Review: Canon EOS M is Like a Sluggish DSLR Trapped in a Compact Body

Canon made its loyal customers wait quite a long time before it finally joined the mirrorless camera revolution, announcing the Canon EOS M back in June. The camera comes nearly four years after Panasonic kicked things off by “friending” Olympus — forming the Micro Four Thirds alliance — and introducing the Lumix DMC-G1, making Canon the last major DSLR maker to join the fray.

Specs-wise, the EOS M is probably the mirrorless camera most Canonites were hoping and praying for: a point-and-shoot sized camera that packs a serious sensor and that can be used with Canon’s full lineup of EF/EF-S lenses dating back to 1987.

It’s almost as if a Canon designer misread a spec sheet and accidentally made a DSLR as a compact: the EOS M is nearly identical to the Canon 650D/Kiss X6i/Rebel T4i entry-level DSLR when you look at the guts and features.

Inside is an 18-megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor, slightly smaller than the APS-C sensors used in Sony NEX and Samsung NX cameras, but larger than (or equal to) all the other non-rangefinder mirrorless cameras in the market.

The camera features a new mount (the EF-M mount) that currently has two lenses: the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS and the 22mm f/2. You’ll need to shell out an extra $200 for the official Mount Adapter if you want to pair the camera with your existing collection of Canon lenses.

This review will be a little different than most of the ones you’ll find for this camera: I was only able to test how the camera performs with the Mount Adapter and a number of EF lenses; I didn’t test either of the two new EF-M lenses.

Just keep that in mind as you read on, as some of the points I mention might not apply if you don’t plan on treating the camera as a miniature DSLR replacement.

The Good

Canon definitely nailed the concept of portability with this camera. It’s astonishingly small and lightweight. If you look at the camera from the back, it actually looks just like a Canon PowerShot S compact camera:

If you own a newer PowerShot S, you can get a rough idea of what this camera feels like by holding your camera in your hands.

While the lightness is a desirable attribute, especially when using the smaller and lighter EF-M lenses, it makes things a bit strange when using the camera with larger EF lenses. Unless you’re using a small non-L prime, the lens is likely going to cause the setup to be very front-weighted.

You’ll eventually get used to it, but it feels like you’re using a different set of hand muscles than the ones you’re used to using when shooting with a DSLR (especially when trying to shoot one-handed). Depending on what lens you’re using, you may find yourself in a constant battle to keep your lens parallel to the ground.

The camera features all the manual modes you’d expect from a DSLR, but has a sparse point-and-shoot-style physical interface. Canon makes up for the lack of physical buttons and dials by packing a gorgeous 3-inch touchscreen onto the back of the camera.

Most of what you need can be accessed directly by pressing sections of this screen or by pressing the Quick Control/Setting button at the center of the Main Dial. The interface will slow you down a tad if you’re used to using a DSLR, but the system is well-designed and easy to use.

When reviewing your photos and videos on the touchscreen, it feels very much like you’re using a smartphone. Swiping moves you through your files, and zooming into photos simply involves pinching the screen.

Finally, and most importantly, the image quality of the EOS M is top notch. You won’t be able to tell a difference between the photos that pop out of it and any of Canon’s APS-C DSLRs.

The large sensor also gives the camera fantastic low-light performance. ISO goes all the way up to 12800 (25600 with expansion), and photos you get at the high end are actually quite useable. They’re not too noisy (i.e. they don’t look like someone spilled colored sprinkles on your photo) and the color reproduction is accurate.

Here are some sample photos shot using the camera:

The Bad

The Canon EOS M has one glaring weakness that may be a dealbreaker for many photographers: a horrible autofocus system.

One of the first things I noticed about the camera after picking it up was that the perpetual focusing made the camera sound like it had an uncontrollable stutter. It sounds as though the camera is making the lens take baby steps as it attempts to bring the subject into focus.

You’ll want to jump into the camera’s settings and turn Continuous AF off. Otherwise, the lens will constantly makes a sputtering noise as the camera tries to stay focused at all times. You might not notice the sound in most everyday environments, but in quiet settings it might drive you mad.

