Canon’s $980 M5 is an intriguing, but unconvincing mirrorless camera


I’ve been using a Sony NEX-5N for half a decade now. This gem of a mirrorless camera has served me well, and once augmented with a Carl Zeiss lens that cost more than its body, it’s kept up with my photography needs admirably. But the 16-megapixel 5N is starting to show its age against fresher and sharper competitors, mostly those from Fujifilm’s ascendant X series, and when I heard that Canon was finally getting serious about mirrorless cameras, my first priority at Photokina was obvious: I had to go try the new EOS M5. If anyone has a chance to pull me away from Sony’s warm embrace, it’s the old guard of Canon and Nikon.

My first impression after a solid half-hour session fiddling with Canon’s latest? I’m intrigued, but unconvinced. Mirrorless cameras are defined by their greater portability than traditional DSLRs, and indeed the M5 compares favorably against Canon’s traditional camera lineup, however I still find it bulky compared to my Sony. Canon makes up for its greater size with a more generous 3.2-inch LCD screen, an electronic viewfinder, and plenty more control dials that my current camera lacks. Like my NEX-5N, Canon’s M5 has a touchscreen that lets me tap to set the desired focus point, but it also adds familiar smartphone gestures like pinching and double-tapping to zoom.

Canon M5 hands-on photos from Photokina 2016

Canon’s control scheme is as fiddly and unintuitive on first use as any other camera manufacturer’s. But once I got to grips with it and figured out how to adjust aperture, ISO, and shutter speed, I felt quite well taken care of by the M5. Returning to the 5N made me feel Sony’s control limitations in a stark way. Canon’s control dials are well positioned and have the right level of resistance to be adjusted precisely. The exposure dial has a touch more resistance, as the expectation is that you’d be toggling it rarely and therefore it’s preferable that it doesn’t accidentally slip into the wrong setting. I can’t quibble with any of it, though I feel like Canon might have been able to accommodate a larger circular cluster at the rear.

The M5 has the build quality and focusing speed to be competitive

The M5’s build quality is impressive, as you might expect given this camera’s price of $979.99 for the body by itself. Everything feels tough and durable, the dials have a coarse tactile appeal that signals long-term durability, and Canon’s lenses seem to extend that quality with smooth operation and universally light weight. A particular highlight for me is the articulating LCD, which is superbly smooth in its extension up and down, and it’s able to flip all the way around for some front-facing photography action. It’s unfortunate that it doesn’t flex out to the side, which is most useful when you have the camera mounted on a tripod.

Completing the set of well engineered features is the M5’s EVF, which is a high-resolution OLED display with the size and responsiveness to make me use it consistently. This is a major differentiator among mirrorless cameras, and fellow Sony users like myself typically have to spend extra on attaching external EVFs and flashes. The Canon M5 isn’t the smallest mirrorless camera, but it comes with its own viewfinder, flash, and panoply of physical controls.

Canon still has plenty of catching up to do

I also liked the M5’s speed of operation. It boots up quickly and, thanks to Canon’s dual-pixel focusing system, finds focus quickly. It obviously beats my Sony shooter, but that’s too easy a comparison given my current camera’s age and lower price. Where the M5 doesn’t immediately wow me is in the quality of its images: I’m simply not seeing enough of an improvement over what I already have to justify the investment. Now, Canon will tell you that the Photokina M5s are all pre-production units, but we’re not that far away from this camera’s November release date, and so the pictures produced by its 24-megapixel sensor aren’t going to be a million miles away from the final product. To be clear: I’m not saying they’re bad, but they’re not shockingly good either.

In summary, I liked a great deal about Canon’s new mirrorless camera. It’s easy to confirm it as the Japanese camera maker’s best effort in this category, but it’s less clear to me how to rank it against the fierce competition already out there. Sony offers the Alpha 6300, an evolved version of my NEX shooter, at the same price as Canon’s M5, while Fujifilm’s X-T10 and X-T1 stand on either side, offering both cheaper and pricier alternatives. The one sure advantage that Sony and Fujifilm hold over Canon is their lens selection. This comparison is usually the other way around, with Canon touting a much better lens selection, but this stalwart company has been slow to join the mirrorless competition, and now it has plenty of catching up to do.

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