Nikon D3500 Image Quality


Saturation & Hue Accuracy
About average mean saturation with typical hue accuracy.

ISO Sensitivity
In the diagram above, the squares show the original color, and the circles show the color that the camera captured. More saturated colors are located toward the periphery of the graph. Hue changes as you travel around the center. Thus, hue-accurate, highly saturated colors appear as lines radiating from the center. Mouse over the links to compare ISOs, and click on them for larger images.

Saturation. The Nikon D3500 pumps dark blues quite a bit, reds and dark greens moderately, and most other colors by small amounts, but slightly undersaturates bright yellow, light green and cyans. Mean saturation at base ISO was 109.6% or 9.6% oversaturated, which is about average. And saturation levels remained fairly stable as sensitivity climbed, even at the highest ISOs. Overall, we found the D3500's default saturation levels pleasing to the eye and typical for Nikon. Most consumer digital cameras produce color that's more highly saturated (more intense) than found in the original subjects. This is simply because most people like their color a bit brighter than life.

Skin tones. The Nikon D3500's Caucasian skin tones looked just about right when using manual white balance in simulated daylight. A very good job here. Skin tones with auto white balance were just a bit too flat and yellow for our tastes. Where oversaturation is most problematic is on Caucasian skin tones, as it's very easy for these "memory colors" to be seen as too bright, too pink, too yellow, etc.

Hue. The Nikon D3500 did shift cyan toward blue by quite a bit at base ISO (which is very common among the digital cameras we test; we think it's a deliberate choice by camera engineers to produce better-looking sky colors), with smaller shifts in reds, orange and magenta. With an average "delta-C" color error of 5.56 after correction for saturation at base ISO, overall hue accuracy was about average (lower numbers are better) and hue accuracy remained quite stable across the ISO range. Hue is "what color" the color is.

See full set of test images with explanations
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images


Exposure and White Balance

Indoors, incandescent lighting
Good color with the Manual white balance setting, but overly warm results with Auto and Incandescent. Average amount of exposure compensation required.

Auto White Balance
+0.3 EV
Incandescent White Balance
+0.3 EV
Manual White Balance
+0.3 EV

Indoors, under normal incandescent lighting, color balance was very warm and reddish with the Auto white balance setting. (We'd say unacceptably so, though unfortunately this is common.) The Incandescent setting was also too warm, with a strong yellow/green cast. The Manual (Custom) setting produced the most accurate results by far, if just a touch warm. The Nikon D3500 required +0.3 EV exposure compensation here, which is about average for this shot. Our test lighting for this shot is a mixture of 60 and 100 watt household incandescent bulbs, a pretty yellow light source, but a very common one in typical home settings here in the U.S.

Outdoors, daylight
Excellent results under harsh lighting for its class.

Manual White Balance,
+0.7 EV

Outdoors, the Nikon D3500 performed well, requiring +0.7 EV exposure compensation for our "Sunlit" Portrait shot to keep the mannequin's face reasonably bright. (The average for this shot is +0.7 EV, so the D3500 performed about average in terms of exposure.) We preferred skintones from the Manual white balance setting as they were a little pinker and healthier-looking than Auto which were a bit yellow. Contrast is a little high as you might expect under such harsh lighting, but the camera did a very good job of holding onto detail in the highlights and shadows. Overall, excellent performance for its class here.

~2,750 to ~2,800 lines of strong detail.

Strong detail to
~2,800 lines horizontal
Camera JPEG
Strong detail to
~2,750 lines vertical
Camera JPEG
Strong detail to
~2,800 lines horizontal
ACR processed RAW
Strong detail to
~2,750 lines vertical
ACR processed RAW

Our resolution chart revealed sharp, distinct line patterns up to about 2,800 lines per picture height in the horizontal direction, and to about 2,750 lines in the vertical direction. Some may argue for higher numbers, but lines begin to merge and aliasing artifacts start to interfere with detail at these resolutions. Extinction of the pattern didn't occur until around 3,400 to 3,600 lines where color moiré and other aliasing artifacts swamp it out. We weren't able to do significantly better with the matching NEF file processed through Adobe Camera Raw, though color moiré is however more evident in the ACR converted file. Use these numbers to compare with other cameras of similar resolution, or use them to see just what higher resolution can mean in terms of potential detail.

Sharpness & Detail
Sharp, crisp images with great detail, however edge-enhancement artifacts are visible on high-contrast subjects. Moderate noise suppression visible at base ISO.