What’ll drive you even more mad is how painfully slow the autofocus is at times. Although the camera appears to bring the subject into focus rather quickly, it takes another moment or two before the AF indicator turns green, allowing you to finally snap your photo.

Here’s a quick demonstration of the camera’s AF speed (and a glimpse of the touchscreen interface):

The speed seems to vary a bit depending on the lens you use, but was consistently slow across the lenses we tested (including multiple high-end L lenses) — just to different degrees.

If you need a camera for any type of photography in which there are “decisive moments,” you’ll want to pass on this camera for now. Hopefully Canon can release a firmware update that provides a drastic speed boost, but until then your sport and street photography will be better captured with a faster-focusing camera.

One design choice that may be an annoyance to some people is that the AE Lock button is the left button of the main dial. This isn’t where your thumb naturally rests, making it nearly impossible to use the feature if you’re shooting with one hand using a heavy lens. You’ll need two hands on your camera to properly use this oft-used function.

Another inconvenience is that there doesn’t appear to be a way to change the size of the autofocus point for more precise focusing. Instead of allowing you to shrink down the size of the AF box to target a tiny area of your frame, you’ll have to use manual focusing and Live View magnification. Having up to 10x magnification for manual focusing is nice, but it’s not as optimal at times as having a smaller AF point for autofocus.

The Verdict

The Canon EOS M is a camera that falls one big step short of being a fantastic mirrorless camera. If only it had an autofocus system as solid as its other specs and attributes, it’d be a camera that we’d recommend in a heartbeat to both serious photographers and casual consumers.

Unfortunately, its major flaw lies in a feature that’s absolutely critical for most photographers, so unless you know for a fact that you can live with a sluggish AF system, you’ll be better off waiting to see whether Canon’s next mirrorless camera — which is reportedly coming soon — has addressed this issue.

It’s a shame, really, since it’s extremely fun to use such a small and powerful camera on an existing set of Canon lenses.

A big thank you to BorrowLenses for providing us with the camera used for this review. Be sure to check them out for all your gear rental needs!

  • Jason Hodges

    Really? The criticism you have is that there is a button that you can’t reach while shooting one handed with a heavy lens??
    Surely the recommendation should be “If you use a heavy lens make sure you support the lens, otherwise you will snap the lens from the body”

  • Mybol Zarichi

    And the small matter of a viewfinder!

  • John Goldsmith

    “The Bad: The Canon EOS M has one glaring weakness that may be a dealbreaker for many photographers.”

    Yeah, no viewfinder.

    I’m sticking with my Canon 5D Mark II with the 40mm pancake. The combo gives great portability. Best of all, I don’t need to compromise with image quality or change my workflow. As a long time Canon user, I can say they got exactly one thing right in 2012 and it’s the pancake lens.

  • Michael Zhang

    By “heavy”, I certainly didn’t mean some kind of telephoto lens, which seems to be what you’re suggesting. You wouldn’t even use those one-handed with a DSLR, right? The 35mm f/1.4 is a pretty heavy lens for this camera (especially with the required adapter). :)

  • 9inchnail

    The AE lock is quite an important button that I frequently use. So it really is an annoyance if they misplaced it. The autofocus really seems to be a problem, saw a review on DigitalRev and Kai pointed it out, too. What a shame.

  • CentipedeCarpet

    So also no mention about the fact that while the screen is very pretty, the touch controls are mildly sluggish, as is the camera in general? Anyone with even a mild grasp of photography skills will be overwhelmed by how slow it is to adjust aperture, ISO and any other simple setting change, things that IMO someone willing to shell out this kind of cash for a camera will want to be able to do without any fuss. If only the EOS M took awful pics, then I could write it off completely, but it does have good image quality… Still not worth it, tho. Sadly at the moment even the lower end Sony NEX small cams have a better interface (and that’s saying a lot).

