DCRP Review: Nikon Coolpix 3500
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: December 15, 2002
Last Updated: December 17, 2002

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With the Coolpix 3500 ($399), Nikon has taken their popular and uniquely-styled Coolpix 2500 and bumped it up to 3 Megapixels. Aside from more pixels and a new, less feminine color, the 3500 is the same as the 2500.

That means it has the inner-swivel design, found only on the 2500/3500 models, and everything that goes along with it (e.g. no optical viewfinder).

Learn more about the CP3500 is our review! Do note that I'll be reusing a lot of text from my Small 2 Megapixel Camera Shootout to save time.

What's in the Box?

The CP3500 has a very good bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:

  • The 3.2 (effective) Mpixel Coolpix 3500 camera
  • 16MB Lexar CompactFlash card
  • EN-EL2 Li-ion battery (rechargeable) w/charger
  • Neck strap
  • USB cable
  • 100 page manual
  • NikonView 5 + documentation CDs

The Coolpix 3500 uses the notorious "Nikon Coolpix Starter Memory Card (8x speed rated)", made by Lexar. In fine print on the back, you find out that it's a 16MB card. A 16MB card doesn't hold very many 3 Megapixel photos, so you'll want something larger right away.

Charger with battery inserted

Nikon's EN-EL2 lithium ion battery is the same one that was used by the CP2500. It's rated at 3.7V / 1000 mAh which works out to 3.7 Wh. The bad news is that since the camera relies on that power-hungry LCD display, you'll only get 80 minutes of life out of it. Using the included charger, you can recharge your battery in two hours. The charger has a separate cord, which isn't as convenient as those with built-in plugs.

I'm not a huge fan of expensive proprietary batteries like the EN-EL2, but with smaller cameras, it's hard to avoid.

The unique design of the Coolpix 2500 and 3500 hides the lens when it's not in use, thus eliminating the need for a lens cap.

Accessories for the 3500 are fairly limited. You can buy another battery ($35), an AC adapter ($36), a soft carrying case ($10), and an LCD hood ($10). The latter will make the LCD much easier to use outdoors. There are no lens or external flash options, which isn't really surprising.

The 3500 includes version 5.1.2 of NikonView, which is used to transfer and view your photos. The software is Mac OS X native but is still sluggish and buggy. The camera is fully compatible with Mac OS X and Windows XP.

The Coolpix's manual is about average for a digital camera. Everything you are looking for is there, but it can be hard to find what you need.

Look and Feel

The Coolpix 3500 has the same body as the 2500, which is a good and bad thing. In creating these cameras, Nikon took the famous rotating lens of the Coolpix 900 series and put it "inside" the body of the 3500. You get the flexibility of the Coolpix 900 series' rotating lens in a smaller camera, though it's a lot clumsier to operate.

One thing that really bothers me about the design is that rotating the lens is harder than it should be. Rather than using a knob on the side of the camera, you just mash your hands in there and turn it. It's clumsy for sure, but what usually happens is that you get fingerprints all over the lens. I hope the next iteration of this camera will implement this a bit better.

So why would you want a rotating lens? My favorite reason is one that's happened to me in real life many times. Suppose you're at a parade or some event where lots of people are in front of you. You can point the lens toward the parade, hold the camera up over everyone's heads, then tilt the camera so you can see the LCD. That way you can see the picture you're taking over the heads in front of you.

The Coolpix 3500 is made entirely of plastic, which I'd judge to be average quality. The camera is small and easy to pocket. The dimensions of the CP3500 are 4.5 x 2.3 x 1.2 inches, and it weighs 175 grams empty.

Let's begin our tour of this camera now.

The CP3500, like its predecessor, has an F2.7, 3X optical zoom Nikkor lens. The lens has a focal range of 5.6 - 16.8 mm, which is equivalent to 37 - 111 mm. The lens is not threaded. You can rotate the lens in a number of directions, and can point it back at you for self-portraits (the LCD will correctly display the image). There is a 4X digital zoom available as well, but using it will (like always) reduce photo quality.

Just to the right of the lens is the flash. It's awfully close to the lens, so you know that redeye will be a problem. The flash has a working range of 0.4 - 3.0 m at wide-angle, and 0.4 - 1.7 m at telephoto.

If you're looking for an autofocus illuminator lamp, you won't find one on the 3500. Focusing indoors or in low light can be very tough, as a result.

Here's the back of the camera, with the lens pointed forward. When you shut the camera off, the is flush with the body.

The CP3500 has a 1.5" LCD, a typical size for a small camera. The LCD is high resolution, bright, and fluid. Outdoors, it can be quite hard to see though. Brightness is adjustable via the setup menu. When you're in low light, the camera boosts the "gain" on the LCD so things are brighter. The trade-off is that the images will appear grainy on the screen.

As I mentioned, the CP3500 lacks an optical viewfinder. It's LCD or nothing. If I was shopping for a camera for myself, I wouldn't touch a camera without an optical viewfinder -- but this doesn't bother everyone.

