Don't use just any 3D rendering software built into you 3D modeling software. Here is a list of the 20 best solutions – commercial and free.
There are two principal rendering methods that are suitable to two very different applications.
Rasterisation is the standard for real-time graphics such as computer games. This 3D rendering technology is suitable for this task as it balances real-time performance with an acceptable level quality.
The downside is that this method cannot cope well with complex lighting conditions. To work around this constraint, a number of techniques have been developed over the years. For example, “baking” the lighting into the texture reduces strain on rendering power.
The technologies under discussion in our list belong to the raytracing branch of 3D rendering. Raytracing yields a higher degree of quality than rasterization. This technology attempts to recreate the physical process. The key is tracing every ray of light that hits the virtual camera’s lense back to its source. This approach includes complex calculations that enable even photorealistic images using reflections and refractions. Therefore, it is used for animated movies and visual effects.
However, this approach to rendering requires greater processing power. For this reason, it is not has not been used in real-time applications like computer games in the past. The recent development of more powerful GPUs has triggered a shift, facilitating realtime photorealistic graphics. Yet another method is called “radiosity”. In addition to raytracing, it calculates the spreading and diffusion of light.
Another important term you should look out for is “physically based rendering”. It designates a shader method that emulates the physical properties found in real-world materials such as specularity, refraction. Some consider energy conservation the most important factor. It means that an object cannot reflect more light than it receives.
When browsing for 3D rendering software you will encounter two recurring terms that are rarely explained: “biased” vs. “unbiased rendering”. Here is what they mean.
Unbiased renderers attempt to calculate physically accurate images. That means they trace back the path of a light ray in a mathematically correct manner, without making any shortcuts. This method can result in longer render times. Therefore, unbiased rendering is rarely used for animated movies. Instead, it is found in graphic design and architectural visualization, since render time doesn’t have that much impact on the project’s schedule.
Biased renderers, in turn, are developed for efficiency. When calculating the paths of light rays, they strategically cheat to cut down the render time. Specifically, this means they interpolate between frames or apply blur. It takes some expertise to finetune a biased renderer to produce a convincing result. But on large scale animation or special effects projects, it is worth to go the extra mile in terms of money and time saved.
|3Delight||Free/$600||CPU||Windows, Mac, Linux||3ds Max, Katana, Maya|
|Arion||$230||CPU/GPU||Windows||3ds Max, Rhinoceros|
|Arnold||$600/year||CPU||Windows, Mac, Linux||Maya, Houdini, Cinema 4D, 3ds Max, Katana and Softimage|
|FelixRender||$160/month||N/A||Windows||3ds Max, AutoCAD, Rhinoceros|
|Guerilla Render||Free/$2,300||CPU||Windows, Linux||Maya|
|Indigo Render||$835||GPU||Windows, Mac, Linux||3ds Max, Blender, Cinema 4D, iClone, Maya, Revit, SketchUp|
|Iray||$295/year||GPU||Windows, Mac||3ds Max, Cinema 4D, Maya, Rhinoceros|
|Lumion||$1,740||GPU||Windows||SketchUp, Autodesk Revit, ArchiCAD, Bentley, Allplan, Vectorworks, Rhinoceros, 3ds Max|
|LuxRender||Free||GPU||Windows, Mac, Linux||3ds Max, Blender, Carrara, Cinema 4D, DAZ Studio, Maya, Poser, SketchUp, XSI|
|Maxwell Render||$495||CPU/GPU||Windows, Mac, Linux||3ds Max, ArchiCAD, Cinema 4D, formZ, Maya, Modo, Revit, Rhinoceros, SketchUp, SolidWorks|
|Mental Ray||$295/year||CPU/GPU||Windows, Mac, Linux||3ds Max, Maya|
|Octane Render||$399||GPU||Windows, Mac, Linux||3ds Max, ArchiCAD, AutoCAD, Blender, Carrara, Cinema 4D, DAZ Studio, Houdini, Inventor, Lightwave, Maya, Modo, Nuke, Poser, Revit, Rhinoceros, SketchUp, Softimage|
|Redshift||$500||GPU||Windows, Mac, Linux||3ds Max, Cinema 4D, Houdini, Maya, Softimage|
|RenderMan||$495||CPU||Windows, Mac, Linux||Blender, Houdini, Katana, Maya|
|Thea Render||$340||CPU/GPU||Windows, Mac, Linux||SketchUp, Cinema 4D, Rhino, Fusion, Blender, form Z, Fusion 360|
|V-Ray||$750||CPU/GPU||Windows, Mac, Linux||3ds Max, Blender, Cinema 4D, Maya, Modo, Nuke, Revit, Rhinoceros, SketchUp, Unreal|
In addition, this 3D rendering software aims at compatibility with industry standards, as it uses the RenderMan shading language. Its integration into major 3D modeling solutions like Maya makes it a popular option for feature film effects.
