Points in Focus Photography

Canon EOS M3 Review

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The EOS M3 is Canon’s 3rd iteration of their mirrorless camera line. While technically, it’s now been supplanted by the newer, EOS M6, it’s still listed on Canon’s site, and it’s still available. And while the EOS M5 and M6 have in some ways eclipsed the M3’s performance, it’s not a bad camera by any means. Moreover, it’s still cheaper than either the M5 or M6, and price is almost always a consideration.

A quick aside about this review. When I started writing this review the EOS M5 and EOS M6 had not yet been released; by the time I was finishing up the first drafts the M5 was on the market. At this point Canon has also released the EOS M6, which effectively supplants the M3.

I had considered seriously revising the review in light of changes to Canon’s product lines, as well as add supplementary testing to it. However, at this point with the product reaching the end of its life cycle and an even further delay rendering anything I might say even less material, I’ve decided to just publish what I have as it stands with only minor adjustments for new cameras and the obsolescence of the M3 as a product.

Who “We” Are

Normally in my reviews, I’m only speaking for my self. I bought the product for me, I’m the one who uses it all the time, and I’m therefore the one who has an opinion. In this case I’m doing things a bit different. The EOS M3 reviewed here is my mom’s, not mine. And as such, I’m integrating a lot of her comments on the camera into this review in addition to mine.

As a result, this means I also have to talk a little about my mom as a photographer. Truthfully she doesn’t like being called that, as she doesn’t see her self as one. However, she does use a camera to take pictures where most people would just use their cellphone and be happy; they don’t do what she wants or offer her the control she wants.

At the same time, she’s not sophisticated when it comes to the technical side of things. She’s not a manual shooter, aperture values still give her fits, and she’ll very much take advantage of all the hand holding a camera can give her. For her the instant feedback of a digital camera was a big boon, and the what-you-see-is-what-you-get feedback of a mirrorless camera is even better.

While I don’t think that she’s necessarily representative of every or even most non-professional buyers, I do think she is much more representative of the kinds of people that Canon is targeting with the EOS M cameras than I am. So in that sense, I think her perspective does add some value to this undertaking.

Context: Canon and Mirrorless Cameras

There are a number of narratives that seem to crop up over and over in online discussions about Canon and mirrorless cameras. Generally, at least in my experience, the most pervasive arguments tend to assume a number of things:

  1. That mirrorless cameras are a requirement.
  2. That they need to be developed now
  3. That they need to be developed to high level now

From those tenants, they then argue that that generally Canon is in a very poor position because they haven’t fully embraced mirrorless.

Broadly speaking I disagree with most, if not all of the points raised for one reason or another.

Unlike Sony and Olympus, Canon has a strong, successful and profitable SLR camera business. That alone means that they didn’t need to jump into a new platform with reckless abandon, and instead can take a much more measured approach. It has been far more important for Canon not to make any major missteps in the platform design, than for them to have done it over night.

The simple reality is that Canon isn’t going to go out of business in a decade if they take their time to develop mirrorless system.

So what’s important in a mirrorless platform?

I would argue that by far it’s the lens mount and its ability to support up to a full frame sensor. My reasoning for this is simple. Lenses are expensive, and if they’re good quality, they will far outlive the camera they’re purchased with. This means changing mounts as you progress to a larger sensor is an expensive proposition. More importantly, forcing users to change out their lenses to move up to a higher tier camera in your platform, say from a crop camera to a full frame camera, creates a situation where those users might as well look at competitor’s cameras too.

Interestingly, I think both Canon and Sony are in strong positions with the design of their mirrorless mounts.

In both cases, the mounts are big enough to support full frame sensors. In Sony’s case, they’ve already demonstrated this. In Canon’s case the mount throat is actually slightly bigger in diameter than Sony’s E-Mount [1].

In theory at least, the large throat diameter of the EF-M mount means that full frame EOS M cameras in the future are not excluded by the design . This is, in my opinion at least, one of the major factors that will dictate whether the EF-M mount can and will have legs in the long run.

If, as I’m asserting, Canon’s approach to the EOS M series is to gradually evolve the camera into a more and more sophisticated product line, then we should expect to see growth in that respect. And that is exactly what’ we’ve seen from Canon since the release of the EOS M a couple of years ago.

Originally released as a single body, the EOS M, the camera end of the line was basically a DLSR sensor grafted into the UI, ergonomics, and capabilities of a mid-range at best PowerShot compact camera.

The EOS M2, released a year after the original EOS M, was a slight technological refinement on the same design. But not something that really progressed the product line up market.

The EOS M3, however, marks a much more significant step forward in the design of the EOS M series as a higher tier cameras. Moreover, the EOS M3, also marks the point where the EOS M line was bifurcated into higher and lower tier branches. The EOS M3 is the higher tier camera, and the EOS M10, became the lower tier camera. And now with the EOS M5 and M6, Canon has continued to press the EOS M further up market.

My point here is that Canon is clearly evolving and progressing their mirrorless cameras. Sure, it’s not nearly as fast as Sony has with theirs, but Sony didn’t have the luxury of having a popular and widely selling SLR line to lean on either. More importantly, I don’t see any major missteps in the fundamentals of the EOS M design that would require Canon replace the EF-M mount in order to continue to push the EOS M line further up market.

So with that said, lets talk about the EOS M3.

EOS M3 Overview

The EOS M3 is the 3rd generation of Canon’s mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera system, and prior to being supplanted by the EOS M5 and it’s direct replacement the M6, the most capable and best preforming iteration to date. Compared to the previous iterations the EOS M3 makes considerable strides towards being a serious camera for serious users, or at least a much more viable camera for a serious photographer.

This stems from the large number of places where the camera’s user interface and ergonomics have been overhauled with an aim to make it more usable. There’s now an optional EVF. Exposure controls that previously required interacting with the touch screen have been made physical dials. Maybe more importantly, the ergonomics of the grip has been completely overhauled to make the camera much more comfortable to hold and use.

