It’s fair to say Canon missed the start gun for mirrorless cameras, with Fujifilm, Panasonic and Olympus already well down the track and pulling away.
But the traditionally cautious camera maker, better known for its rock-solid, reliable DSLRs, finally has a jet-heeled mirrorless contender in the race.
Aimed at smartphone-upgraders rather than dial-loving DSLR fans, the EOS M50 brings a host of firsts for a Canon mirrorless cam: 4K video recording, a vari-angle touchscreen, a silent shutter mode, and its new Digic 8 processor.
If you’re looking for your first ‘proper’ camera, it’s a strong new contender, and a smaller alternative to Canon’s entry-level EOS 200D DSLR.
Should it be the start of your mirrorless journey? I lived with one for a week to find out...
DESIGN: SIMPLE PLEASURES
The M50 looks and feels like a cute, shrunken DSLR.
There’s a centrally placed viewfinder, which traditionalist Canon says is where it ‘should’ be, rather than pushed away into the corner like those found on rangefinder-style mirrorless cams.
The chunky grip’s textured coating makes it feel comfortable in the hand, although the rest of the camera has a slightly more plasticky finish. Still, that’s to be expected at this price point, and it’s what you’ll find on Canon’s entry-level DSLRs, too.
You can buy the M50 on its own but, unless you already happen to own any of Canon’s EF-M lenses or fancy attaching some EF/EF-S ones via an adaptor (hint: you probably don’t), you’ll need to buy one to go with it.
The 15-45mm f/3.5-6.3 IS STM is available as part of a kit. Being collapsible, it’s an ideal partner for the M50 if you’re looking to keep the overall size and weight down. Another option is an 18-150mm lens, which gives you a lot more flexibility, but is also much larger.
When it comes to controls, Canon’s mirrorless cameras come in two flavours. Its more ‘serious’ models (the EOS M5 and M6) have a range of dials and buttons that will be comfortably familiar to those coming from DSLRs.
And then there are those like the M50, which replace physical buttons with more smartphone-like touchscreen menus.
This means there aren't a huge swathe of dials and buttons on the M50. If you’re looking for something a little more advanced, you might prefer one of Canon’s more advanced mirrorless models like the EOS M6.
On the top of the camera there’s a minimalist mode dial, giving you quick access to the various shooting modes - including manual, semi-automatic (aperture priority and shutter priority), scene mode and so on.
Just in front of this, there’s a second dial which controls various things depending on the shooting mode. If you’re in aperture priority, it’ll set aperture, for example. If you’re in manual mode, you can use it for both shutter speed and aperture, but you’ll first need a quick tap of a button on the back of the camera.
Also up here is a dedicated video record button (which you can set to be something else, if you like), and a function button, which can also be customised (ISO feels like the obvious choice). These top buttons and dials, along with all the rear buttons, are easy to reach with either your thumb or your forefinger.
Slightly more fiddly are the buttons on the back of the camera. These are pretty small, so those with larger hands may find them a little fiddly. This is, of course, one of the downsides of a smaller mirrorless camera compared to a DSLR.
Unsurprisingly, we’ve got a similar user interface here to that found on Canon’s recent entry-level models. That means it’s very user-friendly, offering tips and advice on how different settings will affect your final image.
If you’re a little more advanced and don’t need your hand held, you can switch back to a more traditional display if you prefer.
VIEWFINDER AND SCREEN: KEEPING IT REAL VERSATILE
Aside from its smaller size, the biggest difference between the M50 and a beginner DSLR like the EOS 200D is the electronic viewfinder.
Not long ago, an EVF was an obvious black mark if you could have an optical version instead. But recently there’s been a bit of a switcheroo, especially for entry-level snappers like this.
Optical viewfinders don’t show 100% of the scene, whereas an electronic one always will. You also have other benefits, such as being able to preview how settings changes will look in the viewfinder, and quickly reviewing your image once it’s been taken without taking the camera from your eye.
The M50’s EVF is large, clear and bright, while using it is a straightforward - the sensor alongside it automatically switches it on when you lift it to your eye.
On the downside, it’s a little overly contrasty, making it slightly tricky to get a wholly accurate representation of exactly how your image will look, especially if there are a lot of shadow areas.
