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Nikon D3500 review: The budget DSLR king

Dave Stevenson Mark White
9 Dec 2019
Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
329
Inc VAT

A superb budget DSLR that’s tailor-made for beginners, but it’s not a huge improvement on the D3400

Pros 
Lightweight
Great for beginners
Good image quality
Cons 
ISO controls are finicky
No audio-in jack
No manual/autofocus button
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The two-year-old Nikon D3400 is dead, long live the D3500. Propping up the foot of Nikon’s DSLR offerings, with a price to match, the D3500 is the model Nikon hopes will tempt newcomers away from the crop of superb mirrorless cameras.

Nikon D3500 review: What you need to know

If you already have a D3400, this probably won’t be the camera for you, simply because of the limited number of improvements the D3500 actually offers. It’s about 30g lighter, shoots about 300 more images per battery charge (an improvement of about 25% over the D3400), and the control dial has moved from the back of the D3400 to the top of the D3500.

But if you’re looking for a small, cheap DSLR that will hold your hand while you figure out the ins and outs of photography, the D3500 – like most of Nikon’s previous entry-level DSLRs – could be well worth the cash.

Nikon D3500 review: Price and competition

There are a few variants of the D3500, at least in terms of what comes in the box. The best value option is the one that comes with Nikon’s optically stabilised, 18-55mm kit lens. As prices have tumbled dramatically since the D3500’s release, this package will set you back around £300. You can save a few quid by opting for the non-stabilised version, or for the camera body-only, but neither is significantly cheaper.

There’s plenty of competition at this price. Canon’s EOS 2000D is worth a look, albeit at the cost of about 100g more weight. Canon’s offering also can’t hold a candle to the D3500 in terms of battery life, offering just 500 shots; you’ll get a thousand more from the Nikon.

Nikon D3500 review: Features and design

We might scoff at the D3500’s relatively small weight reduction compared to the D3400, but in truth its out-of-the-box weight of just 415g is actually really impressive. It’s only 124mm wide, which means in all it’s not that different in the hand – or on the shoulder – as many mirrorless cameras. It’s a major thinking point for those who hold the opinion that mirrorless cameras have sounded a death knell for the DSLR.

The grip is reasonably deep, and even those with shovels for hands will have no problem finding a comfortable grip on the camera. The rubber cover on the grip isn’t exactly the last word in luxury but at the very least this isn’t a camera that will slip out of your hands. While we’re on build quality, neither the battery nor memory card doors feel particularly bomb-proof: it’s worth making sure they’re securely closed before stuffing the D3500 in a bag.

Compared to many DSLRs the screen – a 3in, 921k-pixel affair that neither tilts nor pivots – is frill-free. It’s not touch-sensitive either, but is bright, clear and makes easy work of getting your settings figured out. Our only major bugbear is that there’s no sensor to tell the screen to shut off when you lift the camera up – the screen turns off when you half press the shutter button but is otherwise on all the time unless you turn it off manually. If you haven’t come to expect this from using other cameras you might not even notice, but for seasoned shooters it’s a definite hallmark of the D3500’s budget position.

The D3500’s battery is a strong point. Fully charged, it will fire 1,500 exposures; around 300 more than the D3400 this camera replaces. Compare it to Canon’s similarly-priced 200D and the Nikon shoots over 800 more images per charge. If you want a camera that will last a long time in places you don’t have a lot of dependable electricity, it’s hard to name anything better.

Connectivity – except for the obvious – comes courtesy of Bluetooth 4.1. In combination with Nikon’s SnapBridge app, you can download images from the camera to a smart device, as well as performing the arguably more useful trick of syncing your phone’s time with the camera’s – useful for travellers who never remember to reset their camera’s clock. The Bluetooth connection also provides geo-tagging for images.

However, videographers should note the lack of a mic-in socket – at this price it doesn’t seem so unreasonable to want one.

Nikon D3500 review: Ease of use

Otherwise, the D3500 is a very usable little beast. The buttons are a little clicky but easy to hit, and the control dial on the rear of the top of the camera feels positive, so you’ll be able to use it even if you’re wearing gloves.

The cost of a camera seems to have a direct impact on the number of buttons on the body, so we’re disappointed if not surprised to note that the Fn button – present on the front of other Nikon cameras and normally assigned to changing the ISO – is missing here.

This is an annoyance, as it means there’s no direct way to access the D3500’s ISO setting, so those looking to learn how to use manual mode will either be stuck fiddling (quick menu button, five presses of the direction pad, OK, then choose the ISO you want), or stuck with auto ISO mode. Once you’re in the ISO menu you can’t even whistle through the options using the control dial on the top of the camera; you have to repeatedly stab the direction pad. Those with experience of manual modes might further note ISO can only be changed in whole-stop increments. There’s no depth of field preview button either.