EOS M3 and EF-M 22mm f/2 STM lens.

All told the EOS M3 doesn’t really compromise much, if any, of the approachability for novice users, while also increasing its utility and usability for a serious user.

Let me put this another way. Even though my primary camera is an EOS 5D mark IV, I can pick up and use a EOS M3 without feeling like I’m fighting with the camera to do something basic like change the aperture. This wasn’t the case with the original EOS M.

Moreover, moving the EOS M line up market is arguably necessity in many respects. Many pundits are quick to point out how smart phones have decimated the low end camera industry, and are improving their capabilities every year. However, while smartphone cameras may be sufficient for the lowest common denominator users they are not yet, and don’t show any sign of ever becoming, the mainstay tools of serious photographers — be they professionals or amateurs.

Moving the EOS M line up market moves it further away from the eroding low end. Making it an efficient tool for both novice and serious users, means the camera can grow with a developing photographer, as well as being something that a serious user can pick up as a more portable solution to their normal kit. And ultimately, perhaps become a complete solution for some professional users.

Image Quality

When I first started writing this review, Canon hadn’t released the 5D mark IV yet. And while the 1DX mark II and 80D were on the market, I didn’t have any direct experience with them either. As I’m finishing it, I’m now using a 5D mark IV as my standard body with all the major image quality improvements that come with that. In short, that change has certainly colored my perspective on the camera with respect to image quality.

Why am I talking about SLRs, especially full frame professional ones, in a review of an entry level mirrorless camera?

Now, at the time I’m writing this in early 2017, Canon’s cameras are undergoing a major image quality overhaul. Like most changes it’s not something that happens over night. There is a transition period where new products with new tech displace the old ones with the old tech. The 1DX Mark II, 5D mark IV, 80D, EOS M5, and M6 are all new products with the new tech, while the M3 is one of the old products with the old tech.

What is this new tech?

Digital cameras use a bit of hardware called an analog to digital converter (ADC) to change the voltages that are collected in the pixels into a number that can be stored in a digital file. As far as sensors go, there are two approaches to ADCs.

One option is to put the ADCs in a separate chip. This has the advantage of allowing the sensor to be an entirely analog part, and allows the ADCs to be changed out or specified as commodity parts. On the other hand, it also means that there are fewer read channels, and much longer traces between the pixels and the ADCs. The result of those two factors is that noise is much harder to control, and the image quality suffers.

The other option is to integrate the ADCs directly into the sensor itself. This of course makes the sensor more complex, and requires more sophisticated design manufacturing processes. However, it also means there can be many more read channels and the analog traces between the pixel and the ADC are significantly shorter. Once the value is digitized, noise no longer is a concern, and that happens very close to the pixel.

On sensor ADCs are the primary reason why Nikon and Sony have had such a leg up on Canon when it comes to image quality for the last couple of years, at least at low ISOs. They’ve used that technology for a number of years, while Canon has been focusing on other things. However, the field is now being leveled. Starting with the 1DX mark II in early 2016, Canon’s new sensors have use on sensor ADCs. Unsurprisingly, this change has yielded a massive increase in Canon’s image quality.

This of course, puts the older architecture sensors, like the one used in the EOS M3, at an inherent disadvantage. It also colors a lot of my discussion on the topic; especially now that I’m using the new sensor tech on a day to day basis.

Prior to the introduction of the latest generation of Canon sensors, the EOS M3 was by far the cleanest Canon APS-C camera I’d personally seen to date. Even with my point of reference being my full frame EOS 5D mark III, and of course that is a completely unfair comparison, I was more than a little impressed by the M3’s performance.

I don’t go running off to look at numbers, either ones I generate myself or ones form sites like DOXMark, right away anymore. While they are valuable in many ways, the differences in sensor performance between say the EOS M3 and the Sony A6300, isn’t going to make a poorly composed image of bad subject matter good. Nor is the inverse true either. Moreover, regardless of how good Sony’s or Nikon’s sensors may end up being, that doesn’t help me when I’m already invested in Canon’s system given the cost to change.

That said, I do care about the performance of the camera. Not necessarily in absolute terms but in knowing how and what I can expect out of it in use. With respect to this I’ve adopted a standardized test target that I use to dial in settings in Lightroom for sharpening and noise reduction, and my expectations for the camera. I I’ve outlined the process in a previous article.

My initial surprise, was that the images were reasonable just with the poor default settings in Lightroom — no noise reduction, very little sharpening. Interestingly, this was a far cry from my experience with helping a friend get his Nikon D500 dialed in with Lightroom.

Once I started dialing in the settings for noise reduction and sharpening, I found that I was frequently ending up on values very similar to the numbers that I was using on my 5D mark III at the same ISO, and largely the images looked pretty good too. Not as good, mind you, but the performance gap didn’t feel nearly as big as it has in the past when I’ve looked at APS-C cameras.

With that in mind, I hit up DXOMark to see what they were finding in their quantitive testing. With respect to noise at 18% gray, DXOMark put the EOS M3 about a 1–1/3 stops behind the 5D mark III across the board. As far as dynamic range goes, the EOS M3 and 5D mark III have very similar performance curves. The EOS M3 does fall behind at higher ISOs, but at low ISOs they’re very close.

Don’t get me wrong, a APS-C sensor camera just isn’t going to compete with a full frame camera, especially when they aren’t using about the same level of tech. And the M3 does produce lower quality images than my 5D mark III does. However, while the image quality is worse, it’s not so much worse that I wouldn’t want to use the camera — in fact, since this one is my mom’s, I seriously considered buying one for myself too.

The situation is further helped by the resolution. I know this sounds a bit odd, but higher resolution sensors I find, produce more pleasing images even if the pixels are noisier themselves. This is almost entirely due to the smaller pixels causing the noise to become finer in texture.

Comparing the EOS M3 to my older EOS M showed a pretty significant improvement in subjective image quality. Largely this was seen as a combination of less noise, or more pleasing noise, given the increase in resolution.

