Canon EOS M5 review: Canon's best CSC yet

Canon EOS M5 review: Canon's best CSC yet

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Digital SLRs still dominate among professional photographers and amateur enthusiasts of a certain age, but those who grew up with Thundercats instead of Thunderbirds are more likely to own a compact system camera (CSC). Also known as mirrorless cameras, they’re smaller and lighter than SLRs, tend to be better for video, can match SLRs for image quality and increasingly beat them for performance.

Canon dipped a late and rather apprehensive toe into the CSC market with the EOS M back in 2012. It was essentially an EOS 650D SLR squeezed into a point-and-shoot body and stuck permanently in live view mode, which meant dire performance.

Five years later, Canon’s SLRs are much faster in live view mode, thanks to its Dual Pixel technology, which incorporates phase-detect autofocus directly on the image sensor. It’s a good omen for the firm’s latest CSC, the Canon EOS M5.

It isn’t cheap, though. At £1,050 for the body only, £1,150 with a 15-54mm kit lens or £1,400 with the 18-150mm lens we were sent for review, it goes head to head with some highly capable CSCs including the Panasonic GH4, Sony a6300 and Fujifilm X-T20 (review coming soon). In such distinguished company, Canon can’t afford to slip up.

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Canon EOS M5 review: Ergonomics and controls

The M5 looks like an ultraslim SLR rather than a bloated compact camera, and it’s all the better for it. The electronic viewfinder is mounted centrally, just above the lens, which feels comfortable and familiar. The outer shell is made from plastic rather than magnesium alloy but it feels reassuringly solid. I’d have preferred a slightly chunkier handgrip and at this price a bit of weather sealing doesn’t seem unreasonable. Otherwise, it looks and feels like a proper enthusiast’s camera.

The electronic viewfinder is a high quality 2.4-million dot OLED unit but it’s smaller than rival CSC’s viewfinders. Canon doesn’t publish a magnification value but I’d estimate that it’s around 0.6x. The LCD touchscreen is bigger and sharper than usual, at 3.2in and 1.6 million dots. It tilts up by 90 degrees and down by 180 for self-portraits, although that’s not so useful if you’re using a tripod. When tilted upwards, the eye-level sensor often mistook my finger for an eye and automatically switched the screen off and enabled the viewfinder.

Canon EOS M5 back

Touch & Drag AF is Canon’s new name for a great feature that seemed to have appeared by accident on the EOS 750D. When using the viewfinder, the screen is off but it can still be used as a touchscreen to move the autofocus point. This is much quicker than nudging it around with buttons or a mini joystick. The M5 takes this feature to its logical conclusion, with options to make the changes absolute or relative; the latter behaves more like a laptop touchpad than a touchscreen, with adjustments made by swiping the screen. It’s also possible to enable only half or quarter of the screen, thereby eliminating accidental adjustments when your nose touches the surface of the display.

As for physical controls, you’re well catered for here, with dual command dials plus a dedicated exposure compensation dial and a rear wheel, making this one of the most tactile cameras on the market. Some people will prefer the single-function, labelled dials of the Fujifilm X-T20 but the EOS M5’s controls work well. Pressing the Dial Func button in the middle of the rear command dial cycles through a short list of options, which can be customised differently for various shooting modes.

It’s surprising there’s no button for drive mode or autofocus mode but these can be assigned to the rear command dial, the M-Fn button (which is unassigned by default) or six other buttons dotted around the camera. As with Canon’s SLRs, calibrating white balance is unnecessarily laborious as it involves taking a picture and then navigating to it from the main menu.

Sadly, the M5 hasn’t inherited its SLR siblings’ customisable Auto ISO mode. The maximum allowable ISO speed can be set by the user but there’s no control over the relationship between the ISO and shutter speed in low light. This is because the camera’s algorithm for determining this relationship is quite complex, taking into account the available light, lens focal length, movement of the camera and detected movement in the scene. Faster shutter speeds (and thus, ISO speeds) are selected when a moving camera or subject increased the likelihood of blur.