Very good definition of
high-contrast elements,
but with evidence of
edge enhancement.
Subtle detail: Hair
Noise suppression tends to blur
detail in areas of subtle contrast,
though detail remains strong in
the darker parts of the model's hair here.

Sharpness. The Nikon D3500 produces images that are crisp and sharp when coupled with a sharp lens as used in the above left crop. Edge enhancement artifacts are however visible on high-contrast subjects such as the halos seen around the border and text above left, but default sharpening looks to be a very good compromise between crispness and sharpening artifacts for a consumer model. Edge enhancement creates the illusion of sharpness by enhancing colors and tones right at the edge of a rapid transition in color or tone.

Detail. The crop above right shows some mild to moderate noise suppression, as the darker and lower-contrast areas of the model's hair show some smudging where individual strands of hair merge. Still, a very good performance here considering the resolution and target market. Noise-suppression systems in digital cameras tend to flatten-out detail in areas of subtle contrast. The effects can often be seen in shots of human hair, where the individual strands are lost and an almost "watercolor" look appears.

Aliasing. You can see hints of aliasing artifacts in a number of our test shots, however the D3500 seems to do a pretty good job at suppressing moiré in its JPEGs for a camera that doesn't have an optical low-pass filter.

RAW vs In-Camera JPEGs
As noted above, the Nikon D3500 does a great job at capturing lots of fine detail in its JPEGs, but more detail can often be obtained from carefully processing RAW files, while at the same time reducing sharpening artifacts. Let's have a look at base ISO:

Base ISO (100)
Camera JPEG, defaults
RAW via Adobe Camera Raw

In the table above, we compare an in-camera JPEG taken at base ISO using default noise reduction and sharpening (on the left) to the matching NEF file converted with Adobe Camera Raw 9.1 via DNG Converter 11.1 (right) using default noise reduction with some strong but tight unsharp masking applied in Photoshop (300%, radius of 0.3 pixels, and a threshold of 0).

As is frequently the case, the demosaicing in Adobe Camera Raw and sharpening in Photoshop deliver slightly finer detail than the camera, with fewer sharpening artifacts. Looking closely at the images, ACR extracted some detail that wasn't present in the camera JPEG, especially in the red-leaf swatch where the conversion was able to resolve some of the fine thread pattern, which the camera's JPEG engine tended to blur it away as if noise. The ACR conversion does however show more noise at default noise reduction settings than the camera at its default settings. All-in-all, though, the D3500 did a very good job at reducing noise while maintaining excellent detail in most areas of our target here at base ISO. Still, for maximum detail (and flexibility), using a good RAW converter does yield better results than in-camera JPEGs, as is usually the case.

ISO & Noise Performance
Excellent high ISO performance for its class.

Noise Reduction = On (Default)
ISO 100 ISO 200 ISO 400
ISO 800 ISO 1,600 ISO 3,200
ISO 6,400 ISO 12,800 ISO 25,600

Noise levels are quite low at ISOs 100 through 400 with excellent detail, though some very fine detail is lost to noise reduction even at base ISO. ISO 800 begins to show a very fine noise "grain" but detail is still quite good, and chroma noise is well-controlled. At ISO 1,600 noise levels increase with a touch more blurring in fine details and more visible "grain", but detail is still pretty good and chroma noise remains low. Of course, ISO 3200 has higher luma noise but it's still fine-grained, detail is good and chroma noise is low. ISO 6400 shows higher luma noise and noticeably stronger blurring, but there's some fine detail left, and chroma noise remains remarkably low. At ISOs 12,800 and 25,600, image quality deteriorates rapidly with much stronger noise and blurring, and chroma noise becomes an issue with some minor purple and yellow blotchiness in darker areas, though it's still fairly well-controlled. Luma noise and blurring are quite strong at the top two ISOs, however the D3500 manages to still hold on to nice color and contrast at ISO 12,800, allowing this ISO to still be useful for small prints.

Overall, excellent noise performance for a 24-megapixel APS-C camera, especially for an entry-level model, though perhaps not quite as good as its predecessor when viewed on screen at 100%. See our Print Quality analysis section below for recommended print sizes at each ISO.

Extremes: Sunlit, dynamic range, and low light tests
Very good detail in both highlights and shadows, resulting in very good dynamic range. Good low-light performance, capable of capturing bright images in near darkness though autofocus can struggle in very low light.

