Despite the growing popularity of mirrorless cameras, beginner DSLRs are still incredibly popular, and the D3500 is Nikon’s latest entry-level offering in a competitive market.
Nikon’s D3xxx range of entry-level DSLRs have proved successful in the past, and the company will be looking to continue that run with the D3500.
Aimed at the cost-conscious buyer who’s looking to take the next step in their photography journey, beginner DSLRs like the D3500 offer a blend of easy handling, solid performance and image quality far beyond what you can expect from a smartphone or most compact cameras.
That’s not forgetting the fact that you can change lenses, so while you’ll likely buy the D3500 with a standard 18-55mm ‘kit’ lens, to make the most of any DSLR you’ll want to add more lenses over time to suit the subjects or genres you like to shoot.
Nikon D3500 review: features
- New sensor, but effective resolution stays the same
- No touchscreen or 4K video
- Bluetooth connectivity
The D3500 retains the same effective 24.2MP pixel count as the D3400 which it supersedes, but Nikon stresses this is a new sensor, and closer inspection of the specs shows that the total count on the D3500’s sensor stands at 24.78MP, compared to 24.72MP on the D3400.
The APS-C sized sensor (typical for an entry-level DSLR, and much larger than the sensors used in most compact cameras) in the D3500 also does away with an optical low-pass filter to help improve image quality.
The D3500’s ISO sensitivity range of 100-25,600 is also pretty wide, but doesn’t improve on the D3400’s range.
Given the trend towards 4K video in the last year or so, especially in rival mirrorless cameras, it’s a little disappointing to see only Full HD capture on the D3500. It’s not all bad news though, as the D3500 can shoot at a smooth 60/50p, as well as 30/25p and 24p, while there are lower-resolution recording options as well. There’s also no microphone port, so you’ll need to rely on the D3500’s built-in monaural microphones – if you’re looking to shoot video regularly, you’re probably want to look elsewhere.
Nikon has also opted to carry over the same 3.0-inch display, with a modest 921,000-dot resolution, from the D3400. The screen is fixed, and sits flush with the body – if you want a vari-angle display on a Nikon DSLR you’ll need to look further up the range to the D5600 – while it’s also disappointing to see no touchscreen functionality, a feature that would really lend itself to a entry-level DSLR, with touchscreens having become second nature for anyone using a smartphone.
Complementing the rear display is an optical viewfinder. This is perhaps the most obvious feature that that distinguishes DSLRs from mirrorless cameras, with many similarly priced mirrorless cameras either relying solely on the rear screen for shooting, while others will feature electronic viewfinders (EVF) with pretty modest resolutions (at this price point).
EVFs certainly have their advantages, especially as you can see the exposure ‘live’, meaning you don’t get any nasty surprises when you fire the shutter, although many photographers prefer the cleaner view offered by an optical viewfinder. The optical viewfinder on the D3500 offers a coverage of 95%, which is typical for an entry-level DSLR, so you may need to be a bit careful when framing some shots to avoid unwanted elements creeping into the edges of the frame.
As on the D3400 there’s no Wi-Fi connectivity, but you do get Bluetooth, so it’s possible to transfer images via Nikon’s SnapBridge feature. Here, an always-on Bluetooth Low Energy connection is made between the camera and your smart device, and you can configure SnapBridge so that images are automatically transferred as you shoot, or later, so you can select particular images to transfer.
Nikon D3500 review: build and handling
- Design quite a change from the D3400
- More substantial grip
- Streamlined controls
While the specification of the Nikon D3500 has changed little from the D3400, the design has had a bit of an overhaul, with the new camera more closely related to the D5600 aesthetically.
The most notable change is that the grip is now more substantial when you pick the D3500 up. It certainly makes the camera fit comfortably in the hand, while the larger grip also makes it better balanced when shooting with longer and/or heavier lenses.
The larger handgrip hasn’t made the D3500 any heavier than the D3400, with Nikon actually managing to shave 30g off the weight, with the D3500 tipping the scales at 415g with its battery installed. Nikon has also reduced the depth of the D3500 by 6mm, with the camera measuring 124 x 97 x 69.5mm.