In Maya, users can choose between multiple rendering algorithms (REYES and pathtracing, giving filmmakers greater flexibility without the need to buy a new application. As is to be expected, this 3D rendering software software supports physically based materials, other standards include OpenExr and OpenVDB. For single users, 3Delight is free.
Arion is an unbiased 3D rendering software. allows rendering light sources separately for complete flexibility in post-production. It is capable of delivering results at the high speed due to its support of both CPU and GPU based rendering. However, the GPU mode requires compatible hardware by NVidia.
For realistic skins, Arion features sub-surface scattering that is both physically-based and highly configurable. Both the sun and sky simulation are also physically-based. To add to the realism, physical lens effects like ISO, f-stop and film shift can be used. AOVs can be efficiently composited thanks to the support of OpenExr.
Arnold is fast CPU based raytracing renderer that was developed for the VFX studio Sony Pictures Imageworks. It is capable of real-time rendering, meaning that when you make changes during the rendering, they are immediately included in ongoing calculations, speeds up the process to develop the desired look. With this 3D rendering software you can create about any pass imaginable, giving you a huge amount of control over the final look in the compositing stage.
Being one of the preferred software solution in the effects industry, Arnold, of course, supports volumetrics. In addition, its material editor is node based making the process intuitive. Many presets are available out of the box and additional nodes are written by the active user community.
Artlantis is a 3D rendering software that has been developed with an eye on the needs of architects and designers. It provides a wide selection of preset like indoor/outdoor lighting for a quick turnaround. The materials inside Artlantis are physically based in order to achieve photorealistic results. Also, among the advanced shaders are luminous materials that extend the range of possibilities scenes can be lit.
The built-in render manager in this 3D rendering software allows you to distribute the computing load evenly among your local computers, minimizing the overall rendering time. Artlantis is available in a version for high-resolution still images and another that can produce high-resolution 3D renderings, iVisit360 panoramas, VR Objects, and sequences.
Corona is an (un)biased photorealistic 3D renderer, that has become popular due to the ease of use. Following the motto “less is more”, Corona offers a less cluttered UI to cut down setup times. Although a CPU based solution, its interactive rendering capability also speeds up workflows.
This 3D rendering software is flexible with regard to realism. Phenomena that require much computing power like caustics can be disabled selectively. What is more, materials can be created that bend to the artistic vision, not physical reality. So, a material can be blue when seen directly but have a different color when reflected or refracted.
Enscape is a real-time 3D rendering software that is primarily geared at architectural visualization. Impressively, this solution eliminates the need to export from BIM and rework data for presentations as still images or movies. Everything is prepared in the original program.
However, the standout feature of this 3D rendering software is its ability to export project files from Revit and SketchUp as standalone executables to provide walkthroughs that can be shared with clients or co-workers. These standalones can be used on desktop computers and VR goggles. Apart from the photorealistic render mode, Enscape includes a number of stylised modes like sketch, paper and polystyrol models.
