The new SH-21 slots neatly into Olympus' Traveller range and provides compact design with a long, versatile wide-zoom lens and high-resolution 16MP sensor. But how does it fare on its full WDC test? Let’s find out.
The Olympus SH-21 combines as set of features and specification with a wide 12.5x 24-300mm long-zoom lens at an extremely competitive price that makes it look a real treat. In fact at £189.99 (RRP) it looks remarkable value indeed.
Olympus SH-21 Review – Features
The SH-21 is available in three flavours of black, red and a bronze-looking colour, each providing gravitas, frivolity and seriousness, respectively, to its looks that mean it’ll appeal, in terms of colour at least, to almost anyone in the market for such a camera.
Otherwise the SH-21 is conventional-looking with a fairly robust feel to a (surprisingly at this price point) metal body that has small handgrip (inside it are the SD/SDHC memory card and rechargeable battery pack slots) a smattering of controls across a top plate that also features stereo microphones for the Full HD 1080P video mode.
Unusually for cameras of this ilk, where menus reign supreme for all key camera controls, a shooting mode dial is employed here and holds the point of access to the main shooting modes. It sits on the top plate next to a nicely weighted shutter button with its surrounding zoom lever and a recessed on/off button that completes the top plate controls.
The usual collection of buttons and switches sit on the camera’s back, but the inclusion of a thumbwheel to the side of the 3-inch touch sensitive LCD, makes menu and settings scrolling user friendly and fast.
Speaking of menus, the SH-21’s are nice to use, logical and well thought out, like most of the latest Olympus models we’ve looked at recently. When accessed via the back plate Menu button, each of the menu options are held within a tabbed list starting with camera shooting settings, such as image size and compression/quality levels, through similar controls for video, playback and the deeper camera system settings, such as power saving, date and time set up and calibration of the touch screen.
When snapping, the screen can display a range of options from controlling the (rather limited) flash modes to the macro settings, exposure compensation and ISO and white balance settings.
Other information included on the screen and that can be toggled by pressing the Info setting on the thumbwheel – which also acts a four-way jog control – brings up a helpful rule of thirds composition grid, no info or basic menus down the right side. I was really pleased to see a live histogram can be activated as well, which helps get exposure spot on.
The touch screen technology employed on the SH-21 means the screen has a slightly milky look to it, presumably brought about by the extra layer employed to pick up the press of a finger. The screen is bright and clean otherwise but suffers in bright conditions and of course, finger smudges can affect its use too.
The touch snap setting has a reminder it is active on the display and works a little too effectively for my liking, I often had snaps of my coat or the ground as my finger brushed the screen while walking along or picking the camera up if I had left it switched on whereupon it will always take a blurred snap.
An on screen touch-the-screen marker denotes that Touch Snap is active, and it w=switches to touch AF when pressed again, whereupon, rather than it focusing and snapping a shot, it fixes the focus at the point in the scene you pressed the screen.
I found this mode more useful and less problematic in terms of wasted snaps than Touch Snap, which requires one-handed use of the camera and means as you (inevitably hit rather than gently press the screen) resulting in blurry or simply shaky snaps.
Other back plate controls include a direct movie-recording button, though this is a little fiddly to use if you have larger fingers as I do. I found I kept getting playback rather than recording video or vis versa, (it is the button directly under the video record button) so meant I missed key moments a couple of times as a result.
The last button of note at the bottom right of the camera’s back is the ? button. This activates the Help mode, which provides an explanation of the settings, and modes on the camera and this is a real bonus for those still finding there way around the camera.
Overall, the controls and handling are good, but if I had one other issue, it would be that the lens moves so quickly through its 24-300mm zoom range practice in using it is essential to stop keep bouncing the lens back and forth through its range as you try to get a reasonable composition.
I used Program AE for most shots but have taken shots across the camera’s full range of modes; I found the iAuto mode (iAuto tries to automatically select the best shooting mode for the scene before it, choosing landscapes for landscapes or macro for close up subjects and so on) was reliable for most situations, but landscapes, particularly sunsets, confused the system into thinking it needed the sport mode.
