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 of 3D rendering software 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 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 real-time 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 3D rendering software 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 3D rendering software, 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 is a 3D rendering software that is designed for maximum 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 path tracing, giving filmmakers greater flexibility without the need to buy a new application. As is to be expected, this 3D rendering software supports physically based materials, other standards include OpenExr and OpenVDB. For single users, 3Delight is free.
3Delight is a great 3D rendering software for special effects because it integrates well with other programs.
Arion is an unbiased 3D rendering software that allows rendering light sources separately for complete flexibility in post-production. It is capable of delivering results at 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 in this 3D rendering software. AOVs can be efficiently composited thanks to the support of OpenExr.
Its powerful output options make Arion of the best 3D rendering software on this list.
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. This, in turn, 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 3D rendering software solutions in the effects industry, Arnold 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.
Its wide range of features makes Arnold one of the best 3D rendering software for special effects.
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.
Due to the many output formats, Artlantis is an excellent 3D rendering software for architects who want to impress their customers.
Although not a granddaddy of 3D rendering software, Clarisse can already show numerous blockbuster credits for itself, like the new Star Wars movies. The reason for this success Clarisse is that it is not only a fast 3D rendering software, but it also encourages artists to set up their scenes intelligently and cost-effectively. For instance, scenes are built, lit and rendered from assets. These assets can be modified in third-party-software which facilitates the pipeline integration of Clarisse.
The rendering capabilities of Clarisse are highly advanced. For instance, it facilitates the integration of rendered images and sequences from other 3D rendering software by deep image output. To break it down, Clarisse outputs depth information for every pixel.
You can learn Clarisse for free with the Personal Learning Edition. The renders made with the PLE are limited to 2560×1440 resolution and may not be used for commercial purposes.
Clarisse is the best 3D rendering software for commercial studios that try to streamline their production pipeline.
Corona is a (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, the interactive rendering capability of this 3D rendering software can also speed 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.
Due to its great usability, Corona is rightly a highly popular 3D rendering software.
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 polystyrene models.
Enscape is the perfect 3D rendering software for architects who want to flabbergast stakeholders with VR presentations.
FelixRender is a cloud computing 3D rendering software. 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.
FelixRender is a convenient cloud 3D rendering software for professionals.
FluidRay is a physically-based renderer that was developed for creating awe-inspiring views of architectural and design projects. Using unbiased real-time algorithms, it can tackle a wide range of lighting setups. Users can choose whether they want to run this 3D rendering software as a standalone or as a plugin in 3D modeling software.
FluidRay was designed with usability in mind. The real-time workflow of this 3D rendering software is can be grasped intuitively in just a few minutes. To setup scenes quickly, FluidRay comes with a large library of materials that can be optimized. In addition, the developers built in the industry standard Open Shading Language (OSL) that enables users to create entirely new materials.
This 3D rendering software is a great choice for architectural and design projects.
Another highly interesting biased/unbiased GPU renderer is called FurryBall. It brings you a live progressive preview. This means that you don’t need to wait for final renders to see the results of your changes, allowing for a much faster workflow.
The developers aim at the needs of computer animated movies and special effects rendering. For this reason, this 3D rendering software is also available as a plugin for Maya, Cinema 4D, and 3ds Max. The plugins also support all the special components and third-party plugins of the main programs that control particles, fluids, and hair such as Shave and a Haircut. If you want to test drive this 3D rendering software, download the free version that includes 20 hours of rendering.
FurryBall is an excellent choice in case you are not satisfied with the built-in standard 3D rendering software of Maya, Cinema 4D, or 3ds Max.
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.
The free version of Guerilla Render is the perfect 3D rendering software for young professionals and independent artists.
Indigo is an unbiased 3D rendering software that is geared 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 programs 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 3D rendering software, 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.
Indigo is a great 3D rendering software for quickly creating realistic previews.
Iray is a biased GPU renderer software by NVidia. Developed it for NVidia’s CUDA technology, Iray is geared at anyone who doesn’t have expert knowledge in rendering. Therefore, this 3D rendering software 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 in rendering to gain full control of the final composition.
Its ease of use makes Iray the perfect 3D rendering software choice for achieving convincing results in no time.
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 in-house. 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.
The large feature-set makes this 3D rendering software an excellent addition to any architect’s toolbox.
LuxRender is an unbiased/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 minimize the overall render time, users can choose to render in biased mode. To the same end, instanced objects may be used in this 3D rendering software.
Because of LuxRender’s impressive range of features, it is an excellent 3D rendering software for special effects and architectural visualization.
Marmoset Toolbag is a whole swiss-army knife that can increase productivity for 3D artists. As such it is not only a bleeding-edge 3D rendering software but has also strong animation and texture baking capabilities. Because every change is displayed in real-time, setting up scenes in Marmoset Toolbag can be done very quickly.
Moreover, it comes with a modular material editor that allows artists to create new textures using drag-and-drop. The built-in skin shader features sophisticated translucency options. Most importantly, Toolbag can create physically accurate renders that can be used for promotion campaigns. This 3D rendering software is particularly useful for game developers since it integrates well with Unity and Unreal Engine.
If you want to showcase your skills, you don’t have to limit yourself to rendered images and movies. You can export your projects to Toolbag Viewer and let web-users experience them in high-quality on their computers. This feature is perfect for creating portfolios.
Its integration with game engines makes Marmoset Toolbag is one of the best 3D rendering software for game developers.
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, macOSwell 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, Maxwell is slower than biased renderers when running on a CPU. However, the support for GPU is continuously expanded, increasing the pressure on 3D rendering software like Octane. Currently, this feature requires a CUDA capable NVidia graphics card.
Maxwell is an excellent 3D rendering software for architects that need convincing results without having to learn complicated software.
Mental Ray is a biased 3D rendering software that can look on a long and successful series of 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.
If you need one of the best industrial-grade 3D rendering software for VFX, look no further.
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.
Octane is a marvelous 3D rendering software because it can produce high-quality renders fast.
Redshift is a biased 3D rendering software that is based on GPU acceleration. Redshift 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 this 3D rendering software’s support of OpenExr.
Due to its advanced output options, Redshift is an excellent 3D rendering software for creating complex shots.
If you have seen any Pixar movie, then you have already witnessed the power of its homegrown 3D rendering software, 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!
If you won’t settle for anything less than a 3D rendering software giant, RenderMan is one of your best choices.
Renderings are not only used for creating stunning visual effects but can also create an emotional response from prospective customers and stakeholders of engineering projects. Solidworks Visualize is designed to fill in this exact gap in the 3D rendering software market. Therefore, it supports not only Solidworks’ own formats, but also CAD data from Autodesk Alias, Rhino, SketchUp, and many others.
At its heart, it is an unbiased 3D rendering software that offers an instant progressive preview. It can output multiple render passes which comes in handy when you need to composite complex effects. The intuitive interface of Solidworks Visualize enables even non-specialists to create photorealistic renders that can be used in marketing campaigns. Also, it provides tools that facilitate the animation and scene-setup of mechanical parts.
Solidworks Visualize is a great 3D rendering software that has the needs of engineering projects at heart.
Thea Render is a 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.
The instancing feature makes Theo Render a great 3D rendering software when you need to create large-scale scenes.
V-Ray is considered to be one of the best 3D rendering 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.
V-Ray is the sort of 3D rendering software that fits every stage in the development of 3D artists. It’s suitable to beginners, but even seasoned professionals will get their money’s worth.
License: The text of "25 Best 3D Rendering Software Tools (Some are Free)" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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