Hands-on: Canon EOS M review

The Canon EOS M is a brand new compact system camera, which lays to rest the major camera manufacturer's absence in this particular market sector. It's about time too: the rumours have been ongoing for years, and it's only now that Canon lifts the lid to reveal the M-series.

Pocket-lint was invited to Canon UK's head office to play with the new camera and its accessories. Here're our first thoughts...

It's a 650D mini

Let's start with the core specs: the EOS M is a compact system camera with an APS-C sensor size, something that many photographers have been calling for. That puts it up on par with the likes of Sony's popular NEX range - which, we think, the Canon camera looks similar to - offering a larger sensor than the likes of Panasonic and Olympus's Micro Four Thirds system. But it's not the full-frame size that was initially rumoured; instead Canon has opted to target a consumer audience.

But there is perhaps more significance to Canon's decision than just the M-series's size. The EOS M isn't just using one component from Canon's latest mid-level DSLR, the EOS 650D, it also has the same DIGIC 5 image processor, the same hybrid autofocus system and the very same high-resolution touchscreen LCD screen.

This isn't just any old compact system camera this time around, it's essentially a shrunken Canon EOS 650D, albeit with a brand new form factor. For some that makes it an exciting proposition, and in talking to Canon it's very clear that image quality is a key area of importance for the EOS M.

We know there will be a counter argument from the Micro Four Thirds camp: Panasonic and Olympus's systems have always maintained that they have a pure digital system, designed with a sensor size and lenses to work in perfect unity. Lifting components from a DSLR, it could be argued, will lead to compromise. 

Of course, whether this will ring true is something we'll have to investigate closer to the EOS M launch date when we get our hands on a final version for a full review. But that's an argument that hasn't stopped Sony enjoying success with its large sensored NEX models (the difference between Canon and Sony is slight: Canon's 1.6x crop sensor is slightly smaller than Sony's 1.5x crop, but only by a whisker).

Design

Visually, you can see Canon's DNA in the EOS M. From the rear, it looks very much like a PowerShot or IXUS model. The buttons and controls could have been lifted from pretty much any model from the past few years.

The camera's 3-inch, 1,040k-dot display is bright, vibrant, and having used this display on both the 650D and the non-touch equivalent on the 600D, we can attest to the quality it brings to both shooting and image preview.

The body of the EOS M is compact enough to slip into a pocket. It isn't going to be the smallest CSC around because of the decision to use a larger sensor (and the space needed for the light path from the lens), but when fitted with the new 22mm pancake lens, the camera will easily slip into a jacket pocket.

It lacks the retro styling that's typified CSCs, especially from the Olympus camp, but pick the EOS M up and it feels like a serious camera. There's a respectable weight to the body (298g) that imparts that feeling of quality. The body contains a metal frame and the camera feels solid as a result.

It's comfortable to hold and the controls fall straight to the fingertips. Naturally, you don't get the grip that a larger DSLR offers, but the EOS M is light enough to hold steadily at an arm's length to compose shots on the display on the rear. In the absence of a viewfinder, you'll be shooting with EOS M as you would a modern compact.

And that's one potential bone of contention: there is no viewfinder and no option for a viewfinder, because of the lack of an accessory port to the rear of the camera. That may be the chagrin for those DSLR users wanting to downsize, but if you're a compact camera user looking for more then it probably isn't an issue. 

Controls

Changing shooting modes on the EOS M falls to the three-position dial around the shutter button. Offering Canon's Auto mode, which automatically selects scenes for you, a flick of the dial moves between normal stills shooting, or video. 

It's the middle position that offers the most appeal for adventurous photographers, as this central position accesses what you'd normally find on an EOS mode dial: aperture and shutter priority, manual, programme auto and a handful of scene presets. However, in the absence of a proper mode dial, these core camera controls are accessed via the display on the rear. We were initially concerned that this would hobble the camera's control, but in reality, it seems to work out well.

We need to spend more time with the camera to fully evaluate the controls in real shooting conditions, but being familiar with Canon's menu system on its DSLR cameras will certainly help, as you can logically navigate around and get to what you want.

