Hands-on: It feels like Canon shrunk the DSLR with its M5

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The Canon EOS M5 mirrorless camera feels like a very small DSLR(Credit: Simon Crisp/New Atlas)

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It's safe to say Canon's M series of mirrorless cameras has not been a runaway success. Aimed predominantly at the entry-level end of the market, they've not appealed to enthusiasts and current DSLR shooters. On paper it looks like that could change with the upcoming EOS M5, so we were eager to get our hands on one at Photokina, read on to see how we got on with it.

When we first saw the M5 in person (rather than in the advertising shots) were taken aback by just how small it is. Yes, there are even smaller mirrorless cameras out there – some with the same APS-C size sensor – but because this has more traditional DSLR-like styling and familiar physical controls, it appears tiny.

Coming from using a full-frame DSLR we were worried the M5 could feel cramped, in the way some mirrorless offerings from Olympus or Panasonic can when you first transition from a bigger camera. However, the generous hand grip helped in this regard and the camera was comfortable to hold and use. Too many cameras have been put on a skinny diet and end up looking great, but don't have anything to hold on to.

This shrunken DSLR-like mirrorless camera is also a lot lighter than devices it's said to be comparable to. Canon keeps harping on about the claim that the M5 is most comparable to the EOS 80D, an incredibly competent, but much bigger camera. And, flicking through the menus and spending a few minutes shooting with it, albeit within the confines of a trade show hall, we can believe that claim to be mostly true.

Canon has done a great job of bringing enthusiast-level controls to a small camera. It's arguably achieved it better here than on some of its small DSLRs, which can leave you menu-diving to change key settings. There are plenty of customizable buttons, allowing you to assign dedicated buttons to frequently used settings. We particularly liked the Dial Function button which can provide quick access to key shooting controls like ISO, white balance, AF modes, and drive modes.

Electronic viewfinder technology has also now come on enough that it's not the massive drawback compared to an optical viewfinder that it once was. The display is big and bright (OLED with 2,360,000 dots for those keeping score) and suffers very little lag. While it's not quite up there with EVF like those on high-end Fujifilm cameras like the X-T2, it doesn't feel like a big compromise.

In addition to the EVF, there's a 3.2-inch LCD touchscreen, which tilts 85-degrees up and 180-degrees down. For selfie shooting, we would personally have preferred a screen which flips up rather than down (it tends to get in the way or can't be seen if using a tripod) but we guess the EVF which protrudes slightly from the camera nixed that.

The screen can be used for navigating menus and touchscreen shooting in the way you would expect, but there's also the option to use it alongside the EVF, where it can be used to select your focus point. For fellow Cyrano de Bergeracs like us who have larger noses which would constantly be touching the screen, you can even limit the touchscreen activation to areas your nose isn't going to come into contact with.

On the inside, the M5 has inherited a lot of goodies from new Canon DSLRs, such as its 24-megapixel APS-C sensor, but the biggest upgrade compared to previous M cameras has got to be the addition of Dual Pixel Focus. In our tests, this does a good job of nailing focus fast and accurately, leaving older M models in the dust. Though it would have been nice if there were more focus customization options like those in high-end Canon DSLRs.

The less than ideal lighting conditions of the Photokina halls, were actually rather helpful when it came to testing the low light and high ISO performance of the M5. Any modern camera is going to perform well with great lighting. Here we ramped the ISO up through its 100 to 25600 range to see what it could do. While we were only able to review images on the rear screen, its 1,620,000 dot resolution gave us a good idea of what to expect in the real world.

Images up to ISO 6400 looked very good and clear of noise (though again, remember this is only based on back of the camera peeking). We'd say the performance was comparable to shots from the Canon 80D, again suggesting Canon's claims of what the M5 is capable of are spot on. Unfortunately, for now you'll have to take our word for it as we weren't able to bring away any test shots.

Equally, we didn't get to shoot any video we were allowed to take away with us. But our tests of the Dual Pixel Focusing looked promising, face recognition and subject tracking worked well. It's just a shame that at a time you can't walk around Photokina without bumping into a 4K shooting camera, Canon has limited the M5 to Full HD 1080p. There seems to be an undeniable bit of not wanting to cannibalize sales of more expensive cameras going on here.

One feature the M5 has gained ahead of other Canon shooters is the addition of the ability to maintain a constant Bluetooth connection with your smartphone, and not relying on a Wi-Fi link you have to keep fiddling with every time you want to use it. Unfortunately, the apps needed to do this aren't ready just yet. Let's just hope Canon has them ready for the release of the camera in November. It took Nikon a while to have its SnapBridge apps for both iOS and Android ready.

We tested the camera with Canon's quirky EF-M 28mm f/3.5 Macro IS STM lens, which has a built-in ring light. We'd have liked to give it a whirl with the M to EF mount adapter to get an idea of how the camera handled with larger glass attached, but that will have to wait for a full review.

The EOS M5 is certainly Canon's best mirrorless camera to date. But that's not saying much, so we'll go one further and say it's one of the better mirrorless cameras we've used of any manufacturer.

Admittedly there's no 4K video, and no it doesn't shoot at mind-bogglingly fast frame-rates, but what it does do, the Canon M5 appears to do very well. This places it among esteemed mirrorless camera company like the Panasonic GH4, the Fujifilm X-T2, and Sony's A7 range – appealing to enthusiasts, or current DSLR shooters, and not leaving them disappointed.

The Canon EOS M5 will be available in November priced at US$980 body-only, or $1,100 with an EF-M 15-45-mm F3.5-F6.3 IS STM zoom kit lens.

Product page: Canon EOS M5

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