The top of the D3500 has also been refined over the D3400, and again is now more in line with D5600. There’s a fairly streamlined array of controls, with the mode dial now featuring a switch to activate Live View (enabling you to shoot using the rear display rather than the viewfinder) around its collar.
Sitting next to this is a fully-exposed command dial, allowing you to toggle settings like shutter speed and aperture depending on the mode you’re in, while the exposure compensation button just in front allows you to quickly fine-tune the exposure if needed.
There are more changes on the back of the D3500. Gone are the five buttons that sat to the left of the D3400’s display. Instead, the screen now sits almost flush with the edge of the body, with these controls re-distributed elsewhere on the back of the camera.
There’s a dedicated button for the flash to the left of the viewfinder, and an info button to the right of the viewfinder, with the remaining controls arranged around the multi-directional control pad.
A little annoying is the absence of the customizable Fn button that was a handy feature on the D3400, particularly in the absence of a direct control for ISO. It means you have to dive into the menu to tweak the sensitivity, although it’s nice to see the dedicated drive mode button hasn’t disappeared, which is a control you’ll no doubt find useful if you tend to call upon burst-shooting and self-timer options with any frequency.
For the first-time user, the amount of exterior controls is just about right – making the D3500 approachable without appearing too daunting. Just bear in mind that as your competence develops you may become a little frustrated that some settings can be a little slow to access.
Nikon has also once again implemented its Guide mode feature on the D3500. Designed to help the novice user get to grips with their camera, it provides an alternative to the main menus, and helps the user quickly capture specific types of images. There’s also the familiar ‘i’ button, which can be called upon to explain camera functions.
Nikon D3500 review: autofocus
- Focusing fine for static subjects
- Can struggle when tracking a subject
- Touchscreen absence highlighted when using Live View
The autofocus system remains unchanged from the one in the D3400 (and the D3300 for that matter).
This sees the same 11-point Multi CAM 1000 AF system that covers a decent amount of the viewfinder in a diamond formation, with the system featuring a couple more AF points than Canon’s closest rival, EOS Rebel T7 (known as the EOS 2000D outside the US).
Combined with the AF-P 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR kit lens, and provided your subject isn’t on the periphery of the frame, the AF system will do a solid job of locking onto static subjects. Focusing is quiet and, in good light, nice and brisk, although it inevitably slows down a tad in poor light, and it’s in these circumstances that we’d look to use the central AF point more, taking advantage of its enhanced cross-type sensitivity. You’ll find that the camera will lock on quicker than if you opt to use one of the outer 10 AF points, while there’s also an AF assist lamp to help out when light levels are really low, although this can be turned off if you want, as it can be distracting in some conditions.
With focusing points a little thin on the ground, it can struggle to track subjects as they move round the frame. It’s here where a few more AF points would be welcome, as the 11 points are spread out a little too much, resulting in the camera losing your subject if they’re not that prominent in the frame.
If you want to use the D3500’s rear display you’ll need to switch over to Live View focusing, and this is where you’ll find mirrorless cameras have an edge. While it’s possible to focus right to the edges of the frame, focusing speed does take a bit of a knock. The absence of a touchscreen also becomes an issue here, as it can be quite a slow process using the multi-directional pad to maneuver the focusing area around the frame – a simple tap of the screen would be much quicker.
Nikon D3500 review: performance
- 5fps burst shooting speed
- Solid metering
- Remarkable battery life
With a burst shooting speed of just 5fps, the Nikon D3500 isn’t really a camera for those who want to shoot a lot of action. It’s better than the EOS Rebel T7 / 2000D’s sluggish 3fps, but some comparable mirrorless cameras can shoot quicker if that’s a key priority. Sports and other fast-moving action aside, though, it should be satisfactory for most shooting situations.
The D3500’s metering performed well in our tests, delivering consistent exposures for most scenes, and even avoiding overexposing predominantly dark subjects. Thanks to the dedicated exposure compensation button on the top plate, which works in tandem with the rear command dial, if you do need to dial in compensation, it’s quick and easy to do so.