Handily, the touchscreen can continue to be used to set the AF point when you’re using the viewfinder, thanks to Canon’s excellent “Touch and Drag” option. While many cameras have this, with Canon you get the option to assign only a portion of the screen to the action, helping you prevent accidental ‘nose shots’.
The screen is fully articulated too, which is handy for shooting from awkward angles, as well as being useful for video recording. And can also fold it inwards toward itself to protect it when you're chucking it into a rucksack.
FEATURES: REFRESHINGLY MODERN
It’s fair to say that we’ve come a long way since the early days of sluggish AF on Canon EOS M cameras.
Now we’ve got something that does a very good job indeed: Dual Pixel CMOS AF. This Canon tech, first seen five years ago, helps the M50 cope particularly well with moving subjects, especially if they’re moving in a relatively predictable pattern. It also helps you lock onto targets in both stills and video, so passing people or objects don’t hijack your focus.
That’s not all: a new feature for this camera is Eye-Detection AF, which, as you might imagine, locks onto a subject’s eyes, following them even as the subject moves. This is an obvious winner for portrait photography, but can also be useful for selfies or making YouTube videos.
And, make sure you’re sitting down for this bit, the M50 is also the first non-professional Canon that lets you record 4K video. Yep, it’s finally happened – well, sort of.
A few issues mean other mirrorless cams do the 4K thing a bit better than the M50. Top of the list of niggles is that recording in 4K puts a 1.6x crop on top of the already 1.6x crop you’re working with for having an APS-C size sensor. To put that in context, say you’re using the 18mm kit lens, the effective focal length becomes roughly 46mm - which is a little restrictive, particularly if you’re filming yourself and trying to squeeze your face into the frame.
You also can’t use Dual Pixel CMOS AF when working with 4K, which is a shame. Still, if you’re buying the camera primarily for photography but want the option to record 4K should you need it, at least you have it.
Elsewhere, Canon has included a new type of RAW format shooting for the M50, producing CR3 files. These are smaller than standard RAW files, giving you scope to save more to your memory card.
There doesn’t seem to be any major trade-off for using the smaller file size either, with all the usual edits available either in-camera or using software like Photoshop.
The M50 uses Canon’s M-mount, which means it’s compatible with its range of EF-M lenses.
These are generally very affordable, if slightly lacking in prime options that are rumoured to be coming out later in 2018.
Still, if you already have a stack of Canon lenses from your DSLR, you can also buy the EF-M adaptor to make it compatible with the dozens of EF and EF-S lenses out there.
IMAGE QUALITY: PUNCHY, VIBRANT AND PACKED WITH DETAIL
As we’ve come to expect from Canon sensors, colours are rendered very nicely, with a nice warm level of saturation that stays on the good side of realistic.
The Auto or Standard Picture Style is very good, but for just a hint more crispness, shooting with the Fine Detail setting applied produces the best results. There’s also plenty of detail in images taken throughout the native sensitivity range.
Naturally, you’ll find that the best detail is displayed at lower ISO levels in good light, but even if you’re forced to shoot at ISO 12800, you can come away with a decent image – especially if you only need it for small printing or web sizes.
It’s probably best to steer clear of ISO 25600 and ISO 51200 outside of emergencies, as at these speeds you can see a little bit of image noise even at relatively small sizes.
On the whole, the camera’s metering system does well to get exposures spot on, with little need to touch the exposure compensation dial. Under a variety of different lighting conditions, including artificial light, the automatic white balance system copes really well and produces accurate colours.
There is one other thing to bear in mind when weighing up whether or not to buy the M50: lenses.
While Canon is starting to catch up with other mirrorless cams, its range of accompanying lenses is (for now, at least) sorely lacking. There are just seven proprietary lenses available for the system, with relatively few primes or ‘specialist’ options available.
The way around this is to use the M50 with an adapter for EF/EF-S glass, but that slightly detracts from the point of having a small system – and is probably only appealing if you already have a collection of Canon lenses.
Canon EOS M50 verdict
A lack of native lenses aside, the EOS M50 is Canon’s best stab at a mirrorless camera so far.
Image quality is a match for Canon’s DSLRs, which means you can get some very nice pictures indeed.
Yes, 4K video is available for the first time on a consumer Canon, but this is not a camera to buy if you’re a videographer – a vlogger perhaps, but not someone who’s looking to produce short films.
It’s great to see Canon finally taking mirrorless cams seriously – let’s just hope the range of accessories and lenses starts to play catch-up soon.