Olympus SH-21 - Attractive Features For Travelers

12/17/2012 2:56:14 PM

Takes this high-spec, low-cost camera for a spin

One of many new cameras announced by Olympus at CES 2012, the SH-21 is a robust compact that boasts a 16-megapixel backlit CMOS sensor and 12.5x optical zoom lens with Image Stabilization. Billed as the ideal travel companion for globetrotting photographers, the versatile 24-300mm (35mm equivalent) zoom range offered by the lens, along with additional features like 7fps continuous shooting and Full HD movie recording ability all add up to what appears to be a very well-rounded little camera judging from its initial specifications.

In the flesh, the SH-21 isn’t the daintiest compact we’ve handled, but in this case, that’s no bad thing. Its chunkier-than-average dimensions sets it apart from the impossibly slim fashion oriented set of compacts, making it look and feel more like the sort of camera that could take a bit of punishment during a life on the road. Refreshingly, unlike a lot of the perfectly-smooth, slippery compacts we’ve reviewed recently (which seemingly have been designed with aesthetics rather than practicality in mind), the SH-21 offers a gently curved and textured front grip which in conjunction with a further textured thumb pad around the back allows for a firm grasp on the camera.

Olympus SH-21

The sturdy outer shell adds a sturdy feel to this well-balanced compact, which is only let down by the little plastic mode dial mounted on the top panel. Otherwise, all of the controls feel well-made and correctly proportioned.

The front plate houses a built-in flash unit, AF-assist lamp and the lens housing, which protrudes slightly from the surface of the camera when it’s powered down, but doesn’t prevent it from being easily slipped into a pocket. The positioning of the flash unit is somewhat unusual, being placed just above the front grip (rather than on the opposite end, which is where you’d usually find it on other compacts). This means that you have to be careful about the placement of your index finger when grasping the camera, to avoid obscuring it: this is essentially a minor complaint, but one niggle to be aware of nonetheless.

The new SH-21 slots neatly into Olympus' Traveler range and provides compact design with a long, versatile wide-zoom lens and high-resolution 16MP sensor

The new SH-21 slots neatly into Olympus' Traveler range and provides compact design with a long, versatile wide-zoom lens and high-resolution 16MP sensor

The top panel – accented by a complementary glossy gun-metal grey strip to enhance the otherwise matt black finish of our test model plays host to a tiny illuminated power button, zoom-lever encircled shutter release and small plastic mode dial, in addition to the stereo microphones that are employed when shooting HD movies.

The mode dial offers 8 different slots, comprising iAuto, Program Auto, Photo with Movie Clip, 3D, Panorama, Hand-held Twilight, plus access to 16 scene modes. There’s also a shortcut to a bank of Magic Filters a popular feature that we’ve seen incorporated into many recent Olympus launches. The latter provides 10 different filters comprising Pop Art, Pin Hole, Fish Eye, Drawing, Soft Focus, Punk, Sparkle, Watercolour, Reflection and Miniature each of which produces a distinctive look that allows you to customize your shots in-camera. Scroll through the menu and you get a live preview of how the scene in front of the lens will look with the effect applied a useful feature that speeds up the selection process.

Manual controls

The modes that the SH-21 provides are largely automatic in nature by default, however there is the opportunity to operate some of them manually if you prefer. For instance, when selecting the camera’s 3D shooting mode, you’re given the choice of automatic functionality whereby you take the first shot, then the camera will automatically take a second one once it’s detected that you’ve lined it up correctly or you can take control of it when you’re ready for this action to occur instead. Similarly, you can allow the camera to record a quick succession of shots as you can around a wide scene, after which it’ll present you with a panorama seamlessly stitched and ready to print. Alternatively, you can opt to take each shot under your own steam, using the ‘old school’ method of aligning each successive frame with a ghost image of the last (at a resolution of 2-megapixels). Finally, there’s the opportunity to take full-resolution individual shots that are ready to export to a PC for manual stitching in your software of choice.

Macro mode is very useful to take a photograph of an image smaller than your hand

Macro mode is very useful to take a photograph of an image smaller than your hand

iAuto is a fully automatic exposure mode that quickly analyses your subject and selects the appropriate scene mode and combination of settings to suit the situation, while the scene mode menu gives you the opportunity to decide for yourself instead. The useful Hand-held Twilight mode automatically boosts the sensitivity to help combat camera shake, plus there’s the option of allowing the camera to record a short movie clip either side of a still shot using the Photo with Movie Clip feature: invaluable if you like to mix things up when making creative slideshows to share with friends and family for example.

In addition to the albeit a little limited opportunities for manual operation of some functions, he SH-21 provides more advanced enthusiasts with a Program Auto mode, which lets you dictate settings like the flash mode, macro setting, self-time, exposure compensation, white balance, ISO and drive mode. All of these are available in a quick-access on screen menu for speedier operation, with further options stashed in the main menu system.

The back of the camera is largely dominated by its 3-inch touchscreen, with a stack of glossy buttons neatly arranged to the right. A one-touch movie button takes the top spot and provides easy access to the SH-21’s Full HD move function. Below, there’s a playback button, scrolling four-way d-pad, Menu and Help buttons. The up and down keys double as Info and Delete buttons, with the former allowing you to toggle between options like keeping the screen clear of icons and shooting information, or turning on features like a handy compositional grid and live histogram.

The central OK button inside the scroll wheel calls up the previously-mentioned quick on-screen menu when in shooting mode presenting you with different settings for speedy alteration. In addition to these hard controls, the SH-21’s touchscreen offers further features that prove useful in some situations not least Touch Shutter and Touch AF functionality. The former lets you tap the screen in the area you want to camera to focus and it’ll automatically fire off a shot without you having to press the shutter release: useful for fast-moving situations when you don’t want to miss any of the action. The latter disables the shutter release functionality and just allows you to touch the screen wherever you want to position your AF point, after which you fire the shutter when you’re ready to take the shot. This is perfect for situations where the AF system might be confused for instance, in busy scenes with multiple potential subjects as well as for creating off-centre compositions.


The combination of physical and touch controls add up to a reasonably slick shooting experience. However, the lack of touchscreen operation once you’re in the menu system is a little odd all you can use it for is focusing and flicking through shots in playback. The metering system is largely accurate, although some scenes can trick it into overexposing brighter detail on occasion. This can be compensated for to some extent by employing the Shadow Adjustment or HDR features. Colours are generally faithful, although the WB system does struggle with images taken under tungsten lighting in particular, producing overly warm tones. Nosie is well-controlled up o ISO 800, although a slightly aggressive noise reduction system does rob images of some fine detail from ISO 400 upwards. With a bit of a mixed performance overall, the SH-21 delivers in terms of the features it has to offer, but the image quality under anything other than decent light leaves room for improvement. Nonetheless, the SH-21 offers a slightly-better-than-average overall package for a good price and delivers plenty of attractive features for travelers.


·         Price: $285

·         Megapixels: 16

·         Sensor: 1/2.3-inch CMOS

·         LCD: 3-inch, TFT Touch-Panel, 460,00-dots

·         ISO: Auto, High Auto, ISO 80-3200

·         Video: Full HD, 1920x1080 (30fps)

·         Memory cards: SD, SDHC, SDXC

·         Dimensions: 105.4 x 59.4 x 30.6 mm

·         Web:

·         Total: 7/10


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