Canon EOS M Camera Review

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The last of the major camera makers to enter the mirrorless world was Canon, with the EOS M. One would think that by coming into the market three+ years after it originated, that Canon would have the benefit of studying what did and didn't work and mapping out a product that is dead on to demand, with marketing to match.

Of course, the problem is: what demand would that be? 

Mirrorless has a lot of threads to it. There's the simplified "attract women users" approach you see in many products (hint: note if the camera comes in a color other than black or silver). There's also the "mini-DSLR" approach that you find in the GH3, G5, OM-D, and perhaps the NEX-7. Then there's the "it isn't a rangefinder and it isn't a pocket camera" approach in the middle, ala the GX1, E-PL5, and many of the NEX models. In three years of mirrorless, different approaches have come and gone as being most popular and most iterated, and it's not clear if there's a single approach that is "the winner." 

Which brings us to the EOS M. It's not clear which approach Canon is taking. Okay, it's clear that they haven't taken the mini-DSLR approach, but aside from that, there's ambiguity in their initial mirrorless design that probably won't be relieved until we go from having one camera and two lenses to a full EOS M system (multiple cameras, a full set of lenses). 

With that in mind, let's look at this camera and how it fares. 

What is It?
The EOS M is an interesting product. Take a Canon Rebel T4i, remove all the DSLR bits, and cram everything into a compact camera body and you have a crude approximation of the EOS M. 

The body size is actually a bit smaller than the Canon G1x and G15 compact cameras. 

Aside: which brings me immediately to an aside that I think is important. The G1x is US$800 and has a slightly-smaller-than-APS sensor. The G15 is US$500 and has a small, compact camera sensor. The EOS M is US$850 with the zoom lens, and has a DSLR-sized APS sensor. So, in the course of US$350 you have three very compact cameras with very different identities from the same manufacturer. It's almost as if Canon is throwing three products to the wind and seeing where the demand is. That's certainly true in the G1x and EOS M comparison. The G15 then is the "low-cost" version, with its smaller sensor and lower image quality performance.

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In terms of body size, the EOS M is a bit smaller than the Panasonic GX1. In other words: larger APS sensor in a smaller body than a near equivalent m4/3. Some might say the EOS M is more like the GF5 or E-PM2, and those cameras are indeed smaller than the EOS M, though not by as much as you might think. 

The reason why people will form the opinion that the EOS M competes against the GF5 and E-PM2 is controls. Or rather, lack of. The EOS M has no mode dial, no command dial, and no excess buttons. Basically it has a Direction pad with a command ring around it, four additional buttons (including the one in the middle of Direction pad, and a switch to move the camera from all automatic, to still, to video shooting. The EOS M is one of the simplest and cleanest cameras in the mirrorless market when it comes to controls. 

As with the GF5 and E-PM2, this lack of controls is a bit deceptive. First, there's a touchscreen with a quick function to get to ten key settings (see above photo, where nine of the functions are shown in the midst of setting), including exposure mode (at least when the camera isn't in all automatic mode where you're down to three key settings). Second, the menu system has 11 pages of options, including quite a few that clearly have come over from the Rebel DSLRs, including a few C.FN functions (Canon's strange abbreviation for "custom settings"). Third, you have a MyMenu function to load up frequently-changed options. So yes, controls are buried one level down, but there's a clarity and organization that are quite simple when compared to what Olympus and Panasonic provide. 

Surprisingly, the camera has a lens-centered hot shoe, but does not come with a flash (in the US). Instead, Canon offers an optional Speedlite 90EX flash, which can control other Canon Speedlites wirelessly amongst other features. At a GN of 30' at the widest angle focal length currently available for the EOS M, it's also reasonably powerful. But it also adds US$150 to your cost of ownership. Other EX Speedlites work on the EOS M, as well.

Even more surprisingly, Canon has brought over most of the Canon DSLR video features, including manual exposure control. Strangely, Canon uses non-standard definitions for the video abilities in the display, for example listing 1920/30, 1920/24, 1280/60, and 640/30. Those should be stated as 1080P/30, 1080P/24, 720P/60, and 480P/30 (VGA). There's also a 3-10 times digital zoom available in the video mode, and at least the 3x end is fairly useful and high quality. Video is recorded with H.264 compression into .MOV file packages, a much better alternative than the messy AVCHD file/folder set up. Coupled with the Mic In jack and manual volume control on sound, the EOS M basically is the most recent Rebel video functions in a very small package.