  • foggy flute

    I testing Nex 6 and GH3 in the same week, and it make the AF on EOSM even more horrible than it is…

  • Jonathan Maniago

    Slow autofocus — strike one.
    No (E)VF — strike two.
    No focus peaking — strike three.

    The only reasons for buying this camera are if you’re desperate for an APS-C sensor and you’ve already invested heavily on EF lenses. Otherwise, there are more mature compact systems to choose from. Better luck next time, Canon.

  • Christopher Schiebel

    The M lenses are supposed to be much faster. Couldn’t get one to test? Another dubious “review” by PetaPixel…

  • Jason

    Sounds like you need a Sony NEX.

  • Craig Dickson

    It may seem odd to review a camera only with legacy lenses, but in this case I think there is an argument to be made for it (though unfortunately the reviewer didn’t think to make it himself). One of the big selling points of the EOS-M, in contrast to every other mirrorless system except Micro Four Thirds, is that it offers full compatibility with the manufacturer’s DSLR lenses. To review the camera with only those lenses is simply to take the manufacturer at their word. If the EOS-M doesn’t work well with Canon’s own EF-mount lenses, that’s a serious problem, because the main reason for an EOS DSLR owner to choose this camera over an Olympus or Fuji mirrorless is to be able to use the lenses he already owns.

    At the same time, it isn’t really fair to say that the camera has a bad AF system without testing the native EF-M lenses. The most you can say is that the AF system doesn’t support legacy lenses very well, which is a legitimate criticism that points to a serious limitation of the camera in view of how it has been designed and marketed.

    Lastly, as others have noted, it is downright weird to review this camera without even mentioning the non-availability of an EVF. That, for many of us, is the real deal-breaker.

  • Chris Smith

    This was going to be my comment too. Thank goodness I don’t plan to use AE lock with a large lens attached one-handed.

  • Chris Smith

    I think this could be a cool camera to use for landscapes when you don’t need autofocus. But they need to release a wider lens and it sure would have been nice to have a flip out screen.

  • Antonio Carrasco

    who buys a mirrorless compact and then gets an adapter and sticks huge lenses on it? Just buy an SLR if you plan on using big lenses

  • Steve Oakley

    AF ? who cares. who uses AF anyway ? they are suck and are slow… and I can always focus better… ever heard of zone focusing ? especially for a P&S type camera doing candids there isn’t much need for AF. worrying about nothing.

  • gohgently

    “One of the big selling points of the EOS-M, in contrast to every other
    mirrorless system except Micro Four Thirds, is that it offers full
    compatibility with the manufacturer’s DSLR lenses.”

    The Pentax K-01 mirrorless can use all-K-mount DSLR lenses without an adapter (and also older legacy manual-focus lenses)–unlike the EOS M that requires an adapter to use EOS lenses.

  • Francis A. Mac Donald

    One would be better off just hauling out your DSLR…

  • Craig Dickson

    Yes, good point. But the K-01’s ability to mount SLR lenses without an adapter is actually its worst flaw. In order to natively mount K lenses, it has to have the same flange distance as a K-mount SLR. The K-01 actually has a big empty space inside it corresponding to an SLR’s mirror box. Because of this, the K-01 ends up not being much smaller or lighter than a Pentax K-x DSLR. I think it’s a much better solution to create a new lens mount optimized for a mirrorless camera and then provide full compatibility with legacy lenses via an adapter.

  • gohgently

    You’re right about the Pentax K-01’s size, it’s really not much smaller than the K-r/K-x. However, when a compact mirrorless body needs an adapter to use DSLR lenses, then the size advantage disappears when not using native-mount lenses. But you’ve also raised another crucial point that applies to the K-01: the lack of an EVF. Could be a deal-breaker for many indeed.

  • Tzctplus -

    “especially when trying to shoot one-handed”

    Please, tell me you were joking….

  • John Kantor

    Another product from a company that never asks photographers what they need and want first. But someone will be stupid enough to buy it.

  • nii

    Sony has the compatibility with legacy lenses using adaptor as well even with the PDAF incorporated into the adaptor.

