -- and does a good job of keeping the subject in focus. Provided that the lighting conditions are decent, maintaining focus on your subject won't be an issue. There is also a continuous autofocus option available whereby the camera is constantly autofocusing even without pressing the shutter down.

Overall, the M3 has impressive autofocus performance across the board. The autofocus system felt snappy in most situations and never frustrated me. Beyond performing well in expected situations, the autofocus also surprised me in conditions that are typically difficult.

Impressive high ISO performance for an APS-C camera

35mm equivalent (EF-M 22mm f/2 STM), f/2, 25s, ISO 1600
This image has been modified slightly. Click for original image.

RAW images look really nice up through ISO 1600. There is some visible noise at ISO 800 and 1600 when viewing the images at full-size, but it's easily manageable with minor noise reduction applied during post-processing. At ISO 3200, noise increases quite a bit such that it's visible when viewing the image at only 25% magnification. Like with RAW images captured at ISO 800 and 1600, noise reduction can take care of this without robbing the image of its sharpness and detail. At ISO 6400, visible noise is really high and the image would need a lot of processing to reduce the noise. The image loses some contrast and the image lacks fine detail. ISO 12,800 is an option I would not use as the visible noise levels are very high, and the image is soft even before any sort of noise reduction is applied.

Canon M3 Noise Comparison 100% Center Crops from RAW images (Click images for full-size files)
Note: RAW files here converted using default Adobe Camera Raw noise reduction and no sharpening
ISO 100 Full Scene
ISO 100
ISO 200
ISO 400
ISO 800
ISO 1600
ISO 3200
ISO 6400
ISO 12800

With standard noise reduction on, visible noise isn't really an issue until ISO 6400 when viewing images at full size. However, the trade-off to the impressively low levels of noise is a heavy reduction in sharpness throughout the image. At ISO 3200, sharpness decreases a lot and I would not want to print JPEG images taken at ISO 3200 with standard noise reduction applied at any large sizes. Images at ISO 1600 and below look great, although there is a very slight noticeable softness to images at ISO 1600. I wouldn't hesitate to print full-size JPEG files taken at ISO 1600 though.

Canon M3 Noise Reduction Comparison (Click images for full-res)
ISO 6400 NR Off
ISO 6400 NR Low
ISO 6400 NR Standard
ISO 6400 NR High
ISO 6400 Multi-Shot NR
ISO 12800 Multi-Shot NR

At ISO 6400, with noise reduction set to 'off,' image files look acceptable. The visible noise is not very high, and the image retains a fair amount of fine details. With noise reduction set to 'low,' visible noise is reduced slightly without much of a decrease in sharpness. Standard noise reduction reduces visible noise to barely noticeable levels, but it reduces sharpness dramatically. For me, high noise reduction is overkill because the noise is not reduced nearly as much as the sharpness, and personally, I would opt for the 'low' noise reduction setting in most instances. If the subject is stationary and you have access to a tripod, there is also a multi-frame noise reduction option available that does a good job of dramatically reducing noise without overly reducing the sharpness and fine details in the image. I found that the multi-frame noise reduction option (which is only available when shooting JPEG files), delivers the best aspects of both low and high noise reduction options.

Built-in flash packs a lot of punch despite its small size

The flash is rated for 5m at ISO 100, has +/- 2 stops of flash compensation, and has a flash sync of 1/200s. The flash can be tilted with your finger to provide bounce flash when shooting close-up interior portraits as well. When more power is needed, however, Canon offers the 270EX II Speedlite flash. This flash is small and weighs only 5.5 oz. (155g), but it has an 89' (29m) guide number. The flash doesn't offer manual controls, but it does offer some remote flash capabilities and is a nice upgrade over the built-in flash. The flash head can be extended and then tilted for easy bouncing capabilities as well. The M3 is also compatible with the rest of Canon's EX Speedlite models.

119mm equivalent (44.2mm), f/7.1, 1/60s, ISO 160, fill flash
This image has been cropped. Click for original image.

Newer, faster processor yet disappointing burst rate & buffer

The M3 uses a DIGIC 6 processor, compared to the DIGIC 5 processor found in the original M camera. The new processor doesn't lead to particularly impressive results, however, as the M3 can continuously shoot at only 4.2fps when using One-shot AF. Shooting with Servo AF decreases the continuous shooting speed to only 2.4fps. Furthermore, when recording RAW images, the buffer depth is shallow at around 4 frames (with or without JPEG images). With that said, when recording only JPEG images, the buffer depth is an impressive 1,000 shots, according to Canon. IR lab tests managed over 50 JPEG images, and the camera showed no signed of slowing down.

