Stretching the little Canon to the max

There has been these endless discussions among photography enthusiasts on the strengths and weaknesses of various camera manufacturers for decades. It has been interesting to note that as the history-awareness has increased, some of this discussion has moved into a sort of meta-level: rather than talking about the suitablity of certain camera equipment for (certain kinds of) photography, the discussion has partly moved to discuss the strenghts and weaknesses of entire philosophy or product-line strategy of various manufacturers.

Canon is an example that I am interested here, particularly as this is the manufacturer whose products I have been mostly using for the past two decades or more. The dominant criticism of Canon today seems to be that they (as late adopters of mirrorless systems camera technologies) are now spreading their efforts into too many directions, and thereby making it hard to provide anything really strong and credible for anyone. The history of Canon is great, of course, and I think that they still have the best user interface for their digital cameras, for example, and the back catalogue of Canon lenses is impressive. The problem today nevertheless is that it is difficult to see if Canon is still committed to continuing the DSLR camera and lens delopment in professional and enthusiast levels long into the future (as their recent releases of EOS 90D and 1D X Mark III DSLR bodies seems to suggest), or if anyone with an eye towards the future should invest into the RF mount lenses and EOS R series full-frame mirrorless cameras instead. (RF system is the most recent Canon camera family, it was announced in September 2018; Canon’s full-frame DSLR cameras have used the EF mount lenses since from 1987.) And what is the destiny of APS-C (“crop frame”) cameras, and the EF-M mount system (introduced in 2012) in all of this?

I have long used crop frame system cameras and either EF or EF-S (yet another Canon lens family) lenses, due to the nice balance that this combination makes in terms of versatility, compact sizes, image quality and price – which is always an important concern for a hobbyist photographer. Few months ago I made the move into the “mirrorless era”, deciding to invest into the most affordable of these alternative systems, the Canon EF-M mount family (my choice of camera body was the tiny, yet powerful EOS M50).

The initial experiences (as I have reported in this blog already earlier) have been mostly positive – it is easy to have take a good photo with this system and some decent, native EF-M lens. And it is nice that I can use an adapter to attach my older, EF mount lenses into the new, EF-M mount body, even while the autofocus might not be as fast that way. But the fact is that most of the new Canon lenses now appear to be coming out to the other, mirrorless Canon system: the full-frame RF mount cameras. And it is particularly the “serious enthusiast” or advanced hobbyist category that seems to be left in the middle. Some, more sports and wildlife oriented Canon lenses and cameras that would suit them are being published in the DSLR (EF mount) ecosystem. Some of the most advanced lenses are coming out in RF system, but the prices of many of those are more in the professional, multiple-thousands of euros/dollars category per lens. But the R system bodies seem to be missing many of the features that true professionals would need from their camera systems, so that is not really working so well, either. And those amateur photographers (like myself) who have opted for Canon EF-M mirrorless mount system are mostly provided with compact lenses that do not have the image quality or aperture values that more advanced photography would profit from. And investing into a heavy EF lens, and then adding adapter to get it to work with the EF-M body does not make particularly good sense. That lens is not designed for a mirrorless system to start with, and the combination of ultra-compact camera body and heavy, full-frame DSLR lens is not balanced one.

So, the advanced hobbyist / enthusiast crowd is sort of asking: Quo Vadis, Canon?

Some people have already voted with their feet, sold their Canon cameras and lenses and bought into a Sony or Fujifilm ecosystems instead. Those competing manufacturers have the benefit of simpler and more clear mirrorless (and APS-C) camera and lens strategies. They do not have so many millions of existing users with legacy camera and lens equipment to support, of course.

I am currently just trying to make the best out of my existing cameras and lenses. My lakeside camera walk today involved mostly using the Canon L-series 70-200 mm f/4 EF lens with the old APS-C, DSLR body (550D), which has better grip for handling a larger lens. And the landscape photos and detailed close-ups I shot with the new M50 and sharp 22mm f/2 EF-M lens.

Maybe the third-party manufacturers will provide some help in strengthening the EF-M ecosystem in the future. For example, SIGMA has announced that it will soon port three of its good quality prime lenses into EF-M system: Sigma 16mm, 30mm, and 56mm F1.4 DC DN Contemporary. Hopefully there will be more of such quality glass coming up – also from Canon itself. Producing good quality lenses that are also physically small enough to make sense when attached into a EF-M camera, and which have also affordable enough price, is not trivial achievement, it looks like.

SIGMA lenses.
New SIGMA lenses for the Canon EF-M mount cameras.

Perfect blues

Hervantajärvi, a moment after the sunset.