Let's talk buttons now -- the back of the camera is well-designed and everything is easy to get to. The three buttons below the LCD are for:

  • Flash (Auto, auto w/redeye reduction, flash off, flash on) {record mode} / Delete photo {playback mode}
  • Scene mode {rec} / Auto transfer {play} - more below
  • Menu {rec/play}

Scene Mode Menu

Scene mode should be familiar to DCRP readers. It lets you choose from several scenarios, and the camera chooses the best settings for the job. On the Coolpix, the choices are:

  • Portrait
  • Party/Indoor
  • Night Portrait
  • Beach/Snow
  • Landscape
  • Sunset
  • Night Landscape
  • Museum
  • Fireworks
  • Close up (macro)
  • Copy (for text/drawings)
  • Back Light

Auto transfer lets you mark photos to be transferred automatically when the camera is connected to your Mac or PC.

Ok, back to our tour! Directly to the right of the LCD is the four-way switch. In addition to navigating menus, the switch can also change the following:

  • Up: Self-timer
  • Left: Display (LCD info)
  • Down: Mode (Auto Rec, Manual Rec, Movie Mode)

Below that is a button for Quick Review mode (which shows the last picture taken in the upper-left corner of the LCD), which also creates a 320 x 240 image while in playback mode.

Up at the top right of the photo you'll find the zoom controls. The zoom is smooth and quiet. Moving from wide-angle to telephoto takes about 1.5 seconds.

On the top of the camera, you'll find the power/mode switch and shutter release button.

I found it too easy to bump the power switch and turn on the camera accidentally.

On this side of the camera, the only thing to see is the hole for the wrist strap. Perfect spot to put that knob to rotate the lens!

On the other side of the camera, you'll find the memory card and battery compartment, as well as the Digital I/O (USB) port. There is no video out port on the Coolpix 3500.

Let's open up that door and see what's inside...

After opening the surprisingly sturdy plastic door, you'll find the battery and CompactFlash (Type I) compartment. The battery and "starter" memory card are shown.

Finally, here is the bottom of the camera, complete with plastic tripod mount.

Using the Nikon Coolpix 3500

Record Mode

It takes about 3.5 seconds for the 3500 to start up after it is turned on. This seems like a long time for a camera with no lens to extend! Speaking of the lens, the camera will show a message on the LCD if the lens is not rotated into position.

Press the shutter release button halfway, and the camera locks focus in about one second. Taking pictures in indoor or dim lighting is very frustrating, due in part to the lack of an AF illuminator. I had a great deal of trouble taking pictures at the recent SF Int'l Auto Show because the camera just couldn't focus.

When you press the shutter release fully, a picture is taken after a short, but noticeable lag, especially at slower shutter speeds.

Shot-to-shot speed was about average, with a 3 second delay between pictures. You have the option of pausing or deleting a photo as it is being written to the memory card.

Now, here's a look at the image size and quality choices available on the Coolpix:

Resolution Compression # shots on 16MB card
(included with camera)
2048 x 1536 Fine 10
Normal 19
Basic 37
1600 x 1200 Fine 16
Normal 31
Basic 59

1280 x 960

Fine 24
Normal 47
Basic 86
1024 x 768 Fine 37
Normal 69
Basic 121
640 x 480 Fine 86
Normal 144
Basic 229

There is no TIFF or RAW mode on the Coolpix 3500.

Images are named DSCN####.JPG, where # = 0001 - 9999. Small pictures (320 x 240) created in playback mode will have the name SSCN####.JPG. The file numbering is maintained even if you replace and/or format memory cards.

Okay, let's talk about menus now. The camera has two modes (besides the various scene modes): automatic and manual. In automatic mode, all of the menu items are locked, except for image quality/size and exposure compensation. The list below shows what you'll see in the menus while in manual mode:

  • Image quality (see chart)
  • Image size (see chart)
  • White balance (Auto, preset, fine, incandescent, fluorescent, cloudy, speedlight)
  • Exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV in 1/3EV increments)
  • Continuous shooting (single-shot, continuous, multi-shot 16)
  • Best Shot Selector (on/off)
  • Image sharpening (Auto, high, normal, low, off)

The CP3500 has the same excellent selection of white balance settings, including a custom mode.

Continuous shooting mode will shoot at 1.5 frames/sec. If the buffer fills up, the camera will keep shooting at a slower rate. Multi-shot 16 will take 16 shots in a row and combine them into one 2048 x 1536 shot.

Best Shot Selector will take up to 10 shots in a row, and then uses "fuzzy logic" to pick the sharpest image. This works best when camera shake may blur images.

In addition to the menu in record mode, there's a setup menu as well. It features items such as LCD brightness, CF card formatting, date/time, auto off, language, and USB mode.

Well enough about menus, let's do photo tests now.