Objectively, again using DXOMark’s numbers, the M3 sees about a half stop more of dynamic range across the entire ISO range and nearly a stop improvement in noise compared to the EOS M. This is a nice improvement from Canon, especially given the increase in sensor resolution from 18 to 24 MP too.

It’s only when you start putting the M3 up against something like the Sony A6300, or a Sony or Nikon APS-C DSLR that the limitations of the older Canon sensors becomes really apparent. At least in a theoretical on paper sense; content and composition always matters more in practice.

One thing that is interesting to see in the DXOMark numbers is that the EOS M3 has very accurate ISO settings. They measured the rated ISO 100 at ISO 103, as opposed to the 5D mark III — like many other cameras — where the rated ISO 100 measures closer to ISO 80.

So what about all the new sensor architecture stuff?

Well, in the time between when I started writing this review and when I’m wrapping it up, Canon announced the EOS M5 and M6.

The M5, while also being a slightly more serious, or up market, camera than the M3, uses the newest Canon sensor tech which is miles ahead in many respects. From a purely technical perspective, this casts a pretty serious shadow over the M3 in terms of image quality, and to me, by extension the desirability of the camera.

The M6 is the direct successor to the M3, with the same build and form and a much better sensor.

Given the major improvements I’m seeing in image quality with the 5D mark IV over the 5D mark III, as well as the same between the 70D, and 80D. It’s hard, for me at least, to make a strong case for passing up the better, newer, sensors — especially given the other advantages in the M5 and M6.

Then again, the M3 is still cheaper than the M5 and M6, and price still matters a lot for most of us. Plus the sensor isn’t the only aspect of the camera, and things like the display and removable EVF can be important.

File Size

I shoot in raw, and raw files are kind of large; the EOS M3 is a 24 MP 14-bit camera after all. Canon suggests that raw files should be around 30 MB in size, and that the buffer will be limited to 5 frames.

However, Canon’s raw files are losslessly compressed, and compression introduces an element of variability. Images with less noise compress better, and will be smaller files. Images with large areas of uniform color will compress better, and therefore produce smaller files. In practice, file size will vary not only with ISO but with subject matter.

I’ve included the following table of raw file sizes versus ISO from my acclamation process as a point of reference. Remember, this isn’t a hard rule, your images in practice will have different sizes.

ISO Raw File Size (MB [220 bytes])
EOS M3 5D Mark III 5D Mark III scaled (1.076x) 5D Mark IV 5D Mark IV scaled (0.8x)
100 29.19 24.73 26.61 32.60 26.08
200 30.21 25.27 27.19 33.28 26.62
400 31.64 26.06 28.19 34.28 27.42
800 33.44 27.07 29.13 35.36 28.29
1600 35.55 28.04 30.17 37.37 29.90
3200 38.10 30.11 32.40 39.67 31.74
6400 41.07 32.49 34.96 42.24 33.79
12,800 44.86 35.04 37.70 45.66 36.53
25,600 48.21 37.98 40.87 49.49 39.59

Since compression is related to noise and therefor image quality, and since I was doing the math, I threw in the actual and scaled values of the results from my 5D mark III and 5D mark IV. The scaled value is an attempt to adjust for the differences in resolution between the two cameras.

Sadly I don’t have equivalent data for the EOS M that is directly comparable.

The impact of noise can be clearly seen at high ISOs where the 24 MP image from the M3 consumes almost as much space as the 30 MP image from the 5D mark IV.

I want to underscore though, that while the file size can offer a get a glimpse at relative compression efficiency and therefore image noise, it cannot be used to predict the actual difference. One important thing to realize here is that while all of those numbers came from my camera acclimation target, the compositions are not identical, nor were they shot with the same lenses, and therefore the resulting images are not identical.

AF Performance

The original EOS M suffered from poor AF performance. It was both slow, and suffered from the in ability to achieve focus under many conditions — for example, my EOS M would have trouble focusing on the edge of a cloud against a blue sky. Even after the firmware update, the speed was better but the overall system was still generally poor. The M2 reportedly went some way to improve things, but it wasn’t released in the US so I have no first hand experience with it.

The EOS M3 is a dramatic improvement over the EOS M in the AF department across the board.

The sensor in the M3 doesn’t use Canon’s latest Dual Pixel sensor architecture, it still uses embedded phase detection AF points. However, even with that limitation, the coverage area is good and the performance, both speed and the ability to deal with difficult subjects, is much improved.

My example of a typical failure case with the EOS M, a cloud in the sky, is no longer generally a failure. It’s only under the lowest contrast conditions in poor light where I’ve seen the M3 fail to lock on to a cloud’s edge. Nor does the M3 have odd issues where it can’t focus on a contrasty edge in one orientation (say horizontal), but rotating the camera allows the focus system to focus on the same edge.

To put it flatly, I’ve never felt that I was hurting on AF performance, either speed or acquisition ability, when using the M3. However, at the same time other limitations mean it’s not a camera I would, or have, used to shoot sports, action, or birds in flight either.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a great battery of tests for qualitatively determined AF performance; either in terms of speed or accuracy. Part of the reason for that is that the actual performance depends on a number of external factors, including the lens itself and the brightness and contrast of the scene being focused.

Qualitatively, the M3 to me feels pretty snappy with the lenses I’ve used on it — right now this includes the EF-M 22mm f/2 STM, EF 24–70mm f/2.8L USM, and EF 16–35mm f/4L IS USM.

Buffer and Frame Rate

There are many things that the EOS M3 can be, but a sports or action camera is not one of them.

So long as the camera doesn’t have to auto focus, it’s capable of a reported 4.2 frames per second in continuous drive mode.

Beyond that, continuous shooting is further hampered by the lack of raw buffer.

I can’t say I fault Canon entirely, with a 24MP sensor turning out between 30 MB and 45 MB of data after compression, a larger raw buffer would require considerable internal buffer memory or much faster SD card performance — i.e. UHS-II which wasn’t widely available when the EOS M3 was in development.