While learning to take better photos with within the opportunities and limitations provided by whatever camera technology offers, it is also interesting now and then to stop to reflect on how things are evolving.

This weekend, I took some time to study rainy tones of Autumn, and also to hunt for the “perfect blues” of the Blue Hour – the time both some time before sunrise and after the sunset, when indirect sunlight coming from the sky is dominated by short, blue wavelenghts.

After a few attempts I think I got into the right spot at the right time (see the above photo, taken tonight at the beach of Hervantajärvi lake). At the time of this photo it was already so dark that I actually had trouble finding my gear and changing lenses.

I made the simple experiment of taking an evening, low-light photo with the same lens (Canon EF 50 mm f/1.8 STM) with two of my camera bodies – both the old, Canon EOS 550D (DSLR) and new EOS M50 (mirrorless). I tried to use the exact same settings for both photos, taking them only moments apart from the same spot, using a tripod. Below are two cropped details that I tried to frame into same area of the photos.

Evening photo, using EOS 550D.
Same spot, same lens, same settings – using EOS M50.

I am not an expert in signal processing or camera electronics, but it is interesting to see how much more detail there is in the lower, M50 version. I thought that the main differences might be in how much noise there is in the low-light photo, but the differences appear to go deeper.

The cameras are generations apart from each other: the processor of 550D is DIGIC 4, while M50 has the new DIGIC 8. That sure has a effect, but I think that the sensor might play even larger role in this experiment. There are some information available from the sensors of both cameras – see the links below:

While the physical sizes of the sensors are exactly the same (22.3 x 14.9 mm), the pixel counts are different (18 megapixels vs. 24.1 megapixels). Also, the pixel density differs: 5.43 MP/cm² vs. 7.27 MP/cm², which just verifies that these two cameras, launched almost a decade apart, have very different imaging technology under the hood.

I like using both of them, but it is important to understand their strengths and limitations. I like using the old DSLR in daylight and particularly when trying to photograph birds or other fast moving targets. The large grip and good-sized physical controls make a DSLR like EOS 550D very easy and comfortable to handle.

On the other hand, when really sharp images are needed, I now rely on the mirrorless M50. Since it is a mirrorless camera, it is easy to see the final outcome of applied settings directly from the electronic viewfinder. M50 also has an articulated, rotating LCD screen, which is really excellent feature when I need to reach very low, or very high, to get a nice shot. On the other hand, the buttons and the grip are just physically a bit too small to be comfortable. I never seem to hit the right switch when trying to react in a hurry, missing some nice opportunities. But when it is a still-life composition, I have good time to consult the tiny controls of M50.

To conclude: things are changing, good (and bad) photos can be taken, with all kinds of technology. And there is no one perfect camera, just different cameras that are best suited for slightly different uses and purposes.

M50: first experiences

Ouf-of-camera JPG (M50, with EOS-M 22mm f/2 lens).

I have been using the new Canon EOS M50 mirrorless system camera now for a month or so. The main experiences are pretty positive, but I have also some comments on what this camera is good and not so optimal for.

In terms of image quality and feature set, this is a pretty complete package. Canon can make good cameras. However, the small physical size of this camera is perhaps its most defining main characteristic. This means that M50 is excellent as a light and small travel companion, but also that it has too small grip to carry comfortably this body when there are some heavy “pro” lenses or telephoto lenses attached. One must carry the system from the lens instead.

I really like the touch screen interface of M50. The swiveling LCD is really functional, and it is easy to take that quick photo from extra low or high angles. The LCD touch interface Canon uses is perhaps the best in the market today: it is responsive, well designed and logically organised. This is particularly important for M50, since it has only few physical buttons, and a single rotating control. Photographer using M50 needs to use the touch UI for many key functions. This is perhaps something that many manual-settings oriented professional and enthusiast photographers do not like; it you like to set the aperture, exposure time and ISO from the physical controls, then M50 is not for you (one should consider e.g. Fujifilm X-T3 or T30 instead). But if one is comfortable working with electronic controls, then M50 provides multiple opportunities.

My old EOS camera had only few (nine) autofocus points (phase-detect), and only the single point in the middle was with the fast, cross-type AF. This M50 has 99 selectable AF points (143 with some lenses), covering 80 % of the sensor area (dual-pixel type). Coupled with the touch screen, this change has had an effect on my photography style. It is now possible to first compose the photo, look through the electronic viewfinder, and simultaneously use a thumb to drag the AF point/area (in a “computer mouse/touchpad style”) to the desired point in the screen. I am not completely fluent in this technique yet though, and my usual technique of center focusing first, then half-pressing to lock the focus, and then quickly making the final composition, and shooting, is perhaps in most situations quicker and simpler than moving the focus point around the screen. But since M50 remembers in Program mode (which I use most) where the AF point was left the last time, the center focusing method does not work properly any more. I just need to learn new tricks, and keep moving the AF points in the screen (or, let the camera do everything, in Full Auto mode, or go into Manual mode, and do focusing with the lens ring instead.

