Canon EOS M review

The EOS M, Canon's first compact interchangeable lens camera, feels polished on the outside, but its poor performance makes it clear that you're looking at a first-generation product.
Photo of Canon EOS M

As the last major camera manufacturer to take a stab at designing a compact interchangeable lens camera, Canon had plenty of time to see what others had done right and wrong and to avoid pitfalls in design. Unfortunately, the EOS M ($799.99 direct with 22mm lens) suffers from some of the same performance issues that plagued the first generation of mirrorless cameras. Despite delivering excellent images, autofocus is slow, there’s no built-in flash, and you get a very limited lens selection. It’s priced like our current Editors’ Choice, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G5, but doesn’t deliver nearly the performance.

Design and Features
The EOS M is available in two kits. The standard kit (reviewed here) ships with the EF-M 22mm f/2 STM lens, which is the equivalent of a 35mm lens on a full-frame camera. The second kit, priced at $849.99, ships with the EF-M 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 IS STM, which delivers the same 29-88mm field of view captured by standard Canon D-SLR kit zooms.

The EOS M’s body is impressively small when you consider that it packs the same 18-megapixel image sensor as the Canon EOS Rebel T4i. It measures just 2.6 by 4.3 by 1.3 inches (HWD), but is a bit heavy for its size at 10.5 ounces. If you pair it with the 22mm prime lens you can slide the camera into your pocket, but you won’t be able to do that if you opt for the zoom. The Sony Alpha NEX-6 is a bit bigger at 2.75 by 4.75 by 1.7 inches, but it ships with a collapsible power zoom lens that doesn’t add any more depth to the camera than Canon’s 22mm prime. Panasonic has a similar collapsible lens, the Lumix G X Vario PZ 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 ASPH., for Micro Four Thirds cameras.

Despite delivering images that are on par with SLRs for quality, and being part of the EOS family, the M is more like a PowerShot point-and-shoot in terms of physical control. The traditional mode dial has been replaced with a toggle switch surrounding the shutter release. It only has three settings—Scene Intelligent Auto, Still Photo, and Movie. The first setting puts all of the control into the hands of the EOS M, while the second gives you access to traditional Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Manual, and Scene modes. These must be selected via the touch-screen interface. Even though there’s a dedicated Record button on the rear, you’ll need to be in Movie mode to record video.

Rear controls are sparse. There’s a control wheel with integrated four-way control and a center button. From here you’ll be able to set Auto Exposure Lock, adjust the Drive Mode, change Exposure Compensation, and delete a photo. The center button activates the Q menu, which you’ll have to use to adjust any other settings via the touch screen. This menu was first seen on the Canon T4i, and works well here. It gives you touch access to change the autofocus settings, file capture format, white balance, JPG output settings, and the metering mode.

The 1,040k-dot 3-inch rear display is very sharp. The touch input is also quite good; you can swipe to scroll through photos during playback, and pinch to zoom in on a shot during review. You can also tap an area of the screen to move the flexible autofocus square, and if you enable it, a tap on the screen can focus and fire the camera’s shutter.

There’s no built-in EVF like on the Sony NEX-6 or Panasonic G5; nor is there a way to add one. Many other compact interchangeable lens cameras, including the small Olympus PEN Mini E-PM2 feature an expansion port that can accommodate an add-on EVF. The EOS M does have a standard hot shoe, which is a good thing, as the camera doesn’t have a flash. If you want to add one, the most size-appropriate option from Canon is the compact Speedlite 90EX. It’s good for its size, but adds $150 to the cost of the camera. I got the best results with it in Scene Intelligent Auto mode. Photos shot in this mode were well balanced and didn’t have the overblown look that you can get from similar small flashes, even when shooting at close range. Shooting in Program and Aperture Priority mode produced images with a harsh look, and ones that were completely blown out white when firing close to the subject. None of the Olympus PEN cameras include a built-in flash, but they all ship with a unit that slides into the accessory port.