The sensor in the EOS M is the same 18mp APS-sensor that's driving many of Canon's smaller DSLRs these days. One feature of this sensor that's recently been added is an embedded phase detect focus system, ala the Nikon 1. 

The EOS M features a new lens mount, the EF-M mount, essentially a cut down version of the traditional EF mount. As you might expect, Canon has produced an EF-EOS M mount adapter that allows you to use any of Canon's existing EF and EF-S lenses with full functionality. Canon makes a couple of small EF and EF-S lenses that immediately come to mind for use with the adapter: the 40mm f/2.8 pancake, and the 60mm f/2.8 Macro. But you can pretty much stick anything onto the EOS M via the adapter, including the big exotic telephotos. 

The EOS M has no EVF, either built-in or as an option, so the fixed-in-place 3", 1.04m dot touchscreen LCD is the way you frame your shots. There's a touch-to-focus-and-shoot ability in the LCD if you really want to "point and shoot."

Remote control is handled via an IR receiver on the front of the camera (just under the autofocus illuminator), and can use any of Canon's existing RC-series controllers.

One funky aspect is that the EOS M's strap attachment points are different, and proprietary. Why Canon thinks we would want to buy entirely new straps (one is included with the camera) seems strange to me. I see no justifiable reason for the change. 

How's it Handle?
Given the few external controls, you might expect that the EOS M handles poorly. I'd disagree. I shoot mostly in Aperture priority (what Canon calls Av), and the EOS M is pretty direct in this mode: rotate the ring around the Direction pad to change aperture, press the right side of the Direction pad and rotate the ring to change exposure compensation, touch the ISO value on the display and use the ring (or touch) to change ISO, and for most anything else I'd change with any regularity touch the Q icon (or SET button) and use the touchscreen to select and set them. Boy do I wish I could describe "basic settings" on most cameras that easily. 

Of course, it's getting near winter as I write this, so gloves might be a factor. With thin gloves I can still pretty much control the camera as I've just described; with thick gloves, I'm better off using the menu system. There is a "sensitivity" setting in the menus for the touch control, by the way. 

Those of you who want to put manual focus lenses on the camera (via adapter) will need to touch the magnify icon on the screen a couple of times to get a zoomed in view. There's only one problem with this: whatever the exposure was when you zoom stays locked. Thus, if you are pointed at something dark and then pan to something brighter when doing this, you'll often get a blown out screen. In other words, you have to back out to normal, then zoom back in to focus if there are exposure changes involved. You have 1x, 5x, and 10x views available for focus, but no peaking or other features.

With no real function buttons available, you pretty much are stuck with the menus for further customization of the camera. You can change the function of the Delete button on the Direction pad for shooting: set center AF point, DOF preview, ISO speed, or Flash exposure compensation are the best primary choices. This is actually one of the stranger aspects of the user interface: Custom Settings. Canon continues their strange display method on the EOS M as they've used on the DSLRs, and it really is a bit disconcerting compared to the simplicity and directness of the other menu options. Moreover, first time Canon users probably won't find it quickly or easily (the full set of functions is hidden in the Custom Functions(C.Fn) item on the fourth Setup tab).

One nice thing is that the camera is easily configured between the full novice, almost all automatic mode and the more serious still mode: just move the lever around the shutter release from the A position to the camera icon. You also can't accidentally record videos, as the red video record button on the back of the camera doesn't function unless you've put the camera into video mode. Sometimes simple modality like this is useful. Basically, the camera has three different personalities: auto, enthusiast, and video. Within each, the menu and touch screen options vary a bit, but that's appropriate and expected. 

The EOS M has a small rubber raised grip on the front, and some corresponding rubber where your right thumb tends to rest. It's not a camera that just easily slips out of your hand, but it's also not enough grip, in my opinion. I could have used a bit more depth to the front grip and a bit more thumb indentation, as well, and I don't have big hands. 

How's it Perform?

Battery: The CIPA specs say 230 exposures per charge, and I've been getting about 200. The camera's defaults are a little aggressive in turning the camera off automatically when it's not in use, and I've set mine less aggressively, so this makes sense (the color LCD is often on longer between shots in my shooting than for the CIPA test). This isn't great performance. I prefer cameras that get at least 300 shots per charge. This is a new Canon battery (LP-E12), so it's not like I have any extra such batteries hanging around, either. Thus, to ensure I can shoot for a reasonably full day, I had to buy two extra batteries.