As we found with the D3400, the D3500’s Auto White Balance is similarly proficient, only slipping up a couple of times during our review. It actually coped very well under artificial lighting, with only a little warmth taken away in some of our shots, while mixed lighting was handled well.
The viewfinder on the D3500 is nice and clear, delivering a pleasingly bright view with good color accuracy. Its LCD display, despite its modest resolution compared to those on pricier rivals, shows details clearly when you’re reviewing images and reproduces the scene you’re shooting faithfully, meaning there are no nasty surprises when you view images later on a larger display.
You’ll need to download Nikon’s free SnapBridge app (for both iOS and Android) to wirelessly transfer images. While the system hasn’t had the best reception since its introduction, we found it pretty easy and straightforward to set up a connection between our iPhone and the D3500, enabling us to transfer images quite easily.
Battery life is one of the D3500’s real trump cards. While the D3400 had an impressive-enough battery life of 1,200 shots, Nikon has managed to extend this to a staggering 1,550 shots – that’s much better than Canon DSLRs of a similar price, and significantly better than the typical battery life of around 300 shots for entry-level mirrorless cameras.
Nikon D3500 review: image quality
- Sensor is capable of producing excellent detail
- Noise performance is very good
- Versatile dynamic range
Another strength of the Nikon D3500 is its excellent 24.2MP sensor. With the absence of an optical low-pass filter in front of the sensor, it’s possible to capture images really rich in detail – in fact, results can match those from cameras well over double the price.
To make the most of this sensor though, you’ll want to think about investing in a lens other than the bundled 18-55mm VR lens. You don’t have to spend a fortune though: Nikon’s AF-S DX 35mm f/1.8G is a brilliant partner for the D3500, and will set you back under $200 / £200. If you’re just going to shoot with the 18-55mm VR lens, images can be a little soft at the edges, although this isn’t unique to Nikon’s bundled lens, with similar optics from rival brands delivering similar quality.
Dynamic range performance is also good – it’s possible to underexpose shots pretty substantially (around 3-3.5 EV stops) and still be able to recover detail in the shadows without image noise (fuzziness) degrading the image.
The D3500 offers pretty decent high-ISO performance, with shots captured up to ISO800/1600 showing few signs of image noise, with good color rendition. Shoot above that and you’ll need to be mindful that image noise becomes more pronounced, with detail suffering as noise reduction is applied. For the best results, you’ll want to capture raw files, which will allow you greater control when processing in software later on.
Nikon’s Picture Control options provide a modest range of color and contrast treatments. There are seven modes to choose from: Standard, Vivid, Neutral, Monochrome, Portrait, Landscape and Flat (suited to video), while all can be adjusted fairly comprehensively with regards to contrast, saturation, brightness and so on.
Nikon D3500 review: verdict
Like the D3400 before it, the Nikon D3500 is by no means a perfect camera – but for the novice photographer it ticks an awful lot of boxes.
Let’s get the negatives out of the way first: it’s a shame there’s no 4K video capture or touchscreen functionality, while it also feels like some cost-cutting has been undertaken, with some external controls that were present on the D3400 dropped.
Those concerns aside, for the beginner DSLR user the D3500 does a lot of things very well. The 24.2MP sensor delivers excellent results, although as we’ve mentioned you’ll want to invest in some additional lenses to make the most of the sensor – and there’s a huge range of lenses available to suit pretty much every budget.
The excellent 1,550-shot battery life shouldn’t be overlooked – it means you can shoot to your heart’s content for long periods without worrying about your camera dying on you, while the straightforward control layout means new users should be able get to grips with the D3500 pretty quickly – this is aided by the D3500’s useful Guide mode, helping inexperienced users understand some of the camera’s core settings and build their confidence.
More AF points would have been nice, but the 11-point AF system works for general shooting, and it’ll do the job for some moving subjects too.
If you’re looking to get more creative with your photography, and looking for your first DSLR, the Nikon D3500 is hard to beat.
Nikon D3500 review: competition
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