FelixRender is a cloud computing 3D rendering solution. It frees professionals who don’t have the resources from the constraints of their hardware by providing an interface that allows easy upload of scene files. Relevant fields include architectural visualization and marketing. The renders are finished quickly as lightning and are ready for download. For security, all uploaded files are 256 bit encrypted.
Under the hood, it leverages Maxwell Render, an unbiased high-quality 3D rendering software. In addition, FelixRender provides social network features like sharing of scenes, materials, and assets with colleagues. To populate large and complex scenes, FelixRender adds its own flavor of 3D model instancing to the package.
Guerilla Render is an unbiased 3D rendering software that already has quite a few feature films to its name. To help validate a shot before the final render, the program features progressive rendering inside its viewport. Thanks to physically based rendering, it is easy to produce photorealistic stills and sequences.
Among the rendering features, you can find subsurface scattering. The lighting system of Guerilla Render is highly flexible, allowing for instance lighting in specific AOVs. In addition, the program offers full OpenEXR support which facilitates the compositing stage by selecting layers and objects in the final rendered image file. The 3D rendering software is free for single workstations.
Indigo is an unbiased 3D rendering software that is aimed at architectural visualization and industrial design. Its real-time rendering capability allows you to edit scenes and inspect the results instantly. The parameters of every material can be adjusted with shader program written in the custom Indigo Shader Language. Impressively, Indigo features a planet-based physically accurate sky system that still delivers realistic results at a quick pace.
Unlike other GPU powered plugins, Indigo is not limited to a CUDA capable NVidia graphics card, it also supports the OpenCL standard used by AMD. To speed up rendering you can easily set up a network of slave renderers.
Iray is a biased GPU renderer software by NVidia. Developed it for NVidia’s CUDA technology, it is geared renderer towards anyone who doesn’t have expert knowledge in rendering. Therefore, it is suitable for designers who need real-time results in photorealistic quality at a reasonable price. The relevant fields include architecture, engineering, art, and advertising.
Although developed for real-time usage scenarios, this 3D rendering software brings many of the features you would expect from a CPU solution. Like instancing, caustics, subsurface scattering or volumetrics. To achieve its high-performance photorealism, Iray employs physically-based materials that correctly simulate their reflection properties, light emission of surfaces, and scattering and absorption properties of volumes. Light sources can be isolated renders to gain full control of the final composition.
Keyshot is a 3D renderings software like no other on this list. It does not tie in with 3D modeling solutions. Instead, it is a pure standalone solution that aims at the most user-friendly rendering process possible. Keyshot has a comprehensive library of physically accurate materials that are assigned to the 3D file by drag-and-drop.
The entire process takes place in real-time, i.e. while you set up your scene with cameras, materials, and lights, the program constantly updates the rendered image. This feature of Keyshot allows you to work much faster than many other solutions. The ease of use and real-time rendering make this 3D rendering software an excellent choice for engineers and architects who want to showcase their work without wasting time learning complex new software.
Lumion is a 3D rendering software that has been developed to integrate with CAD software. Its ease of use makes it suitable for designers and architects who want to render for themselves. In addition, Lumion renders in real-time, making it an ideal tool to develop the look and feel of a product.
To enhance your renders, this 3D rendering software includes an extensive library of skies, water, grass, materials, plants, people, trees and other assets. Impressively, Lumion can handle landscapes populated with thousands of these assets.
LuxRender is a un-biased/biased 3D rendering software that is available under an OpenSource license. On a wide range of features, LuxRender can compete with commercial rendering solutions: The materials used are physically based, thus enabling photorealistic results.
Even complex phenomena like subsurface scattering and volumetrics are supported by LuxRender. To help minimise the overall render time, users can choose to render in biased mode. To the same end, instanced objects may be used.
Maxwell is an unbiased 3D rendering software that is especially well suited to the requirements of architectural visualization. It combines a high degree of realism with an easy to grasp workflow. To make scene setup easier, Macwell includes ready-made light assets, e.g. fill lights, spots, IES, projectors, negative fills, and others. This allows you to focus on the creative part.
