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The Nikon D3500 is the best DSLR camera for a beginner looking to step up their photography skills. It offers outstanding image quality for its price and a truly useful Guide Mode that helps you learn along the way. It boasts excellent battery life, easy smartphone connectivity, 1080/60p video with silent autofocus and intuitive controls in a highly portable and lightweight body.
The Nikon D3500’s 24-megapixel sensor can create images with pleasing colours, and its Guide Mode has insightful explanations of camera modes and operations. Its battery lasts far longer than the competition’s and it’s lightweight and portable enough to carry anywhere. Connecting the D3500 to your smartphone is easy, so you can share what you shoot quickly. It shoots 1080/60p video too.
If your focus is video, or you prefer framing your shots on a swivelling touchscreen LCD or if you have small children, Canon’s EOS Rebel T7i is a great option, albeit at a much higher price. Its Dual Pixel autofocus system keeps your subjects in focus even as they are moving across the scene. But the battery life pales in comparison with our top pick’s (600 versus 1550 shots per charge), it’s a little heavier and larger, and its in-camera guidance can’t compare to the Nikon D3500 model’s Guide Mode.
Who should buy this
If you’re frustrated with the limitations of capturing photos or videos with your smartphone and are interested in learning the ins and outs of how a camera’s settings can affect resulting images, you should consider getting a beginner-level DSLR or mirrorless camera.
DSLRs have much larger imaging sensors than budget point-and-shoots and smartphones (which means better performance with less light and being able to capture a wider range of lights and darks in a single image), more manual controls (which let you fine-tune how your photos will look) and the versatility of interchangeable lenses for different subjects (which means more options for capturing the perspective you want). They also let you use high-power flashes so you can control your lighting conditions, and most DSLRs today can even record impressive HD video footage – better than your old camcorder – with external microphones for a soundtrack that matches your images. DSLRs even give you more options after you’re done shooting since they can record what is known as a RAW image, a larger type of file that stores more data than a JPEG, which you can edit with Photoshop, Lightroom or other image-editing software to get the best photo possible.
Great budget DSLRs – like our top pick in this guide – can even teach you to be a better photographer, walking you through the process of shooting in various modes by providing helpful hints and guides embedded in their control menus.
Why not just buy a mirrorless camera?
That’s a very, very good question. Choosing between a mirrorless camera and a DSLR is tough, as they provide very different sets of strengths and weaknesses – and they both take excellent photos.
Generally speaking, a mirrorless camera will be significantly smaller and lighter than a DSLR, but with equivalent image quality. Mirrorless cameras tend to have more modern feature sets that include touchscreens, Wi-Fi integration and focus peaking, and they generally run on the more affordable side. But they tend to have a battery that lasts fewer shots. Their small size means shooting for long periods can potentially be uncomfortable for your hands, you have fewer lenses to choose from, and you’re limited to electronic viewfinders (some people prefer optical ones) if you even get a viewfinder at all. If you came of age shooting digital cameras and you’re used to holding your camera out from your body and looking at the screen, rather than up against your eye, you might not miss a viewfinder. And a portable, light camera that you’re likely to take with you everywhere could be a better match for you than a bulkier DSLR that you might end up leaving sitting on the shelf. Honestly, for a beginner, a smaller, lighter mirrorless camera makes a lot of sense over a DSLR.
However, if you have some past experience with Canon or Nikon systems or some DSLR lenses at your disposal, it might make sense to continue down that path rather than learning a new camera language altogether or building your lens library from the ground up. Or maybe you prefer a more sizeable camera in hand.
If you’re interested in what your options are, have a look at What Camera Should I Buy? for advice.
How we picked
We spent hours researching DSLRs that had been identified as top budget picks by the top photography sites in the world – DxOMark, DPReview, Photography Blog, CNET and more. We also pored over customer reviews on Amazon, B&H, Adorama and other top retailers, and we drew on our own years of experience with trends in photography.
An entry-level DSLR has to be able to do a lot these days. Here are some of the things we looked for:
- Excellent image quality: Images should be sharp and clear (even when shot in low light), have accurate-looking colours and have a wide dynamic range (so that you can see detail across your image, in both the darkest shadows and brightest highlights).