At the full 4.2 FPS drive rate, the buffer will last raw users just over 1 second of continuous shooting (1.19 s).

In JPEG mode the situation is considerably better, at least with respect to buffer size. In JPEG mode, regardless of size (s3, s2, s1, m, or l) or quality (fine or normal), the M3 can shoot 1000 frames in continuous drive mode. This equates to 238 or so seconds of continuous shooting at 4.2 FPS.

The bigger impediment to using the camera for action is servo focusing. While the camera can hit 4.5 FPS with the focus locked, once you turn on servo focus the frame rate drops like a proverbial brick. My testing put the frame rate barely over 1 FPS with servo focus on.

On one hand, I understand the limitations that go into camera design, so I can appreciate that what amounts to a lowish tier mirrorless camera is going to be limited. Small raw buffers are pretty standard for their low tier SLRs. Even the newest and highest tier Rebel, the T6s, only has a 7 frame buffer when shooting raws. Incidentally, at that cameras 5 FPS shooting speed, works out to be 1.4 seconds of shooting; not much more than the 1.2 seconds the M3 gets. The simple reality is that raw files are big, and there’s no easy or free way to deal with them.

On the other, I feel like maybe Canon could have done better. Then again, as a US buyer, with Canon’s delayed launch I’m looking at the camera as a new release almost a year after it was actually released to the world, and that certainly can skew my perspective.

The bigger question is whether the raw buffer is a real limitation.

Personally, I’ve never found it to be a limiting factor, simply because the frame rate while focusing is such an impediment to continuous shooting that it excludes the kinds of shooting that demand big buffers.

User Interface

Since its introduction Canon has positioned the EOS M cameras towards the entry level end of the market. The manuals, the UI, pretty much everything user interface related in the camera carries a strong resemblance to the PowerShot line not the EOSes.

That’s not to say that the EOS M cameras couldn’t be used by serious photographers, but the weren’t well optimized for it.

The EOS M3 changes this situation considerably, making the camera much more friendly for serious users without eschewing the things that make it easy to pick up for more novice users.

That said, Canon has made a number of decisions that I find somewhat confusing with respect to the camera’s UI. Moreover, I find them confusing largely because they don’t seem to cater to either entry end of the user spectrum.

One prime example of my confusion is the My Menu. Canon introduced this customizable menu page back in the EOS 40D. The intent was to give users a place to put their 6 most used menu entries on a page that they could quickly access.

On a high end camera, like say my 5D mark III, I can choose from any menu entry including custom functions to put on my My Menu page.

On the EOS M3, Canon has chosen to arbitrarily exclude some options from being available to the My Menu. For example, Format Card cannot be added to the M3’s My Menu. Meaning to format a card in the M3, I have to navigate to the Setup 1 menu and select it from there.

Canon’s UIs have historically hidden functionality that doesn’t make sense or could confuse users in the current mode. For example, most of the advanced camera settings are hidden when the camera is set to one of the auto modes; or on some cameras, video related settings are only accessible when the camera is in video mode.

On one hand, it could be argued that this is a move to protect inexperienced users. On the other hand, it’s a bit odd given that the M3 is a perfectly serviceable camera for pretty much all tiers of users. I just don’t see who it helps; novice users can still format cards by going to another menu (and there’s a confirmation step in the process anyway), and serious users aren’t going to accidentally format a card because there’s a format card entry in an easily accessible menu.

Menus

Aside from the odd ball limitations placed on the My Menu the rest of the meaning system is pretty standard for Canon’s 2015–2016 cameras.

Options are agonized into sections:
* Shooting (red camera icon)
* Playback (blue play icon)
* Setup (orange wrench)
* My Menu (green star icon)

Each section contains multiple “pages” of up to 7 settings each.

Canon tries to insure that similar settings are grouped together on the same pages. However, organization certainly is one of those things where everyone may not see everything the same. That said, this is a good use of the My Menu to put things you commonly use together in the same place.

Moreover, while the default configuration or the menu system is to return to the last page you were on (i.e. pressing menu takes you to the same place you were). When you’ve added items to the My Menu, you can configure the camera to take you directly to the My Menu when you push the menu button.

Physical Dials

In my opinion, the physical interface was the biggest impediment in the first generation of EOS M cameras. Most common shooting adjustments required multiple button presses or touch screen interaction to switch between and adjust.

The good news with the EOS M3 is that the new physical interface almost completely eliminates the problems that I had with the first two EOS M cameras.

To start with, the shooting modes have been consolidated into a single physical dial. This is, in my opinion at least, a lot more discoverable and usable than the EOS M’s use of a 3 position sort-of mode dial and a virtual setting of the actual mode.

Now there’s just a single mode dial that functions like the mode dial on any of Canon’s other DSLRs. Advanced shooting modes like aperture and shutter priority, and manual no longer require you to dig through virtual settings to enable.

Second to the mode dial, though arguably more important in terms of use, is the inclusion of a front control dial wrapped around the shutter release — where the sort-of mode dial was on the EOS M. This dial serves the same purpose as the front dial on Canon’s DSLR cameras; acting as the primary means of controlling the shutter speed, aperture, and program line in the advanced shooting modes.

In addition to the front control dial, Canon also elevated exposure compensation to its own dial on the top of the camera.

It’s the combination of the front control dial and the dedicated exposure compensation dial are what makes the EOS M3 so usable for serious photographers.

On the EOS M, adjusting something like the aperture or exposure compensation required either touching the touch screen, or interacting with the somewhat awkwardly placed command dial. Even then, it also required a button press to switch between say the aperture setting and the exposure compensation.

On the EOS M3, it’s no longer necessary to adjust one’s grip to make those adjustments. The aperture (or shutter speed, or program line depending on the mode) is on a dial right under your index finger around the shutter release, and exposure compensation is on a dial that falls right under your thumb on the rear grip.