I'm happy about the macro test, except for two things. First, the red is too saturated -- it's not this red in real life. Secondly, you cannot adjust the white balance in any of the scene modes, including macro mode. If you're shooting close-up shots in lighting that the auto white balance can't figure out, colors may be off. Everything else, including the sharpness, is excellent. Like other Nikon cameras, the CP3500 excels at close-up shots -- you can get as close as 4 cm to the subject. One thing to note is that the lens is locked in the middle zoom position in macro mode.

My night test shots illustrates on of the Coolpix 3500's biggest flaws: it's automatic ISO feature. Most cameras these days let you choose an ISO sensitivity. Not so with the Coolpix. It will roam between ISO 100 and 400, depending on lighting conditions. Indoors (like at the auto show) or at night (like in the shot above), it will go to ISO 400, which means major noise. Blow up the shot to see what I'm talking about. I wish you could set the ISO to something more reasonable and just use a tripod and slow shutter speed, but no luck there.

If you read the Coolpix 3500 review, you probably saw this coming: the 3500 is a red-eye machine. The proximity of the flash to the lens makes redeye almost a given. You can reduce it in software, to a certain degree. Something else you can notice in this crop (enlarged so you can see the details, by the way): noise. Even with the flash on, the 3500 cranked the ISO up to 400, making the shot very noisy.

Outdoors, the Coolpix produced very good photos. They were properly exposed, with accurate color. Though I occasionally saw some purple fringing, it was minor. Indoors or in low light, the Coolpix 3500's photos left a lot to be desired. If you could get the camera to focus, photos ended up being very noisy, as I've mentioned already.

Two examples:


... and too much of it for a relatively well-lit convention center

Check out the gallery for more examples, indoor and outdoor. There, you'll also find the full-size versions of the images shown above.

Movie Mode

The Coolpix 3500 movie mode is slightly better than the 2500's. You can now record for up to 35 seconds, instead of just 15. Sound is not recorded on either camera.

Movies are recorded at 320 x 240 at a rate of 15 frames/second, and are saved in Quicktime format.

You cannot use the optical zoom during filming -- only the digital. I could've sworn that the CP3500 let you use the optical zoom, but I could be mistaken.

You cannot access any menu items in movie mode, not even white balance. So movies filmed under "funny" lighting may not look great.

Here is a sample movie for you:

Click to play movie (2.0MB, QuickTime format)

Can't view it? Download QuickTime.

Playback Mode

The CP3500's playback mode is about average. The basic features here are DPOF print marking, image protection, and thumbnail mode (4 or 9 images). There's no slide show mode here either.

The fancier features include Auto Transfer, Small Pic (both of which I already mentioned), and Zoom and Scroll. Zoom and scroll lets you zoom in 6X and scroll around fairly smoothly.

The info shown with each photo is basic. What you see above is all there is. I would've like to at least see the ISO, shutter speed, and aperture used.

The CP3500 moves through images at a good clip. It does this by showing a low resolution version first, then replacing it with the high res version a second or so later.

How Does it Compare?

If you remember the Small 2 Megapixel Cameras review, you'll recall that I wasn't a huge fan of the Coolpix 2500. And aside from more pixels and a new color, not much has changed with the 3500, either. It has the same trademark inner-swiveling lens design, which is both useful and annoying at the same time. It also lacks an optical viewfinder. Photo quality was very good outdoors, but indoors it was very noisy, due to the camera's auto ISO system. Redeye was also a big problem, as it was on the Coolpix 2500. The lack of an AF illuminator made focusing indoors or in low light frustrating.

The camera does offer a good amount of features, and quite a few scene modes. There aren't any manual controls, except for white balance. In terms of performance, the camera was about average. Some folks may like the design and ease of use of the Coolpix 3500, but it definitely wouldn't be my first choice in the small 3 Megapixel category.

What I liked:

  • Good photo quality outdoors
  • Unique (though poorly implemented) swiveling lens, stylish body
  • Very good macro performance
  • Many useful scene modes
  • Manual white balance controls

What I didn't care for:

  • Auto ISO means lot of noise in low light situations
  • No AF illuminator
  • White balance and other settings unavailable in scene and macro modes
  • No optical viewfinder
  • No sound or optical zoom in movie mode
  • Redeye a big problem
  • Aside from white balance, no other manual controls

Some other small 3 Megapixel cameras worth looking at include the Canon PowerShot S230 and S30, Casio QV-R3, Fuji FinePix A303, Kodak EasyShare DX4330, Konica KD-310Z, Kyocera Finecam S3x, Minolta DiMAGE Xi, Olympus D-550Z, Pentax Optio 330GS, Sony Cyber-shot DSC-P7 and DSC-P71, and the Toshiba PDR-3310 and PDR-3320. A crowded field indeed!

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the Coolpix 3500 and it's competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

Want to see how the photo quality turned on? Check out our photo gallery!

Want a second opinion? How about a third?

You'll read two different opinions over at Steve's Digicams and Imaging Resource.


Jeff welcomes your comments or questions. Send them to jakeller@pair.com. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.

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