As a modern mirrorless camera, M50 is packed with sensors and comes with a powerful DIGIG8 processor, bright LCD screen and electronic viewfinder. All of this consumes electricity, and the battery life of M50 is nowhere near my old 550D (which, btw, also had an extra battery grip). A full day of shooting takes either two or three fully loaded LP-E12 batteries. Thus, this camera behaves like a smartphone with poor battery life. You need to be using that battery charger all the time. (The standard rating is 235 shots-per-charge, CIPA.)

When travelling, I have been using a lot the wireless capabilities of M50. It is really handy that one can move full resolution, or reduced resolution versions of photos into an iPhone, iPad or Android device while on the go. On the other hand, this is nowhere as easy as when shooting and sharing directly from a smartphone. Moving typical 200-300 photos from a shooting session into an iPad for editing and uploading is slow, and feels like it takes ages. (I have not yet cracked how to get the advertised real-time Bluetooth photo transfer to work.) The traditional workflow where the entire memory card is first read into a PC and processed with Lightroom makes still better sense, but it is nice to have the alternative, for mobile processing and sharing some individual photos at least.

Many reviewers of M50 have written a lot about the limitations of 4K video mode (high crop factor, no dual-pixel autofocus). I use video rarely, and then only full HD, so that is not an issue for me. There is an external microphone input, which might be handy, and the LCD screen can be turned to point forward, if I ever go into video blogging (not that I plan to do it).

The main plusses for me in M50 are the compact size, the excellent touch UI, and very nice image quality in still images. That I can use both the new, compact EF-M mount lenses, and (with adapters) also the traditional Canon EF lenses was a major factor when making the purchase decision, since the lens collection of a photographer is typically much more expensive part of the equipment, than the body only. Changing to Nikon, Fuji or Sony would have been a big investement.

The autofocus system in M50 is fast, and in burst mode the camera can shoot 10 fps for 30 jpg shots in a row to fill the buffer. I am not a sports or wildlife photographer as such, so this is good enough for me. A physically bigger body would make the camera easier to handle with large and heavy lenses, but shooting with a large lens is a two-hand operation in any case (and in some cases requires using a tripod), so that is not so critical. I still need to train more to use the controls and switch between camera modes faster, and touch interface is probably never going to be as fast as using a camera with several dedicated physical controls. But this is a compromise one can make, to get this feature set, image quality and lens compatibility in this small package, in this price.

You can find the full M50 tech specs and feature set here in English: https://www.canon.co.uk/cameras/eos-m50/specifications/ and in Finnish: https://www.canon.fi/cameras/eos-m50/specifications/.

EOS M mount: interesting adapters

Attaching EF lenses to M mount camera requires an adapter – which adds a bit to the bulk of a small camera, but is also an interesting opportunity, since it is possible to fit new electronic or optical functionalities inside that middle piece.

I have both the official, Canon-made “EF-EOS M” mount adapter, which keeps the optical characteristics of the lens similar to what they would be if used on an EF-S mount camera (crop and all). The other adapter is “Viltrox EF-EOS M2 Lens Adapter 0.71x Speed Booster” (a real mouthful), which has the interesting capability of multiplying the focal length by factor of 0.71. This is a sort of “inverted teleconverter” as it reduces the image size that the lens produces, allowing more light to fit into the smaller (APS C) sensor, and almost eliminates the crop factor.

Most interestingly, as the booster collects more light into the sensor, this also has an effect of increasing the maximum aperture of my EF/EF-S lenses in an M mount camera. When I attach Viltrox into my 70-200 mm F4, it appears to my M50 camera as an F2.8 lens (with that constant aperture over the entire zoom range). The image quality that these “active speed booster adapters” produce is apparently a somewhat contested topic among camera enthusiasts. In my personal, initial tests, I have been pretty happy: the sharpness and corner vignetting also appear to be well controlled and the images produced of rather good quality – or good enough for me, at least.

When I put this into my 50 mm F2.8 portrait lens, this lens functions as having F1.2 maximum aperture. This is pretty cool, e.g. the capability to shoot in lower-light conditions is much better this way, and the narrow depth of field is similar to much more heavy and expensive, full frame camera system when using this adapter.