When shooting in manual mode, the camera makes use of both the new front dial, as well as the rear dial around the multi-controller for shutter speed and aperture respectively. Even here, Canon does allow the shutter/aperture controls to be reversed through the customization system; yet another feature that use to only be found on high end EOS bodies.

Other Physical Controls

In addition to the move to more physical dials, Canon also reorganized the function of the other physical buttons on the camera to be more inline with the things a photographer may need or want to change when shooting.

The EOS M series has always had a limited number of dedicated buttons. However, Canon makes up for this in a way by using the directional positions of the multi-controller dial on the rear of the camera.

On the original EOS M, these controls were drive mode (up), erase image(down and only usable in playback mode), AF/Ae lock (left), and aperture/exposure compensation selection (right). While all of these are useful, given the extremely limited real-estate on the EOS M, some of these choices are quite questionable. Drive mode, is not something that gets changed nearly as frequently as say ISO — and combine that with the continuous performance of the M3, well you’re going to change it even less often. And the delete image options was unavailable in shooting mode and there was no function you could put there instead.

On the EOS M3, these are now; ISO (up), erase image/programmable action (down), manual focus toggle (left), and flash exposure compensation (right).

Just on the default grounds these options are much more reasonable. ISO is something that gets changed a lot, at least a lot more than drive mode does. The delete image button is now programmable so it can be used in shooting — though the options are limited. The only really questionable button to me is the dedicated manual focus switch, but even that is not that egregious and can actually be useful.

In addition to the 4 directions on the control pad, the movie record button and new M-Fn button (on the top plate of the camera near the shutter release) can also be programmed with custom shooting related settings. For example, we’ve set our M-Fn button to do depth of field preview.

The broad picture is that by elevating controls from virtual things on the touch screen to physical buttons and dials, Canon has made the EOS M3 much more usable for a serious photographer. Moreover, you don’t need to take off gloves, or have special capacitive finger gloves to do basic adjustments while shooting anymore.

Display

The big improvement Canon made to the display on the EOS M3 was to make it articulate. It can be flipped up 180° up so that it points forward, or 45° down so the camera can be used overhead and see clearly.

Canon’s choice here works quite well as far as articulated displays go. Flipping up over the camera to reverse means that the display can still be used while the camera is on a tripod since the display is not blocked by the tripod head. This makes it quite reasonable to record video of yourself using the M3 either selfie style at arm’s length or by putting it on a tripod.

This is a feature that Canon broke on the EOS M5, by making the display’s 180° rotation position be below the camera not above it. Though the M6 reverts to the same style as the M3.

That said there are a couple of catches with the articulated display. First, you can’t rotate it 180° with the EVF in place. The EVF blocks it and it doesn’t go all the way around.

Secondly, and maybe more importantly, the whole articulation structure feels a bit flimsy to me. Ours hasn’t broke, but it breaking is certainly a lingering concern. When the screen is fully stored, it seems good enough, but articulated I would definitely be careful with it.

Battery Life and Power

I’ve complained for almost as long as I’ve been a Canon shooter about the way Canon has approached batteries. There have been some positive points, the EOS 1 series has had upgraded yet still compatible batteries for almost a decade now, and many of the high end bodies have had the same since 2012 or so. However, this is not one of those situations.

To keep up, presumably with the power demands of the newer camera, the EOS M3 uses a different battery than the M and M2 did in the past. The M3 shares its battery with the EOS 750D/760D (Rebel T6i/T6s), and unfortunately it’s incompatible with the old design.

The only positive note is that the battery has 20% more power than the battery in its predecessor.

Battery Capacity Dimensions
Voltage mAh Wh Length (mm) Width (mm) Height (mm) Weight (g)
LP-E17 7.2 V 1040 7.5 49.4 22 14 45 g
LP-E12 7.2 V 875 6.2 48.5 32.5 12.5 35 g

Runtime, or frames per charge, is something that’s very much depends on how you use the camera and what settings are in play.

On my first time out, with a fully charged battery I got something like 10 or 12 minutes of video and a couple dozen pictures before I was out of juice. However, a lot of that shooting involved the rear LCD instead of the EVF, and all the video was shot with an image stabilized EF-M 18–55mm f/3.5–5.6 IS STM lens with the IS running.

Since that run, I’ve spent a lot more time using only the EFV, and the battery life has been considerably better.

Unfortunately, unlike my 5Des, the EOS M3 doesn’t have a mechanism to log how many shots have been taken on the battery so far, or see the usage in percentages as opposed to just bars. This of course makes it somewhat more difficult to get accurate data regarding battery usage.

Canon claims, under the CIPA testing procedures[2], that the camera is good for 250 still images or 1 hour and 40 min of video recording. Even then, the CIPA testing standard leaves a lot of room open to variation.

In further practical testing, a 2 week road trip, the battery life has proven to be pretty disappointing overall. My mom would often go through most of 2 fully charged (~15Wh) of battery daily while using the EOS M3. This was for a trip overall where she shot slightly less than 2000 frames and some 30–40 minutes of video over 10 or 12 days. Compared to my 5D mark IV, which did the whole trip (~3000 frames, 20 minute of video, and daily GPS logging for 8+ hours) on 4 batteries or less than 50 Wh total.

In fact, the power situation with the EOS M3 was bad enough that she’s decided that a minimum of 4 batteries are needed going forward.

When push comes to shove, the battery situation in the M3 — and really most if not all mirrorless cameras — is a problem. I think some of the problem stems simply from the trend to make mirrorless cameras small, and as a result they have to use small batteries which leave them in a bind.

I’ve seen attempts to argue that this isn’t really the case. The thrust of the arguments boil down to the idea that mirrorless cameras are different than DSLRs, and have to be treated that way; namely you need to turn them off when you’re not using them to get good battery life.

The problem I have with this is largely two fold. First, demanding that the users manage the power manually to get a reasonable amount of shooting done isn’t good design. Users won’t, and shouldn’t have to, manage their camera’s power like that. This is doubly problematic for SLR users, who are accustom to just being able to let their camera go to sleep on its own and get extremely good performance.