The benefit of iAuto is you do not need to go into menus to select the required mode, so saving time. Switching to one of the 16 scene modes which you can cycle through from the thumb wheel provide two pet modes (cat and dog), a moderately successful three-shot HDR mode while Portrait and Beauty modes are some of the other options available.
Program mode provides the greatest range of control options however, so being less automated allows for greater creative control – if you need it – for improved control over white balance, sensitivity and exposure compensation.
For further assistance and extra creativity, you can switch to the natty Live Guide mode, which provides a set of (admittedly) basic on-screen controls to quickly alter the saturation and brightness, say, by dragging graphical on-screen sliders.
At the SH-21’s core beats a 16-megapixel, backlit sensor (the backlit bit meaning the photo sites on each pixel and the associated electronics that underpin them, have been turned over), which, in theory at least, provides better light sensing, and more vibrant and accurate results.
The lens’ maximum aperture range of F/3 to F/5.9 is quite versatile, particularly at the 300mm end of the lens, so helps keep camera shake down, though the small size of the camera makes hand holding full zoom shots problematic (particularly for video capture) even with the image stabilisation running.
Focusing performance is okay, but I found in video mode it would have problems with anything cluttered, such as foliage and it was particularly frustrating when there were foreground objects; the AF assumes that the closest thing is the thing to be focused upon, even when it is not. This proved less problematic shooting stills however.
The closest focusing distance of 1cm in Super Macro mode is typically impressive of most Olympus (and many other makers) compacts, with normal focusing ranges running between 10cm and 90cm at either end of the zoom.
Olympus SH-21 Review – Image and Video Quality
I found the images the SH-21 produces are natural in terms of colour but lack contrast and seem, well, soft on too many occasions. Images shot at appropriate shutter speeds for the focal length in use (1/500th sec at 24mm for example) and a reasonable aperture (F4 or F/8) are just not sharp enough or lack bite.
Closer inspection reveals, it seems, image processing is leaching detail and noise reduction, so some astute sharpening and/or contrast tweaking is needed in software to really give those shots punch.
White balance seemed to suffer too, with slight variations on WB from shot to shot, even of the same scene, and this has been something I have noticed on previous Olympus models we have looked at recently.
The filters such as miniature and Watercolour are nice but the execution can be a bit hit and miss. Watercolour looks more like a negative, for example, the Drawing filter can miss entire elements from the shot while pop are and pinhole are both very effective at adding colour or providing an old fashioned look respectively.
Flash performance was okay and redeye refreshingly limited too, though flash modes are limited, no slow sync for example, unless you go into the scene modes and use the night portrait mode; at least there are ways to make the camera work for you with a little tinkering.
The SH-21’s video format is MPEG 4, 1080p or 720p resolution, with a maximum recording time of 29 minutes, switching to 640×480 pixel recording resolution and the clip length moves up to a respectable 4GB.
At 1080p resolution, results are good but again lacking contrast and I noticed shadow detail is very blocky, particular on some geese I recorded where their dark head plumage completely hid their eyes among the lack of detailed shadows.
It’s worth noting, sound cannot be captured if you want to zoom the lens and must be switched off in menu prior to recording, so you’ll need to plan focal lengths for the shoot if you want sound as well.
The audio is also marred by the sound of the senor moving about as it tries to stabilise your movements and that’s another shame. I also found the video playback rather jerky on my PC; on the camera it appears fine however.
It is at this point it's important to remind oneself that this camera's RRP is £189.99 and not much higher, and you'll likely be able to buy if to for much less, a quick trawl on the Internet revealed prices as low as £134; this for a 16MP compact choc full of clever kit and a versatile 24-300mm zoom lens. Throw in the HD video and the fun filters and effects and suddenly those foibles I mentioned start to be come less significant.And so, as a travellers companion snapper, which it is designed to be that won't break the bank, is easy to use and shoots enough quality (at least for most people requiring ìnormalî snaps rather than large wall mounted prints) then the SH-21 is to be lauded and well worth serious consideration. It's a real bargain.