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Olympus SH-21 review: Olympus SH-21

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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.

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8.3

Olympus SH-21

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.

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.

Features

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.

Specs

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.

Test results

The SH-21 put in a great performance in the still-life test, in which I photographed a collection of objects with various textures, surface colours and reflective properties three times: firstly under studio lighting, then using ambient light and finally with the onboard flash.

As is the case with every camera, the studio-lit results were the best, with deep colours, strong contrasts and fine detail across each surface.

The SH-21 self-selected f/4.6 here -- an aperture it maintained when switching to either ambient light or the onboard flash. To compensate, it increased sensitivity under each of these latter conditions from ISO 160 to ISO 400. This introduced a very small amount of noise to the results, but it was certainly not sufficient to give a cause for concern.

Olympus SH-21 test shot
As with other cameras, the SH-21 performed best in the still-life test when shooting under studio lighting. However, results were still sharp and vivid under ambient light and when using the flash (click image to enlarge).

However, there was more pronounced noise in the results from outside, shooting a landscape under overcast skies. In this test shot of the London Eye and Houses of Parliament, noise is particularly evident in the spokes of the wheel and on Big Ben when either is zoomed to 100 per cent. Fortunately, when zoomed out, this isn't obvious, so it shouldn't spoil the image when printed or used online (unless you're cropping the details).

Olympus SH-21 test shot
There was some noise in this image shot under overcast skies, which was most obvious in areas of high detail (click image to enlarge).

In brighter conditions, however, the noise disappeared. This macro shot of a teasel demonstrates an impressive level of detail that is hard to fault, with perfect exposure and focus. The rapid fall-off in focus outside of the sweet spot effectively draws the eye, while keeping the individual barbs on each spine sharp and clear.

Olympus SH-21 test shot
There's an impressive level of detail in this shot of a well illuminated subject. As with the log above, the SH-21 self-selected a macro setting for this shot, based on our proximity to the subject (click image to enlarge).

There was no evidence of any colour fringing in any of the tests. This can sometimes manifest when the lens doesn't perfectly align each of the available wavelengths of light in the visible spectrum. Furthermore, in a high-contrast test image, I again had to zoom the image to 100 per cent before I found tiny samples of burned-out detail. This is impressive indeed.

Olympus SH-21 test shot
There's a strong contrast in this image with a bright white wooden wall on the hut at the top of the building, and shaded bricks to the front. However, the SH-21 did a great job of accurately capturing the tones without burning out the brighter details (click image to enlarge).

Video

The SH-21's native video format is MPEG 4, 1080p or 720p resolution, with a maximum recording time of 29 minutes. At a 640x480 pixel resolution, it shoots up to a capacity of 4GB.

At 1080p resolution, the results were very impressive. Footage was sharp and well exposed, even where characterised by a narrow colour palette, as is the case with those scenes in our test video dominated by water flowing over a weir. It also compensated well for changing light levels.

The soundtrack was clearly recorded too, although it was spoiled in places by ambient wind noise.

 

Conclusion

I don't entirely agree with Olympus' claim of an 'ultra-slim design', but there's no denying this is an impressive bundle. Occasional noise aside, the results were consistently sharp, vivid and realistic.

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the SH-21 is the price. For a camera so accomplished, £170 is a bargain. As such, I highly recommend it.