Moreover, manually managing the power also means manually turning the camera on when you go to shoot something. In situations where something unexpected happens, having to find and press the power button instead of just the shutter release delays your ability to shoot. This is compounded in the EOS M3 with it’s relatively slow start up times at around 2.5 seconds [3]. Couple this with the added delay of having to feel for, find, and hit the power button instead of just going to the shutter release made the entire situation even slower.

In fact, manually turning the camera off was the best way we found to extend the battery life of the M3 when we were using it on our Southwest road trip. And the need to hit the power button and wait for it to start up was a constant source of frustration when a quick candid shot would present itself.

Suffice to say I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect users to keep turning their cameras off to preserve battery life. It certainly harmed our ability to capture spontaneous images that otherwise were well within the performance capabilities of the EOS M3.

This isn’t to say that the EOS M3 is useless because of the battery life, but it does mean you need more charged batteries at your disposal and you have to be more aware of the camera’s power state.

Eco Mode

One power saving option I do want to call out specifically is the Eco Mode. Eco Mode is advertised as being an even more aggressive power saving mode than the regular options. In theory this is a good thing, as the battery life is already pretty mediocre. However, in practice we found this to be more of a problem than it was worth.

One of the apparently power saving mechanisms of Eco Mode is aggressively dimming the brightness of the display — be it the main LCD or the EVF. The timeout for dimming the display is very short, and in many cases we found that it made actually using the camera and changing shooting settings difficult. If you aren’t intimately familiar with the setting you’re looking for and the menu page it’s on, we would often find that the display would go to dim to see while we were scanning the menu for the option we wanted to change. In bright daylight, the dim LCD was nearly impossible to read, which meant touching a control to “wake” the display up again.

In short, while Eco Mode may provide increased battery life, but its most obvious trade offs are display brightness and the display quickly dimming. This may not be a problem for some users, but it quickly became an annoying issue for us, forcing us to turn off Eco mode.

Video

Video has become a significant part of digital cameras pretty much across the board, and it’s certainly part of the EOS M3. Capabilities are pretty standard for a lower tier camera. Video files are saved as 4:2:0 chroma subsampled 8-bit h.264 files at relatively low bitrates. This makes the resulting files reasonably small, which is good for consumers, but not great for serious video shooters.

Available video formats are 1080p at 29.97 and 23.98 FPS in NTSC mode and 25 FPS in PAL mode; 720p at 59.94 FPS in NTSC mode or 50 FPS in PAL mode; and 640×480 at 29.97 FPS in NTSC or 25 FPS in PAL.

Mode Resolution Frame Rates Bit Rate (est.)
NTSC PAL Mbits/s (Mb/s) Mbytes/min (MB/s)
FullHD 1080p (1920×1080) 29.97, 23.98 25 ~25 172.6
HD 720p (1280×720) 59.94 50 ~16 115.4
VGA 480p (640×480) 29.97 25 ~3 22.4

I’ve seen a number of comments in various reviews around the internet that the bitrates for video are too low. Honestly, I don’t really see the problem. While Canon’s higher end cameras like the 5D mark IV and 1DX mark II do offer higher bitrates, they also offer a 30 Mb/s mode as well.

The question, at least in my mind isn’t how high the bit rates are, but are they high enough for the intended uses?

My answer to that, for me at least, is an unequivocal yes.

The EOS M3 simply isn’t intended to be a professional video camera. While Canon certainly could have offered higher bitrates, or all intra-frame compression, or 4:2:2 chroma subsampling, the resulting changes would have produced much bigger files and strained the already limited battery capacity and card write bandwidth.

Ultimately I think Canon’s configuration that strikes a good balance between size, quality, and flexibility. At 30 Mb/s, there’s enough bit rate available that I haven’t run into noticeable compression artifacts from exhausting the available bitrate, and the files are still small enough to be manageable. That’s not to say you couldn’t run into problem, just that I haven’t.

Video Servo AF

Broadly speaking, there are two ways to approach focusing when it comes to shooting video. One is to do everything manually. This is very much the ideal way to do things as the camera does go off trying to focus on stuff when you don’t want it to. The other option is to use some kind of autofocus implementation.

While manual focus can produce better quality results, it does have a huge list of drawbacks. None the least of which is that you have to actually be behind the camera operating the focus. This makes doing a single person “vlog” style recording quite challenging — I won’t say near impossible, but you are very much limited in what you can do.

Quite simply, while I generally use manual focus when shooting video, I really do appreciate video and especially video servo AF being available.

Moreover, since the EOS M3 does face detection, the video servo AF routines can lock on and track a face in the scene even when the person is moving around.

Probably the only real downside of the video servo AF in the EOS M3 is that there are no adjustments for it. You can’t control the sensitivity or focus adjustment rate.

That said, in practice, I find that servo AF is reasonably good. However, it’s definitely not perfect.

For example, on a recent road trip, while shooting through a bug splattered windshield, there were occasions where the camera decided to refocus temporarily on the windshield instead of remaining focused on the landscape. Admittedly, this is also an example of a situation where turning off servo AF, or the AF system as a whole, would have been a smart move.

Audio

I know it’s probably heretical to many to say anything about the built in microphone and it’s recording capabilities. Across the board, they’re all not very good. And across the board the advice is always to get a better mic and use that.

The good news on this matter is actually two fold. First, the EOS M3’s built in mics aren’t unusually bad — at least so far as I can tell. They’re good enough to record scratch audio. Actually they’re good enough to record “family holiday video” level audio as well. Mind you, you’re never going to get professional quality audio out of this camera, but then you’re not going to get professional quality video out of it either so it seems pointless to try to hold it to that standard.

The second part of the good news is that there is a 3.5mm TRS jack for an external microphone. So if you have one of the myriad of mini-on camera mics (such as the Rode Video Mic Pro, or a Rode SmartLav+ with the TRS adapter) you can get much better quality sound than the built in mic will deliver.