- Easy to use: Even someone who has never tried a complex camera before should be able to quickly learn how to handle it. The best beginner DSLRs have some explanation of camera shooting modes and other features built in so that you can learn as you explore the menus and modes.
- Manual controls: You’ll probably start out using your DSLR like a point-and-shoot in fully automatic mode, but the camera should have manual controls so you can step up to using them as you improve your skills.
- Smartphone connectivity: You should be able to connect your camera and your smartphone so you can transfer images off of the camera and share them with friends online quickly.
- Long battery life: Most beginner-level DSLRs don’t have the best battery life, so you’ll end up having to carry an extra battery or two. We favoured cameras that can last longer between charges.
- Portable: If a camera is too large or too heavy, you won’t be inclined to take it with you.
How we tested
For our update, I tested four cameras: the Nikon D3500, the Canon EOS Rebel T7i, the Nikon D5600 and the Canon Rebel SL2. When it comes to image quality and performance features like burst rate, these cameras are quite competitive. What we really needed to learn is what each could offer a new DSLR shooter.
I took each camera along on everyday shooting situations in Seattle, on walks with the dog and into restaurants, observing each camera’s user interface, autofocus, special features, overall handling, menu layouts and battery life. I passed them to friends to gather first impressions from shooters of all skill levels. I connected each camera to my smartphone to see how quickly you could start to share images.
Our pick: Nikon D3500
If you’re ready to advance your camera skills and purchase your first DSLR camera, the Nikon D3500 is the best option for a beginner. Its best-in-class 24-megapixel sensor can capture sharp images with high dynamic range, meaning both bright and dark areas will show details, and it excels in low-light situations. It’s particularly easy to use, has a Guide Mode to help you learn, plus manual controls that you can grow into and connects to your smartphone through Bluetooth. Small and lightweight enough to carry all day, it also has a battery that can last through long shoots.
The Guide Mode cleverly coaches beginners to choose their shooting situation while offering instructions about how the camera will perform in each scenario. The easy operation mode offers simple explanations for when to use settings such as Night Portrait and Moving Subjects. If you select the advanced Guide Mode operation, you’ll have more control in a setting like Soften background, which prompts you to select your f-stop in aperture priority mode. As your photography skills grow, you can take off these training wheels to explore full manual controls and start shooting in RAW.
You can easily use Nikon’s SnapBridge app to connect the camera to your phone, and harness the camera’s Bluetooth Low Energy connectivity to continuously keep the images you shoot downloading to your phone, as long as they are smaller than full-resolution RAW files. Once this option is set up, images seamlessly downloaded to my iPhone each time I turned the camera on. You can also use the app to control the camera remotely.
The D3500 has truly impressive battery life – 1,550 images per charge – a whopping 350-image increase over its predecessor and our last top pick in this category, the D3400. That should easily equate to days of shooting before the battery needs to be recharged.
The camera’s lightweight and compact size is critical for a new user who might be graduating from a pocketable smartphone to their first interchangeable-lens DSLR. If a camera feels burdensome, it’s difficult to develop the habit of always bringing it with you. Here, the D3500 shines by weighing only 615 grams with the kit lens – or about as much as your grande latte.
The D3500 comes with Nikon’s collapsible AF-P 18–55mm Nikkor lens, which helps keep the camera’s size down when not in use. It uses a stepping motor to achieve speedy, ultra-quiet focusing – particularly useful in video mode. The D3500 can smoothly shoot full HD video at 1080/60p and a half-press of the shutter button while filming helps to keep your subject in focus.
The D3500 boasts a burst rate of five frames per second, which is sufficient for basic fast-action photography needs but slightly slower than the 6 fps burst rate of our upgrade pick, the Canon EOS Rebel T7i.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
We couldn’t stop trying to tap the D3500 model’s fixed LCD screen. Most of the competition has either slightly higher-resolution LCDs (1,044,000 dots to the 921,000 on the D3400), hinged screens or touchscreens (or some combination of the above). For the price and image quality, we still settled on the D3500 as our top choice, but if you’ll mostly be shooting video or in live-view mode, or if retraining your brain not to tap a glowing digital screen feels insurmountable, you might want to take a look at the Canon T7i.
While the D3500 can shoot high-quality 1080/60p video, this camera is not designed with the videographer in mind. Although the non-rotating, non-touchscreen display is likely the greater hinderance to filming, the D3500 also neglects a microphone jack.