Autofocus: One would think that with phase detect points embedded in the imaging sensor, you'd get Nikon 1 like focus performance out of the EOS M. You'd be wrong. Indeed, I'd have to say that, of the current generation of mirrorless cameras I've got, the EOS M is the most languid in its focusing. This is true even of single servo focus (i.e. non-continuous). You can get slightly faster focus by touching the screen rather than using the shutter release to take pictures. That's probably because the "touch" limits the focus area, whereas the default is multi-area for the regular shutter release.

Whatever the case, the autofocus performance is decidedly compact-camera-like on the EOS M. And not one of the fast compact cameras. More often than not I can watch the EOS M do a full hunt for focus, going beyond and then back and forth until it decides where the focus point is. Continuous autofocus, as with pretty much all mirrorless cameras except for the Nikon 1 models, is not going to net you many in focus pictures on any subject that's moving fast or irregularly, and maybe not even for ones that aren't moving much at all. The 22mm lens is better at focus than the kit zoom, but neither lens is setting the focus world on fire. 

One of my tests for this is my twice weekly full court basketball games. When I'm taken out of the game to rest, I generally pick up a camera and shoot from one of the end lines. Even the worst mirrorless cameras can usually nail single servo focus on close in fast action if I give them all the help I can (limit focus area size, prefocus on a spot near where I think the action will take place, etc.). Not so the EOS M. Its tendency to move past and than back to the focus point at a sluggish pace is usually enough to mean it doesn't get the focus point right.

On static subjects, there's nothing terrible about the focus performance, though it isn't nearly as fast as the m4/3 cameras or the NEX bodies. I'm pretty sure you're going to miss a shot some day because of focus performance with this camera. Why that should be for a camera that has phase detect sensors in it, I have no idea. Canon needs to get a crack engineering team on this problem stat.

Metering: I usually don't comment about metering because most cameras have what I'd consider reliable meters that aren't thrown by extremes. Unfortunately, here too the EOS M falls down somewhat. I remember the old Canon matrix meters of film SLRs and early DSLRs: they had a tendency to be wildly influenced by brightness in the frame. Put simply, sun in the shot and they underexpose. The EOS M is plagued somewhat by this, too. Like the Nikon 1 models, the EOS M also has a "slow" meter. Try this little experiment. In an otherwise darkish room with one bright window, frame a shot with the window in the center of the frame. You'll tend to get an exposure for the bright window. Now frame a shot without the window (i.e. all darker room). You'll get a shot exposed for the room. Now get your exposure for one of those situations and quickly pan to the other: the exposure won't have compensated fully to the new scene. This seems to be worse going from dark to bright, but it even happens with quick pans from bright to dark.

There's nothing particularly problematic with this behavior if you're aware of it and keep it in mind while shooting. But, like the autofocus system, this makes the "speed of operation" of the camera somewhat slow compared to some of the other mirrorless entries. 

Noise: It's time for the basketball test. Again, this is a test where I try to take out as many variables as possible, always shooting from the same position with as near equivalent lens as I can, at ISO 3200 with the camera defaults for a JPEG result, and then with my best raw conversion attempt to see what is really possible. Heck, we've even been using the same brand balls for most of the 10 years I've been doing this (though we've replaced them a couple of times).

I noticed a couple of things immediately on this test: the EOS M has more screen lag than some of the other cameras I've been testing. It took me longer to figure out how to get the ball on or near the rim than it did with many other cameras (I don't cheat by looking at the real action rather than the camera ;~). The other interesting thing was the metering. With the position and angle I shoot from, I can get the lights and the skylights in the frame. I just covered the Canon's metering, so guess what? The EOS M consistently underexposed the image with matrix metering. I had to either add exposure compensation or switch to spot metering to get the proper exposure. 

With that said, here's the JPEG at 100% shot at defaults:

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Not terrible, but a little drab and fuzzy, with some modestly visible noise.

What happens if I take the same shot (I shoot RAW+JPEG when possible for this test) and do some optimizing:

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Better. I'm still seeing some detail in the net lacing, and I've been able to take away the drabness with barely a slight touch on ACR's controls. I suspect if I worked on this image longer with all my tools, I could make it quite good.

