There may be some confusion regarding what digital compact system cameras are for. When the concept was introduced in 2008 with the birth of the Micro Four Thirds standard and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1, it was explained to the press and to the public that this new breed of small interchangeable lens cameras had been created to help compact camera users progress toward something more capable and flexible. The line was that compact camera users would be able to access more controls and better image quality without the pain, inconvenience and complication of moving to a full DSLR.

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1, introduced in 2008

That Panasonic made a big deal of launching an adapter so those initial Lumix DMC-G1 users could fit their Leica M and L lenses to their new body demonstrated immediately that the marketing machine was somewhat at odds with the ideas of the designers at the drawing board - clearly these cameras were not for beginners, but for enthusiasts looking for something more discrete and more pocketable. Beginners tend not to use Leica M, for a start, and frankly the Lumix DMC-G1, with its prism-style head, eye-piece and fine collection of sabre-toothed buttons, wheels and dials, was every bit as intimidating as a full-blown single lens reflex camera. 

The confusion continues today. We still see brands working in this area unsure about who they should be marketing to, and what features, functions and, importantly, designs will appeal to beginners, enthusiasts, women, teenagers, retired colonels, dog walkers, hikers, life documenters, action heroes and budding professionals. Over time we have seen the attitude of manufacturers shifting slightly, moving not so much away from the entry class camera but increasing the offering to more advanced photographers.

This has been done with good bodies with viewfinders and advanced functions (and rightly so), but nothing – nothing - attracts a high-end enthusiast or professional more than a sparkling bit of fast glass that promises premium image quality. Panasonic, Olympus, Fuji, Samsung and Sony have all concentrated on creating lenses that will draw users to their camera bodies. That they use names like Leica, Zuiko, Fujinon, Schneider and Zeiss makes it absolutely clear how important optics are – and that the people in the factories recognise that as fact. 

Head in the sand

Canon and Nikon have both stood quite apart from the mirrorless quest, and both waited a long time to demonstrate that they realized the market existed at all. Nikon has, admittedly, made more of a go of it than Canon, producing 10 Nikon 1 series bodies since 2011, but clearly neither manufacturer has managed to capture a share of the mirrorless market that reflects their respective dominance in DSLR or, indeed, in photography as a whole.

Nikon's 1-system at launch in 2011 consisted of a beginner-friendly J1 model and a more enthusiast aimed V1 with a built-in viewfinder. 

The EOS M and Nikon 1 systems have both been the product of fear – fear that these nasty small cameras will dissolve the lower end of the DSLR market and undermine the foundations of the traditional systems. By not participating I suspect these two giants hoped that the acidic mirrorless camera would just go away or at least not be encouraged to grow.

Instead, Nikon and Canon have allowed new and struggling brands to multiply their wares like bacteria in a dirty petri dish. Photographic names that had found the going too tough on the DSLR battleground, and cheeky in-coming electronics brands, have been left to gain experience, innovate and develop a firm hold in a camera segment that was always going to happen. It is fine to 'wait and see' for a while, and to take time to develop a strategy, but had these monster brands found an interest and taken mirrorless seriously from the beginning they could have dominated that market too. I'm extremely pleased that they didn't, as the emergence of competition has been healthy and fun to watch. 

Canon's new EOS M model, the M3, is certainly a step in the right direction for the brand if it wants to convince the world it is about to do something meaningful and significant in the compact system segment. It has a large high-resolution sensor and the company has allowed the design team to make it look like a proper camera – with a good grip, a mode dial and access buttons for people who aren't scared of buttons. There is a new faster AF system, decent enough movie options and a great multi-touch screen on a flexible hinge. That's all good. 

The critical missing elements

What's not so good is what the EOS M system isn't. Canon made the mistake of thinking only newbies want small cameras when it placed the original EOS M in the beginner's section of the range and provided it with poor feature access and only a few lenses. The M3, we are told, is for enthusiasts, and indeed it already sits proudly alongside the EOS 70D, the 6D and the 7D Mark ll on the product pages of Canon's website.

With the Canon EOS M's introduction in 2012, two lenses for the new mount were introduced - an EF-M 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 and 22mm f/2.0. Since then a 55-200mm f/4.5-6.3 has been added to the range.

While feature access has changed in dramatic style, the lens range hasn't – and everyone knows that enthusiasts look at a camera's lens range before the camera itself. I am certain there are plenty of photographers who bought a Fujifilm X-T1 because they wanted to use the XF 56mm f/1.2, or those who invested in a Micro Four Thirds body to be able to use the Leica DG Nocticron 42.5mm f/1.2. Canon's EF-M range really doesn't have anything to compare with these fine optics and the hypnotic draw they constitute for enthusiast photographers. 