In truth, it takes a little longer to access the EOS M's settings than if you were using a DSLR or G-series compact camera model. That's the negative you'll have to accept and, if you spend the majority of your time selecting and changing settings, then a DSLR is probably what you want.

If, however, you normally shoot in auto and similar such modes, occasionally throwing open the aperture when you see great portrait opportunity, then the EOS M will be well suited too. And yes, you do get a raw shooting option on the EOS M, just like a DSLR.

Canon told us on several occasions that the EOS M is aimed at those who want DSLR quality photos, but might find themselves overwhelmed with all the controls on offer. A little bit like Nikon's 1-series, if you will. So the message is really "photography power" paired with simplicity and, in that blending, the EOS M feels right for its target audience.

Navigation of the controls works either via the four-way d-pad controller button, which also offers a thumb dial for changing things like the aperture in aperture priority mode, but with a touch display, you can pretty much just poke what you want.

Lenses and accessories

A system camera without lenses is nothing. Canon has launched two new lenses in the EF-M range and we played with both today. The first is a 22mm f/2.0 pancake lens, the second a 18-55mm IS zoom. Both are compact and keep the new camera's overall size to a minimum.

Of course, we weren’t able to test the definitive imaging quality of these lenses, as the EOS M sample we played with was a pre-production model. However, Canon assured us that you'll get results to match up with the EOS 650D's quality.

Some may sniff at the fact there are only two dedicated EF-M lenses, but with the adapter ring (sold separately), you'll be able to use any existing EF of EF-S lens. That's a whole lot of lenses from Canon and a whole load more of third-party lenses too.

The adapter ring means that lenses function exactly as they would on any other EOS model, so autofocus works just as it should. The adapter's main function is to extend the EF-M flange-back distance from 18mm to the longer-distanced 44mm flange-back of Canon's EOS DSLR systems. To prove the point, we strapped up the EOS M with one of Canon's largest lenses, the EF 800mm prime, which will set you back a cool £15,260. Oh yes, we went there.

As Apple might say, it just works. It looks a little silly, but that adapter certainly does its job. You'll notice there is a tripod mount on the bottom of the adapter - this can be removed if you don't want it. If you have existing Canon EF or EF-S glass, you'll have no problems using it with the EOS M.

A hotshoe sits on the top of the camera and included in the box is the new Speedlite 90EX flash. It's a small flash unit, so illumination will be limited, but we'd expect it to perform better than an in-camera flash would. It also has another surprise, which is a wireless flash controller (built into the flash unit, rather than the camera body). 

Once the Speedlite 90EX is installed on the EOS M, you get access to remote flash controls. It's an advanced feature and you'll need the necessary extra equipment, but it's great to have it included in the box. However, we will say that a flash-free option, for some £120 less, would also be an attractive proposition for some potential purchasers.

There is also a stereo mic on the top of the camera body to support your video soundtrack, but more special is the inclusion of a 3.5mm audio jack input to the camera's side. This means you can add an accessory mic from Canon's existing range, or use a third party accessory, in order to boost the audio performance.

Initial thoughts

The Canon EOS M is a comfortable system camera in the hand. The size and design feel right and it's fun to shoot with, even if the £769 asking price puts it just shy of the 650D it shares so much in common with.

For some, the price alone will see them opt for the more fully-featured DSLR alternative, but let's not forget how much this compact model offers: a great display with touch controls, excellent build quality and an APS-C sensor, all in a pocketable bundle.

There are more sophisticated compact system cameras on the market. Both the Sony NEX-7 and Olympus OM-D arguably offer more features, not to mention a wider range of lenses on both accounts. It's this latter point that Canon needs to address quickly in order to make more demanding, higher spec users want to pick up the EOS M and get their game on.

It's due to launch in October, and we will bring you a full Canon EOS M review once we have a final sample in our hands. If Canon's reports are right then this CSC should match up to the EOS 650D in the image quality department and, if that's the case, then it could be a rather special addition to the compact system camera market. Watch this space...

Not sold on Canon? Read our comparison of all the compact system camera systems to help you make up your mind!