Only two lenses are available now, but Canon does market an adapter that allows you to use its EF-S and EF D-SLR lenses. The Mount Adapter EF-EOS M delivers full aperture and focus control when you use it to marry Canon SLR lenses to the EOS M’s small body. If you’re using adapted lenses that don’t have an STM motor you’ll end up with slow, choppy focusing. I tested the EF 28mm f/1.8 USM lens using the adapter and it took about 1.9 seconds to focus and fire a shot. Video focus performance was choppy and noisy. The same lens only required 0.2-second to focus and fire when paired with the Canon EOS 6D.

There are also third party adapters on the market that allow you to use practically any vintage SLR or rangefinder lens with the camera—you’ll just have to adjust aperture and focus manually. If you are a Canon SLR shooter and the idea of using your current lenses on a smaller body is appealing, you do have another option. Lens adapter manufacturer Metabones offers up a similar adapter that lets you use EF and EF-S lenses on Sony NEX cameras, but at $400, it’s twice the price of the native Canon adapter and it doesn’t support autofocus for every available lens.

(Next page: Performance and Conclusions)

Performance and Conclusions
The EOS M is unacceptably slow. It requires 2.7 seconds to start and capture a photo and its autofocus is so sluggish that the shutter lag drags to a ridiculous 0.9-second. It is capable of shooting continuously at 3.8 frames per second, but if you opt to shoot Raw you are limited to a 6-shot burst before the rate slows. JPG shooters can go longer, keeping pace for about 29 photos. Compare this to the Sony Alpha NEX-5R, a fast-shooting compact that can grab the first shot in 1.3 seconds, fire off photos at 9 frames per second, and manages a miniscule 0.1-second shutter speed.

If the EOS M is slow to focus in good light, it’s downright awful in dim light. When it does lock onto a shot, the focus takes about 3.2 seconds in dim light; but there are many times when it simply cannot acquire a lock when things get dark—even with its bright orange assist beam. The hybrid autofocus system of the NEX-5R, which combines phase detection and contrast detection, did not struggle in these situations.

I also found that there were occasions when the autofocus system couldn’t lock on in brighter light, especially when trying to focus on a lower contrast object like a flat gray wall. The autofocus system is constantly looking to lock on for the next shot, and you would think that would speed things up. It doesn’t. The EOS M still double checks focus before it fires a shot. It does so by moving the lens a bit out of focus in each direction—too close and too far—before deciding that yes, it’s ready to take a photo. This all adds up to the aforementioned 0.9-second delay before opening and closing the shutter.

Supplementing autofocus with manual focus is ordinarily a way to work around a finicky autofocus system. Manual focus is a struggle with the EOS M. Both lenses have a focus-by-wire design; there’s no mechanical linkage between the focus ring and the lens. Turning the ring simply tells the camera to adjust focus electronically. There’s no on-screen indicator to let you know that you are adjusting the ring one way or the other, and the only tactile feedback you’ll get is the vibration of the focus motor as you turn the ring. The actual response to moving the ring is slow, which caused me to overcorrect on several occasions when attempting manual adjustment.

I used Imatest to check the sharpness of both kit lens options, the 22mm and the 18-55mm; both were impressively sharp, exceeding 1,800 lines per picture height at every tested aperture and focal length. The 22mm managed 2,294 lines at f/2, and increases marginally as you stop down; it peaked at 2,362 lines at f/5.6. It does so with completely negligible distortion, which is impressive when you consider its aperture and size.

The 18-55mm records 2,311 lines at 18mm f/3.5, 2,268 lines at 35mm f/5, and 2,285 lines at 55mm f/5.6. Distortion is an issue with this lens, especially at its widest setting—it shows a very noticeable 2.7 percent barrel distortion at 18mm. This drops to a barely noticeable 0.6 percent pincushion at 35mm, before increasing a bit to 1.1 percent pincushion at 55mm. Barrel distortion can make straight lines appear to curve outward, while pincushion makes them curve inward. This type of distortion is common in 18-55mm zoom lenses, but it’s not universal. The Olympus PEN Lite E-PL5 ships with a 14-42mm lens that delivers the same field of view as the Canon’s 18-55mm, is sharp throughout its zoom range, and doesn’t display nearly as much distortion when set at its widest angle.

