I get asked all the time what 3d rendering program I use and why. I think it's an important question so I finally took some time to write about it.
Sometimes a visitor to this site is looking to try photo real rendering for the first time, maybe they are looking to take their skills to the next level, or maybe they are looking for a post-purchase justification... or any other number of reasons. So this article is coming from my particular point of view and what I've played with and have devoted time to learning. There are lots of other options out there depending on your budget, time available to learn, desired style of renderings produced, skill set and more. If you ask me if I've used 'X' program that's not part of this discussion, the answer is probably no.
Here's where I'm coming from: I do architectural work. I do my own design. I also work in small, medium and large teams on small, medium and large architectural projects. I mainly use FormZ, SketchUp and Revit for modeling so the rendering program has to have tight integration with all three. You may not do the exact same thing as me, but I'm sure there's some overlap if you're visiting my site or else you wouldn't be reading this article.
I hope this write-up is useful for you. Tell me in the comments what you use and why. It's good to share!
Which rendering program is the best one for me?
I’ve narrowed it down to the two I talk about most here and try to keep it limited to those so I don’t have to think about it. The two, as you’ve probably been able to tell if you've visited here over the past few years, are Maxwell Render and Artlantis. They both have different strengths so it’s not too hard for me to choose. It really just depends on what I want out of the job. Make no mistake - I really like them both.
A quick history
I’ve used many other rendering programs in the past including Vray (too many settings), Renderzone (formZ & bonzai3d only, outdated), Electric Image (which I used the crap out of in the past because it was ungodly-fast, but outdated now), Cinema4d’s built-in renderer (obviously c4d only), and Podium (SketchUp only). They were all interesting and good at rendering. The reason why I don't use any of these any more is because they are either application-specific, or haven’t kept up with modern graphics processors (GPU’s) which make scene setups so much faster. Or, quite possibly, I've just moved on and haven't kept my finger on the pulse of each one. That's pretty much impossible anyhow.
Although I work in a large office, I like having the ability to be self-sufficient. I also do my own work on the side and I also need to have the ability to take a project from conception to visualization to realization without relying on someone else to keep costs down. Plus, I love tinkering with this stuff.
I need something easy to setup and use when I'm under the gun. I also like to stand out from the crowd. Unlike most architects, it seems, I like learning new tools and techniques because I have a knack for it and it makes me more valuable. I think most people just stick with the images SketchUp spits out because they are either lazy or their priorities are different than mine. Yes, that's a bit of a rant and a generalization, but you know it's true :) Besides, I have no problem being worth more than my contemporaries.
I also need something that is artist-friendly. A cluttered user interface will send me running, and I have a deep respect for programmers that make applications that are both intuitive and powerful under the hood.
What I like to use
My job requires I work with my own conceptual design models, other people's conceptual design models, and BIM models. That means I use FormZ, Bonzai3d, SketchUp and Revit all the time. I have gotten more out of Maxwell and Artlantis than any other app lately because they are stand-alone rendering programs that work with all of them. No matter which modeling program I use, I can get similar quality renderings from them because they all work together. Maxwell gets a few extra bonus points here because it actually plugs into all of these host applications (and many others) for materials and lighting, making it a bit faster to setup.
I like Maxwell because it’s so easy to use since the setup is integrated right into the host app. When I launch a rendering, a separate program (Maxwell Render) launches so I can continue to work on the model at the same time if need be. When I have my views all set, I then start my renderings at the end of the day to go overnight because it’s probably going to take that long, if not longer. The renderings look seriously amazing, so I think it's worth it. Plus, I can stop them anytime I want if they look good enough. The entire image develops over time, not in pieces like Artlantis. I've previously talked about why I render to Dropbox when I use Maxwell which is another advantage to the way it renders.
I like Artlantis too for many reasons. It is a bit different in that it is completely standalone, and I have to be pretty much done with my design before I go to it for rendering. Of course I can update my model and re-send it to Artlantis, and that happens all the time too, but is an extra step in the process. Artlantis is usually much faster and sometimes that’s solely why I use it. Unlike Maxwell, the final image comes together in pieces (also known as buckets) so I have to wait for it to complete the job before I have a useful image.
Both are very artist-friendly, which is actually why I like them both above all else.
There is something else - both of these programs offer real-time previews that utilize the GPU to make sure I'm getting the lighting, camera angles and materials setup right from the beginning. This is a huge time saver and more and more programs have implemented this as GPU's have gotten more memory and faster processors.
Choosing one per project
I never start in one and go to the other. I pick ONE and just stay with it all the way through. Again, keep it simple. My job is hard enough already, and deadlines rarely move.
So, how do I choose? Well, what are my constraints? What am I looking for in the end? Here are some reasons why I might choose one over another for a particular job:
- super realistic light & materials
- scatter (rocks, trees, etc.)
- displacement (although Artlantis 5 now has this too)
- to be able to control lighting during and after a render (Multi-light - tutorial coming soon)
- if I have plenty of time to get exactly what I want because it's slow
- perfect materials and lighting quality
- easy 360º panoramas (tutorial coming soon)
- great depth of field
- am I or the client going to want to tweak colors? Maxwell makes this easy with the Material ID channel.
- can handle an enormous amount of geometry
- realistic enough
- day & night shots (using the heliodon controls, which I love)
- soft shadows (although Maxwell Render v3 now has this too)
- it’s super fast
- easy placement of entourage to populate my scenes with the built-in Catalog
- the ability to queue up batch renders (one after another) so I don’t have to babysit the computer
Now to make things a bit more complicated (sorry!), you can use the Maxwell Render engine in Artlantis if you pay the additional cost. This is almost the best of both worlds because it allows you to use Maxwell Materials and the physical camera right inside Artlantis. The reason I say almost is because you still can’t do grass or scatter so there are some limitations. It does use Artlantis’ intuitive lighting setup which is lovely and intuitive.
Another thing I’m almost always looking for is a new skill I can learn within a project. Now that I think about it, I usually choose the app I need to learn something in to make myself worth more. Sound familiar? It’s the main reason I started Method and why I share my experiences here.
What about you? What are your experiences? Share them in the comments below.
Your crash-test dummy,
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