Nikon D3500 DSLR Review
What We Love. Nikon has focused its efforts on creating excellent image quality with the D3500 DSLR camera, and it succeeded versus similarly priced entry-level DSLRs. Images look great in both JPEG and RAW, and they don't need a lot of editing to deliver the desired results. Nikon has given the D3500 a low price, enhancing its appeal.
What We'd Change. It'd be nice to have a few more upgrades in features from what was found with the predecessor to the Nikon D3500. Because this model is aimed at those new to DSLR photography, an articulated LCD with touch functions would've been a good starting point for a feature upgrade.
Pick This Up If... You want a lightweight, inexpensive DSLR that produces image quality better than you'd expect for the price. For those new to DSLR photography, or for those who own an advanced Nikon DSLR who and are seeking a companion camera for travel, the D3500 is a smart choice.
| 20 mm | F/4 | 1/4000 | ISO 640 |
A wise person (who are we kidding; it was probably Homer Simpson) once said, when referring to a certain ice cream restaurant, "Why make 99 flavors when you can't get vanilla right?"
The point being: Why create a product with dozens of extra features when the core feature isn't up to par?
Nikon took that idea to heart with the entry-level Nikon D3500 DSLR camera. They made sure to deliver on this camera's primary function of creating great photographic quality ... so much so that they didn't offer a lot of bells and whistles to distract from the main goal.
All of that adds up to a $500 DSLR camera (including a lens!) that will give you better image quality than similarly priced models. Unfortunately, by not adding a lot of extra features, it doesn't seem like Nikon distinguished the D3500 enough from its predecessor -- the Nikon D3400.
To be fair, the D3500 has a few nice upgrades from the older model, including an improved battery life by roughly 25% and a lower introductory price. You can control the D3500 remotely over Bluetooth as well.
However, Nikon chose to leave some key features the same as were found in the D3400, including HD video recording (no 4K movies), an 11-point AF system, a maximum ISO setting of 25,600, the same size of APS-C image sensor, and the same EXPEED 4 image processor.
It'd be easier to recommend an upgrade to D3400 owners if some of these features had been improved, especially considering the D3400 is a three-year-old design.
Still, if you don't already own the Nikon D3400, the D3500 is a really nice camera for the price. It's easy to recommend this model to those seeking a first DSLR camera or to those who own an advanced Nikon DSLR and are looking for a lightweight model to carry on vacation that can still use the same set of lenses ... all while delivering excellent image quality for the money.
- 24.2MP, APS-C sensor size (23.5 x 15.6 mm)
- 3:2 aspect ratio
- Nikon F lens mount
- JPEG and RAW 12-bit image formats
- Eye-level pentamirror SLR viewfinder (95% coverage)
- TTL autofocus with 11 AF points
- TTL exposure metering using 420-pixel RGB sensor
- ISO range 100-25,600
- Shutter speed range 1/4000 to 30 seconds
- Exposure compensation: -/+ 5 stops in 1/3 increments
- Flash exposure compensation: +3 to -1 in 1/3 increments
- High-speed continuous shooting: 5 shots per second
- Maximum video resolution: Full HD, 60 fps
- 3.0-inch LCD, 921,000 pixels
- Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.1 connectivity
- Size: 4.9 x 3.9 x 2.8 inches
- Weight: 12.9 oz. (body only)
WHAT'S IN THE BOX
- Camera body
- Battery Pack EN-EL14a
- Battery Charger MH-24
- Neck Strap AN-DC3
- Eyecup DK-25
BUILD QUALITY & DESIGN
For those who want to hike with a DSLR camera or carry it for a full day of sight-seeing while on vacation, the Nikon D3500 is a great choice. This is one of the lightest DSLR cameras you can find. Where the D3400 weighed 14 ounces with just the camera body, the D3500 weighs almost 10% less at 12.9 ounces.
Even with a lightweight design, the D3500 feels well-built and sturdy. It doesn't have any pieces or areas that feel loose or flimsy. Although the Nikon D3500 DSLR camera is an all-plastic model, its build quality is sturdier than similarly priced DSLR cameras.
The mode dial on the top of this model has a mixture of advanced and automatic shooting modes. Both beginner and intermediate level photographers should be able to make use of this camera successfully.
One of the options on the mode dial is Guide Mode. This shows information on the LCD screen that inexperienced photographers can use to learn more about photography and about how to use the D3500.
In addition to reducing the weight of the Nikon D3500 DSLR, the manufacturer also shrunk the size of the camera body just slightly. Yet, Nikon managed to increase the depth of the right-hand grip, making it easier for photographers to grip the camera tightly and securely.