Wireless Connectivity: Wi-Fi and NFC

Wireless connectivity is increasingly finding its way into more and more cameras. Some might even argue that the ability to easily move images from the camera to a phone or tablet are essential in the entry level market. I’m not sure I’d go that far. However, built in native connectivity certainly can be a useful feature: if it’s implemented well.

The EOS M3 supports two forms of wireless connectivity: Wi-Fi, and NFC (near field communication).

I’ll start briefly with NFC, since I have exactly 0 experience with it. NFC is a very short range wireless protocol that’s most frequently used to connect devices with cellphones. An example of this is Apple Pay: the phone talks to the register via NFC when you wave it over the little pad. Unfortunately, Apple’s phones only support NFC communication via Apple pay, and since I have an iPhone, it means I can’t use NFC any other way. Many higher end Android phones do support NFC interactions with devices.

The only operations the EOS M3 supports over NFC is transferring images from the camera to your phone.

In any event, while NFC can be useful, I want to talk about Wi-Fi because Wi-Fi offers a lot more in the way of capabilities.

Let me start with the technical side of things. The EOS M3 supports 802.11b, g, and n protocols operating in the 2.4 GHz band. The EOS M3 further supports operating in three different modes:

  • As a client on an existing Wi-Fi network (such as your home or office WLAN)
  • As an access point for its own network
  • As a member of an Ad Hoc Wi-Fi network

Typically you’ll use the first mode when you’re in your home, office, or studio. I wouldn’t recommend using it in places like a hotel or other public network for security reasons, but you can if you want to.

The second mode, allows you to use the camera to create your own private network that you can then connect to from your phone or tablet. This has the advantage of enabling you to use to the remote control capabilities anywhere in the world, without having to depend on other hardware or another host network.

As far as Wi-Fi security goes, Canon covers all the bases there. The camera supports all three consumer level wireless security protocols: WPA2-PSK, WPA-PSK, and WEP. Additionally both TKIP and AES encryption algorithms are supported for WPA2-PSK. While WPA-PSK and WEP are no longer considered secure, and shouldn’t be used, having them included for compatibility reasons is at least useful.

The technical details are solid. The 2.4 GHz band is the most widely used Wi-Fi frequency range, and the whole range of Wi-Fi standards and security protocols are supported.

Where I think things get a little more dicy is when you get to the available functionality and some of the user interface decisions.

Let me start with the supported functionality. The M3 supports 5, what for the lack of a better word, modes over Wi-Fi, these are:

  • Pair with a smartphone or tablet (transfer images or remote control)
  • Transfer images to another Canon camera
  • Display images on a DLNA compatible media player
  • Print images over Wi-Fi
  • Connect to Canon’s Image Gateway (send images online or to a PC)

There’s nothing wrong, per-say with these modes. And the camera does support remote control (with a live view) using a smart phone or tablet. However, there’s clearly a design pattern here that is strongly influenced by the idea that Wi-Fi is only really for uploading images to online providers or printing without having to have a computer and not say remotely operating the camera or shooting “tethered” to a computer.

For example, while you can remote control the camera using Canon’s app on a smartphone or tablet, you can’t use Canon’s EOS Utility on a PC or Mac to do the same thing.

Accessing the Wi-Fi system on the EOS M3 is also, in my opinion, a bit confusing. Canon has chosen to have what amounts to two separate Wi-Fi menu areas. First, there is a menu entry with an entire page of options in the Set Up 4 menu. However, this is only used for settings related to the Wi-Fi and NFC system: not to establish and configure connections. Second is the Wi-Fi menu: where you actually establish and activate connections to smartphones, printers, and so forth.

The thing I find most confusing about all of this is that to access the Wi-Fi menu you have to first put the camera in playback mode. Then you can press up on the multi-controller to access the Wi-Fi Menu (blue radio antenna icon).

This is in contrast to a camera like my 5D mark IV, where all of the Wi-Fi settings are accessed in one place through the settings menu: there is no separate Wi-Fi menu. Personally, I think it makes a lot more sense to have all the settings in one place in the menus. I can appreciate Canon’s desire to make accessing Wi-Fi easier when reviewing images, but the two separate places just is confusing to me.

I can’t comment a tremendous amount on the ins and outs of most of the various Wi-Fi transfer modes. Of the five, I’ve only used the smartphone/tablet mode that allows remote shooting and image transfer.

One thing that did seem work pretty well is the whole process of pairing the camera to a smartphone or tablet. About the only complicated part of the process is choosing what network you want to connect to or if you want to host your own network. Beyond that, I found the process to be relatively painless.

Moreover, the camera stores past configurations. You can have your office network, and a standalone network for use in the field both saved. Then it’s just a matter of hitting the right network icon on the saved devices page in the Wi-Fi menu.

All told, I think there’s a lot of room for Canon to improve the Wi-Fi system on the EOS M3. I would really like the ability to connect to the camera from a computer using the same EOS Utility software I use for my 5D mark IV. Likewise, I would really like to see Canon move away from using their own Image Gateway service to facilitate uploading to the web and to a desktop. I personally don’t like dependancies on proprietary services like that. Instead, I’d much rather see Canon publish a published protocol that uses industry standard mechanisms that any company, or competent programmer hobbies programmer, can implement.

The one question I can’t really answer in the end is how much value and use the Wi-Fi functionality adds to the EOS M3. When I was testing the camera, I didn’t really have a use for it. And it’s not like I don’t use Wi-Fi to tether and control a camera. In fact, I do that far more than I had ever expected with my 5D mark IV. But the implementation on the M3 is designed in such a way that I can’t connect the camera to my computer — the one device I want to. Moreover, the one mode where I would want to use remote control, movie mode, Wi-Fi control isn’t supported.

Likewise, my mom doesn’t use the Wi-Fi capabilities either. Her picture editing and viewing also doesn’t revolve around a tablet or smartphone, and since she can’t connect the M3 to her computer to download images, the Wi-Fi functionality goes entirely unused by her. Nor is it very useful for downloading large amounts images either, where a USB3 card reader is much faster than an urban 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi network.

