Canon MILC Cameras: EOS M Series

Canon has been slow to produce viable MILC cameras but their latest range has done a lot for their credibility in leveraging the benefits of this relatively new technology for interchangeable lens cameras. Briefly put, MILC is an abbreviation for Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Camera and essentially it is a DSLR without the optical viewfinder and the mirror that enables you to look directly through the lens (TTL); instead the camera has a LCD viewfinder on the back like most compact cameras these days and so the main differentiation with a lot of P&S or “prosumer” cameras is the ability to change the lens and typically the use of a APS-C sensor (about the same size as lower end DSLRs). The main advantage a MILC has is that it can be made much smaller and lighter than a DSLR because of the space taken up by the mirror in the latter. MILC design is commonly referenced to a Japanese design standard called “Micro Four Thirds”. The design standard for these cameras was revolutionised a few years ago when Sony brought out the first of the NEX series models. It was notable for some years that non-traditional SLR makers like Sony and Panasonic (and Olympus since they exited the DSLR market) were leading the way in MFT camera design and that those manufacturers with a long track record in film and high end DSLRs like Canon were relatively slow to innovate in MFT. Consequently the EOS M, Canon’s first offering in the MFT sphere released in 2012, was a fairly tame offering at a price point that ensured it was not going to undercut the DSLR range. But both the M and the followup M2 model had poor sales, and Canon only redeemed themselves in the marketplace by massively discounting the M to less than half its original price, while the M2 didn’t even make it to some of the major markets. Consequently Canon has had to make a much better effort in its latest round of models and the EOS M3 and M10 (only the former is officially available in Aust/NZ) are much better value for money for those who are looking for something that has the compactness of a high end P&S camera and the performance of a lower end DSLR with pricing to match. The M3 has now been replaced by the M6 model which is due to be released to the marketplace in NZ this month.
Whilst at present for financial reasons I can only dream of supplementing my highest quality compact camera (the middle range Powershot SX260, which is what I use for most of my day to day stuff nowadays when I want to carry a camera in a pocket and don’t want to lug along the bulky EOS 600D), the M3 and especially the M10 are worth serious consideration as alternatives to both. The M3 is available in NZ for around $1000 with a twin-lens kit, while the landed price to privately import a M10 with a single lens would be around $600. However, the current cost of the M3 may well be lower end-of-line pricing as the M6 replacement is closer to the original EOS M being around $1500 with a single lens. The models share the same basic design but have many detail differences. In particular the M10 has a lower sensor resolution (18 vs 24 MP), is made mainly of plastic instead of metal, omits the flash/accessory hot shoe of the M3, weighs a little less and has generally lower shooting performance and capabilities. The M10 also relies more on the touchscreen for changing camera settings as it has fewer physical dials and controls on the camera body compared to the more expensive models. However, the touchscreen still gives access to full PASM shooting modes.
Having the accessory shoe on the M3 enables the use of an external flash as well as an eye level viewfinder (although still electronic) for people that prefer to compose shots in that way. I can appreciate the debate over the ergonomics of LCD vs eye level viewfinders, but for me the LCD screen is definitely the way to go; even with my years of SLR and rangefinder film camera experience, I have grown to prefer the LCD screens on most cameras these days. The only advantage a traditional viewfinder has over a LCD is in low light, and that’s only possible when it is an optical design. These disappeared in compact cameras altogether a few years ago and their inclusion in DSLRs is the main reason for the inclusion of a mirror and the resulting added bulk. One issue with MFT cameras compared to a compact is that the interchangeable lenses are typically much bulkier than those fitted onto a compact; the larger lens is what gives the MFT its greater image quality (as with a DSLR) but understandably it takes up a lot more room. However on the M10, Canon have made the standard lens supplied with it collapsible so it is a lot smaller when the camera is turned off. This lens also has image stabilisation which naturally comes in quite useful, but the lens itself is only a 15-45 mm zoom range in an era where a lot of higher end compacts at a similar price can have a zoom range of as much as 40x (e.g. the Powershot SX720 which effectively replaced the SX260 at a higher price). The M10 does have an adjustable LCD screen rather than a fixed one – it isn’t fully articulating but instead it can be tilted up by 180 degrees so selfies can still be taken (and it does have an automatic selfie mode when the screen is tilted right up). With the inbuilt Wifi connectivity it can download photos automatically to a Android or iOS phone with the apps Canon supplies and can also use these phones to obtain GPS coordinates to tag onto pictures.
Overall although the M10 is somewhat less capable than my EOS 600D in various respects, it would be a useful step up for me from the SX260 albeit at a somewhat bulkier size and with less zoom capability in the lens, although this is somewhat compensated for by the larger sensor size making it more feasible to crop and zoom pictures on the computer when needed. If I bought this camera I probably wouldn’t bother with buying a second lens as these tend to be quite expensive as are most accessories for these cameras. It is notable that Canon continues to resist fitting a Micro USB port to this model as with the majority of its range, sticking with its backward-compatible Mini USB port (that Canon has customised with extra contacts for composite video playback) so we still won’t get a camera that allows for an external battery or in-camera charging. This is among the most annoying features of Canon cameras in that you are limited to the range of batteries and chargers they supply, and pumping up the internal battery with an external USB battery the same way as we all can do with our cellphones these days is simply not possible. All one can do is buy a third party USB adapter for charging a battery externally to the camera using the same Micro USB power sources. This also limits the download options to a computer if I have forgotten to carry the less common Mini USB cable and the computer doesn’t have a SD card slot, although the wifi capability makes up for this. So the main issue here is really the limitation on external power sources and this is really inexcusable in this day and age when it is clear Canon really wants to lock you into their proprietary batteries and chargers. There have been one or two models of Canon that did have a micro USB port and in camera charging via this port but Canon overall does not care for this capability and it is clearly not their intent to offer it to the vast majority of their customers even for a sophisticated alternative compact like the EOS M.
Overall at the price point the EOS M10 is offered at (when purchased through Amazon) it would be a worthwhile step up from the SX260 and probably a better alternative overall than the SX720 or its current equivalent (at a similar price) as a camera with interchangeable lenses and an APS-C sensor is always going to be a better option than a fixed lens compact with a small sensor. But there will inevitably be comparisons made with the Powershot G7x and the like which has a fixed and faster lens and more features but costs over $1000. So my view is that the M10 is quite good value for money if you are focused on bang for the buck and that has to be the way I look at it with my limited budget for camera gear even at the best of times, which in this case probably means next year rather than in 2017.