In general, the noise handling, both JPEG and with the right tools in raw, is good to excellent. You don't have a lot of options with JPEG in camera, so I think this is a camera I'd definitely shoot raw with any time I was worried about noise production. But ISO 3200 is very usable, and even ISO 6400 works well with a little post processing. In respect to noise, this is slightly better behavior than the Sony APS sensors, though the Sony sensors don't tend to block the color up quite as much. I'd also say that Canon's in-camera handling of noise reduction is less heavy-handed than Sony's, allowing a bit more visible noise but also not destroying detail. 

Image Quality: It's not surprising that the EOS M results remind me a lot of some of the Canon consumer DSLRs I've used. After all, it's using the same sensor as a recent Rebel DSLR and it also uses Canon's DIGIC V processor. Some people really like the color the Canon's produce, but I find it a bit hue shifted on the warm side. Oranges, like the rim in the noise shot, shift a bit too much towards red for my taste, for example. But a lot of people evaluate their JPEGs on skin tones, and the hue shifting Canon performs in most of their presets tends to make Western skin tones look nicely warmish and pleasing. 

Likewise, Adobe is either getting help from Canon or has their "Canon look" locked in for their raw converters. To get accurate color I find that I have to make far fewer small adjustments of the HSL sliders with Canon raw images, including the EOS M's, than I do with the Nikon DSLR images I'm most used to. The ACR converters also manage white balance better for the EOS M than they do for my Nikon DSLRs. 

At 18mp, the EOS M has plenty of pixel power, too. I'm basically back to the statement I've been making about DSLRs for several years: if you can't get a good looking print the maximum size that any desktop inkjet printer can produce (13x19"), it isn't the EOS M that's the problem. Do make sure you nail focus and get correct metering, however. (The EOS M does have RGB histograms, so there's no excuse for not getting exposure dialed in on static subjects.)

Final Words
I pushed up my review of the EOS M for a couple of reasons. First, it represents one of the two major interchangeable lens companies first entry into the mirrorless market, and thus a lot of people are curious about it. Second, I wanted to try something first generation this month, rather than all the second and third generation cameras I'm testing. I definitely need to get more experience with the EOS M, but I've had enough already so that I think I can form a verdict, of sorts. And that verdict is:

What the heck? 

Yeah, that's the thought I had a lot in testing. I had that same thought a lot with the initial Nikon 1 testing, too, but for a different reason. With the Nikon 1 I'd have "what the heck" moments because Nikon simply had made very different design decisions than anything we've seen before. You either come to grips with those or you don't. 

With the EOS M, my "what the heck" moments were different. I'm having a tough time coming to terms with what the EOS M is supposed to be. It looks like a big compact camera. It focuses like an average compact camera. But then it has a full set of video controls that make it one of the more competent small cameras out there. Plus the sensor performs well for both stills and video. Indeed, it's a DSLR sensor, so it performs like one, which is good. 

Here in the US, we're stuck with some other "what the heck" bits. Initially, only EOS M plus 22mm f/2 kits were brought in (you can get either kit now). None of our kits have the flash in them, though in other parts of the world it is included. 

Then there are the little things, like both the left and right microphones to the left of the hot shoe (from the back of the camera). The new proprietary camera strap lugs. I was surprised to find that I could enter my Copyright information and have it stored in the EXIF with every image. There's lens correction abilities in the camera, though by default only half of them are enabled. I have no idea why a menu entry was wasted for Certification Logo Display. I also have no idea why the Direction pad suddenly doesn't function to move the cursor when you're in C.FN setting (use the touch screen). These all seem like random decisions to me, where not everyone was on the same design page.

What I started to realize is that Canon themselves probably wasn't totally sure what kind of camera they were creating. They've cobbled a lot of the Rebel DSLR internal bits and pieces into the camera, but then in terms of control and setting, it seems they were looking at the Powershot S110 type of user. But wait, the S110 has a function button, front command ring, and mode dial. 

Okay, maybe the Canon marketers can help me out. This is straight from the main copy on their site: "Canon introduced the market to Full HD video capture with smooth, quiet continuous autofocus made possible by Movie Servo AF and STM lenses, advanced CMOS sensor technology, and the processing power of DIGIC 5. The EOS M Digital Camera leverages these key technologies to deliver high-quality moving and still images with creativity provided by Canon's extensive family of interchangeable lenses." Wait, what, it's a video camera that takes stills? Sure enough, in the feature list, the first feature is video.

