REVIEW : Canon EOS M5 - Is this Canon's Best Mirrorless?

 EOS-M5 Body - nice layout belies the small size

EOS-M5 Body - nice layout belies the small size

The question being posed is whether the EOS-M5 is Canon's best mirrorless ever.  The answer is unabashedly, and wholeheartedly, yes.  The more relevant question is whether the EOS M5 is a competitive offering, coming as it does, late to the game, and onto a field with other better established and well respected competitors.  Join me in this review, and you'll see my answer at the end, but more importantly be able to answer for yourself.

First Look / First Roll

The EOS M5, hereafter referred to as the M5, but not to be confused with BMW's land speeder, comes in a simple Canon red and white box.  Not the silver of the lenses and not the sexy black of some of the the other bodies.  The kit that I received for the review, courtesy of dear friend Lindsey Johnson, included the body and the EF-M 18-150 f/3.5-5.6 IS STM lens, as well as a battery, charger, strap and USB 2 cable.

 In the box

In the box

Unboxing was not particularly exciting, no special attention being paid to convince the buyer that he or she has purchased something quite special.  More like unwrapping a blender, and not one of those fancy ones either.  The battery had a minor charge in it, something that I always appreciate because you can check basic operations and set date and time before placing the battery on charge.  I credit Canon for including a separate charger, instead of requiring me to charge the battery in the camera, a modality adopted by many that is so incredibly inconvenient and stupid that doing so immediately creates a minus one star to the rating.  Canon understands that perhaps, one might have more than one battery and might actually want to use the camera with one battery while the other one is charging. 

Once the battery was charged, it was time to install it and the memory card.  There is only one slot, likely not an issue for the expected buyer, but the memory card slot is beside the battery, so you have to open a panel on the bottom of the camera to get at it.  I expect that this is a space thing, but is inconvenient if the camera is on a tripod or you have a plate mounted.  It works, but I would prefer side access to memory card slots.

I checked, as I always do, for firmware updates and as of this review, the only firmware is the 1.0.0 release version.

 Right side top deck controls

Right side top deck controls

The body is quite small, smaller even than the SL1 DSLR, which makes it very small for my hands.  There is a good sized mode dial on the left top deck, a main control dial around the shutter button, a secondary control dial beside the fake pentaprism on the right and a very nice exposure compensation dial that is thumb reachable a la Fujifilm.  I use exposure compensation regularly and this placement is a good move on Canon's part as far as I am concerned.  On the right side, where your hand goes is the port for the Micro HDMI connection.  I like that there is micro HDMI out.  I think that the port placement is idiotic.  On the left side are a microphone jack, and a jack for a remote release.  There is no headphone jack.  There is also a circa 2008 USB2 connection.  USB3 is already being surpassed by USB-C as a connectivity platform and Canon is still using USB2.  Sad.  Very sad.

The front panel has a lens release and a button that acts as depth of field preview.  The release button is nice and precise.  The other button feels like it is mounted with chewing gum and could fall off at any time.

 Tilting rear LCD.  I choose not to show the moronic front facing alignment that puts the screen under the camera right behind the tripod mount.

Tilting rear LCD.  I choose not to show the moronic front facing alignment that puts the screen under the camera right behind the tripod mount.

The back panel has a very nice large 3.2" LCD display that is articulated for tilt but does not flip out to the side.  It does flip completely down for selfies, presuming of course that the camera possesses the power to levitate because if the device is mounted on anything, you won't be able to see the screen.  This is such fundamentally stupid design that both the designer and the person or more likely committee that approved it need a Capone-esque attitude adjustment.  It's just so incredibly stupid.  When used as a tilt display for high angle or low angle shots, it does its job decently, although I did find a significant colour difference between the LCD and the EVF.

There is an EVF!!!  Hooray!  Shooting any serious camera by holding it away from your body is unstable and doing so also puts you in the camp with the dingbats using tablets as cameras.  You know these people, they are always in the way when you are trying to work and seem to have the aesthetic sensibilities of a divided earthworm.  I'm in the process of my review of the Fujifilm X-T2 as I write this, and Canon's EVF, while very nice to have, is definitely generations behind the Fujifilm offering.  The colours appear overly warm (the LCD looks fine by comparison), and EVF blackout is quite noticeable between shots.  That said, the OLED display is crisp and bright.

The menu system is consistent with Canon design, quite straightforward and easy to use.  I am very troubled however, by how skint it is.  When I compared the M5 menu to the menu in the lower priced but similar EOS 80D, the M5 menus are definitely lobotimized and I think that this decision is going to hurt Canon when the competition is considered.

I own the first edition of the M lineup.  I bought it for my wife to use in her store for quick product shots.  I got the camera, with a couple of lenses and an EF mount adapter for $300 on a shelf clearance sale.  I would not have paid the MSRP because the Autofocus performance was glacial at best.  Woolly mammoths could die out before that camera achieves focus lock.  I shot the M3 on a test and it was better, but still lousy.  The M5 finally delivers with autofocus that can put the dead slow moniker to rest.  It is of the dual pixel variety and snappy enough.  It also works well in crappy light and in reasonably low contrast conditions.