In my tests so far, all my Canon EF lenses have worked perfectly with Viltrox. However, when testing with the Tamron 16-300 mm F/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD super-zoom lens, there are issues. The adapter focuses light in a wrong manner when using this lens, and the result is that the corners are cut away from images (see the picture below). So, your mileage may vary. I have written to Viltrox customer service and asked what they suggest in the Tamron case (I have updated the adapter into the most recent available firmware – this can be done very simply using a PC and the built-in micro-usb connector in the adapter).

You can read a bit more about this technology (in connection to the first, Metabones product) from here: https://www.newsshooter.com/2013/01/14/metabones-speed-booster-adapter-gives-lenses-an-extra-fstop-and-nearly-full-frame-focal-lengths-on-aps-c-sensors/

Going mirrorless (EOS M50)

I have today started to learn to take photos with an ultra-compact EOS M50, after using the much bigger SLR or DSLR cameras for decades. This is surely an interesting experience. Some of the fundamentals of photography are still the same, but some areas I clearly need to study more, and learn new approaches.

Canon EOS M50 (photo credit: Canon).

These involve particularly learning how to collaborate with the embedded computer (DIGIG 8 processor) better. It is fascinating to note how fast e.g. the automatic focusing system is – I can suddenly use an old lens like my trusty Canon EF 70-200mm f/4 L USM to get in-flight photos of rather fast birds. The new system tracks moving targets much faster and in a more reliable manner. However, I am by no means a bird photographer, having mostly worked with still life, landscapes and portraits. Getting to handle the dual options of creating the photo either through the electronic viewfinder, or, the vari-angle touchscreen takes some getting used to.

Also, there are many ways to use this new system, and finding the right settings among many different menus (there must be hundreds of options in all) takes some time. Also, coming from much older EOS 550D, it was weird to realise that the entire screen is now filled with autofocus points, and that it is possible to slide the AF point with a thumb (using the touchscreen as a “mouse”) into the optimal spot, while simultaneously composing, focusing, zooming and shooting – 10 frames per second, maximum. I am filling up the memory card fast now.

My Canon EOS 550D and M50, side by side. Note that I am using a battery grip on 550D, which is rather small DSLR camera in itself.

It is easy to do many basic photo editing tasks in-camera now. It actually feels like there is small “Photoshop” built into the camera. However, there is a fundamental decision that needs to be made: of either using photos as they come, directly from camera, or after some post-processing in the computer. This is important since JPG or RAW based workflows are a bit different. These days, I am using quite a lot of mobile apps and tools, and the ability to wirelessly copy photos from the camera into a smartphone or tablet computer (via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth + NFC), in the field, is definitely something that I like doing. Currently thus the JPG options make most sense for me personally.

Lens trumps the camera?

It is sort of interesting to think that maybe cameras have already got “good enough”? By this I mean that the capabilities of the camera body are no longer the real bottleneck in photography. Following the field, it is easy to find anecdotal stories about professional photographers relying on their 10-year-old, even much older equipment, with no need to update or upgrade. And this does not count in the “retro” photographers who for various reasons prefer the film cameras and vintage equipment.

As digital cameras include microprocessors, and the light-sensitive sensors are based on semiconductor technologies, the development of new cameras has gained a lot from the “Moore’s Law”, and quick progress in manufacturing faster and faster silicon chips. It is today particularly in the design and marketing of smartphones where this “speedrun” is obvious, with the next generation following the previous one in every six months or so. But even in smartphones, the sales are slowing down, and one reason appears to be that the existing phones are already – good enough.

The brains of a digital camera are its processor, the system chip. This is where sensor information gets processed, operations such as AF (automatic focus systems) are coming from, and where any in-camera postprocessing of photos takes place. I have been mostly following the evolution of DIGIC series of image processors by Canon, and it is obvious that many genuinely useful features for photographers have come from the new processor generations. In addition to being able to fit in data from lens and light sensors to produce more-or-less optimally exposed photos, the newer generations have e.g. introduced face-detection autofocus, which can automatically find faces in a group photo, and set the depth of field so that all of them are sharp. Mostly the new generation usually just provides incremental improvements in the some fundamental areas such as speed of image processing, noise reduction in low-light conditions, or speed and preciseness of autofocus.

It is nice to have a fast-shooting, fast-focusing camera that does all sorts of intelligent things like scene detection, and is able to apply many settings automatically. On the other hand, much of the art and craft of photography is in learning to think about the key dimensions of photographs, and about developing the ability to make use of technology to produce a certain kind of creation. The “smart” processor might be useful in removing the danger of technically failed shots, but it might also slow down a bit the ability to experiment, and learn from mistakes? I know from my own experience how easy it is just to give the “Program” (the ‘semi-auto’ mode in Canon) the reigns, and then end up living in somewhat smaller creative sandbox, as the result.