The omission of an ISO shortcut key is a shame, not least because the D3500 is a really good camera for those looking to up their game, or progress from smartphone photography to something a little more advanced. The Guide setting on the mode dial for example, is a very useful way to figure out how the visual effect you want – a blurred background – for example, relates to which camera settings. It’s a really useful, integrated way of telling the camera roughly what you’re doing – shooting sports, for example– and having it make an educated guess as to what the settings should be. We also like – and this is a minor thing – how the icon representing aperture on the back of the camera changes size as you stop down.

Downloading images from the camera to a smartphone is useful for those who want to be able to share DSLR images directly from their smart device, although we found transferring full-size images took absolutely forever– attempting to copy a full-size, top-quality JPEG weighing in at 11.7MB tested our commitment and we stopped the timer at three minutes with the transfer incomplete. Taking the app’s suggestion to downsize the image to two megapixels before transferring produced a more manageable transfer time of 16 seconds.

Nikon D3500 review: Photo quality

Of course, the only reason to buy a DSLR ahead of a smartphone is image quality, so while the D3500 might offer a few compromises here and there on features and controls, we’ve no qualms when it comes to image quality. Its APS-C sensor weighs in with 24.78 megapixels – pretty much the most you’ll get on an APS-C camera of any price. Nikon has done away with the anti-aliasing filter in the name of sharper images, although of course this will be heavily dependant on the lens you attach to the front of the camera.

Speaking of which, we had the chance to test both Nikon’s 18-55mm VR and non-VR lenses – you’ll save about £20 by buying the non-VR version. Testing both revealed very consistent image quality, which is to say neither lens is any great shakes when shot at its maximum aperture. Things sharpen up a little as you stop down, with the VR lens showing a slight edge in terms of sharpness. Neither suffered from vignetting but even so – if you’re serious about learning your trade as a photographer, a decent zoom lens is likely to be top of your list.

Strangely, neither lens – nor the body of the camera – has a switch to flick between automatic and manual focus: again you’re forced to flick through the menu to turn autofocus on and off. That’s not all – the VR version doesn’t have a switch to turn off image stabilisation, which will possibly annoy some tripod users.

Keep the ISO under control and the camera’s image quality is only limited by the lens you attach. Colours were always accurate and, natch, you can always opt to shoot RAW files to gouge the maximum from your files in post-production.

ISO performance is very good. The range from ISO 100-800 produced test images that were more or less indistinguishable from each other, and noise at ISO 1600 was pretty nicely controlled – certainly well enough to expect good quality prints. Beyond ISO 1600 things inevitably got muddier, with ISO 6400 probably being the usable maximum. ISOs 12,800 and 25,600 are effectively party-pieces – for emergency only. It was while we were shooting our test ISO images, incidentally, that we re-discovered one of Nikon’s more annoying bugbears: set the self-timer, shoot an image, and the camera resets to burst mode after the image is taken.

One final area the D3500 elevates itself above its competition is its burst mode – 5fps is very respectable. It might not be enough to cover a professional sporting event, but for portraits and events it’s pretty good. The buffer is limited: in JPEG mode we found the burst mode was good for 15 images, followed by a fairly lengthy digestion process. In RAW mode we could only shoot eight frames continuously before the camera paused to process.

Nikon D3500 review: Video quality

In a way it’s disappointing that the D3500 doesn’t come with an audio-in jack, because it’s a very competent performer in terms of video. There’s a good range of options for mid-range video makers, with the D3500 offering 1080p in 60, 50,30, 25 and 24fps. You don’t get 4K and you don’t get high enough frame-rates to shoot slow-motion but for general blogging duties the options, plus the shallow depth of field produced by the reasonably big sensor, easily suffice.

Usability for beginners is straightforward: point the camera at a subject, doink the red button and the camera does the rest. If you want more control over your footage – shutter and aperture, for example – you need to enable the camera’s “Manual movie settings”. This allows you to control exposure when shooting movies but, annoyingly, prevents you from changing the aperture setting in live view mode.

It’s a shame, because video quality is excellent, and we like the range of frame-rate options, but without an easy way to manage exposures or incoming audio, the D3500’s appeal will always be limited despite its excellent image quality.

Nikon D3500 review: Verdict

If you already own the D3500’s predecessor, the D3400, this is not a worthwhile upgrade. There simply aren’t enough improvements to justify the faff. Indeed, it’s hard to name many DSLRs from which this would be a significant upgrade. However, with image quality that does Nikon’s brand justice, an affordable price and best-in-class battery life, the D3500 is a simply perfect place to start.

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