The 18-150 seems to be a pretty decent working range, about 28-240 roughly in full frame terms.  It is quite small and very light, about the same size as one of those small soda cans, you know the ones that have less soda but cost more because they're cute.  The zoom ring is smooth enough but has that same plasticky feel as the kit level EF-S lenses.  And like the kit EF-S lenses, the lens mounting flanges are made from plastic.  For a lens that sells on its own for $500 USD that's pretty poor construction and as expected, there is no lens hood included.

There is probably no good place for the strap lug on the right side.  It's probably in the least annoying location but is still annoying regardless.  Rather than using a slot as on their DSLRs, this uses a split ring system that further gets in the way.

Camera Core Features

The M5 uses a 24.2MP sensor.  While some sites report that the sensors are different between the M5 and other Canon DSLR sensors like the one in the 80D, basic investigation says it's the same sensor.  This is a good thing.  That sensor is proven.  There is no colour space selection on the M5, whereas there is one on the 80D.  That's a missing as we can conclude that the only colour space support is sRGB.  There are eight picture styles, plus 3 user customizable settings.

Canon powers the M5 with their present top of line CPU the Digic 7.

The autofocus is Canon's excellent dual pixel autofocus.  There are 49 individual points, and you have the choice of Auto, Manual or Auto with Manual override, as well as the ability to use peaking for focus assistance in manual mode.  Unfortunately peaking only works in fully manual autofocus where it would be very beneficial when shooting video while using the excellent dual pixel AF.  There is an AF assist lamp and the camera is sensitive between -1EV and 18EV for AF using ISO 100 and f/2.0 as the baseline.  Sadly while there is a rear button for exposure lock, there is no button for focus lock, so no capability for back button focus.  Lose points for that.

The shutter is an electronic shutter, with no mechanical option.  It offers a good range of shutter speeds from 1/4000 to 30seconds.

The camera has four metering patterns to choose from.  Evaluative, centre weighted, average and spot metering, and they work in a range of 1EV to 20EV at ISO 100.  Decent but not stellar with many competitors going two stops darker.

The default ISO range is 100-6400 with good performance to ISO 1600 and noise becoming more problematic above that.  There are two push options, 12800 and 25600 which are useful when you must get the shot and noise is a lesser consideration. 

Bracketing is limited to 3 shots in AEB with a range of ±2 stops, settable in 1/3 stop increments.  You can go ±3 stops when using the manual exposure compensation dial but that precludes using AEB.

White Balance settings cover the usual suspects, auto, daylight, shade, cloud, fluroescent, tungsten, flash, custom and Kelvin.  You can tweak the settings ±9 levels in both blue/yellow and magenta/green.  In my tests, I found that the auto correction of CFLs was very much a game of lawn darts, sometimes perfect and then a shift of focus of two feet produced something horrible.  Manually setting the white balance produced a better result on the LCD JPEG, but in every case the colours in the EVF looked wrong.  It doesn't matter in the long term as I only shoot in RAW, but it's a lose points thing when the EVF display looks wrong all the time, and I expect the colour difference will be frustrating to everyone.  If there is a way to fix this, I did not find it.

The EVF itself has over 2.36M dots and you could probably use it to check focus instead of chimping.  The layout is decent enough and you can control how much or how little information it displays.  This level of selectability is very well done and while not completely intuitive, you pick it up quite quickly.  Other than the annoying colour cast, it's quite sharp and quite bright.  The EVF loses points on the sticky and hard to manipulate slider for diopter correction that is mounted on the bottom of the eyepiece.  I think that with a little work they could have placed it in an even worse position, but if the goal was inconvenience, the designers scored a goal on this.

There is a GN 5 popup flash on the camera, but activation of it is a manual process.  There is no auto popup option.  Moreover, the internal flash control menu offers the option of TTL or Manual.  The little flash cannot be used as a controller for off camera flash.  Frankly for the cost of the body, that's a big missing, especially considering that even much less expensive Rebels have this capability.  I would have much preferred to forego the built in and to get the 90EX that came with the EOS M1.  It was more powerful and a much more usable little tool.   

Lenses use Canon's EF-M mount.  There are 13 lenses in the EF-M line and this means that you can probably cover your general use needs out of this assortment.  There is also an EF mount adapter.  I got one of these with the M1 and it worked fine, but the AF on full sized lenses through the adapter was so slow as to be unusable.  I did not have an opportunity to test EF lenses on the M5 via an adapter, because the one that I own is at my spouse's store and I had the M5 for a very limited time.

The M5 has single shot, low speed continuous and high speed continuous.  High speed burst tops out at 7fps which is very respectable.  The EVF experience is very poor as the EVF has to switch back and forth between playback and the next shot.  At best it's annoying, and at worst is stroboscopic.

The M5 shoots video at 60p1080, which is pretty favourable for 2014.  Oh whoops, it's 2017.  Major competitors in similar price points offer 4K, and better 4K than Canon offers on their flagship 1Dx Mark II.  I fully understand that Canon believes people should be buying their CINE cameras for 4K video, but all of the competition is kicking their butts to the curb on this.  Where Canon used to be the 800 pound gorilla in the world of in still camera video, they are now fighting for last place.   Sad.

