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Olympus SH-21 review: Olympus SH-21

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The Good Low price; Vivid colours; Good menus; High-quality video mode.

The Bad Noise in some images; Chunky design.

The Bottom Line A great inexpensive choice, the Olympus SH-21 is well suited to travellers who need a versatile snapper that feels like it could take a knock. The well thought-out quick-access menus are a boon. All in all, it's a great little package.

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8.3 Overall

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The SH-21 fits squarely into Olympus' Traveller range. With a long zoom, high resolution and a sturdy, no-frills body that feels like it could take a few bumps, it's just the sort of gadget you'll want to carry around the world.

Shop around and you could pick one up for under £170 -- a low price that might lead you to question its abilities. Don't be fooled, because this is a first-class snapper in almost every respect.


Colours aside, the SH-21 has very conventional looks, with a chunky grip tacked onto the front of a fairly fat body. This leaves the shooting mode selector set a little too far across the top of the chassis to turn comfortably with your thumb. The plastic construction is testament to its budget price tag but build quality is fine.

Olympus SH-21 top
The shooting selector is set quite far across, so it's not the easiest to thumb while shooting.

It boasts the usual collection of buttons and switches on the top and rear plates. I was impressed by the inclusion of a thumbwheel to the side of the 3-inch rear-mounted LCD display, which is always a welcome time saver when it comes to scrolling through menus or reviewing shots.

The menus are among the best you'll come across, but the real boon is the on-screen shooting controls. I performed my tests using the iAuto mode, which automatically selects the best shooting conditions on your behalf. It switches to macro when you get close to your subject, landscape when you need maximum depth of field, and so on. This strips down the shooting menu to just flash mode and self-timer options.

Rather than trawling the menus to change them, pressing the top, bottom and sides of the thumbwheel lets you quickly and easily change options from the shooting screen. Switch to scene mode and you can cycle through the various scenes (landscape, portrait and 14 others to choose from), as well as the aforementioned flash and self-timer settings.

Program mode gives you the broadest possible control, with direct shortcuts for white balance, sensitivity and compensation, among others. To push things further, turn to the Live Guide, which is a series of basic on-screen controls that let you change saturation and brightness by dragging graphical sliders.

Olympus SH-21 screen
The on-screen menus are excellent and take the toil out of snapping candid shots of canoodling couples.


So, beyond a nifty set of menus, what do you get for your money? At its heart is a 16-megapixel backlit sensor. Backlit simply means the photosites and the electronics that underpin it have been turned about-face, allowing for better light sensing and, in theory, more vivid, accurate results.

Olympus SH-21 test shot
The Olympus SH-21 did a great job of capturing realistic colours throughout my tests (click image to enlarge).

This is fronted by a 12.5x zoom, which is equivalent to 24-300mm in a 35mm camera. That's a very versatile range, suited to landscapes at the shorter end and wildlife at 300mm. Impressively, while the f/3 maximum wide-angle aperture is par for the course, it maintains f/5.9 at full telephoto, which will allow for well-illuminated results, shorter exposures and less chance of hand shake affecting your shots. That said, I was a little disappointed that exposure compensation runs only two stops in either direction, in 1/3EV steps.

The closest focusing distance varies between 10cm and 90cm at either end of the zoom, with a super-macro mode cutting it to 1cm for close work.

Olympus SH-21 test shot
The SH-21's self-selected macro mode is impressive, taking you to within 1cm of your subject (click image to enlarge).

The screen is touch-sensitive, allowing for either shooting or focusing with a single tap. Select the latter and a single tap locks the focus within your scene, so you can recompose your shot without it shifting. At that point the focus/shoot selector changes to a 'lock off' button, which releases the focus.

There are two panorama modes, allowing for half or full-circle capture, either automatically as you sweep across the scene before you, or by snapping discrete frames to stitch together.

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