Friday, November 22, 2013

Canon EOS M & 90EX Review

By late 2011, all of the major industry players had jumped onto the mirrorless camera bandwagon...except for Canon. When they did finally enter the ring in summer 2012, they did so with a compact entry-level mirrorless body containing an APS-C sensor. And to date, it remains the only camera using the EF-M mount as Canon have yet to announce a successor.

The result was in all likelihood a commercial failure - and it deserved to be. Despite having a feature set similar to the $500 m4/3 and Sony bodies of the time, the $800 EOS M had little to go on in terms of value or differentiating features. But now that it's around $300 with one of the two kit lenses, it's suddenly a tempting buy. That latter price point is the one that I caved at, making the EOS M the first camera I've ever bought new. After using it extensively for the past 4 months, I've grown to like it, though it has its quirks.

If there's one thing Canon got right with the EOS M, it was the small form factor. The body really is small, like a thicker enthusiast compact. Unlike enthusiast compacts though, the EOS M doesn't have a 'proper' hand grip, instead relying on a thin hard plastic strip running up the front of the body as a place to anchor the fingers. It does its job, but those with large hands will find it a bit cramped.

Small size and light weight mean the EOS M can be supported by even the smallest travel tripod
The camera's small dimensions create other problems as well. The 3.0" LCD takes up the vast majority of space on the camera's rear, leaving the rest of the space taken up by buttons and the quick control dial. The problem here is that there's a lack of dead area on the back. Wherever you try to grip the camera when picking it up or taking it out of a bag, you'll invariably grab it by a button instead of the tiny thumbrest. This wouldn't be much a problem if the dedicated record button were located elsewhere.

Since the EOS M lacks an optical or electronic viewfinder, that 3.0" LCD serves as your main composition tool when in use. People on forums tend to complain how LCD displays tend to be useless in bright sunlight but happily I can report this is not the case. I bought my M in the middle of summer and have use it in about as bright as Ontario conditions can get, and setting brightness to max was good enough to see the screen clearly with the sun shining on it. From an ergonomic standpoint an EVF would certainly be better, but I didn't find myself pining for one.

One of them fits in a pocket. Try to guess which one!
Control wise, the EOS M performs its duty quite well, with the combination of a touch screen and real control dial making most setting changes pretty simple. The capacitive touch screen is very responsive, and feels just like using a smartphone. Onscreen you have quick access to changing aperture, ISO, shooting mode, and everything in the 'Q' menu (which can best be described as having 'everything else'). There's also a touch shutter feaure that lets you tap to screen to focus and shoot, which is quite handy for tripod usage. If you're not fond of the touchscreen, most of the above settings can be changed via regular camera menus, but it's slower. Some familiar functions even trickle down into the body type, like the ability to move AF to the * button, just like on its DSLR brethren, even though the location of the * button causes this to make little sense. As to why the record button can't be mapped to a different task is puzzling to me - the button is in a prime location.

When the EOS M was first released the most widely publicized drawback was its slow autofocus. Canon did speed up AF in one-shot mode with the release of new firmware back in June, which Canon claims made it around 2x faster. Fortunately my EOS M shipped with firmware v1.0.6, so I was able to see the difference first-hand. The AF is indeed now faster with the update, and puts it past the threshold of 'good enough', but it's still significantly slower than what Olympus, Panasonic, and Nikon mirrorless bodies can offer.

When it comes to shooting moving subjects, you can pretty much forget about using the EOS M. While servo AF can keep up with thing that move slowly, it's next to hopeless when dealing with any kind of fast motion. You may get some that are almost in focus but even then they're slightly off. Combined with a framerate of 1.2-1.6fps (with Servo AF on) getting a decent shot will be difficult at best. The only times I had luck was when I stopped down slightly and manually focused with an EF lens on the EF/EF-M adaptor. Although the shutter feels responsive without any noticeable lag, shot-to-shot times are much slower than a DSLR - running just shy of 3 seconds.

Other performance specs are more or less par for the course. Max framerate with AF/AE locked is 4fps, about the same as most competitors that are (now) in the same price range. While framerate might seem irrelevant with autofocus and autoexposure locked, I found it useful to snap off 2-3 quick shots while handholding in lower-light situations, to ensure that at least one of the shots is devoid of camera shake.

Taking short 4fps bursts ensures that at least one shot will be somewhat sharp handheld, like the above at 1/13 sec @22mm
Speaking of camera shake, the EOS M sadly lacks in-body image stabilization. While I can understand Canon not taking that route with their DSLRs given that they had 10 years of IS lenses built-up before sensor shift technology was invented, it's disappointing that they didn't take that route here since they're starting a fresh with a new system. Canon probably figured using IBIS would send the consumers the message that it's superior to in-lens, so they stayed their course with using the latter option. There are technical limitations with the large sensor and short flange distance, but the fact that the Nikon 1 system also relies on in-lens stabilization despite having a tiny sensor makes me think the reason is more marketing based. Overall I found it disappointing that smaller primes aren't stabilized on the EOS M.