As is to be expected, Macwell is slower than biased renderers when running on a CPU. However, the support for GPU is continuously expanded, increasing the pressure on programs like Octane. Currently, this feature requires CUDA capable NVidia graphics card.
Mental Ray is a biased 3D rendering software that can look on a long and successfull series of applications in feature films. Harnessing the global illumination engine, Mental Ray achieves physically accurate renders. Built on NVidia’s own CUDA technology, Mental Ray can use both GPU and CPU to render at the highest speed.
This 3D rendering software is particularly suited for characters, since it is famous for the quality of its subsurface scattering. This 3D rendering software is free to render single frames, but to render sequences it requires a commercial license.
Although an unbiased renderer, Octane combines fast rendering with quality. This is due to the 3D rendering software using an NVidia graphics cards (GPU) instead of the CPU like many other unbiased solutions. Bears the distinction of being among the fastest renderers (according to the website 10x to 50x). In practice, the real-time viewports are the final renders. This stand out feature will boost your workflow as any changes are rendered instantly in full quality.
What is more, this 3D rendering software can even handle complex phenomena that are hard for other renderers problems. For example, it can handle subsurface scattering, depth-of-field and motion blur without hiccups. The newest release includes Open Shader Language (OpenSL) and OpenVDB for particle simulation. Octane comes with a node-based material editor that suffers from occasional bugs.
Redshift is a biased 3D rendering software that is based on GPU acceleration. Redshifts uses physically based materials that are compatible workflows of Allegorithmic Substance and Unreal Engine. Also, users can rely on a series of dedicated shaders for skin, and hair.
The lighting system is both highly flexible and realistic, with image-based environment textures providing light for entire scenes, and volumetric lighting to create dramatic effects. Speaking of which, Redshift’s support of volumetrics is based on OpenVDB rendering. To add to the realism, physical lens effects like ISO, shutter, and color balanced can be used. AOVs can be efficiently composited thanks to the support of OpenExr.
If you have seen any Pixar movie, then you have already witnessed the power of its homegrown renderer, RenderMan. Pixar famously pioneered many techniques that are nowadays industry practice. For example, RenderMan was the first to include multi-bounce ray traced global illumination.
One of the more recent additions to this 3D rendering software is an unbiased estimator for bleeding edge quality path traced subsurface scattering. Its interactive controls for the different layers make it easy to quickly achieve a realistic and appealing look. Also, moving volumes can be rendered in unparalleled quality thanks to deformation volume blur.
Hair and fur are an important benchmark for the quality of any renderer. In RenderMan, they can be handled efficiently with its advanced hair shading algorithm. However, this vast feature set can be unwieldy for single artists. It takes a team to tame this beast!
Thea Render biased/unbiased 3D rendering software that runs exclusively on GPUs. Accordingly, the program features interactive rendering inside its viewport. This makes quick tweaks and previewing very convenient. A standout feature is the inclusion of three distinct engines that operate within the same framework. This way, the appropriate tool can be selected based on the job’s requirements without the need to purchase a new product. (For a tabular comparison click here)
To help cut down the computational burden, Thea Render allows users to scatter instanced objects manually using a brush tool. Last but not least, this 3D rendering software has its very own asset manager that gives access to a large library of objects and textures for populating scenes and texturing 3D models.
V-Ray is considered to be one of the best render software on the market since it boasts high speed and high quality. Under the hood, V-Ray is a biased raytracer that can harness both a CPU and a GPU (RT) uses brute force and path tracing calculations. You can find it integrated into a large array of 3D modeling suites.
On the one hand, this 3D rendering software is accessible enough that individual artists and the occasional 3D modeler can get great results out of it. On the other hand, V-Ray also has a comprehensive feature set, that is to say, professional teams can achieve amazing quality with it. However, if you are aiming to push the envelope success won’t come quickly with Vray, since the advanced features have a steep learning curve.