The mirrorless camera market was long notable for what it lacked: hardware from Nikon and Canon.
Technically Canon has had a mirrorless offering for about four years, the EOS M, but it was a low-end model that felt more like a token gesture than a real camera. Other than that, the company largely ignored the mirrorless market in favor of the DSLR. Canon fans have been hoping in vain for a more capable successor to the EOS M for some time. Now, with the new EOS M5, I can safely say the wait is over.
Canon EOS M5
Small and light enough to appeal to fans of compacts. Very fast and accurate autofocus—one of the best AFs we’ve seen. Excellent electronic viewfinder and touchscreen for easy and comfortable compositions.
Lacks fast native lenses. There’s a lens adaptor, but it costs another $200. Viewfinder blackout is pronounced. No 4K video, which feels odd in 2017.
That’s not to say the M5 is perfect—I have several reservations about this camera—but it certainly shows Canon moving in the right direction, and it demonstrates that the DSLR giant can make a very capable higher-end mirrorless camera.
Imagine the Canon EOS 80, one of the company’s more popular consumer-level DSLRs, shrunk into a smaller body and stripped of the mirror. That more or less gives you the M5 ($979, body only). One thing worth mentioning up front is just how small this thing is. Pictures on the web did not fully prepare me for the M5’s tiny size. It’s slightly taller than the Panasonic GX85 I tested recently. Despite the diminutive size, the M5 is not super-light. The camera without a lens weighs 1.4 pounds.
Unlike Canon’s previous mirrorless offerings (such as the M3 and M10), the M5 sports an SLR-style body with a built-in electronic viewfinder. A very good EVF in fact, with a 0.39-inch OLED that packs in 2.36 million dots. It’s bright, clear, and easy to compose through. There’s also a built-in diopter beneath the rear edge, which means it won’t get spun around in your bag. If you want to shoot without the EVF, the 2-axis tilting 3.2-inch touchscreen display is equally nice.
The 24.2-megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor is very sharp, even if it does eschew current trends and include an anti-aliasing filter. The chip features the same on-sensor phase-detecting autofocus common in Canon’s higher-end DSLRs, which is a first for Canon’s mirrorless line and, to my mind, the number one sign Canon is starting to take mirrorless seriously.
The dynamic range is quite good, especially next to similarly specced DSLRs in Canon’s current line up, though this is an area where Canon seems to struggle. The dynamic range of its APS-C chips has never been the best, and while the M5 continues the recent improvements Canon has made with these chips, it still doesn’t quite match what I’ve seen coming out of the new Sony a6500.
The autofocus portion of the equation is, however, much better. I found that Canon’s “dual pixel” phase-detect system was fast, but more importantly, it was extremely accurate even in challenging situations. In fact I would say the M5 one of the fastest, most accurate mirrorless camera AF systems I’ve tested. Is it DSLR fast? No. But it gets you 95 percent of the way there.
Unfortunately the speed of autofocus is marred by one significant downside—the viewfinder blackout time when shooting is, to put it diplomatically, pronounced. It’s downright awful, really. This can be overcome a little bit by the 7-frame-per-second burst shooting speed. Just mash the button and hope for the best. Alas, that will fill the buffer after a mere second or two if you shoot RAW. I also found the shutter button to be a little unreliable, more than once I mashed and nothing happened.
So the M5 might not be the best thing to bring to the next Olympics, but that’s not really the market here. I can’t imagine a pro tossing their 5D in the trash to run out and grab an M5. The M5 is aimed at what the marketing folk call “enthusiasts”—those of us who enjoy photography and are willing to spend some money on it, but aren’t pros. Pros will not accept the trade-offs of the M5 just to save a couple pounds. For rest of us, however, the trade-offs might not be a big deal.
Life’s a Glass
For the enthusiast market, especially the subsection who already own some Canon lenses, the M5 makes a great lightweight camera. The biggest downside to the M5 in my view is the lack of native lenses. Canon loaned me the 15-45mm f/3.5 lens and the longer 18-150mm f/3.5-6.3 lens, which were both capable, though neither bowled me over. However Canon also sent along an adapter (sold separately for $200) that allows you to mount EF and EF-S lenses on the M5 and enjoy full autofocus. You could even bring some L glass to the M5 if you want, though the size and weight of L lenses generally defeats the purpose of getting a compact, lightweight body like the M5.
One other nitpick with the M5 is the lack of 4K video capture, which feels like a painful omission at this point. That said, I was quite happy with what I got at 1080p/60fps. The M5 allows for touchscreen focusing while shooting, but even better the AF system is again wonderfully accurate.
The M5 is not the perfect mirrorless offering Canon fans have been hoping for. It’s tantalizingly close though. In fact I could overlook everything except the viewfinder blackout. On the bright side, the M5 clearly shows that not only is Canon actively exploring the mirrorless market, it’s starting to target the higher end portion of it.