Online wars are being waged around which 3D modeling and visualizing software is the best. And when you are making your first steps in learning 3D, you want to find the program that is considered the best, the most popular, and the most demanded by employers.
But, realistically speaking, there is no such thing — otherwise, there wouldn’t be so many existing solutions on the market.
We are going to tell you about 12 programs for 3D modeling and explain what each of them is the most suitable for. Hopefully, this will help you decide where to start your education.
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Let’s first look at the “heavyweights” of the industry: big solutions with tools for almost any task in modeling, animation, texturing, visual effects, etc. You can create pretty much anything in such all-in-one systems, though sometimes it takes a significant amount of creative thinking.
3Ds MAX is very popular all around the world, and it is not hard to find classes and tutorials on how to use it. Objects are created from primitives or splines and can later be edited using various modifiers.
There are tools for character rigging and animation, creating soft and frame furniture, fabric simulation, setting up walls and building elements, filling landscapes, texturing, and creating realistic materials. 3Ds MAX is popular in architectural visualization, object design, and engineering.
Third-party developers regularly create and update plugins that add to or improve existing 3Ds MAX functions and the overall work process. Such plugins offer powerful tools for particle systems simulation, creating liquids or fire, and scattering multiple objects around the scene.
They also release modern rendering engines (such as V-Ray or Corona Renderer) for 3Ds MAX first.
If you want to work in architectural visualization or object design, start with 3Ds MAX.
Maya is a powerful application for large teams and studios. Every project contains several files, each representing parts of it, while the actual scene simply holds the links to all these parts.
This way, several people can work on one scene simultaneously: one animates the characters, the other refines the background, and the third edits the materials.
Maya is an industry-standard in the USA and Europe and is used by big studios to produce CGI cartoons, VFX, animations for video games, and advertisements. It looks and feels a lot like 3Ds MAX but provides much better tools for animation and rigging.
Autodesk develops plugins and extensions and includes them in new versions, so there is no need to search for them on the side.
If you want to create character animations and cartoons and eventually join a professional animation studio, Autodesk Maya is for you.
Cinema 4D is considered one of the easiest programs to learn for newbies thanks to its simple interface and full support in eight languages.
Objects are created from primitives, but also through parametric modeling, and there are tools for creating procedural shaders and textures. Its special system of takes saves several editable versions of the scene in a single file.
Cinema 4D Lite comes as part of Adobe After Affects, which helped it become popular in the motion design industry. Any animation or effects created in Cinema 4D can be exported into After Effects and immediately added to the video being edited.
Furthermore, MAXON developed Cinebench — a special benchmark for CPU and GPU rendering power evaluation. Major manufacturers consider Cinebench marks when developing new hardware.
If you aspire to create special effects for advertisements and get into motion design, choose Cinema 4D.
Blender is a free, open-source application, but it still provides a flexible working space for modeling, animation, simulating particle systems, texturing, realistic rendering, sculpting, and even video editing.
Blender has a reputation of being a program that’s hard to learn, but in recent years the interface has been greatly improved. Initially, all the functions were only accessible through keyboard shortcuts (some of which repeat for different functions in different tools), but since then, proper context menus have been added.
Its interface is based on node structure, so you can adjust the workspace for any needs. Nodes are also a basis for shading, post editing and compositing. The official road map is available on Blender’s website and new test versions are released almost every day.
Blender is rarely used by studios working on big projects, but it is still used for creating indie cartoons, videos, models, and games. Lately, architectural visualization using Cycles and Eevee render engines (built in Blender) have also started gaining popularity.
If you are learning 3D as a hobby, want to become a freelancer, or open your own independent studio, Blender is a great tool to learn.
NOTE: Megarender Render Farm allows you to render projects done in all these applications. You can render 3Ds MAX scenes in our online service and send Maya, Cinema 4D or Blender files to the operators for manual rendering.
Architecture and BIM
3D technologies are actively used in designing buildings and structures, especially when using BIM (Building Information Modeling). In BIM, the building and all the schemes and documentation are considered to be a single object.
When a 3D model is changed, these changes immediately appear in drafts, specifications, and charts. If you are learning 3D to work in building and architectural design, take a look at the following applications.
ArchiCAD’s workflow is based on the Virtual Building concept. Designers create the building from existing elements: walls, windows, doors, stairs, beams, etc.
Using this model ArchiCAD creates floor plans, facades, section views, specifications, and other documentation. As per BIM requirements, any changes to a 3D model immediately appear in drafts.
While buildings are usually created from existing objects, version 16 added the Morph tool, which allows creating uniquely shaped objects. Many standard objects can be downloaded or purchased as additional libraries by side developers.
ArchiCAD is popular among architects and interior designers and doesn’t require deep knowledge of 3D modeling.
Revit is best suited for working on big projects: multi-storey buildings, industrial structures, skyscrapers, etc. Designers assemble the building from templates and then divide it into premises and zones.
Floor plans, faÃÂ§ades, and section views are then created from the model. Revit includes 2D drafting tool for annotations; 4D BIM technology provides means of planning and tracking the life cycle of the building.
There are also built-in tools for designing technical building systems.