+0.3 EV +0.7 EV +1.0 EV

The Nikon D3500 handled the deliberately harsh lighting in the test above well. While contrast is a little high, shadow and highlight detail are both very good. The +0.7 EV exposure did the best overall job here, producing a fairly bright face without blowing out too many highlights in the brighter areas. Despite the bright appearance of her shirt, it has relatively few clipped highlights. Some shadows are pretty dark and a little noisy, but contain very good detail. Be sure to use fill flash in situations like the one shown above; it's better to shoot in the shade when possible.

Because digital cameras are more like slide film than negative film (in that they tend to have a more limited tonal range), we test them in the harshest situations to see how they handle scenes with bright highlights and dark shadows, as well as what kind of sensitivity they have in low light. The shot above is designed to mimic the very harsh, contrasty effect of direct noonday sunlight, a very tough challenge for most digital cameras. (You can read details of this test here.)

Face Detection
0 EV
Live View
with Face-priority AF
0 EV
Auto mode
0 EV

Here, we can see the effect of the Nikon D3500's face detection AF enabled in Live View mode, as well as full Auto mode with the optical viewfinder. Above, in Live View mode using Aperture-priority at f/8 (center), Face-priority AF mode improved the exposure versus Aperture-priority with the optical viewfinder, selecting a slower shutter speed of 1/40s versus 1/60s to brighten the image (since the other two exposure variables of aperture and ISO were fixed). Full Auto mode (right) used a wider aperture (f/5.6), a higher ISO (280), and enabled Active D-Lighting which combined to produce a better exposed and balanced image than Aperture-priority with no exposure compensation. However Auto white balance was a little warm and yellowish (the other two shots used Manual (Custom) white balance).

Outdoor Portrait Active D-Lighting
0 EV

Nikon's Active D-Lighting
The shots above show the results with Active D-Lighting Off and On with no exposure compensation. (Like other entry-level Nikon models, the D3500 only has these two Active D-Lighting settings, while Nikon's more advanced models let you choose from a range of strengths of the effect.) This is different than the touch-up menu's D-Lighting, as it is performed during image capture instead of after. (It does affect only JPEG images though, Nikon very properly leaves raw file data strictly as it comes from the sensor.) Mouse-over the links to see the difference, and click on the links to load the corresponding full-resolution image.

As you can see from the images and histograms above, enabling Active D-Lighting resulted in much brighter exposure without blowing many highlights. The effect of Active D-Lighting can vary quite a bit with the subject and lighting, though, as the camera decides what needs adjusting, and by how much.

Dynamic Range Analysis (RAW mode)
While we once performed our own dynamic range measurements based on in-camera JPEGs as well as converted RAW images (when the camera was supported by Adobe Camera Raw), we've switched to using DxO Labs' results from their DxOMark website. As technology advanced, the dynamic range of modern high-end cameras in some cases exceeded the range of the Stouffer T4110 density scale that we used for our own measurements. DxO's approach based on RAW data before demosaicing is also more revealing, because it measures the fundamental dynamic range of the sensor, irrespective of whatever processing is applied to JPEGs, or to RAW data by off-the-shelf conversion software.

In the following, we use DxO's "Print" dynamic range results, which are scaled based on camera resolution. As the name suggests, this scaling corresponds to the situation in which you print at a given size, regardless of how many megapixels the camera might have. (In other words, if you've decided to make a 13x19 inch print, that's the size you're printing, whether the camera's resolution is 16 or 300 megapixels.) Also note that DxO Labs uses a signal-to-noise (SNR) threshold of 1 when defining the lower boundary of acceptable luminance noise in their dynamic range measurements, which corresponds to the "Low Quality" threshold of the Imatest software we used to use for this measurement.

Unfortunately, DxOMark has not yet tested the Nikon D3500. We'll come back and update this section if/when they do. Photons to Photos has however tested both models, and found the D3500 lags behind the D3400 a bit in terms of dynamic range across the ISO range, but likely not enough to make a significant difference in most real-world photos.

LL AF: The camera's phase-detection autofocus system (using the optical viewfinder) was able to focus on our legacy low-contrast AF target down to about -0.6 EV and on our new high-contrast AF target down to -2.3 EV unassisted. That's not bad for its class, as the D3500's AF sensitivity is rated by Nikon down to -1.0 EV. The Nikon D3500 is able to focus in complete darkness with the AF assist enabled, as long as the target is in range and has sufficient contrast. In Live View mode, the camera's contrast-detect autofocus was able to focus on our low-contrast target down to -1.6 EV, and on our high-contrast target down to -3.3 EV, which is quite good for the class.

