For years, Nikon’s D3XXX series of cameras has been my recommendation for anyone looking for their first DSLR. The Nikon D3500 is the latest model in the line and it replaces the D3400. While it has a very similar specification as the camera it replaces, the D3500’s APS-C format 24.2Mp sensor is new (although it has the same effective pixel count as the previous chip). In addition, it’s a little lighter than the D3400 and its battery lasts for a few more shots. Nikon has also tweaked its design a bit in comparison with the D3400.
Unlike most recently announced cameras, the Nikon D3500 is a DSLR. That means it has a mirror and an optical viewfinder. Having an optical viewfinder helps give the D3500 much longer battery life than the average mirrorless camera, but it also means that you can’t see the impact of setting changes in there. If you switch to live view mode and compose images on the viewfinder, you’ll see the exposure change if you make an adjustment, but it’s not possible in the viewfinder.
As the D3500’s viewfinder shows 95% of the image that is captured, there’s a chance that you may include a few unseen objects around the edge of the frame. They can easily be cropped out, but it’s worth having a quick look around before you press the shutter release.
The D3500 has the same effective pixel count as the D3400. As it’s an APS-C format sensor, it’s much bigger than the sensors in mobile phones and most compact cameras. That’s good news for image quality but it also means you get much more control over depth of field and it’s far easier to blur the background of a portrait.
The sensor is paired with Nikon’s Expeed 4 processing engine.
Nikon has stuck with the same sensitivity range, ISO 100-25,600, as with the D3400.
Given the predominance of 4K video capability in mirrorless cameras it’s disappointing that Nikon has limited the D3500 to Full HD (1920 x 1080), but it’s possible to shoot in 60p/50p/30p/25p/24p.
There’s also no headphone or mic port and the screen is fixed, which isn’t ideal for video.
In addition to the imaging sensor that has 24.2million effective pixels, there’s also a sensor that’s dedicated to the phase detection autofocus (AF) system. This is the 11-point AF system that operates when images are composed in the viewfinder.
The D3500 can also focus automatically when images are composed on the screen, but this uses information drawn from the imaging sensor and it relies on contrast detection.
As I mentioned earlier, the D3500’s 3-inch 921,000-dot screen is fixed, which means it can’t be tilted to give a better view when shooting above or below head height. It’s also not touch-sensitive.
That helps keep the price down, if you want that extra functionality, check out the Nikon D5600.
Like the D3400, the Nikon D3500 uses Nikon’s EN-EL14a rechargeable Li-ion battery. However, Nikon has managed to extend the D3500’s battery life by 30%. This means that it’s capable of powering around 1,550 shots on a single charge. That’s up from 1,200 shots with the D3400.
Most photographers using a mirrorless camera would be very envious of such an impressively long battery life.
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Build and Handling
In a change from the D3400, the Nikon D3500 has a monocoque construction – like the Nikon D5600. This means that there are fewer joints in the body and it’s a bit lighter than the D3400.
Although the D3500 doesn’t feel quite as tough as cameras further up Nikon’s DSLR line, it feels reasonably good for an entry-level model. The grip is particularly impressive as it’s nice and deep. Nikon has make the body thin so that the deep grip doesn’t increase the overall size.
The D3500 has an uncomplicated control arrangement with a smattering of buttons across its back and a mode dial, command dial and two buttons plus the shutter release on its top plate. The exposure compensation button sits just behind and to the right of the shutter button, so it’s easy to locate when you’re looking in the viewfinder.
In manual exposure mode, the exposure compensation button is used in conjunction with the command dial to set the aperture.
I find the command dial perfectly placed for making setting adjustments.
Pressing the Info button on the back of the D3500 brings up the status screen that shows the most important settings. This fish just for reference, you can’t use it to adjust the settings.
However, pressing the ‘i’ button reveals a grid of up to 12 features that can be selected and adjusted. These include parameters such as the sensitivity (ISO), white balance and AF-area mode. As the 3-inch 9210,000-dot screen isn’t touch-sensitive, these features have to be selected and adjusted using the navigation pad and OK button. It’s very easy, just not as fast as using a touchscreen.
Viewfinder and Screen
As it’s a DSLR rather than a mirrorless camera, the D3500 has an optical viewfinder. This has a pentamirror rather than the more luxurious pentaprism construction, but it provides a decent view.
Like most DSLRs at this price point, the D3500’s viewfinder can only show 95% of the image. That means you need to take care not to include objects around the edge of the frame. Of course, you can crop out any unseen and unwanted objects, but it’s nice to avoid it if you can.
As it’s not electronic, the viewfinder can’t show the impact of camera settings. That means you won’t see if the image is going to be under or overexposed. You also won’t see the impact of the Creative Effects, but the word Creative is visible to warn you that the mode is selected.