Imatest also checks for image noise, which can erase detail and make photos appear grainy at higher ISO  settings. The EOS M keeps JPG noise below 1.5 percent through ISO 1600, although pushing to ISO 3200 only increases it to 1.6 percent. Moving up to ISO 6400 increases noise to 2.3 percent, and detail starts to suffer. Shooting in Raw is a better option when pumping that high—photos will be a bit grainier, but more detail will be captured and you can apply the desired amount of noise reduction in Lightroom or another Raw converter. The Lumix G5 fares slightly better in terms of noise; keeping it below 1.5 percent through ISO 3200, and does a very good job with detail at ISO 6400.

The EOS M records video at up to 1080p30 quality in QuickTime format. The footage is crisp and colorful, and both kit lenses automatically refocus smoothly and quietly. The audio is clear, and there’s a standard microphone input port if the quality of sound is critical. Standard mini HDMI and mini USB ports are located on an access panel on the left side of the camera, and standard SD, SDHC, and SDXC memory cards are supported.

There are a lot of problems with the EOS M, but image quality isn’t one of them. If you’re willing to put up with the slow autofocus, lack of a flash, and limited physical control system, the photos you get won’t disappoint. Unfortunately, you’re likely to miss shots due to the shutter lag, and the focus system is very hit or miss when the light gets low. There’s no flash built-in to the camera, and adding one will set you back around $150. The EOS M does offer you the ability to adapt Canon SLR lenses with full aperture and focus functionality, but adds $200 to the price. For some users, the adapter may be a necessary purchase, as there are only two native lenses available for the EOS M at this time.

There are a number of other compact interchangeable lens cameras that deliver excellent image quality and speedier, more accurate autofocus performance than the EOS M. Our Editors’ Choice Panasonic Lumix G5 is styled like a small SLR, complete with an excellent electronic viewfinder; it focuses like a champ, and gives you access to the extensive Micro Four Thirds lens library. The Sony NEX-5R and NEX-6 ship with kit zooms that aren’t quite on the level as either the Canon 22mm or 18-55mm, but deliver fast and accurate focus, and have built-in Wi-Fi. The latest generation of the Olympus PEN series, which includes the E-PM2 and E-PL5, are also excellent performers. Like the EOS M they offer touch input and lack a built-in flash, but they ship with an accessory flash at no extra cost and each features an accessory port that supports an add-on EVF.

It’s not a surprise that all of these cameras are better, more rounded image capture devices when compared to the EOS M. They are third- and fourth-generation models; the engineering teams have had a few years to work out performance issues. With a few more native lens options and a better autofocus system the EOS M would be an easy camera to recommend. Unfortunately, its performance is just too slow, especially when you consider the price point. You can get a much better camera for $800—the $750 NEX-5R and the $800 Panasonic G5 both fit that bill. If you don’t want to spend that much, the Olympus E-PL5 and E-PM2 are worth a look.

Specifications
Dimensions 2.6 x 4.3 x 1.3 inches
Interface Ports mini USB, mini HDMI, Mic
Sensor Type CMOS
Megapixels 18 MP
Battery Type Supported Lithium Ion
Recycle time 0.26 seconds
LCD dots 1040000
LCD size 3 inches
Lines Per Picture Height 2294
Touch Screen Yes
Media Format Secure Digital, Secure Digital High Capacity, Secure Digital Extended Capacity
Maximum ISO 12800
Type Compact Interchangeable Lens
GPS No
Boot time 2.7 seconds
35-mm Equivalent (Wide) 35 mm
Weight 10.5 oz
Lens Mount Canon EF-M
Video Resolution 720p, 1080p
Waterproof Depth (Mfr. Rated) 0 feet
LCD Aspect Ratio 3
Image Stabilization None
Shutter Lag 0.9 seconds
Sensor Size 22.3 x 14.9 (APS-C) mm
Viewfinder Type None

Verdict
The EOS M, Canon's first compact interchangeable lens camera, feels polished on the outside, but its poor performance makes it clear that you're looking at a first-generation product.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
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