The hand grip and the thumbpad on the back both have a slightly rubbery coating, which enhances the photographer's ability to hold this model steadily.
Nikon also managed to rework the layout of the control dials and buttons on this model, creating plenty of space between the buttons. This reduces the chances of someone pressing the wrong button while aiming at another button.
Considering its entry-level price, we really like the button layout of the D3500. Its design easily outdoes the majority of similarly priced DSLR cameras.
The Nikon D3500 makes use of a Live View lever, which is placed next to the mode dial. This toggle lever simplifies the process of switching between Live View and Viewfinder modes in a hurry.
MENUS & DISPLAYS
When shooting with the D3500, you can frame the scene through the viewfinder or the LCD screen. The display screen is of high quality, giving you sharp images with 921,000 pixels of resolution.
This is a fixed LCD screen, so it doesn't rotate away from the camera body. It has no touch control capability either. Adding an articulated LCD would've been a nice upgrade for the D3500 versus the D3400, as a tiltable LCD simplifies shooting photos with the camera attached to a tripod. However, we can understand this omission, as Nikon had a low introductory price goal in mind with the D3500 that it hit successfully.
The optical viewfinder is of a decent quality. Its build is not going to rival that of advanced Nikon DSLRs, but it easily outperforms cheap electronic viewfinders, as you find on quite a few mirrorless cameras.
The menu structure will be a little frustrating to use for those who commonly shoot with advanced Nikon DSLR cameras and who like to change the camera's shooting settings regularly. You'll end up having to press the "i" button to make the majority of changes to the settings. There's no way to save commonly used settings with a custom mode.
SPEED & AF PERFORMANCE
| 55 mm | F/11 | 1/800 | ISO 800 |
Nikon DSLRs tend to have excellent autofocus performance, and the D3500 is no exception. The AF system only uses 11 points, but it works fast and accurately.
The 11 points are all near the middle of the frame, so if you want to focus on an item near the edge of the frame, you'll have to focus on the item you want, hold down the shutter button halfway, and then recompose the scene.
The vibration reduction feature built into the kit lens that shipped with our test camera (the AF-P DX NIKKOR 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR kit lens) also helps with quick autofocus performance.
One item we need to mention: The D3500 does not have an autofocus motor built into camera body. You'll have to only use lenses that have an AF motor built into them.
Something that may affect your ability to shoot spontaneous photos is the way the kit lens operates. When you want to store the zoom lens, you'll twist it down to its smallest size, locking the zoom ring in place.
Before you can use the lens again later, you must press a button on the lens and turn the zoom ring to extend the lens. Only then can you begin shooting photos. Forget to do this, and you'll miss a few spontaneous shots as you fiddle with the lens.
| 22 mm | F/11 | 1/1600 | ISO 800 |
Metering results with the Nikon D3500 DSLR are reasonably accurate. The exposures look good in a variety of shooting conditions.
Nikon included Active D-Lighting technology with this model, and it does a good job of allowing details to be visible in deep shadows.
You can choose among matrix, center-weighted, or spot metering with the D3500.
STILL IMAGE QUALITY
| 38 mm | F/4.8 | 1/3200 | ISO 400 |
Images look nice straight out of the camera when shooting either JPEG or RAW. Upon closer inspection, you may notice a bit of softness with JPEG photos if you're extremely observant. Most of these issues can be fixed quickly with editing software.
Compared to other cameras in this price range, the D3500's photos are well above average in terms of quality straight out of the camera. For an entry-level camera, the image quality is better than expected.
Should you want to do a quick edit on a photo, Nikon included useful in-camera editing software for quick touch-ups, which is handy.
If you like shooting in a RAW image format, you'll be disappointed that you're limited to 12-bit compressed RAW photos, instead of 14-bit RAW.
The Nikon D3500 has a 24.2-megapixel APS-C sized image sensor, which is a typical size of chip for entry-level DSLRs (Nikon calls it a DX sensor). The image quality with this image sensor isn't going to match that of high-end Nikon DSLRs that have full-frame image sensors, but it still performs very impressively for the price you'll pay.
As with the majority of entry-level cameras, the Nikon D3500's image quality is better when shooting in daylight than when shooting in low light conditions.
For flash photos, you can rely on the popup built-in flash that's centered over the lens. There's a Flash button to the left of the viewfinder that allows you to open the flash quickly whenever you want to use it.