Canon EOS M5 side

In practice, I found that the camera needed to be held steady for about a second before the shutter button was pressed to reassure it that it wouldn’t be subjected to shaky hands. I often lift the camera to my eye and quickly half-press to focus before taking a shot, but in this scenario it would often pick an unnecessarily fast 1/250s shutter speed, pushing up the ISO speed and increasing noise levels. Subsequent shots of the same scene tended to use much slower shutter speeds of around 1/60s.

This only happened for ISO speeds up to 1600, though, so image quality was never damaged too much. People who know what exposure settings they want can always set them manually, but it’s handy not to have to think about it. That’s not always the case here.

Canon EOS M5 review: Performance, Wi-Fi and video

Autofocus performance is considerably better than any previous EOS M model, however. I measured 0.2 to 0.3 seconds from pressing the shutter button to taking a shot in most shooting conditions. Shot-to-shot times averaged 0.5 seconds, putting it up there with the fastest CSCs in normal use. However, the autofocus struggled in very low light, especially with moving subjects, sometimes taking well over a second to focus and at other times failing to find its subject at all. The Panasonic G80, which I was testing at the same time was much quicker and more reliable in the same conditions.

Continuous shooting was at 9fps and reached 28 JPEGs before slowing to 5.3fps, while enabling continuous autofocus delivered 6.4fps. In RAW mode it started at the same speeds but slowed to 0.9fps after 16 exposures. These are solid results that broadly in line with rival cameras.

Canon EOS M5 50mm

I’ve found Canon’s previous Wi-Fi implementations to be cumbersome to set up, but pairing the M5 with an Android phone worked first time. The inclusion of NFC means it’s a simple matter of holding the devices together to establish a connection. The camera also includes Bluetooth to simplify setup with iOS devices that don’t support NFC. The app’s remote viewfinder function has touchscreen-controlled autofocus and quick access to exposure compensation and ISO speed.

Dual-pixel autofocus is great news for video, as it virtually eliminates the focus hunting that often spoils video recordings. The large touchscreen on the Canon EOS M5 makes it easy to specify which part of the scene to focus on, and responsive subject tracking and face detection mean the camera often does the work for you.

Full manual exposure is available for videos and settings can be adjusted on the fly using the dials or the touchscreen; the latter avoids audible clicks spoiling the soundtrack. The camera uses a combination of optical and electronic stabilisation to keep shots steady. And where most Canon cameras stop recording without warning when the file size reaches 4GB, the EOS M5 spans multiple files until its 30-minute ceiling is reached.

With such a strong set of video-related features, it’s disappointing that the resolution is limited to 1080p. The Panasonic GH4, Sony a6300 and Fujifilm X-T20 all support 4K. 1080p is fine for casual use but any serious video production should really be shot at 4K. Even if you only plan to export at 1080p, the extra detail means makes it much easier to manipulate footage without degrading quality.

Canon EOS M5, Sony a6300, video details

^ The EOS M5’s 1080p videos can’t begin to compete for detail levels with the 4K footage from its competitors such as the Sony a6300 

Canon EOS M5 review: The EOS M system

A key selling point of any CSC is the ability to change lenses, but the EOS M system has lagged behind its rivals in terms of lens range. It has improved a little since last time we checked in, with seven made by Canon and around a dozen third-party lenses, but that’s still not as comprehensive as its competitors. In particular, there’s a notable lack of wide-aperture primes, with the 22mm f/2 coming closest.

Still, it’s great to see a versatile 18-150mm (29-240mm equivalent) model available as a kit lens. If that’s too pricey, there’s a more conventional 15-54mm kit lens available with the body for £1,150.

Canon also sent me its new 28mm macro lens, which integrates a pair of LED lights to illuminate subjects. Then there’s the EF-EOS M mount adapter, which lets you attach Canon’s SLR lenses to the camera. This adapter costs around £95 but it’s bundled with the body-only version of the M5 for £1,050. I’ve never been particularly sold on the idea of mount adapters for CSCs, as SLR lenses tend to be bulkier and the camera ends up being very front-heavy. However, the mount adapter and 50mm f/1.8mm STM lens didn’t look out of place on the M5, and it performed extremely well.

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