  • Alex

    Very good point. I carry around my 5D mkii with 50mm 1.4 in any shoulder bag without much issue. The EOS M isn’t pocket sized, even with the 22mm lens, so I’d just be putting it in the same part of the same bag. That said, the camera makes a brilliant backup camera, which can go in a corner of my large camera bag ready to wear one of my other lenses if I need it. At the moment my ‘backup’ camera is a G12, and while it’s a great camera, the compatibility with my existing glass is a big draw for the EOS M.

  • Stephen Lasham

    I agree with Craig, it needs an EVF. I’ve got an EOS 5D Mk III and it is crap for video because the digital display just doesn’t allow me to tell if I have things correctly focused, especially in low light situations. I read heaps of reviews about the EOS 5D and people were raving about the video quality, but what they didn’t mention was the difficulty with getting the focus right. The video quality is great when correctly focused. An EVF is what any camera going to mirrorless needs. Not only is an EVF going to present a clearer sharper image, but it also allows the camera to be held in a more natural position for an SLR. Coupling an SLR with a big lens and holding it out front so you can see a digital screen is darn right uncomfortable, and making lens adjustments is tricky in that position unless you have it locked to a tripod. You need to be able to cup the lens in your hand and hold the thing to your eye.

  • stuart

    tryed eos m in store with m mount lens auto focus still very slow which is a shame as I like the camera and would have purchased but for this problem and did not improve with L series lens. what a shame.

  • sierram

    The quality feel of this little canon is great. Compare it to the plastic NEX-5. The lenses are great too. Not like the electronically corrected sony’s.

    I’m using the M with the 22mm as a portable alternative to my 5D mkIII and 7D. It’s always with me, even at work. The other alternative was the powershot G1x, but I do prefer the 18mp 2/3 sensor.

    Autofocus is very accurate, but could be faster. Autofocus point selection by touch works great. The touch screen is fantastic!

    It gives me the same great Canon colours as my other canons (also in RAW/Lightroom).

    The camera is part of the canon system, same flash, same lenses, same colours.

  • Kmason0

    The Pentax K-01 has been out for quite a while now and there’s no adapter needed to use DSLR lenses, it’s mirrorless, has all the features of the Canon plus a few of its own. But I don’t expect you to include such an innovative company in your comparison.

  • marco

    is too late Canon, too late
    Oly, Pana and Sony are miles ahead from this toy :-)

    of course the fanboys wiill praise and be happy with it.

    Good Luck !

    PS…this is a good point: “who buys a mirrorless compact and then gets an adapter and sticks huge
    lenses on it? Just buy an SLR if you plan on using big lenses”

  • -

    Can’t believe they use a different mount… EF-M? for more money, or, is there a real reason?

    Is just as if they write in the firmware when to start failing so you buy more…

  • -

    Well no, I like to have versatility of attaching a compact 40mm and at same time being able to use my other lenses..

    Except because they want u to buy an adapter, which is the price of another camera so that’s a deal breaker.

  • MeCampbell30

    The compact body requires a mount that puts the back of the lens closer to the sensor.

  • deb_ch

    I have been asking around and I didn’t really get an answer yet: I have updated the EOS-M with the new firmware and as the AF is almost useful now, I still find the camera to be very lame.

    Inbetween shots I wait for at least 2-3 seconds until the camera is ready for the next picture. I usually have preview off (I reckon in the video above it is on?). So I fire a shot, the camera display goes black, the led flickers red for a moment and at last after some 2-3 secs I can focus for the next picture. On other cams (Fuji X100s, OM-D) I have a delay of probably less than a second inbetween shots, meaning I can instantly fire away without really experiencing any delay.

    I am using the same SD card 16GB UHS-I 95mb/s (which I format before I am using it in either camera).

    Does anyone else experience this lagging? I have tried many settings, also to deactivate Speedlight in the menu or NR, ALO, CA correction etc off, different picture sizes or RAW. To no avail. -> demo video


    Good thing I didnt sell my G12 meanwhile I purchased EOS-M Camera. =o)