Canon EOS M3 – first impressions

It’s rare for me to bother with reviewing an item of gear; they either fit with my way of working or they don’t.  However, I’ve made an exception for my latest purchase, the Canon EOS-M3 which is a replacement for the original EOS-M that I’ve owned for a while now.

© Dave Whenham
Pinfold Lane

Read any of the reviews and you will hear all about the lack of a viewfinder, slow burst rate or the problems that the original M in particular had with focusing speed etcetera. However, these need to be placed in context with what you are going to use the camera for and why you bought it in the first place. I am principally a landscape and portrait photographer although I do dabble in other genres from time to time including macro and wildlife. Would I use this camera for such specialist activities as macro and wildlife? Absolutely not. I have the appropriate tools for these jobs and why would I not use them? Likewise for portraits, I have specialist lenses and use a full frame DSLR on these occasions. So why did I buy a CSC? Simply because I wanted something pocketable and light to take on my walks which would offer me RAW capture, full manual operation and good image quality.

© Dave Whenham
Moooove that camera outta my face!

The original M gave me all these and given that 95% of the pictures I take whilst walking are landscapes the burst rate, focus speed and lack of a viewfinder were never a major issue.  It was also great fun to use.  So when I saw the specifications of the M3 and the improvements to all aspects of its performance I was immediately interested although I have deliberately delayed my purchase until I was able to pick up a pre-owned copy in near mint condition. I’m a pensioner on a budget after all.

I took the M3 along with two native EOS-M lenses, the 18-55 “kit” lens and 22mm pancake lens, and a Canon EF-S 10-18mm lens with an adapter to fit the lens to the M3.   I also took a small carbon fibre tripod. So that’s a camera, three lenses and a tripod in one small shoulder bag with room to spare and the whole kit weighed considerably less than the Nikon D800E with 24-70 f2.8 lens I sometimes squeeze into the same  shoulder bag.  So in terms of portability and flexibility this set up scores well for me. On a three-hour walk, especially one involving a fair bit of uphill walking, I really appreciated the lack of noticeable weight.

© Dave Whenham
One man’s rubble is a photographers subject

The M3 is also great fun to use. As a lifelong Canon user I find their menus intuitive and familiar. The M3 has several additional dials compared to the original M and these make changing shutter speed or aperture for example much quicker.  The touch screen can also be used to make adjustments to camera settings and all in all the ease of control is excellent. The tilting screen is also great for shooting from waist level or lower and I found it particularly useful as it enabled me to hold the camera over walls to include more interesting foreground interest for example. My grandson and I also had great fun tilting the screen right up and taking selfies but that’s another story!

© Dave Whenham

The tilting screen makes it easy to hang over walls to create interesting foregrounds

One area where I struggled at times was composing without a viewfinder, particularly with high contrast scenes when I myself was in bright sunlight.  This is less of a problem when working off a tripod as you can more easily position yourself to shield the screen from sunlight for example. This was probably exacerbated in my case as my eyesight is poor and I need separate pairs of glasses for distance and close-up work; I need one or the other at all times and can often be seen with both pairs on my head at once.  Not everyone will have the same problems though and the occasional difficulty was not sufficiently annoying for me to consider spending the £200 or thereabouts for the optional EVF.  Sure, Canon should have incorporated a viewfinder but they didn’t and I knew that when I bought the camera so no point complaining now!

The focus peaking is a fabulous improvement that I hadn’t fully appreciated until trying it in the field. With a choice of red, yellow or blue it coped with most circumstances and by adding the menu item to My menu I could change the overlay colour quickly and easily when needed.  For difficult scenes I found that changing the Picture Mode to black & white (not a problem as I shoot RAW so still have the colour file) made it easier to see the colours especially with a lot of grass in the shot.

© Dave Whenham
Calder & Hebble Navigation. Quite a large crop of the full frame

As to that “slow” focusing system all I can say is that it was very fast out in the local countryside. We’ve all seen the YouTube reviewers trying to focus on a swinging yo-yo from two feet but in reality when am I likely to need to perform such a feat on one of my walks?  I sometimes wonder if some online reviewers ever take their cameras out of their house but again that’s another story.

Day two of the review was meant to test the handling when using filters for landscape photography but came to a halt prematurely when the battery level started flashing red after nineteen shots. Now, this, it has to be said, was a schoolboy error on my part. I know from the spec sheet that Canon rate the battery life at around 250 shots and up until last night I’d taken 300 shots on a single charge so really should have charged the battery especially as I know from the M that the meter doesn’t give much warning before it conks out.  I’d already taken an additional nineteen frames and took the pragmatic view that returning to base and heading out again later in the day with a recharged battery was the wisest course.  Note to self, buy a spare battery!

© Dave Whenham
The Master at work

Instead, once I got home and recharged I had a play with the other adapter I have for the M which allows me to use Nikon G lenses. As my main DSLR-based system is Nikon this gives me a further set of opportunities. The  Fotodiox adapter, at £27, is fully manual with a slider to adjust the aperture. The M3’s on-screen histogram was very helpful here in judging exposures when in manual mode on the camera too. There is no EXIF data as the camera doesn’t realise there is a lens attached and apertures are guesses rather than precise but all in all it worked. It would not be practical in situations where speed of operation was called for but off a tripod and with time to play it all works very well.  As ever, horses for courses.

A small niggle and one not uncommon with these types of cameras is that the battery/card compartment is not accessible with a tripod plate in place. That said, and I’ve said as much before, these small limitations are known before you buy the camera and seasoned photographers in particular have no real justification in complaining after the event.

So, with a spare battery now in my pocket I set off for what has become Day Three of this quick review.

Lee three-stop neutral density graduated filter

With the M3 on a tripod I was able to use my large Lee filters without any issues. I was using them on a Canon EF-S 10-20 lens as I have no adapter rings small enough to fit the native lenses I have for the M3. Positioning of the graduated filters was a breeze, especially as the screen tilted so I did not have to crouch to peer at the back of the LCD screen. The camera was even able to “see” through a six-stop neutral density filter and still display an image on the screen and  when in manual mode I was still able to use focus peaking. All in all I am confident that for general landscape work the M3 and my Lee filters will work well together.

© Dave Whenham
Grasses – and some nice bokeh

In conclusion, whilst I’m not yet ready to ditch my heavy and cumbersome DSLRs and lenses I have to say that I am really appreciating being able to carry a full kit without compromising on image quality and without needing back surgery. A simple, relatively small shoulder bag holds the M3, three lenses and the lens adapter, a Lee filter holder with filters and spare battery (yes, I have a spare now)  with a lightweight carbon fibre tripod and I am not really conscious of the weight. Oh and I can get my hat and gloves in the bag too!

The Canon EOS-M3 may not be the most popular CSC on the market but it does me proud.

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