Revit is a more powerful application than ArchiCAD and it is often used by big architectural studios, constructors, and engineers. But it requires powerful hardware to operate on and a special education, which can be received through official Autodesk courses.
SketchUp doesn’t support BIM, but it is still used in architectural design for simple visualization. It is free for non-commercial use and works in a browser (you don’t need to install anything on your computer).
SketchUp’s interface is user-friendly and provides easy tools for creating buildings, designing interiors, landscapes, outdoor advertising, and preparing 3D models for printing. The built-in render engine doesn’t create realistic images, but V-Ray is available for commercial versions.
NOTE: To design using the BIM system, you have to get professional education. But these applications can be used even without it for sketch design and prototyping.
If you are planning to use 3D for engineering design, start learning it through mid-range CAD systems — the basis for designing technical building systems and creating assemblies of variable complexity.
They combine 3D modeling with engineering calculations and create and calculate additional systems. Mid-range CAD can also create programming code for CNC machines.
Bear in mind that CAD systems are meant to be used by professional engineers and require specialized knowledge.
SolidWorks is the most used software among engineering companies. Objects are created through a parametric feature-based approach: changing parameters affects the shape and size of an object. Each action is added to a tree and can later be moved up or down to change the result.
SolidWorks is suitable for 3D designing and modeling of components and assemblies, generating dimensions and tolerances, working with 2D drafts, project analysis, and tracking technological requirements.
There is an in-built library of standard elements, but you can also import models from other applications: SolidWorks will recognize the geometry and parameterize it.
SolidWorks’s interface is considered exemplary in the industry, and other developers use it as a quality bar.
Inventor was developed by Autodesk and allows for organic integration with other solutions such as 3Ds MAX, Revit, and AutoCAD. This makes Inventor popular in engineering and object design, architecture, and construction.
It supports DWG files but can open other files thanks to AnyCAD technology: objects, created in other CAD applications, are imported without losing associated bonds.
Inventor supports parametric feature-based modeling, but also provides tools for adaptive modeling: changing one element also changes the conjugated elements. Inventor also has in-built masters for quick creation of standard constructions and nodes.
Many applications are created for one specific task. They are often used together with other programs, which can be much faster than doing everything in one place. Let’s take a look at 3 such applications, famous in the 3D world, but pretty unique in their workflow.
Zbrush is a 3D sculpting workplace. Artists add geometry to the surface like clay using an assortment of brushes. Instead of working with the primitives, an object is sculpted by adding polygons with each stroke. Built-in tools can generate hair, fur, and plants.
Many characters for games, cartoons, and movies are initially created in Zbrush.
Brushes can also be used to draw textures right over the geometry. The model is then unwrapped, and the resulting map can be exported with or without the geometry. There are tools for rigging and preparing the model for further animation.
The built-in render engine is more suitable for previews, and the models are usually exported for re-topology and animation in Maya, Blender, 3Ds MAX, etc.
Zbrush is popular among artists and sculptors thanks to its unique workflow. It played a big role in the advancement of realism in movies and modern games.
Simulating particle systems like liquids, smoke, flames or explosions is one of the most complicated tasks in 3D modeling. Big all-in-one applications often struggle to create them because working with particle systems requires using a completely different logic to all the other tools.
Houdini is a system for visual programming, where complicated realistic effects are created procedurally.
Houdini uses a node system for creating models, animations, simulations of liquids and special effects, physical interaction calculations, textures generation, and compositing.
In professional use, most of the effects are created through writing programming code, not through interface and buttons. There is also an audio editing tool for synchronizing visuals and sounds.
To master Houdini, you’ll need to understand the main principles of programming and learn Python or Vex to some level. The application is considered standard in the VFX industry and is used for creating VFX for movies, advertisements, and games.
One of the main problems of polygonal modeling is making curved surfaces smooth without creating too many polygons. Any seemingly smooth object will still be an ngon with sharp edges, and increasing polygon count demands powerful hardware.
Rhinoceros 3D uses a principally different way of creating objects: NURBS-based modeling. This sidesteps the need for smoothing completely.
NURBS-based modeling provides a precise representation of curves for production and manufacturing. That’s why Rhino is used for designing cars, ships, planes, and modern buildings.
Thanks to open SDK, there are many expansions for Rhinoceros 3D that turn the basic application into a specialized tool. Such programs are popular in designing clothes, shoes, jewelry, and furniture. It is also widely used for editing 3D scans and 3D printing.
While most all-in-one applications support NURBS-based modeling, Rhinoceros was initially created just for this purpose and therefore provides handy tools and functions for that.
To Sum Up
This list is in no way all-encompassing. There are other applications used in smaller industries. Some studios even develop their own tools tailored to their specific needs. But if you are only starting to learn 3D, choose one of these 12 programs.
When you figure out the basics of modeling, animating, and rendering in one of them, it won’t be hard to learn any other program. Most professionals work in several applications at once: one is good for modeling, another for animation, and a third for creating complex shaders and rendering.
Try using several programs and choose the one that is the most suitable for you. Every application on this list provides either a demo version or a free student license. Good luck!