As the last of the major manufacturers to unveil a mirrorless camera, one would assume Canon has had enough time to study the competition and wow us with something that is missing in this growing camera sector. Unfortunately, with the EOS M, we are left confused by which customer Canon is actually targeting, or what direction the company is heading. There are features we like, but there’s also plenty that leaves more to be desired. It’s a camera a lot of users have been waiting for, however, its usability and performance suggest that these users should wait a bit longer for Canon’s second effort.
Editors’ note: This article was originally published on January 25, 2013, and updated on August 18, 2017. The camera is discontinued, and has been replaced by stronger offerings (such as the EOS M5 and EOS M6). For existing owners, we recommend updating the EOS M with firmware version 2.0.3, which improves autofocus performance significantly. We have also updated our Canon EOS M review to reflect the improvement.
Features and design
The EOS M suffers from an identity crisis of sorts. The name “EOS,” which Canon uses for its DSLRs, suggests a high-performance, interchangeable-lens camera, but the minimalist body resembles a Canon PowerShot point-and-shoot more than it does a larger EOS DSLR. The EOS M is a bit of both: a camera with a large sensor that takes terrific photographs – even in low light – but offers the ease-of-use of a point-and-shoot.
The highlight of the EOS M is the new EF-M lens mount, a new lineup Canon created for the EOS M. Currently there are only two lens types – 22mm and 18-55mm – but the beauty here is the EOS M’s compatibility with Canon’s full line of excellent EF lenses for Canon’s DSLRs, a huge lineup that ranges from standard zoom to super telephoto. If you’re a pro Canon DSLR user with a set of lenses at your disposal, this is an attractive feature. Note, however, that the use of non-EF-M lenses requires purchasing the EF-EOS M mount adapter, which will set you back another $200.
The EOS M uses the same 1.06-inch-diagonal 18-megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor that’s found in Canon’s EOS Rebel T4i DSLR – a bit smaller than those found in some of the other top-of-the-line mirrorless cameras, but a capable sensor nonetheless. In fact, the EOS M is almost like a stripped-down version of the T4i. The EOS M can record Full HD video at 1920 x 1080 and 30 frames per second. ISO speed ranges from 100 to 12,800 (expandable to 25,600, but only for stills). The 3-inch LCD is a responsive touchscreen variety that lets you scroll through menus and pinch-and-zoom as easily as you would on a smartphone, and is rated at 1,040K pixels.
Like many of Canon’s top-end cameras, construction is solid and materials are tank-like, including the lens’ build quality. Although the body resembles Canon’s PowerShot point-and-shoot models, as we’ve mentioned, it’s thicker (to accommodate the guts) and heavier. But weight doesn’t matter once you attach a lens – especially one of the large Canon EF lenses – because the weight of the lens will overwhelm whatever camera body is attached to it. That’s when the EOS M’s DSLR-like identity comes in.
Whereas Canon EOS DSLRs are chockfull of buttons and dials, the EOS M is Spartan like a PowerShot. On the front you’ll find the lens mount, a grip for your fingers, a lens-release button, a self-timer lamp and autofocus-assist beam. Opening the cover door on the left side reveals a mic input, HDMI mini output, and digital (USB) output.
On the top you’ll find the built-in microphones, a hot shoe, speaker, power button, and a shutter button surrounded by a simple mode dial (full auto, other shooting modes, and video recording). Note that there is no built-in flash, so you’ll have to add an external model.
On the back you’ll find the 3-inch touchscreen LCD, a movie start/stop button, playback button, menu button, info button, and a main dial with a Quick menu/enter button in the center. It’s one of the barest layouts we’ve seen in a high-end shooter. To adjust settings, you’ll have to go through the touchscreen in conjunction with using the main dial and function buttons. And, there’s no viewfinder, optical or electronic. Point-and-shoot users won’t mind, but DSLR users will.
What’s in the box
The EOS M comes with a 22mm f/2 STM “pancake” kit lens [$250 separately]), but some stores sell the camera with an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM [$300 separately], which we reviewed. Inside the box you’ll find the camera, a battery pack (model LP-E12, rated at 230 still shots and 1 hour, 30 minutes for video), battery charger, neck strap, USB cable, and a basic instruction manual. There are also three CDs containing software, the full instruction manual, and software instruction manual; why they couldn’t fit all three onto one, no one knows.
Performance and use
Let’s jump straight to the good and bad. As we’d expect from the higher-end Canon cameras, the EOS M shoots photos with excellent image quality – worthy of its EOS badge. Daytime photos are sharp and the colors are accurate. We tested the EOS M with the 18-55mm kit lens as well as one of Canon’s superb premium lenses, an EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM standard zoom lens, and found the EOS M did a great job with either lenses in terms of image quality. The 18-55mm kit lens doesn’t give you a great zoom range, but it’s fine for most situations and lens quality is great; textured surface areas on the zoom and focus rings make them easy to turn. In the best conditions, the camera’s Scene Intelligent Auto mode works fine – photos look sharp and well exposed. But since not all shooting conditions are ideal, we used mostly the semi-automatic modes, like aperture priority, so we could tweak the settings. The nice bit about composing your shots through the LCD via live view is that the screen reacts accordingly to your adjustments. It’s not foolproof, but it gives you a general idea of what your photo might look like.