EVF (EVF-DC1)

Where to begin?

The EVF-DC1 as the section heading implies is an optional add-on. Moreover, at $200 it’s a very expensive optional add-on. On the other hand, if you’re serious about photography, it’s not very optional at all.

The EVF-DC1 originally shipped as an accessory for the PowerShot G1X Mark II, both the later PowerShot G3X, and obvious the EOS M3 support it as an add-on.

The EVF-DC1 connects to the camera via a proprietary connector in the front of the hotshoe. Using the EVF does preclude being able to use an external flash with the camera, but it doesn’t black the built in pop up flash.

On the whole, the EVF is quite good, though for $200 add-on it really ought to be. It uses an XGA (1024×768) resolution screen that Canon advertises as 2.3 million dots (counting each of the RGB sub pixels). This compares quite favorably to the 1.04 million dot 3-inch screen on the camera.

Resolution in an EVF is quite important. If the resolution is too low, the magnification from the optics will make the lines of the LCD array visible — so called the screen door effect. In the case of the EVF-DC1, I have not seen this issues. The combination of resolution and magnification results in an image that appears smooth to my eye.

On the other hand, color accuracy is a much harder issue to discuss. I don’t have any calibration hardware I can put on the EVF, which means, I can’t make any kind of quantitive measurements. Subjectively, I can’t say I’ve ever noticed any color casts though. However, the eye and brain are especially poor instruments for this kind of measurement.

Suffice to say, it’s the ability to add an EVF that I think really elevates the EOS M3 to a camera that serious users can.

Conclusions

To be perfectly honest, I’m really torn on the EOS M3. There are so many variables that I really don’t have a good answer to any of the obvious questions.

On purely technical points with respect to image quality, the M3 lags behind the competition and it’s newer M5 and the new M6 successor. But image quality alone is just not a great metric for a camera as a whole.

Unlike the newer M5, the M3’s display articulates by flipping over the top of the camera instead of under it. In practice, this means you can’t use the M5’s screen revered when shooting on a tripod — like you’d need/want to if you were recording video of yourself. In some ays this makes the M3 much more useful for shooting video.

Likewise, the M3’s EVF is optional and detachable. When space is tight, and if you don’t need it, you can leave it at a home.

In my opinion, the biggest impediment to the EOS M series as a whole, still remains Canon’s lens selection. Though admittedly, I’m coming at this from a different angle than most people probably would. Moreover, Canon does cover most needs from ultra wide (EF-M 11–22 mm f/4–5.6 IS STM) to telephoto (EF-M 55–200 mm f/4.5–6.3 IS STM) to general purpose (EF-M 18–55 mm f/3.5–5.6 IS STM, EF-M 15–45 mm f/3.5–6.3 IS STM) to one size fits all super zooms (EF-M 18–150 mm f/3.5–6.3 IS STM).

And don’t get me wrong, all of the EF-M zooms aren’t bad lenses. Beyond that they’re arguably good fits for most starter users. However, I don’t really see the EOS M3 as just a camera for beginners. It has all the controls and capabilities of being a backup/side/fun camera for advanced users as well. And that’s where the lens situation really hurts it, in my opinion. There’s only one fast prime, the EF-M 22 mm f/2 STM, and there really ought to be some more — though that certainly doesn’t mean that more won’t be coming in the future.

To me, the EOS M3 really elevated the EOS M line from being cameras that I think was struggling to figure out what it needed to be, to a camera that can be tools of anyone from a novice to a pro. However, with limited options for glass, especially fast primes, regardless of how good the camera might otherwise be it’s still hamstrung compared to the alternatives from Fuji and Sony.

Yes, Canon is making the right kinds of progress with their EOS M cameras, and they’re clearly playing the long game not the short game at that. Moreover, I’d rather have an EOS M3 with it’s big sensor and interchangeable lenses than any of the PowerShot G series cameras — even the PowerShot G1X mark II. But with that said, on the merits of the system as a whole, I do struggle to make any kind of recommendation; either for or against.

The EOS M3 doesn’t suck. And while that may be damning the camera with feint praise, it’s the most fair assessment I can give of it. It’s not class leading in any area, but it gets the job done. The lens selection isn’t great, but it’s getting better. The ergonomics and UI make the camera far more usable than it’s predecessors; at the same time the details that I think make the camera’s interface good, are very much subjective as well.

Long story short, with the EOS M3 Canon real does have a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera that isn’t an expensive toy, but an actual tool. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s a good thing.


  1. 47 mm diameter for the EF-M mount, versus 46.1 mm for the Sony E-mount  ↩
  2. The CIPA camera battery testing procedure works roughly like this. An image is taken every 30 seconds, with the screen on. Half the images are made with the flash firing, and half are made without the flash. After 10 images, the camera is turned off for some unspecified period of time. A copy of the standard can be found here: http://www.cipa.jp/std/documents/e/DC–002_e.pdf  ↩
  3. Imaging Resources measured the startup time at 2.4 seconds, which is on par with my observastions.  ↩

Comments

F. Magaloni

Nice review on my “little Canon”. I got one in 2015 for my 25th anniversary trip to Italy. I was there on vacation, not to shoot photographs.

I was able to use my EF lenses with the beefy Canon adapter. What finally sold me on the M3 was the dual wheel adjustments akin to a Canon DSLR and that brilliant tiny thumb grip. I shot almost all still shots with 2 batteries that were topped-off nightly.

It’s Achilles’ heel is the noise at high ISO in low contrast situations. The camera was on my neck the whole time. Some of my favorite quick snapshots were from passenger side bursts, single-handed, with the ISO high enough to freeze landscape images very quickly from a moving car.

It’s well made. All controls make confident clicks. The all manual mode is very intuitive among its crucial adjustments. It’s a keeper. It’s now, in 2019, an inexpensive find. If you see one, buy it!

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