Putting over-emphasis on the latest features in cameras has also the danger of missing out other important dimensions of cameras as physical tools. The mechanical construction of a camera, the size and shape of it, how the physical dials and control buttons work – all of this have a very significant effect on the handling and ergonomics that matter a lot while taking photographs. Consider the latest smartphones, for example. In many cases the wide-angle and normal focal length photos can be shot with a smartphone with technically excellent results. However, most professionals still prefer to have a tool that is designed to be a camera also in ergonomic terms, while taking photographs all day long. The slippery smartphone with virtual, on-screen buttons just does not provide same kind of experience and sense of control.

Thus, in many cases one can actually save some money by settling for an older-generation model in the camera body, and investing into lenses instead. This can be a bit tricky, of course, as new camera and lens generations sometimes also come with new lens mounts; the autofocus and metering systems, for example, might rely on new pins for exchanging information between the lens and the body in new ways, or -as in the case of mirrorless cameras – the lenses are redesigned to take advantage from the smaller shape of mirrorless body (that is, moving the lenses physically closer to the image sensor). In many cases, however, the manufacturer standard lens mount still applies, or there is a perfectly working adapter available, to fit new lenses to older generation bodies, or the other way around.

Thus, one way for an enthusiast photographer to move forward in the actual image quality and range of photos one can achieve, is to stick with a bit older camera technology, but put the available savings into updating the lenses. In interchangeable lens cameras there are different basic options for the lens selection, and this relates to the style of photography one is working on. A street photographer, or one that mostly shoots people and events, can do nicely with a “normal” lens – or in portraiture with a short telephoto. In this lens range, the maximum aperture, sharpness and absence of various distortions what one is paying for, in a good quality (or “professional”) lens versions.

I think that I have pretty decent situation in wide angle and normal focal lenght photography at the moment, but there is much to improve in the longer telephoto lenses. Particularly my growing interest in nature photography translates into need for long-range, bit-aperture and sharp lenses. And unfortunately those things do not come cheap. Below are a couple of interesting alternatives for a Canon EF mount – I’d be interested to hear any comments or experiences you might have of these, or other EF mount telephoto lenses!

Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM (Photo credit: Canon.)
Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM | S. (Photo credit: Sigma.)

The right camera lens?

Currently in the Canon camp, my only item from their “Lexus” line – of the more high-quality professional L lenses – is the old Canon EF 70-200mm f/4 L USM (pictured). The second picture, the nice crocus close-up, is however not coming from that long tube, but is shot using a smartphone (Huawei Mate 20 Pro). There are professional quality macro lenses that would definitely produce better results on a DSLR camera, but for a hobbyist photographer it is also a question of “good enough”. This is good enough for me.

The current generation of smartphone cameras and optics are definitely strong in the macro, wide angle to normal lens ranges (meaning in traditional terms the 10-70 mm lenses on full frame cameras). Going to telephoto territory (over 70 mm in full frame terms), a good DSLR lens is still the best option – though, the “periscope” lens systems that are currently developed for smartphone cameras suggest that the situation might change in that front also, for hobbyist and everyday photo needs. (See the Chinese Huawei P30 Pro and OPPO’s coming phones’ periscope cameras leading the way here.) The powerful processors and learning, AI algorithms are used in the future camera systems to combine data coming from multiple lenses and sensors for image-stabilized, long-range and macro photography needs – with very handy, seamless zoom experiences.

My old L telephoto lens is non-stabilized f/4 version, so while it is “fast” in terms of focus and zoom, it is not particularly “fast” in terms of aperture (i.e. not being able to shoot in short exposure times with very wide apertures, in low-light conditions). But in daytime, well-lighted conditions, it is a nice companion to the Huawei smartphone camera, even while the aging technology of Canon APS-C system camera is truly from completely different era, as compared to the fine-tuning, editing and wireless capabilities in the smartphone. I will probably next try to set up a wireless SD card & app system for streaming the telephoto images from the old Canon into the Huawei (or e.g. iPad Pro), so that both the wide-angle, macro, normal range and telephoto images could all, in more-or-less handy manner, meet in the same mobile-access photo roll or editing software. Let’s see how this goes!

(Below, also a Great Tit/talitiainen, shot using the Canon 70-200, as a reference. In an APS-C crop body, it gives same field of view as a 112-320 mm in a full frame, if I calculate this correctly.)

Talitiainen (shot with Canon EOS 550D, EF 70-200mm f/4 L USM lens).