The EOS M performs relatively well in low light, too. You can kick the ISO all the way to 25,600, but we found that anything beyond ISO 6400 will encounter some noise, although still usable. While the EOS M lacks the scene modes that are common in point-and-shoot models, it does have a Handheld Night Scene shooting mode that takes four consecutive shots and assembles them to make one bright and hopefully clear photo. No matter how still you are, any camera that’s handheld will stumble in low light. The best of our night shots were taken with a tripod, or on a level, non-moving surface.
As for shooting movies, the EOS M is great. Videos came out smooth, well focused and exposed, although focusing could be better in low light. While there is a built-in mic, an input jack lets you use an external microphone to capture audio better. With that said, the built-in mic actually does a pretty good job. One weird thing about shooting videos is that, although there is a dedicated record button (the one with the red dot), you can only activate it when in movie mode. It would seem more sensible to be able to jump into movie recording regardless of the shooting mode you’re in.
So, here’s the bad: the autofocusing is terribly slow, regardless of the lens we used. If you’re already a Canon DSLR user who was hoping to use your lens collection with this camera, the slow autofocus system will drive you bonkers. Older mirrorless cameras tend to have slower autofocus systems, but we’ve seen faster performance from competing models and even some point-and-shoots. Even though Canon says the camera’s hybrid CMOS AF (phase-difference AF and contrast AF) system delivers fast autofocus speed, we experienced the opposite. The AF works well, it’s just that anybody who’s used to faster ones will find the EOS M’s frustrating. Shutter lag time is also an issue in low-light shooting.
The good news is that the latest firmware update (2.0.3) has improved autofocusing speed in single-point focusing, even in low-light situations. No, it’s not on par with the fast autofocusing systems of current-generation mirrorless cameras, but it doesn’t frustrate us the way it used to. So, if you are an existing user, or if you inherited an original M or found one for cheap, be sure to update it to the latest firmware.
Because Canon simplified the design, you’ll have to go through the touchscreen user interface to adjust most of your settings. Again, anybody who’s used to the settings dials on DSLRs will also find this process slow. Whether it’s changing shooting modes, upping the ISO, or playing with the exposure compensation, it’ll take you longer to adjust these settings than you would with physical dials and buttons. Even when the camera switches between modes, there’s a bit of a delay. The touchscreen is responsive, and is nice to have for things like tapping an area to focus on, but sometimes it’s frustrating, like when you want to scroll through screens and it won’t. The Touch Shutter feature lets you tap on an area of the screen where you want to focus, and the camera then automatically snaps the photo. Because our fingers always inadvertently touched the screen as we framed the shot, we ended up with a lot of accidental snaps. We turned this feature off always. And, do you know what else is slow? Powering the camera on.
Perhaps it’s from years of using a DSLR, but with interchangeable lens cameras we instinctively bring the viewfinder – whether optical or electronic – to our eye. Although the EOS M does away with one and requires you to compose your shots with the LCD a la point-and-shoot, we kept smudging the LCD against our cheek because it seems more natural to hold this type of camera that way (you do feel a bit silly when you realize the error). Because the EOS M is front heavy when you have a long lens attached, you need to hold it steady with both hands, but DSLR users know that it’s quite a challenge to compose your shots this way through an LCD.
In technology, we expect first-of-its-kind products to encounter teething issues. But in the case of the EOS M, Canon should not have had to reinvent the wheel. Perhaps the company is still unsure and testing the waters with this first try, or, as some have theorized, Canon doesn’t want a mirrorless model to cannibalize its market share of compact EOS DSLRs, a sector it’s strong in. The Compact System Camera/mirrorless market is a growing one, and Canon needs a camera that can compete with those from Nikon, Sony, Panasonic, and Olympus. The EOS M, unfortunately, isn’t it.
The EOS M still deserves praise. Image quality matters, and it has no problems there. Its ability to use Canon’s full line of EF lenses is also appealing. But for Canon DSLR users looking for a secondary or backup camera, the EOS M’s slow AF system is a turn off, among other things. For users ready to step up from a point-and-shoot, there are better and more affordable models. For the price of the EOS M, you can get one of Canon’s compact-but-capable DSLRs, but you’ll have to forego the convenience of a small package.
We wouldn’t write Canon off so quickly. Rumor has it that the company is expected to unveil follow-up models that could be impressive and, hopefully, address some of the shortcomings of the EOS M. If you really want a compact shooter that will work with your existing Canon lenses, the EOS M delivers with caveats. For everyone else, wait if you can.
- Solid construction
- The use of Canon’s full line of lenses (via optional adapter)
- DSLR sensor
- Great image and video quality
- Slower autofocusing system
- Time-consuming settings adjustments
- No viewfinder