Sporting a similar 18mp sensor to Canon's (at the time) current DSLR lineup, image quality is pretty much as expected - excellent. High ISO performance is great, a huge improvement on the sensor of the EOS 50D and approaching what the original 5D could manage at its higher ISO settings. I don't hesitate to use ISO 1600 and 3200 at all since raw files from them can be cleaned up significantly. By ISO 6400 things start to go downhill but remain useful. ISO 12800 and 25600 are what I'd call 'emergencies only', to say the least. Overall performance is impressive for an APS-C sensor, it's just a shame ISO can only be set in full stops and not in 1/3 stop intervals like most DSLRs allow.

Above image is underexposed to exaggerate noise. Click for full-size
Another common complaint online about the EOS M is the battery life. However, people's expectations here a bit unrealistic given that constant LCD usage will take a toll on any battery, especially one as small as the LP-E12. I found myself getting around 250 shots with each charge, which is awfully close to Canon's specification of 230. While not stellar, that's about standard battery life for this class of camera. Besides, LP-E12's are small and light, so it won't be a huge burden to carry an extra one while travelling.

As is standard nowadays (save for the Nikon DF), the EOS M also has movie recording capabilities. Video quality is quite good, though it's hampered by the servo AF issues that are present in still photo modes. Thankfully didn't Canon didn't nerf video recording like they did with the 1100D so you'll be able to record in full 1080p, as well as 720p and VGA. Likewise, you get a stereo microphone - something entry-level bodies from other manufacturers tend not to have. If you're like me and only have 720p displays at home, you may be disappointed to find out that that resolution is only available in 60 fps. That's great for doing slow-mo, but 30fps would've been nice for those conscious of memory conversation. A minor niggle, for sure.

What's good

  • Image quality on-par with APS-C DSLRs
  • Lightweight and pocketable (with 22mm lens)
  • Touch screen
  • Hotshoe compatible with EX Speedlites
  • Stereo microphone
  • 90EX flash can be used on other EOS bodies

What isn't

  • 720p movies only available at 60fps
  • ISO sensitivities not available in 1/3 stop increments
  • Record button useless in still modes
  • Small hand grip
  • System as a whole is still weak (3 lenses, 1 body)

While the EOS M didn't exactly make a splash in the industry when it launched, the recent price drops have made it an appealing option for those trying to enter the mirrorless market. The M gives you most of the functionality of the EOS 650D, but with some performance and ergonomic compromises. Image quality is great, as are the inclusion of some higher end features like a touchscreen and a nice array of custom functions.

It should be mentioned that as good as the M is, it doesn't exist in a vacuum. The competition is heavy and every other major brand currently has a much more complete system than Canon. And since the EOS M can't take EF/EF-S lenses without an adaptor, there isn't much of an advantage for Canon users to stick with Canon's mirrorless system unless they have an extensive collection of EX speedlites. If you're going to have to start fresh with a system, you may as well carefully research what other brands can offer before jumping on the M bandwagon.

Speedlite 90EX Flash

One of the nice little bonuses those who live outside the U.S. get with the EOS M is the EX90 speedlite, which the M uses in lieu of a built-in flash. Since many regions offer kits both with and without the flash, plenty of people are left wondering if it's worth getting or not.

As you can probably tell, the 90EX is a very basic flash unit, almost like one of those clip-on flashes, except it needs its own power source via 2 AAA batteries. No tilt or swivel function is available so only direct lighting is possible. Luckily a small number of functions are accessible via the camera's extrernal speedlite control menu, like 2nd-curtain sync, metering mode, and FEC. Recycle times are pretty good; faster than the shot-to-shot times of the EOS M.

It's nice as a bring-anywhere flash that's a good companion for bodies without a built-in flash (I'm looking at you, 5D). Due to its lack of power, don't expect nice lighting from the 90EX when using in darker scenarios, but it nonetheless does a good job as a fill flash outdoors.

The 90EX has one ace up its sleeve, and that's its ability to act as a master flash for Canon's remote flash system. For example, you could use it to trigger your 430EX II for a relatively cheap two-flash setup. In my case, I found it handy as a way to trigger the optical slave function on my Metz 50 AF-1, though a Yongnuo RF-603 (cheaper than the 90EX) will do fine if you want to achieve that without a second flash involved.

In short, if you can get a kit where the 90EX was thrown in at no extra cost, you should definitely go for it. I wouldn't pay more than $30 or so extra if that factored in to choosing between two kit options. I honestly see no point in buying it separately for $120 as virtually any other flash in or below that price range will be better, including many third-party options and even Canon's own 230EX. 

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