If you’re shooting in Live View mode, the impact of any camera settings is shown on the screen. The demand on the processor has an impact in some of the Creative Effect modes and the screen becomes quite laggy. In other modes, however, the screen provides a good view although, as it’s fixed you can’t tilt it to give a better view when you’re shooting above or below head-height.
How to Use the Nikon D3500 Guide Mode
The Guide mood is a great way to take control of the Nikon D3500 and learn about the settings as you go.
The first step is to rotate the mode dial to Guide and select Shoot, View/delete, Retouch or Set-up using the navigation and OK buttons. Each of these gives you a selection of options followed by step-by-step instructions.
Shoot offers two levels of control, Easy operation and Advanced operation. Selecting Easy operation reveals a choice of shooting portraits, night portraits, night landscapes, distant subjects, close-ups and moving subjects, or shooting without flash, or in automatic mode. Selecting one of them sets the camera to the relevant Scene mode. It means the camera will set appropriate exposure, white balance, focusing and colour modes for the subject.
Guide Mode Advanced operation
Advanced operation offers a collection of effects that you might want to achieve. The options are Soften backgrounds, Bring more into focus, Freeze motion (people), Freeze motion (vehicles), Show water flowing, Capture reds in sunsets, Take bright photos and Take dark photos.
Once you’ve selected an option the camera explains which mode or control is required and sets it. For example, with ‘softens backgrounds’ the camera explains that aperture-priority mode is the setting that lets you control aperture and that using a longer focal length will give more background blur.
Pressing the OK button or waiting a few moments reveals the next screen with the words ‘Choose lower f-numbers to blur the background’. A scroll control lets you adjust the settings. Once the OK button is pressed to confirm the aperture setting, a new screen allows you to chose between using the viewfinder or the screen to shot the image or if you want to shot a movie. There’s also a ‘More settings option that lets you adjust other features such as the Picture Control mode.
There’s no need to use the mode dial to set Aperture-priority mode (for example) when you’re in Guide mode, the camera will set it for you. However, it helps you learn what the various camera settings do so you can use them in the future.
Guide Mode View/Delete, Retouch and Set-up
The View/Delete, Retouch and Set-up options are very straight forward. You just select which you want then choose from the options with choices such as View single photos, and View multiple photos in View/Delete and Trim (Crop Images) in Retouch.
One thing that’s clear after shooting with the Nikon D3500 for a few days, is that it turns out good results in a wide range of situations. The matrix metering system seems to have an almost psychic understanding of the subject and the image you want to create. There were several times when I expected it to underexpose a bright scene, for instance, and it delivered a perfect result. And yet, when I wanted to shoot a silhouette of some horses against a sunset, it got that just right too.
Inevitably, there are a few occasions when you need to use the exposure compensation, but fewer than you might expect and never when an experienced photographer wouldn’t anticipate it.
It may be an entry-level camera, but the D3500’s phase detection autofocus (AF) is very good. With just 11 AF points there are times when you need to use the focus-and-recompose technique, but it gets the subject sharp.
When the active AF point is over a subject it gets in focus very quickly. It can also keep a moving subject sharp as it moves towards or away from the camera.
The contrast detection AF system that operates when images are composed on the screen (ie in Live View mode) is also very capable. In decent light and with a Nikon AF-P lens mounted, it gets the subject sharp quite quickly. Its performance drops off in low light or when an AF-S lens is mounted.
I’ve no complaints about the quality of the images that the D3500 delivers. The level of detail is what I’d expect from a 24Mp APS-C format sensor and noise is controlled well.
Raw files shot at ISO 25,600 have a fine, uniform texture of luminance noise. However, there’s no clumping or banding. The texture is processed out from Jpegs shot at the same value. This is at the expense of the finer details and some objects look a bit too smooth at 100% on-screen. If you can, shoot raw files to get more natural results. They also give you control over noise reduction.
The D3500 has a collection of Picture Control modes that determine the colour and contrast of Jpegs. I find the standard setting a good default option, but Landscape mode is handy to beefing-up the colours of some landscapes. Vivid mode can be useful for this as well, but keep an eye on grass and vegetation in case it becomes too vivid.
Nikon’s automatic white balance system also delivers good results in many situations. It leaves a slight colour cast in some artificial light, but that’s not usual. I find the Cloud or Shade setting useful in the gloom of a British January.
Follow the link to browse and download full-resolution Nikon D3500 sample images
If you’re looking for your first DSLR, the D3500 is a great choice. The Guide Mode is especially useful. It’s still the best around for helping photographers get to grips with their camera. It’s especially nice that it’s built into the camera rather than relying on a smartphone app.
While it would be nice to have a vari-angle touchscreen, that would push up the price of the D3500. It’s designed to be an entry-level, affordable option.
However, Nikon hasn’t skimped on the sensor and it delivers high-quality results with a good level of detail. The camera is also tuned to help beginners get decent images in a wide range of situations.
The ability to see the impact of settings changes is a distinct advantage of electronic viewfinders, especially for novices. However, many photographers still like the optical finder offered by DSLRs.