NOTE: This low light test is conducted with a stationary subject, and the camera mounted on a sturdy tripod. Most digital cameras will fail miserably when faced with a moving subject in dim lighting. (For example, a child's ballet recital or a holiday pageant in a gymnasium.) Digital SLRs like the Nikon D3500 do much better than point & shoots, but you still shouldn't expect a quick autofocus lock with moving subjects.

Built-in Flash
Good performance for a pop-up flash.

ISO 200
f/4, +0.7 EV
Auto ISO (2500)
f/4, 0 EV

Exposure. Indoors under incandescent background lighting, the D3500's flash required +0.7 EV of flash exposure compensation for our standard indoor portrait scene at ISO 200 and f/4, which is about the average needed for this shot. However with Auto ISO, the camera produced a bright exposure with no flash exposure compensation, though the camera boosted ISO to 2500. The ISO 200 image has a yellow/green cast using Auto white balance, while Auto ISO image has a very warm, orange cast from the tungsten ambient lighting.

Output Quality

Print Quality
Very good 30 x 40 inch prints at ISO 100; a nice 13 x 19 at ISO 1600; a good 5 x 7 at ISO 12,800.

ISO 100 prints shine at 30 x 40 inches or larger, constrained only by the 24-megapixel resolution at your intended viewing distance. Here at base ISO the images have nice color depth and good fine detail. And more than this, the prints have a nice three dimensionality, especially remarkable given the price of this camera, that's hard to quantify or measure.

ISO 200 also delivers nice 30 x 40 inch printed images, with no apparent sign to speak of that the ISO has climbed a step. Rich color and nice detail still abound at this size.

ISO 400 produces a very nice 24 x 36 inch print. There is only a minor loss of fine detail in the heavily textured areas of our test target, but still a very good print. You can certainly also use 30 x 40 inch prints at this ISO for wall display purposes and less critical applications.

ISO 800 yields a 16 x 20 inch print that is quite good for this sensitivity and price point in combination. There is now a definite and noticeable loss of contrast detail in the tricky red-leaf fabric swatch of our test target, and some minor loss of fine detail apparent in a few additional areas, but still a good print overall. For your most critical printing purposes, a reduction to 13 x 19 inches is advised here.

ISO 1600 delivers a 13 x 19 inch print similar to the 16 x 20 at ISO 800, with a slight loss in fine detail in just a few areas of our Still Life test target. But noise is still well-controlled at this print size, with no sign of glaring artifacts from noise reduction, and full color representation is very much still on display.

ISO 3200 begins to show its teeth for all but some full-frame sensors and larger, but the APS-C D3500 handles it well and still delivers a solid 11 x 14 inch print. There is a mild trace of noise apparent in some flatter areas of our target, but certainly nothing major, and the noise that is visible has a nice film-grain-like appearance. Full colors are also still on display at this size.

ISO 6400 turns in an 8 x 10 inch print that just passes our good seal of approval. As with the 11 x 14 at ISO 3200, there is mild fiilm-grain-like noise apparent in a few areas, such as in the shadows behind the test target bottles, and there is no contrast detail remaining in our target red-leaf swatch, but otherwise still good fine detail and full colors at this size.

ISO 12,800 is capable of printing a good 5 x 7 inch print, and considering how high this ISO is, that is a solid feat for a camera at this price indeed. Noise is well-controlled and there is still full color on display, whereas many entry-level cameras turn in muted or burnt colors at this ISO and above.

ISO 25,600 prints are good at 4 x 6 inches, which is all you can hope for from an APS-C camera at the time of this writing. Some cameras are not able to produce even a usable 4 x 6 at their highest "available" ISO, and we therefore like to commend cameras that can!

The popular Nikon D3500 turns in a solid performance in the print quality department. And when you factor in the price, you're in rare territory, as there really aren't many other cameras well below $500 at the time of the writing of this analysis that can compare to the D3500 for overall image and print quality. For the price, the camera is more or less in a league of its own. Well done, once again, to Nikon.


The images above were taken from our standardized test shots. For a collection of more pictorial photos, see our Nikon D3500 Photo Gallery .

Not sure which camera to buy? Let your eyes be the ultimate judge! Visit our Comparometer(tm) to compare images from the Nikon D3500 with those from other cameras you may be considering. The proof is in the pictures, so let your own eyes decide which you like best!

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