Introduction and features
Canon’s first compact system or mirrorless system camera, the EOS M, seemed very good on paper, but at launch it was expensive and let down by a lacklustre autofocus system that was slow and prone to hunting. Canon issued firmware upgrades that improved the autofocus performance significantly and the price fell with the passage of time, but the damage was done.
Now, in the UK at least, we have the M3. Like the M, the M3 uses an APS-C format sensor, but this time the manufacturer has plumped for the same 24.2-million-effective-pixel device used in the new Canon 750D and Canon 760D. It’s also coupled with the same DIGIC 6 processor as the two new DSLRs have.
This combination allows a native sensitivity range of ISO 100-12,800 with an expansion setting of ISO 25,600. That’s the same as the original M, but that only had an effective pixel count of 18 million so it will be interesting to see how the new camera handles noise.
Bearing in mind the issues with the original M, the M3 has Canon’s latest 49-point Hybrid CMOS AF III autofocus system. Canon claims that this brings a 6x speed increase over the original EOS M after the firmware upgrades. It’s also possible to shoot continuously at up to 4.2fps (frames per second) for approximately 1000 large Fine (highest) quality JPEGs or 5 raw files. That’s not exactly a blistering pace by modern standards, but it’s reasonable.
Canon is aiming the M3 at enthusiast photographers, so naturally it has aperture priority, shutter priority and manual exposure modes along with a collection of automated options that are helpful for less experienced photographers.
These include Creative Assist mode which is designed to help novice photographers take control of the camera and adjust brightness, background blur, color saturation, contrast, warmth and filter effects and see them applied live – and then you can save these effect combinations to use them again without having to understand photographic terms like aperture. It’s even possible to save up to six of your favourite setting combinations for future reuse.
There’s also the usual array of metering modes (384-zone Evaluative, Partial covering 10% at the centre, Spot covering 2% and Centre weighted), exposure compensation to +/-3EV and a shutter speed range of 30-1/4000sec plus bulb mode.
As is now de rigueur, the EOS M3 has Wi-Fi and NFC connectivity built in to allow fast connection to compatible smartphones and tablets. Once a connection has been made the camera can be controlled remotely and images transferred wirelessly using Canon’s free Camera Connect app.
The inclusion of a pop-up flash (GN 5 at ISO 100) and a hotshoe tops-off a pretty comprehensive specification for the M3. The only really glaring omission is a viewfinder; there isn’t one built-in. There is, however, an optional electronic viewfinder (EVF-DC1) available. This is the same unit as can be used with the G1X Mark II and it adds about £100 to the cost of a M3 and lens kit. While this is considerable extra cost, it’s cheaper than purchasing it by itself as it costs around £249.
It’s important to remember that although the EOS M3 uses the same sensor as the 750D and 760D it has the EF-M lens mount that was introduced with the original M. This new mount is necessary because creating a mirrorless camera allows the lens mount to be closer to the sensor than it is in an SLR and a new breed of lenses is required. To date there are still only four Canon EF-M lenses, but there is the EF-EOS M mount adaptor that allows EF and EF-S lenses to be mounted on the M3.
Build and handling
In looks the EOS M3 sits roughly halfway between a G-series compact camera like the Canon G16 and an SLR like the Canon 100D. It has the rectangular shape of the G16 – actually the top-plate is even flatter – combined with the more ergonomically contoured finger grip on its front.
At 366g (including battery and memory card), the M3 is a little lighter than the 100D, but it feels a little heavier than you might expect – it’s deceptively dense. It also feels nice and robust. These two points are likely to be down to the stainless steel element of its steel, magnesium alloy and polycarbonate resin construction.
On the back of the camera is a small, but very effective thumb-ridge that is made from, or at least covered in, the same rubber-like material that coats the front finger grip. This front grip has quite a fine texture and a smart, modern appearance and it provides a superb purchase, making the camera feel comfortable and secure in your hand.
Canon has used a similar, but not identical, control layout to the G16 for the M3 and I found it really easy to use. I especially appreciated the exposure compensation dial on the top-plate as it enables speedy adjustments to be made to exposure. This dial doesn’t have a lock, but it has a fairly stiff action so it doesn’t get knocked out of position easily.
The mode dial alongside the exposure compensation dial is also useful, allowing quick changes in exposure mode and an easy means of checking the camera’s set-up.
I found the control dial around the shutter release easy to reach and use. By default in aperture priority mode it’s used to set aperture and in shutter priority mode, shutter speed. In manual exposure mode it and the control dial around the navigation keys are used to set exposure.
Although the M3 has a full complement of physical controls, the 3-inch 1,040,000-dot LCD screen is touch-sensitive. Canon has implemented the touch-controls very well and you can slip seamlessly between using the screen and using the physical controls. Helpfully, both the main menu and the Quick menu can be navigated and selections made using the responsive touch-screen or the physical controls.