The D3500’s autofocus system pales in comparison to the Canon EOS Rebel T7i. Where the D3500 has only 11 AF points, and only one of them cross-type, the T7i has 45 cross-type AF points. If your goal is to keep fast-moving subjects in focus, from sports to a busy toddler, the Canon will do a better job of finding focus faster, especially in video and live-view modes.
The Nikon D3500 is paired with a collapsible 18–55mm F/3.5-5.6 VR lens, which allows for keeping the camera compact when not in use but also requires you to push a button on the lens to rotate the lens before using it. A helpful on-screen prompt will remind you of this each time you turn on the camera if the lens isn’t already extended. (You can opt to leave the lens extended, but then you also lose that bit of compactness.) It’s a bit annoying but also a habit you’d likely form quickly and is easily remedied by upgrading to better lenses in the future, which is, after all, the point of a camera with interchangeable lenses. We offer a beginner’s guide to The First Nikon Lenses You Should Buy.
If you do start to experiment with new lenses on the Nikon D3500, beware: this camera offers no automatic sensor cleaning. This common mechanism can help remove dust that makes its way to the sensor when switching lenses, which will display as dark spots on your image. D3500 owners will need to be extra cautious about when and how they swap lenses to avoid any sensor dust.
Upgrade pick: Canon EOS Rebel T7i
If you want to shoot more video than stills, or if you find that you prefer shooting stills in Live Mode using a rotating touchscreen, the Canon EOS Rebel T7i might be your best option – though at a much higher price than our top pick.
Canon’s Dual Pixel autofocus technology is truly outstanding at keeping a moving subject in focus when shooting in live-view and video modes. Once you’ve tapped the screen to select your subject, the camera keeps focus locked as the subject moves, or even as you move the camera. Combined with a 45-point autofocus system, a new image processor designed to work well in low light, a 24-megapixel sensor and 6 fps burst shooting, you should be shooting sharper videos and stills more often – especially if you’re aiming to capture sports or even just an unpredictable toddler.
The T7i can shoot 1080p video at up to 60 frames per second, which is fast enough for smooth video, especially combined with the camera’s Dual Pixel autofocusing abilities. The fully rotating touchscreen makes shooting from any angle easy, and it is very responsive and a bit higher resolution than the Nikon D3500 screen. You can even use the screen to shoot a selfie.
Connectivity is simple via Canon’s Camera Connect app, which offers step-by-step instructions. It took only a few seconds to start downloading images to my iPhone, even RAW files. You can also shoot remotely using the app.
The standard kit lens paired with the T7i is the EF-S 18–55mm f/4–56 IS STM: a typical inexpensive zoom lens for everyday shooting. This lens should serve you well for shooting in bright conditions and is so quiet that it won’t interfere with sound when you’re shooting video, but as you grow in your photography knowledge and interest, you’ll likely want to invest in a better lens. Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered in our guide The First Canon Lenses You Should Buy.
With battery life of 600 shots per charge, you should be able to make it through an afternoon of shooting. That said, you may want to carry an extra battery in your camera bag.
Canon’s EOS Rebel SL2 is the D3500 camera’s closest competitor in scale, but still outweighs our pick when paired with a comparable kit lens. Its Feature Assistant suggestions can’t compete with the dedicated Guide Mode instructions the D3500 provides, giving our top pick an advantage in both portability and accessibility. The Canon’s outdated nine-point autofocusing system may also hinder your ability to find focus quickly when shooting through the viewfinder. For a better beginner experience (at a better price), the Nikon D3500 beats out the SL2.
We also considered Canon’s EOS Rebel T6i and T5i, which are both great cameras, but ultimately we felt that the T7i model’s Dual Pixel autofocus and substantially better traditional focusing system were worth the extra cost.
Nikon’s D5600 offers a few more features than our top pick, like a fully rotating, higher resolution LCD screen and a much better 39-point autofocus system, but if you have the budget to spend more, Canon’s T7i is a better way to go.
We considered but did not test Pentax’s K-70. Its control system is geared toward more advanced shooters, and in DPReview’s test of the camera Samuel Spencer notes that the AF system – especially during continuous AF and tracking AF – is disappointing. Also, at 1½ pounds, it’s on the heavy side and its battery life of 410 shots per charge is lacklustre.