Gee, I would have thought this was a camera for the compact user who wanted better images, or maybe the DSLR user who wanted to travel lighter and still have access to basically the same functions and image quality. 

I have to admit, I'm a bit confused about Canon's lineup. Why would I buy an S110, a G1x, a G15, an EOS M, or a Rebel T3i? These are all relatively serious cameras in the consumer realm, and there's a lot of overlap of feature set and performance amongst them. But surprisingly, they all fall in the US$450 to US$800 price range. 

It might be that Canon is afraid to compete with themselves, and thus not only has muddy marketing messages, but is ending up with muddy product definitions going into design. Frankly, I don't see why they'd be concerned. 

Let's start with the EOS DSLR user. For them, the EOS M is a nearly pocketable light companion with the same image quality as the APS EOS models but not the same autofocus performance nor an eye-level finder. It's the option you take with you when you don't want to be as conspicuous, or are concerned with size and weight.

The compact camera user gets DSLR level image quality and lens flexibility without giving up much in compactness (especially true of the G15/G1x user). 

In neither case does the EOS M just trounce the other Canon's you'd be considering, rendering an existing model unneeded. EOS M is a step towards DSLR for a compact user (and one that isn't m4/3, Nikon 1, or Sony NEX). EOS M is a step towards compact camera for the DSLR user (and one that isn't m4/3, Nikon 1, or Sony NEX). There's nothing particularly problematic with the competitive position of the EOS M as it has been implemented for either the compact Powershots or the Rebel DSLRs. So why the awkward marketing? 

A more interesting premise is that Canon doesn't yet know why they should be making a mirrorless camera, thus they don't know what the design should be or how they should market it. They managed to shoehorn something in between the Powershots and the Rebels, and it seems to be a lot like those other mirrorless cameras that have been nibbling away at Canon's market share. 

The problem, of course, is that mirrorless systems are, well, systems. Canon's system currently consists of a camera that performs like a DSLR in some respects, a compact in other respects, and a video camera in still others. Plus two lenses and the existing Canon flash system (at least Canon got that last bit right; I'm looking at you, Nikon). Not much of a system unless you're heavy into flash ;~). 

So the real important thing here is that Canon's next M offerings will be critical. Can they really take the tweener product they produced and make it into a standalone system that has a real place in Canon's overall camera strategies? There's not enough data to say, so those that are truly contemplating a complete mirrorless system I think have to wait to see what Canon does next. The existing camera has pluses and minuses, but nothing that yet indicates that it could be a dominant system in mirrorless down the road. 

If you're just looking for a camera (and not a system), things are easier to evaluate. The EOS M's build is solid, straightforward, and easy enough to master. It's disappointing in battery and autofocus performance, but in terms of image quality it fights with the DSLRs. If you're an existing Canon DSLR user and are looking for a more compact camera that fits into your existing system, the EOS M has to be looked at. 

For everyone else, the EOS M is basically competing against the Panasonic GX1, the Olympus E-PL5, the Sony NEX-3F and NEX-5R, and the Samsung NX-210. There really isn't a bad apple in that bunch, so it really depends upon what feature or performance you require most. If it's focus performance, the EOS M falls short. If it's image quality, the EOS M is near if not at the top of the heap.

If you're heavy into video, the EOS M is more than competent: it's a small powerhouse. 

Which brings us to one last thing: lenses. The two lenses Canon brought to market with the EOS M are quite decent. Small, well made, optically okay, and common focal lengths people like (35mm equivalent, 28-85mm equivalent). There are a couple of small EOS EF lenses that also make sense with the EOS M, though remember the 1.6x focal length adjustment of Canon's APS sensors. But if you're a true wide angle fan or need a full quiver of matched lenses, you're probably better off looking elsewhere for the time being. 

All in all, the EOS M is a conundrum. Like most of the mirrorless cameras, there are compromises being made, though it's a bit surprising as to which ones Canon chose. Had this camera came out three years ago (with the Canon sensor of the time), it would have been a certain hit. Today, not so much, as there are cameras on the market that beat it at various things. 

I can recommend the EOS M to shooters who aren't in a hurry photographing things that aren't in hurry. Its image quality is DSLR-like, after all. If "hurry" is any part of your photographic requirements, Canon probably didn't quite make the camera you want.

2018: this model is out of production and no longer available new. But used copies can easily be found. Also, check out the current M6 model.

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