I find it especially helpful to set autofocus point via the screen – however, there’s a fairly wide border around the screen where it’s not possible to set an AF point.
The screen can be tilted up through 180 degrees and downwards through 75 degrees for easier shooting from high or low angles. This is useful, especially for shooting selfies, but a fully articulating screen like the ones on the 750D and 760D would be much more helpful when shooting upright images.
The screen is an sRGB ClearView II device with 3:2 aspect ratio, which suits the native aspect ratio of images from the sensor and it provides a very clear view indoors and in shaded situations. Reflections are an issue in direct sunlight, but with the screen set to its maximum brightness it is still possible to compose images. It’s a shame that Canon hasn’t built a viewfinder in to the M3, but at least there is an optional one available.
It’s easy to connect the M3 to a smartphone using the Wi-Fi system and images can be transferred and shared quickly.
While the EOS M3 is capable of capturing lots of detail, it isn’t always as easy to do so as you might like. As with the original M, the problem is often down to the focusing system. In many cases it focuses the lens very quickly and accurately, but there are other times when it indicates that the subject is sharp when it clearly isn’t.
There were times during this test when the active AF area was completely filled with the intended target and the box was green to indicate that the lens had been focused, but it was quite clear that the subject was out of focus and it was the background that was sharp. This didn’t just happen once or twice, it was on numerous occasions and it happened when using both the 18-55mm kit lens and the 22mm lens that was supplied for this review.
Click here for a full size version.
It’s particularly frustrating to have the AF system indicate that the subject is sharp when you’re shooting with the camera at an awkward angle, or the subject is quite small in the frame because you often can’t see that it’s got it wrong until you zoom into the shot or open the image on a computer.
Even at its smallest setting, in 1-point AF mode the autofocus point is also quite large so it’s not possible to isolate small subjects in the frame. I suspect that the reason for this comparatively large AF area is to increase the likelihood of a high contrast edge being present for the camera to latch on to.
Click here for a full size version.
We also found that the EF-M 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM kit lens doesn’t get the best from the sensor and if you want to capture the level of detail that we know is possible from the sensor (it’s the same unit as is in the Canon 750D and Canon 760D) you need to swap to a better optic like the EF-M 22mm f2 STM .
At 100% magnification and with noise reduction set to the standard level, low to mid-sensitivity JPEG images from the M3 look a little more natural than comparable images from the Sony Alpha 6000, but there’s very little in it. At higher sensitivity settings the M3’s JPEGs have a some chroma (colour) noise, but there’s less loss of detail than in images from the A6000. At normal view sizes, however, images look similar.
Click here for a full size version.
Click here for a full size version.
Generally, the M3 controls noise well throughout the native sensitivity setting, ISO 100-12,800, with the top value giving decent results that withstand viewing at A4 size provided you don’t mind a little fine-grained noise. Happily, there’s no banding, clumping or problems with colour shifts.
As usual, raw files produce the best results allowing you to find a balance between noise and detail visibility.
In other respects the M3 gives a good account of itself as it generally delivers well exposed images with good colour. The metering and white balance systems perform as we have come to expect from Canon EOS cameras. I found the automatic and Daylight white balance settings the most useful, but the Custom or Manual option comes in handy in artificial lighting if you want to produce neutral images.
Lab tests: Resolution
We’ve carried out lab tests on the Canon EOS M3 across its full ISO range for resolution, noise (including signal to noise ratio) and dynamic range. We test the JPEGs shot by the camera, but we also check the performance with raw files. Most enthusiasts and pros prefer to shoot raw, and the results can often be quite different.
We’ve also picked out three of its chief rivals so that you can compare their performance directly.
• Samsung NX500: Like the EOS M3, the Samsung NX500 has a box-shaped design with an LCD display but no viewfinder. It also has Samsung’s latest and best sensor.
• Sony A6000: The A6000 is Sony’s top APS-C format Alpha compact system camera. It has a great sensor, and its rectangular body also houses and electronic viewfinder.
• Olympus OM-D E-M10: Olympus’s entry-level OM-D series compact system camera is styled like a DSLR, with an electronic viewfinder on the top, but it’s still super-small.
Canon EOS M3 resolution chart
We test camera resolution using an industry-standard ISO test chart that allows precise visual comparisons. This gives us numerical values for resolution in line widths/picture height, and you can see how the Nikon 1 J5 compares with its rivals in the charts below.
JPEG analysis: This graph shows that the M3 captures a good level of detail for much of its sensitivity range, but that two of its key rivals – the Samsung NX500 and Sony A6000 are better still, particularly at low-medium ISOs.