What EOS is made of

We have had it drummed into us since 1987 that the EOS system is about optical quality. In more recent years Canon's digital EOS range has been about the combination of that optical quality, Canon's homemade CMOS sensors, and the speed and accuracy of the system's autofocus. By contrast, autofocus in the M was shockingly poor.

Canon representatives cross their fingers behind their back when they explain that every desirable focal range is covered in the EOS M range, with zooms that take us from 11mm to 200mm (18-320mm in 35mm terms). Anything else, they go on to make clear, can be hooked in from the EF-S and EF ranges on the end of the EF-EOS M adapter. It is easy to read in their eyes that they too wish they had nice fast primes to talk about, zooms with a usable aperture range and that they didn't have to suggest mounting massive lenses to a tiny body that is supposed to be part of a tiny system.

But Canon has only four EF-M lenses in its range - one is a standard kit zoom that compares with every other standard kit zoom in the world, and two are zoom lenses with maximum apertures that start at f/4 and f/4.5. The only lens that anyone might conceivably think interesting enough to pay any attention to at all is the EF-M 22mm f/2 STM. And that magic gateway to the EF range, the EF-EOS M adapter, is not very easy to come by at all.

EOS M moves up a gear 

Canon's pitch that the EOS M3 is aimed at the enthusiast photographer only makes the EF-M lens range look even more inadequate. Which retailer will stock an enthusiast camera that has no lenses to sell with it, and which enthusiast will buy a camera body without looking to see what lenses will support it? If Canon does want to make the EOS M system a success it should have introduced appropriate lenses with the M3, and if that wasn't possible to have used the resources it devoted to the camera to producing the lenses instead.

If Canon does have lenses on the way it needs to get them out fast, or the body will be considered old by the time they arrive. 

The EOS M3 provides enthusiast touches like a control ring around the shutter release and an exposure compensation dial on the top panel.

I honestly don't know what the EOS M3's unequal regional distribution means. I don't know if Tokyo decided that North America's acceptance of small interchangeable lens cameras is not great enough to make the effort, or if Canon USA decided it didn't want to throw good money after bad. The USA hasn't been as receptive to the smaller mirrorless cameras as the rest of the world has, preferring the DSLR-style 'bumpy' topped versions over the flat and compact. There are plenty of EOS M owners in the country though who would rather like to upgrade, and plenty on this site it seems who want to put something more capable behind their EF-M 22mm f/2 lenses. Either way, its exclusion from this massive market doesn't do the camera any good. Neither does it help the credibility of the system. 

Look what we could have had

As things stand this appears another half-hearted attempt at providing a compact system camera, just to have one on the books. I expect the other mirrorless brands are all delighted to have been given another reprieve and to be able to put off to a distant day the moment they will have to compete with the world's most powerful camera company on open ground. They can badger away learning and gaining more experience and, crucially, stealing Canon's potential customers from under its nose. I think most Canon customers would prefer to buy a Canon mirrorless camera rather than 'defecting' to Fuji, Panasonic, Sony or Olympus, but while Canon has nothing to offer they will inevitably stray. And it seems, by Canon's inaction, they can cheat with the company's blessing and full permission.

The Canon EOS M3 with EF-M 55-200mm f/4.5-6.3 lens. 

If Canon is so frightened of cannibalizing its own entry-level DSLRs it could have participated in the mirrorless market with a camera that wouldn't compete with them. As a smaller version of an EOS DSLR, the EOS M3 is directly on course to erode sales from the entry class reflex models, but had the company made something that had appeal in areas other than just function and performance we could have had a model that caught the attention of those higher up the chain who would never dump their DSLRs.

Think of a digital version of the rather beautiful Canon P rangefinder for example, with a collection of perfect lenses that would reflect both the heritage and excellence of the brand. The system could be expensive, but not as expensive as a Leica M. It might then simultaneously inspire EOS users to greater things, avoid losses at the low-end and mop-up the desire for affordable Leica M that Leica singularly fails to cater for.

More, and soon

Canon really does need to go boldly here. These tentative measures just will not do. The compact system camera market will happen and grow whether Canon is on the bus or not. Now is the time not to bumble along, but to grasp the opportunity to make a statement, to have confidence and to carve a determined slice of the action. The EOS M3 might be a step in the right direction and a decent start, but it isn't a system and it won't win any wars on its own.

Damien Demolder is a senior contributing writer for DPReview and the former editor of Amateur Photographer Magazine, the world's oldest weekly photographic publication.