One of the biggest flaws with the Nikon D3500’s specifications is the old 11-point autofocus system that it uses. This is quite small relative to the 39-point system on the Nikon D5600, let alone some mirrorless cameras targeted at a similar audience which may have upwards of 100 focus points.
Yet, in practice, I was surprisingly impressed by the accuracy and speed of the D3500’s supposedly outdated system.
I’ve tested the D3500’s 11-point focus system against that of all its competitors, including the system found on the Nikon D5600, Canon Rebel SL3, and Canon Rebel T7i. The D3500 actually held up surprisingly well.
The biggest issue is that 11 autofocus points can only cover so much of the scene. If your subject is between autofocus points or outside their boundary, there’s not much you can do about it (at least in the viewfinder; live view has thousands of autofocus points, allowing you to place the focus sensor essentially wherever you want in the frame).
Viewfinder autofocus is far quicker than live view autofocus, so it is an issue only to have 11 points available. But the speed and accuracy of these points is much higher than you may expect given the D3500’s “entry level” designation.
Here is a set of photos to illustrate that the D3500’s 11-point system can work quite well for focusing on fast-moving subjects. While I was out testing autofocus, this duck swooped in front of me unexpectedly. But, impressively, every image in this series is completely usable:
And here are crops from each image (unsharpened):
Although some of these are sharper than others – the first and sixth ones aren’t perfect – there is not a single image in this sequence which is too blurry to publish. That is especially good considering that the duck was not the same distance from my camera the entire time, so the autofocus system definitely had some work to do. (Note that the duck’s head becomes progressively smaller in each image.)
And here is how an edited version looks at web resolution – pretty impressive focus for a spur-of-the-moment shot:
I wouldn’t say that the D3500 has flawless autofocus, especially compared to Nikon’s 39-point, 51-point, and 153-point systems on their more advanced cameras. But for the D3500’s intended purpose, its autofocus capabilities certainly exceeded my expectations.
The next page of this review goes over image quality – one of the main reasons to purchase the Nikon D3500 in the first place: