The Nikon D3500 is the newest version of Nikon’s entry-level DSLR. It’s successfully an revise to the evergreen Nikon D3400, a starter DSLR that’s been a long-term favorite. There haven’t been many changes, and it’s unlikely you’d want to upgrade your older D3400 (or Nikon D3300 before it) to the new D3500, but this refresh is enough to keep it in our list of the best cameras for beginners.
Nikon D3500 Price
The D3500 isn’t just Nikon’s cheapest and simplest DSLR, it’s also its lightest, weighing just 415g, body only, and that’s with the battery and a memory card. It will usually come with a lightweight 18-55mm AF-P kit lens which has a retracting mechanism to make it more portable when it’s not switched on. It’s not quite as small as a mirrorless camera, but it’s light, fast plenty of and cheap more than enough to demonstrate that there’s lifestyle in the DSLR design yet.
This camera is designed specifically for beginners, with simplified controls and a built in Guide Mode to help new users learn the basics. But it’s also compatible with a wide variety of Nikon lenses, from Nikon and third-party makers, and has a good enough specification to please lovers along with beginners. So is this one of the best cheap cameras you can get?
Inside, the D3500 has a 24.2-megapixel APS-C sensor. It could be a beginner-level camera, but that’s as high as most APS-C cameras go. It also has an unusually good 5fps continuous shooting speed, where most rivals in this price bracket can only manage 3fps.
Nikon does not use in-body stabilization in its DSLR digital cameras, but many Nikon lenses, including the AF-P 18-55mm zoom lens bundled with this camera, come with Nikon’s VR (Vibration Reduction) system. There are cheaper products on sale with a non-VR lens, but we think it’s worthy of paying the extra.
You don’t get 4K video capability with this camera, but it can shoot full HD 1920 x 1080 video at up to 60/50fps. You don’t get Wi-Fi, either, but built-in Bluetooth does let you transfer images to your smart device and, in this latest model, fire the shutter remotely using your smartphone.
Nikon says it’s upgraded its sensor and EXPEED image processing system to give improved speed, fine detail and colors. It’s also uprated the battery pack life, quoting a pretty amazing 1,550 shots on a single charge – that’s four or five times more photos than you’d expect to obtain from a Nikon mirrorless camera.
The D3500 does shoot raw files, as you’d expect, but these are 12-bit only, rather than the 14-bit raw files captured by models further up the Nikon range. Will you notice the difference? Probably not, as even a 12-bit raw provides much wider tone and colour range than regular JPEGs, and for the users this camera is aimed at, the differences are likely to be academic.
Build and Handling
If you’re comparing the D3500 against mirrorless alternatives, its body is going to seem pretty fat and chunky by comparison. This does offer you a good grasp on the camera, though, and a redesigned key layout on the rear makes the D3500 easy to handle without accidentally pressing buttons you didn’t mean to.
The rear screen is not touch-sensitive, so you’re reliant in the physical buttons and dials (no great hardship, it has to be said). The display screen is fixed, without a good tilting mechanism for low angle pictures, but you have to accept some compromises at this price. The image quality is very good, though, with sharp details and bright, clear colors. The information display is especially good, showing you graphical representations of the shutter velocity, zoom lens aperture and ISO placing, and this goes a long way towards demystifying exposure settings and how they interact.
The main mode dial on the top of the camera is clearly labeled and includes a positive, solid feel. Right alongside maybe the camera’s one control dial, which also has a really good feeling. It’s unmarked, and its function changes according to the mode you’re in.
DSLRs need a thicker body to accommodate the mirror system, and by the time you’ve added on the 18-55mm AF-P kit lens, the D3500 is as long as it is wide. The retracting mechanism on the zoom lens does make a difference, though. The only annoyance is the constant reminder you need to extend the lens initial before you can start shooting.
The D3500 feels very responsive. The autofocus beep is usually a bit loud, but the AF-P lens’s autofocus is so swift and peaceful that you need some audio feedback to let you know it’s focused.
In viewfinder shooting, the 11 AF points are clustered towards the middle of the frame, but if your subject is near the edge it’s easy enough to focus and then reframe before shooting. You can let the camera pick the focus point immediately or select it yourself; either way it’s extremely fast, and very positive.
In live view mode you can select a focus point anywhere on the display screen. In the absence of touch control you have to use the four-way control keys on the back of the camera to move the AF stage, which is a bit slow. The live look at autofocus itself, though, is definitely surprisingly fast. Nikon does not make use of on-sensor phase-detection autofocus in its DSLRs, relying on slower contrast-structured autofocus instead.
Or at least it should be slow. But somewhere along the range Nikon has found a way to make the D3500’s live watch AF feel almost as responsive as a mirrorless camera’s, and we believe it’s down to the AF-P autofocus technology in its kit lens. Swapping to one of Nikon’s AF-S lenses confirms that it’s the AF-P program that’s providing the rate.
Verdict Nikon D3500
If it’s definitely a DSLR you want, the Nikon D3500 faces some strong competition in the Canon range. The Canon Rebel T100/4000D is cheaper, but therefore cheaply made that it doesn’t feel worth it, and the results aren’t as good as the Nikon’s either. The EOS Rebel T7/2000D is closer to the Nikon D3500 in specifications, but while it performs well inside our lab checks, it’s a little more expensive, the electric battery life is worse, its burst mode is slower, and there’s no retracting lens option – in fact getting a good kit lens with IS (picture stabilization) pushes the price higher still.
The Nikon D3500 does have its limitations, obviously, because of its price and its own intended audience, but we think it’s easily the very best Nikon DSLR for beginners at the moment – and because mirrorless cameras with viewfinders tend to cost more, we’d say it’s the best camera for beginners all round.