It’s easy to take a picture, or hundreds of pictures, with a modern iPhone and conclude that you’ve got a pretty great camera with you all the time and decide that your camera is “good enough.” Elements of photography like long exposure and shallow depth of field are becoming easier to emulate using software. But go back into your photo collection and find a picture you took with something like an iPhone 4. That’s about the time that the iPhone started to be considered a darn good camera. Chances are, those pictures look kind of dated given their low quality, and not pleasingly dated in the same way that an old 35mm print looks either.
So the next time you’re considering dropping a thousand dollars on an iPhone in part because it’s got a better camera than the phone you have now…consider a dedicated camera instead.
About six months ago, I found myself in this very situation. My trusty Jet Black iPhone 7 Plus was paid for and I had a reason to want a great camera around the first few weeks of October. After researching the entry level options, I settled on joining team Nikon with the D3500 and am very glad that I did. It outperforms my older iPhone in a huge number of respects and lets me be a lot more creative in the types of pictures I take. The small size and light weight means that using it isn’t an ordeal, which is something to consider if you’re going to be taking pictures around the house a lot.
The camera’s very light and sports a battery life that is phenomenal. I have yet to find myself in a situation where I was sweating running out of juice, especially since the kit I picked up came with an extra battery.
The D3500 has what’s called an APS-C sensor, meaning it falls between the full frame sensors that match the traditional film size of 35mm and the micro four thirds sensors. Full frame bodies, mirrorless or otherwise, were outside my price range and honestly I didn’t give the micro four thirds cameras much consideration. In retrospect I wouldn’t have gone with that kind of a system anyway given that I do a lot of shooting inside with fairly challenging light conditions.
I’m not going to dig too deeply into the specifications of the thing as they’re easy to find elsewhere, but will say that a 24 megapixel image gives you lots of room to work if you’re aggressively cropping and the dynamic range on the thing will blow you away if you’re coming from using an iPhone as your primary camera.
It’s easy to get the hang of adjusting the controls, even though there is only one wheel that adjusts shutter speed, aperture, and exposure compensation. I’ve used cameras with two before, and while it’s nice it’s certainly not required. Adjusting ISO requires a little menu work and while Nikon could have made this adjustment a little higher in the menu structure it’s perfectly workable.
I can’t say enough about how well the camera handles. It’s low weight and reasonable size make it easy to carry around the house throughout the day. It comes with a neck strap but given the low weight that seems like overkill for most days. I’ve switched to using a wrist strap when I feel the need to use one. I have fairly small hands and when holding the camera my pinkie finger just hangs off the bottom…something I don’t seem to mind.
If you’re weighing this camera against something like a used D750 I’d encourage you to find a camera store where you can hold them in your hand and figure out what you’re most comfortable with.
Battery Life and Write Performance
Battery life is long enough that planning around a charge isn’t really a consideration. I’d guess that I can shoot between 900-1000 shots per charge per battery which is a boatload of shots. The camera can shoot at around five frames per second, but you’ll want to have a faster SD card than you might have gotten in your kit to hit that mark consistently.
The camera boasts ISO values that go all the way up to 25600, but in my experience and testing the images tend to start falling apart much lower than that. If I’m shooting inside I typically set it to either 800 or 1600 and no higher.
Auto focus is pretty good, although the focus points other than the one in the dead center don’t perform as well. I quickly learned to focus, lock, then recompose if I have something I want focused but not in the center of the image. For now most of my subjects aren’t moving around a bunch so I can’t speak to the 3D subject tracking.
What the Camera Lacks
The screen on the back isn’t a touch screen but that’s not a feature that I think should be prioritized. Moving through the menus with the d-pad isn’t bad and as most of us remember from the pre-iPhone days a bad touch screen is worse than not having one at all.
If you’re looking to shoot video of yourself for YouTube or something like that then this camera probably isn’t the best choice. The screen doesn’t flip around, which is something that you would find helpful if you plan on shooting video by yourself or you’re looking to get some low angle shots using live view. It also lacks the ability to plug in an external microphone, leaving the aspiring YouTuber hacking together some nonsense with an external recording device.
The two features I really do wish I had in the camera are support for an external remote and for bracketing. If you’re looking to get a super stable shot while the camera is on a tripod or just sitting on a table a remote is very handy. I’ve been getting by using either the ten-second timer or the Snapbridge app on my phone that triggers via Bluetooth. The app kind of sucks and the shutter release has a fair amount of latency. Bracketing is an automated way of having the camera take three or more shots in quick succession at different exposures so you can combine them into a high dynamic range in post. Once again, this is annoying but certainly not a deal killer as you can just take your three shots using manual adjustments, combining them later in post.
The Kit Lenses and Accessories
I got the two lens kit from Costco which also came with a bag, extra battery and an SD card. The extra battery is great and if this is your first camera you’ll want a bag whether you know it right now or not. The bag certainly isn’t the most stylish thing and except for the Nikon badge kind of looks like an insulated lunch box. The SD card is fine, but doesn’t help the camera perform to its potential. I picked up a couple of the fastest SD cards I could find and now can just hold down the shutter release until the card fills up if I want to. With the kit card I would find it starting to hang after 3-4 quick shots.
The 18/55mm VR
If you don’t buy another lens, you’ll probably be using this one the most. It’s a fantastic lens and I’m not the only one who thinks so. The stabilization is quite good and images coming out of it are super sharp. When fully collapsed the lens locks in place, something you may find annoying but after I used a similar lens that didn’t have the lock I understood the benefit.
Where it really disappoints, though, is with its fairly narrow aperture. Even shooting wide open backed out to 18mm, you’re not going to be getting a great exposure inside for large swaths of the day. For this reason, your next lens purchase ought to be either the 35mm f/1.8 DX or the 50mm f/1.8 FX.
Other than the fact that it doesn’t come with stabilization, this is a pretty darn good zoom that will cover a wide range of focal lengths. It’s a good sized lens but seems well balanced with the light D3500 body.
If you’ve read all the way to the end of this review, then I’m guessing that you’ll also be wanting some additional resources on how to set up and start using the camera. Out of the box, it’s heavy on the automation and there are some settings that you’ll definitely want to turn off if you even do the least bit of shooting outside full auto mode. Jared Polin has a good video where he runs through the menus, explains everything, and makes recommendations. The software is similar enough to the D3400 if you find similar videos they’ll get you where you need to be too.
Beyond the camera itself, spend a little time learning about the exposure triangle, which will help you work more in manual mode where it’s possible to do things like control depth of field and create motion blur.