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).

Learning to experiment

I have been recently thinking why I feel that I’ve not really made any real progress in my photography for the last few years. There are a few periods when some kind of leap has seemed to take place; e.g. when I moved into using my first DSRL, and also in the early days of entering the young Internet photography communities, such like Flickr. Reflecting on those, rather than the tools themselves (a better camera, software, or service), the crucial element in those perhaps has been that the “new” element just stimulated exploration, experimentation, and willingness to learn. If one does not take photos, one does not evolve. And I suppose one can get the energy and passion to continue doing things in experimental manner – every day (or: at least in sometimes) – from many things.

Currently I am constantly pushing against certain technical limitations (but cannot really afford to upgrade my camera and lenses), and there’s also lack of time and opportunity that a bit restrict more radical experiments with any exotic locations, but there are other areas where I definitely can learn to do more: e.g. in a) selecting the subject matter, b) in composition, and c) in post-production. Going to places with new eyes, or, finding an alternative perspective in “old” places, or, just learning new ways to handle and process all those photos.

I have never really bothered to study deeper the fine art of digital photo editing, as I have felt that the photos should stand by themselves, and also stay “real”, as documents of moments in life. But there are actually many ways that one can do to overcome technical limitations of cameras and lenses, that can also help in creating sort of “psychological photorealism”: to create the feelings and associations that the original situation, feeling or subject matter evoked, rather than just trying to live with the lines, colours and contrast values that the machinery was capable of registering originally. When the software post-processing is added to the creative toolbox, it can also remove bottlenecks from the creative subject matter selection, and from finding those interesting, alternative perspectives to all those “old” scenes and situations – that one might feel have already been worn out and exhausted.

Thus: I personally recommend going a bit avant-garde, now and then, even in the name of enhanced realism. 🙂