Olympus SH-21 review

Billed as the ideal point-and-shoot camera for travellers, the Olympus SH-21 is designed for versatility: it’s just about small enough to fit into your jacket or trouser pocket, features a 12.5x optical zoom equivalent to a 24-300mm lens, can record 1080p HD video and comes with a touchscreen that (theoretically, at least) boosts user-friendliness. It even charges via USB.

We’ve always been a little wary of touchscreens on cameras – there’s the potential for changing settings by mistake – but the SH-21 pulls it off well. First, the screen isn’t over-sensitive, and it takes a fairly firm touch to register. Second, the touch function is only used to tweak camera settings in iAuto mode, and then only if you open up the “live guide” option. The rest of the time, it fulfils a “touch to focus” role. Tap something on the screen, and the camera focuses on it, or focuses and automatically takes a shot if “touch shooting” is turned on.

A nice touch

The focus setting is useful, particularly if you want to lock on to a subject that isn’t in the centre of the frame. It also combines with AF tracking so if you tap on a subject, which then moves, the camera will attempt to keep it in focus as long as it’s in the frame.

Live Guide is a newbie-friendly way to change the brightness, colour saturation and colour tone of a shot using touch-controlled sliders. You get to watch the shot change through the screen’s live view, which gives you a preview of the final photo. It’s a valuable feature.

Aside from the touchy stuff, the SH-21 features a range of other shooting modes, including program for those who want control over settings, and “handheld starlight” for taking sharper photos in dim conditions. And, naturally, there’s a full range of scene modes that optimise settings for shooting fireworks, sunsets, sporting events and other situations.

Picture quality

So on to image quality. While there’s nothing awful about the 16-megapixel shots the SH-21 turns out, there’s nothing particularly wow-worthy about them either.

Look closely at photos, even those at lower ISO settings, and there’s greater visible noise compared to some rival cameras. This graininess isn’t especially noticeable when photos are viewed on Facebook or similar – but if you’re planning on blowing them up for large prints it’s worth noting. You can also take automatic HDR shots, with the camera combining several exposures to show detail in both light and dark areas of an image - but these come off looking quite flat and unrealistic.

HD video quality is clear and sharp, and you can use the 12.5x zoom while filming, but despite the built-in anti-shake it doesn’t look great when you pan quickly. A steady hand is an asset here.

Verdict

The Olympus SH-21 is a versatile compact camera that combines a usefully large zoom range with a wide selection of shooting modes. The camera’s touchscreen doesn’t come off as a gimmick, and is genuinely useful at times.

However, if you’re looking for a point-and-shoot that delivers squeaky clean shots, this isn’t the camera for you: while snaps are acceptable at smaller sizes, there’s too much grainy noise when compared to similarly priced cameras from the likes of Canon.