Raw* analysis: These results show how the M3 fares when the EF-M 22mm f/2 STM lens is mounted, we found we got scores of 4 (x100) LWPH lower when the EF-M 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM kit lens was mounted. Again, the EOS M3 delivers good results, but not as good as the Samsung and the Sony.
(*Raw files are converted to TIFF using the cameras supplied software)
Resolution test chart samples
This is the chart we use for testing camera resolution. The key area is just to the right of centre, where a series of converging lines indicates the point at which the camera can no longer resolve them individually.
This is the Canon EOS M3’s test chart at ISO 100. Click here for a full size version.
And this is the same chart at ISO 6400. Click here for a full size version.
Lab tests: Dynamic range
Dynamic range is a measure of the range of tones the sensor can capture. Cameras with low dynamic range will often show ‘blown’ highlights or blocked-in shadows. This test is carried out in controlled conditions using DxO hardware and analysis tools.
Dynamic range is measured in exposure values (EV). The higher the number the wider the range of brightness levels the camera can capture. This falls off with increasing ISO settings because the camera is having to amplify a weaker signal. Raw files capture a higher dynamic range because the image data is unprocessed.
Canon EOS M3 dynamic range chart
JPEG dynamic range analysis: JPEG dynamic range is a feature of contrast and in the default Picture Style (Standard) the M3’s images have pleasing contrast. Tonal gradation is also retained fairly well in the shadows and highlights. All four cameras are quite close when shooting JPEG images.
Raw dynamic range analysis: After conversion to TIFF, the M3’s raw files have a slightly higher dynamic range than the JPEGs, but they don’t hit quite the highs of the competing cameras. The results from the Sony A6000 are similar, but the Samsung NX500 and Olympus E-M10 deliver much better results.
Lab tests: Signal to noise ratio
This is a test of the camera’s noise levels. The higher the signal to noise ratio, the greater the difference in strength between the real image data and random background noise, so the ‘cleaner’ the image will look. The higher the signal to noise ratio, the better.
Canon EOS M3 signal to noise ratio chart
JPEG signal to noise ratio analysis: At the lowest sensitivity values the M3 has a similar score to the Samsung NX500 and Sony A6000, but it drops behind as sensitivity rises, indicating that images are a little noisier. This is confirmed by our ‘real world’ images. Revealing a bit more noise gives the M3’s images more bite, and helps them look a little sharper at 100%.
Raw signal to noise ratio: The M3’s raw files (after conversion to TIFF) compare more favourably than the JPEGs, suggesting that the files have more detail and less noise. Even so, its results fall in the middle of the range and the Samsung NX500 and Olympus E-M10 are clearly
The signal to noise ratio charts use laboratory test equipment, but we also shoot a real-world scene to get a visual indication of the camera’s noise levels across the ISO range. The right side of the scene is darkened deliberately because this makes noise more obvious.
This is the Canon EOS M3’s result at ISO 100. Click here to view a full size version.
And this is the same scene at ISO 6400. Click here to see a full size version.
With Canon’s new 24.2-million-effective-pixel CMOS sensor and DIGIC 6 processor the M3 has a lot of potential, but this is restricted by a few factors. The first of these is the lack of a built-in viewfinder, which makes it hard to compose images in very bright conditions. Happily there is a solution for this in the guise of an external electronic viewfinder.
The autofocus system can also be very frustrating in some situations, as it has a habit of indicating that the subject is sharp when it’s not. This makes you doubt the camera and you find yourself checking images on a regular basis to make sure that the subject is sharp. Lastly, we found that the kit lens is a lacklustre performer that doesn’t do the sensor justice.
It’s a shame because with the right lens mounted the M3 is capable of capturing lots of detail and attractive, vibrant colours.
Once again Canon has implemented the touchscreen well giving users the opportunity to switch between using the screen and using buttons or dials to control the camera and navigate through images. Image quality is also very high.
As mentioned earlier, the lack of a built-in viewfinder is annoying, but the inconsistent performance of the autofocus system is more worrying. Other cameras like the Panasonic GX7, Olympus OM-D E-M10 and Sony Alpha 6000 allow more precise focus point selection and they get the subject sharp more consistently, rarely giving false positives (when the camera thinks the AF system has focused on the target, but it hasn’t).
The M3 has some tough competition and as with the original M, the new camera is capable of producing high quality images that are at least a match for those from cameras such as the Olympus OM-D E-M10 and Sony Alpha 6000. However, the occasionally frustrating autofocus system and Canon’s lack of commitment to the system, with a failure to bring out an enticing line-up of lenses or accessories, means that those looking for a smaller alternative to an SLR are better off looking elsewhere.
Inexperienced photographers are less likely to be concerned about the limited number of directly compatible lenses and will be happy with the step up in image quality in comparison with a point-and-shoot compact camera or the average smartphone. Nevertheless, there will be times when they struggle to get the subject sharp.
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