The M5 supports WiFi, Bluetooth and NFC wireless connectivity.  I don't have an Android device so could not test the NFC, and did not configure the Bluetooth for image playback.  I did set up the WiFi using Canon's Camera Connection app, and it works ok, but use it away from other WiFi networks that you have preference set for.  Otherwise it will disconnect as you switch modes and you will need to manually reconnect for each new function.  This issue is not unique to Canon, although Canon does have better method in the C300 using a built in web server so the camera can participate more easily in an existing WiFi network as well as generating its own.  I prefer that method, but it's likely out of scope for a camera in this price range.

The M5 has 5 axis digital IS for shooting video and some of the M lenses have built in stabilization.  The lens in the kit has no on/off switch, stabilization is controlled via the camera menu.

As mentioned, Canon includes a separate charger for the battery.  The battery is rated for 295 shots on a full charge, about standard in the mirrorless space.

Roll#2 and Real World Shooting

I shot some closeup images with the M5 of some artificial flowers and other materials on a light table.  The images are what I would expect from Canon glass.  Sharp, with great colour and contrast.  Again, the LCD is bang on accurate in Neutral Picture Style to what I get out of the camera RAWs, but the EVF is unnaturally orange.  I have done some searching on how to correct this and have not been successful.  I found that the time it takes for the EVF to wake up when there is a delay of a few minutes between shots is onerous.  Canon says wake up time is about 1.0 seconds from a cold start, I find that it can take that long just for the EVF to wake up on a camera that is powered on.  That's too slow in my opinion and shots will be missed as a result.

The M5 has a touch screen.  In general I have no use for touch screens on cameras, but I gave this one the old college try.  It also offers tap to set the focus point.  This works a charm, especially when I bring the camera to my eye and my nose moves the focus point around.  Turn that idiot thing off right away.  

When shooting the camera with the rear display in the info mode, it is convenient to be able to tap on the screen to select the setting that you want to change rather than using the Q menu option.  The downside is that the control stays active for some time, so a dial that you expect to be controlling aperture, is now rolling through White Balance settings.  Touch screen?  Failing grade.

Unlike some other small cameras, Canon has made the tripod mount all metal and very secure.  I placed a Peak Design dovetail plate on the camera and used it with my RRS tripods.  Some feel that a value proposition of mirrorless is no tripod required.  I use tripods for portraits and in the studio, so tripod operation is important to me.  I did have to remove the camera from the tripod to access the battery and memory card.  Fortunately the plate I used was very small and did not have to be removed to get the door open. although the door is sufficiently blocked that removing the battery is impossible without removing the plate.  This has more to do with the small body than a design flaw, although folks using the very common Manfrotto plates will have to get used to removing the plate completely to get at the memory card.

Sample Images

All the images in the sample gallery were shot in RAW on the M5 with the 18-150 lens at a variety of focal lengths.  Shooting mode was aperture preferred and exposure compensation was used judiciously.  RAW files were imported into Lightroom and processed using my normal workflow, including Lens Correction.  Lightroom fixes many faults, but as I always do, I turned the corrections off on several images before finalizing to see how much work that the corrections were doing.  Suffice to say in one word, YIKES!

Conclusions

Is this Canon's best mirrorless?  Absolutely.  Is it the mirrorless that Canon fans want?  Not even close.  Canon fans want to be able to use their existing EF-S, EF and third party lenses, not to have to use adapters or invest in a brand new lens system.  What about folks with no existing investment?  Canon is not delivering anything that cannot be found in better known lines, often for a lower cost of acquisition.  Mirrorless is the bread and butter of Sony, Panasonic, Olympus and Fujifilm.  All have more lens choices and deliver products that are better designed and have considerably more refined deliverables.  They are also not constrained in the way that the M line has always been.  The EOS M6 has been announced, and it's a step backwards from the M5.  Less money, but no EVF, and nothing else particularly compelling.  Huh???  I keep hearing that Canon is bringing an EF-S mount mirrorless body out this year.  If true, it's more reason not to buy into the M line, and if not true, it reaffirms that Canon, despite their great success in DSLRs, lenses and in Cinema, just do not understand the mirrorless marketplace.  As a Canon owner (over a dozen L lenses, 1DX Mark II, 1Dx, 1D Mark IV, 7D Mark II, C300), I really want to see Canon succeed in the growing mirrorless space.  There is nothing really "wrong" with the camera.  It makes nice images as one would expect from a Canon product and Canon glass.  It's just very staid, and very conservative, and while that may be a reasonable business plan in a declining marketplace, it won't gain you attractors in the rapidly growing mirrorless space.  It's not awful but it's very far from great.  I am demanding of Canon, because I know that their engineers can do when not unreasonably fettered by committee and in-company competition.  More choice for customers is a good thing.  I just fear that the M5 will follow its predecessors into the "didn't make it discount bin."  It's not an awful camera, but there is nothing here that would convince me to buy it over a similarly or lower priced competitive offering.