You also can add an external flash to the D3500's hot shoe if you'd like to create flash photos of a higher quality.
| 18 mm | F/5 | 1/30 | ISO 5600 |
The Nikon D3500 camera carries an ISO range of 100 to 25,600, which is typical of an entry-level DSLR camera.
When shooting in JPEG, problems with noise aren't really noticeable up to ISO 800. At ISO 1600, 3200, and 6400 settings, noise can be seen when viewing the images at large sizes. Noise is noticeable at all image sizes with ISO settings of 12,800 and 25,600. Still, the noise levels aren't as bad as they are with other entry-level DSLRs.
(For more about the D3500's ISO performance, check out our Sample Photos page. We shot a series of JPEG photos using various ISO ranges, with no editing applied, so you can judge the noise at each level for yourself.)
We should mention that RAW files show significantly less noise at high ISO settings than JPEG files with this Nikon camera. So if you know you need to shoot a series of shots with high ISO settings, you may want to shoot in RAW.
It's a bit of a disappointment that the D3500 is unable to record movies in 4K resolution. Any new camera should have this capability.
At the maximum video resolution of full HD (1920x1080 pixels), you can record at frame speeds between 24 and 60 frames per second.
The autofocus mechanism works quickly when shooting movies, even as you move the zoom lens back and forth. However, the AF motor does cause some noise that the camera's microphone may pick up in the recording.
Occasionally, when you're shooting movies at a low f-stop number, the autofocus system may struggle to keep the subject in focus. Use a large f-stop number when shooting movies to avoid this problem.
| 32 mm | F/8 | 1/640 | ISO 100 |
New to the D3500 versus its predecessor, you have the option to control the camera wirelessly over a Bluetooth connection using the SnapBridge app from Nikon. This app also allows you to transfer photos over Bluetooth from the camera to a smartphone. You can set the transfer feature to run in the background if you like.
It felt like photo transfer was slower than it should be, though, even when using the setting that allows you to condense full resolution photos down to 2 MB of storage space.
Shooting photos using the app isn't as easy as it could be, unfortunately. There's no way to preview the shot on the smartphone screen, meaning you have to line up all the settings using the camera. This really hinders the usefulness of the remote shooting app.
The D3500 has WiFi connectivity, but it does not include NFC connectivity.
PROS & CONS
| 18 mm | F/8 | 1/400 | ISO 100 |
- Better image quality than you'd expect at this price
- Offers a good value
- Lightweight camera design
- Size of right-hand grip is larger than average, allowing for a firm hold on the camera
- Performance at high ISO settings in the RAW image format is well above average for an entry-level camera
- Ergonomics and placement of buttons and dials are excellent
- Includes a Guide Mode to help beginners learn more about photography
- Live View toggle lever is nicely placed for easy access
- Excellent battery life
- Good burst mode speed for a camera in this price range at 5 fps
- Cannot shoot 4K video
- Image format limited to 12-bit compressed RAW, rather than 14-bit RAW
- LCD screen does not rotate and does not have touch capabilities
- Kit lens has an odd lock button that may cause you to miss a spontaneous photo
- Only 11 autofocus points
- Would be nice if it had more upgrades over its predecessor (the D3400)
- Autofocus in video struggles at low f-stop settings
- Doesn't have a lot of add-on extras
If your primary consideration when shopping for an entry-level DSLR is still image quality, you'll appreciate the Nikon D3500 DSLR. Among entry-level DSLRs, its image quality ranks among the best in both RAW and JPEG image formats straight out of the camera.
However, if you also want a camera with plenty of the latest and greatest bells and whistles, you're going to be disappointed. The D3500 has a few handy upgrades over its predecessor, the D3400, but nowhere near enough changes to cause us to recommend that D3400 owners switch to the D3500.
But for those who don't already own the D3400, the Nikon D3500 is a great first DSLR camera or a nice choice as a second camera to pair with an advanced Nikon DSLR, so the two models can share lenses.
A low introductory price point for the D3500, coupled with the excellent image quality, will be the factors that tip the scales in favor of this camera for a lot of photographers. It certainly has flaws -- like any entry-level DSLR -- but its strong image quality is impossible to ignore.
Our recommendation: Versus other entry-level DSLR cameras, the Nikon D3500 has two significant advantages: It delivers better image quality than you'd expect versus competitors, while maintaining a lower price point. The D3500 is too similar to the D3400 (or even the D3300 for some photographers' tastes), so upgrading when you already own those cameras isn't beneficial. But for anyone else who wants great image quality in a lightweight, inexpensive camera, the D3500 should be near the top of your wish list.
NOTE: This page was originally published as a Preview in August of 2018; we updated it to a full review in September of 2019.
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