Picture Quality, File Formats, & Size Settings on the Nikon D3500

The Nikon D3500 has several options you can choose relating to image quality, image file formats, and size. Here's a rundown of what they mean…

The Nikon D3500 has several options you can choose relating to image quality and size. Here’s a rundown of what they mean and which option is best for what use.

These options are all accessible through the camera’s menu system on the back screen. They’re generally in the Shooting Menu section, which is denoted by the camera icon on the left panel.

Image Types on the Nikon D3500: RAW & JPG

With the Nikon D3500, you have a choice of two image types: RAW and JPG (or both at once).

RAW offers the best image quality, but it’s less convenient because the files require post-processing to use them. JPG is far more convenient because of its wide compatibility, but it doesn’t offer the same quality benefits.

You can find these settings under Shooting Menu (camera icon) > Image Quality.

Nikon D3500 RAW Images

The RAW file format saves all the information from the camera’s sensor without processing it and applying filters. Think of it as a digital negative.

Nikon cameras use Nikon’s own proprietary RAW image format that has a file extension of .NEF.

The RAW format is best if you want both maximum image quality and maximum flexibility in editing the images. Just like an old film negative, it’s the master, original photo.

But you’ll also need to allow space in your workflow to process the images, edit them how you want, and then export them as another format that’s more share-friendly (e.g., JPG).

That’s because RAW files aren’t designed for sharing or display by themselves—you really need to process the images before you can do much with them. Just as it doesn’t make much sense to be handing people film negatives and expecting them to do much with them, you wouldn’t, in most instances, share the RAW file. Typically you’d use something like Lightroom or one of the other RAW processing apps to create derivative versions that would be saved as JPGs or TIFFs. If you try to send someone else an NEF file, they might not be able to do much with it, and you can’t share them directly to social media or even most websites.

With the D3500, you don’t have any options with the RAW files—the option is either on or off. All of the RAW files have compression applied. With some other cameras, including higher models in Nikon’s DSLR lineup, you can choose between 14-bit or 12-bit RAW files and compressed and uncompressed images, but those choices aren’t available on the D3500.

RAW + JPG on the Nikon D3500

This setting saves two image files simultaneously every time you take a photo. One is a master RAW file, and the other is a JPG version of the same file. It’s the best of both worlds, but creating two files instead of one takes up more space on your memory card and slows things down a bit.

It can be a handy option to use if you might want to share JPG versions without processing as well as retain the option to come back to them later and edit them.

It’s also a handy option to have in those instances where you want both maximum image quality but also need to preserve a version that can prove that the image is unadulterated and hasn’t been tampered with, such as working with photojournalism wire services, forensic photography, or insurance claims.

JPG Quality Settings on the Nikon D3500

JPG (also often rendered as JPEG) is a de facto standard and can be used pretty much anywhere. They’re easy to email and share on social media. And while their quality potential isn’t as high as RAW images, they can still have excellent image quality, especially at the higher quality settings.

You can choose from three different JPG quality settings: Fine, Normal, and Basic. These don’t refer to the pixel dimensions—they refer to the aggressiveness of the JPG compression. The more aggressive the JPG compression, the smaller the files, but the lower the quality.

You can find these options under Shooting Menu (camera icon) > Image Quality.

Because JPG compression is lossy compression, it means that information is discarded as part of the process. The more aggressively the compression is applied, the more information is discarded. While the difference between them might not be immediately visible with first-generation images straight out of the camera, it will become more noticeable if you edit the images in Lightroom or Photoshop and generate second- or third-generation versions. In extreme cases, you can see JPG artifacts and blocks of colors that visibly detract from the image.

The Fine setting, therefore, is best if you’re looking for the highest image quality, and especially if you plan to edit the files. The Medium and Basic settings have slightly lower quality, but they save space on your memory card and can be more convenient for sharing the images directly out of the camera without any post-processing. Situations where that might be important include time-lapse photography, where every frame doesn’t need maximum size or quality.