Navigating the menus and making settings changes feels quick on the M3, but some processing functions are slow, such as when the M3 is processing HDR images. The M3 doesn't offer an electronic shutter for high shutter speeds, but its mechanical shutter can shoot at speeds up to 1/4000s.

While the M3 impressed me in many ways, its lack of speed is limiting. Despite utilizing a relatively new DIGIC 6 processor, the M3 feels sluggish in continuous shooting situations. Being able to shoot at only 2.4fps when using Servo AF is disappointing. The lack of power and speed is also felt when recording video with the M3, where 4K and 1080/60p video recording options are both notably absent.

Capable but bare-bones video capabilities

The M3 doesn't have an extensive video features list, nor does it offer 4K resolution or even 60fps recording at 1080p, but it does deliver decent 1080/30p performance. There is a Movie Mode on the mode dial, but video can also be recorded in other exposure modes, such as M and Av by simply pressing the Movie button on the back of the camera. The button is in a convenient location, but I found it difficult to press the button to end a movie recording without shaking the camera a little bit.

Canon M3 Video Sample #1
1920 x 1080, 30fps
Download Original (38.6MB .MP4 File)

The M3 takes a simple and bare-bones approach to video recording, not offering interesting movie modes such as time lapse. You do have the ability to take control of your video recording, however, with manual shutter speed selection and manual focus. There is also a mic input on the camera if the built-in stereo mic is insufficient.

The M3's accurate autofocus carries over to video recording. The M3 offers both continuous and tracking AF when recording video, although the M3 can be slow to acquire focus. A neat feature is the ability to tap the touchscreen during video recording to move the AF point. The lack of 60fps recording at 1080p is disappointing, though, and is a surprising omission in the current camera market. Overall, I found the M3 to be generally capable, but not exceptional, for video recording.

Canon M3 Video Sample #2
1920 x 1080, 30fps
Download Original (127.8 .MP4 File)

Also, note in the video above the presence of moiré along the surface of the water behind the moose, which is rather unfortunate and something to be mindful of when shooting video with the M3.

Straightforward wireless connectivity

Unlike the original EOS M, the M3 has both built-in Wi-Fi and NFC capabilities, which can be used with the Canon Camera Connect application on smartphones. On my iOS device, the connection process was pretty straightforward. I had to turn the Wi-Fi on through the camera's playback menu, select to connect to a smartphone, open the Wi-Fi settings on my iOS device, choose the M3, enter the password shown on the camera's display, and then open up the Canon Camera Connect application. The process is much simpler using NFC, bypassing most of the steps required on an iOS device.

Canon Camera Connect Application Screenshots

Once connected, the application provides a fair amount of control and options. You can view images on the camera, download JPEG images from the M3 to your mobile device, and also remotely capture images. Remote control works well, although the refresh rate of the remote view isn't very high and sometimes the live view stutters for a few seconds. When the camera is set to Manual exposure mode, you can adjust shutter speed, aperture, ISO, exposure compensation, and focus mode through the application. You can also separate the shutter and autofocus buttons through in-app settings. If you want to change the exposure mode of the camera, you will have to disconnect and reconnect the mobile device, which is a bit frustrating.

Canon M3 Field Test Summary

The M3 improves upon the M in important ways and delivers great value

35mm equivalent (EF-M 11-22mm f/4-5.6 IS STM at 22mm), f/8, 1/60s, ISO 200
This image has been modified slightly. Click for original image.

What I like:

  • Small camera body that includes a good front grip and numerous manual controls
  • Impressive image quality from the 24.2-megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor
  • Fast and accurate autofocus performance
  • Camera performs well in low light situations

What I dislike:

  • The front and control dials are nice to have, but don't feel as solid/precise as on a DSLR
  • Slow continuous shooting performance
  • No 4K or 1080/60p video recording
26mm equivalent (EF-M 11-22mm f/4-5.6 IS STM at 16mm), f/8, 6s, ISO 100
This image has been modified slightly. Click for original image.

The Canon EOS M3 is a notable improvement over the original EOS M in many ways. The body itself, the image sensor, and the autofocus performance are all great. Most importantly, the M3 just makes capturing good images an easy and enjoyable task. In its various body-only and kit lens configurations, the M3 represents an excellent value. Those looking for an upgrade to their original M camera or those looking to buy their first Canon mirrorless camera should be thankful that Canon decided to bring the M3 to North America.


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