For any professional 3D rendering artist, the software they use is just as important as any education, experience, or talent they’ve acquired along their career path. It’s what allows them to move forward with new jobs confidently, knowing that the programs they use to create breathtaking 3D artwork won’t let them down.
However, those programs often come with a hefty price tag, and for those who do most of their work as an individual, those costs can add up to a crippling amount of overhead.
Luckily, there are a number of completely viable free software options available that will still produce the quality, speed, and user-friendliness as the more expensive industry leaders. And while some of this software might skimp on features, you can still build a powerful suite of 3D modeling, rendering, and post-production software that some of the most talented artists in the world use on a regular basis.
You can’t use the words ‘free’ and ‘rendering software’ without first mentioning Blender, the open source software darling of the entire visualization industry. It is an all-in-one modeler/renderer that can be used for a wide range of needs. If you spend enough time with the program, you can use it to replace just about every other piece of software you own.
Be warned, though, because Blender is a program that requires a lot of dedicated effort learning the ins and outs of the interface, toolset, and many features. It can be overwhelming. The silver lining is the seemingly endless supply of free information, tutorials, and online courses that can help usher you to free rendering software supremacy.
Ah, I remember the times when trying to use SketchUp in any sort of professional manner was met with eye-rolls, laughs, and enough scolds to fill a large sack. However, over the years designers and visualizers alike have discovered the value in SketchUp’s lightning fast and idiot-proof modeling tools.
Now, you’ll find SketchUp installed on most professional architects and interior designer’s machines, accompanied by any one of the available rendering plugins. The base program has and always will be free, giving every professional something to quickly mock-up and plan their work.
While the name contains several hard-to-say thousand dollar words, getting this modeling program loaded up on your machine won’t cost you a think. PS is the premier alternative to 3D modeling programs like ZBrush and Mudbox. Not will PS not cost you a thing, it comes with an interface and toolset that doesn’t require as steep a learning curve as its more expensive siblings.
Pixologic Sculptris is great for professional animators, game designers, or artists who are looking to take their ameteur skills to the next level.
There isn’t exactly a wealth of dedicated rendering engines out there that also happen to be free. There are even fewer that offer the same level of flexibility and raw power as LuxRender does. Half Superman villain, half visualization machine, Lux has the ability to transform your 3D models into photorealistic artwork that will drop jaws and fill your bank account.
Lux definitely isn’t the preferred option for professional renderers, but in the right hands, it can produce work on part with vRay, Maxwell, and Keyshot. It even has a series of plugins that work with all of the most popular modeling software.
Post-processing and fine-tuning are important aspects of the visualization process. Often, the tinkering that goes on after the rendering has been complete is the only thing separating good and great work. For many, Photoshop and other Adobe products have been the lone source of the tools required for such tasks. GIMP, however, offers an open-source option to Photoshop that many industry professionals swear by.
GIMP is an advanced photo editing kit that can help you tweak lighting, color, and materiality, as well as insert important contextual aspects to drawings such as people, trees, reflections, etc. GIMP is easy to pick up, but provides enough complexity to keep pros from jumping back over to the Adobe side of the tracks.
I wanted to include FreeStyle on this list not only because it is free, but because it gives artists an alternative to simply pumping out photorealistic renderings all the time. Variety is the spice of life, as they say, and having something like FreeStyle in your back pocket can set your work apart from the next artist.
It is a modeling and rendering tool that deals exclusively in line drawing. The results are a flavor of rendered visualization perfect for architectural concepts, avant garde fine art, and just about anything else the creator can think of. It’s amazing what can be achieved through simple line work.