Nikon D3500 Image Sizes for JPGs

In addition to choosing the quality setting, you can also choose from three different JPG size settings. They are:

  • Large: 6000 x 4000 pixels, which comes to 24 megapixels
  • Medium: 4496 x 3000 pixels, which comes to 13.5 megapixels
  • Small: 2992 x 2000 pixels, which comes to 6 megapixels

You might notice on this example that the Medium option has a yellow box around it. That shoes the currently active setting being used. The filled in yellow background shows the menu item that’s being selected or changed to.

You can find these under Shooting Menu (camera icon) > Image Size. If that menu item is grayed out and you can’t select it, it’s most likely because you have the Image Quality set to RAW. The image size options are only available for JPGs.

Here’s a visual version that shows the relative dimensions of each size setting. Click on it to open a full-size version.

The Large setting will give you the maximum flexibility, highest resolution, and potentially the highest quality, but the images take up more space on your memory card (and computer) and will take a little longer to save and download. Most users will probably want to use the Large setting to make the best use of the camera’s capabilities. It’s better to take a large file and make a smaller copy if you need it rather than be stuck with a small file with less detail and try to make it larger.

The smaller settings do have their uses, though. One example is if you need to share the images right out of the camera and need a manageable file size for email, etc. Another example is if you’re shooting time-lapse and want to be able to fit thousands of images on the memory card without filling it up with images larger than you need.

By combining the image quality setting with the image size setting, you can get quite a lot of flexibility.

I rarely use the smaller sizes and will usually set the Large size. Memory cards for the D3500 are relatively inexpensive these days, and I’d rather have the higher quality versions available if I need them.

File Sizes & How Many Nikon D3500 Photos Will Fit on a Memory Card?

Memory cards are a crucial accessory for the Nikon D3500. You won’t get far without one. I’ve put together some recommendations of SD cards for the Nikon D3500 separately.

What I’m focusing on here is how many photos you can fit. Memory cards are available in a variety of sizes, and in deciding what size to get, it’s useful to know how many images you can fit on a card of such and such capacity. So here are some estimates.

You’ll notice that in the file size column I give ranges. That’s because the images generated on a Nikon D3500 are compressed, and the effectiveness of the image compression varies from photo to photo depending on factors like the colors, tones, and detail of each individual scene. A photo with few colors and tones and little detail can be compressed much more than a photo with many tones and colors and lots of detail. It’s just the way that most image compression algorithms work.

For the columns on the right, which show estimates of the number of images at each setting that will fit on 32GB, 64GB, 128GB, and 256GB cards, I’ve used the upper end of the range because for something like this it’s better to underestimate than overestimate. So the numbers in this column, in particular, are very much approximations and should be read as rough guides but not absolutes.

QualitySizeFilesize / MB32GB64GB128GB256GB
RAW26-271084216843368672
JPGFINELarge11.5-1521334266853217064
Medium6.5-7.5426685321706434128
Small3.5-4.57111142222844456888
NORMALLarge5.5-7.5426685321706434128
Medium3-4.57111142222844456888
Small1.5-2.512,8002560051200102400
BASICLarge1.5-2.512,8002560051200102400
Medium0.9-1.521,3334266685332170664
Small0.6-1.226,66653332106664213328

Q&A

Can you shoot RAW on the Nikon D3500? Yes. You have a choice of RAW, JPG, or RAW+JPG.

What RAW file format does the Nikon D3500 use? It uses Nikon’s NEF file format (file extension of .nef). It’s widely compatible with RAW processing apps, but it is a proprietary RAW format.

What aspect ratios does the Nikon D3500 shoot at? The Nikon D3500 shoots still images with an aspect ratio of 3:2 and video at 16:9. There’s no option to change the shooting aspect ratio, but you can use the camera’s built-in editing functions to crop the photos afterward to aspect ratios such as 1:1, 4:3, or 16:9.

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