CGAfrica | Choosing Your First 3D Software

Choosing Your First 3D Software



So, you have decided to join the 3D artist ranks and conquer the world with your unrivalled artistic brilliance. Well, let me be the first one to welcome you to the war, and it’s literally an ongoing war amongst the software developers and between the artists to snag the few but desired jobs available.

Let me be clear right at the beginning. There is no software that will automatically give you a quick and easy route in developing the skills needed to become a prolific artist, it takes time and focus to master your talents and expand your expertise.

But where do you begin, how do you choose your first 3D software? There are so many options available these days that it can be both confusing and difficult to choose the right one for now and the future. There are several 3D suites built specifically for anatomy, architectural design or product design, if you are going for any of these your options will be considerably reduced. If you have bigger ambitions though and you have your eyes set on ‘Hollywood standard’ CG, you need an all-purpose package and that’s where things get a bit more complicated. Let’s consider some popular 3D tools available.

Some popular 3D tools

The 3D industry seems to be dominated by Autodesk and their two flagships: 3ds Max and Maya and with good reason. These two software seems to have been around forever (early history dating back to the 1980s) and their deep foundations give the user both a solid variety of tools to use and a vast knowledge base to learn from. Just beneath these titans, you will find the smaller 3D software packages which seem to do the same thing the high-end tools does but at a lower cost and they seem to only get better for each new release. At the very low end of the spectrum are the free software packages (which can`t possibly be as good, right?-we will soon find out) So which one should I choose?

The Industry standard- High-end tools (3ds Max & Maya)

One of the reasons why the larger software packages like Maya and 3ds Max come with such a high price tag is because of the way they are built to help streamline large production jobs with even larger teams. They do pretty much everything you need them to do from conceptualization, modelling, animation to rendering, and with a little scripting knowledge, their capability can further be increased. Many production companies rely on their capability to create stunning imagery in blockbusters and TV commercials. Blockbuster movies like The Amazing spider man and the Lord of the rings series are just a few that are made with Maya and 3ds Max respectively.

Pros: Robust application, capable of handling all stages of production; Capability is expandable with scripting; Vast knowledgebase and tutorials are available

Cons: High price tag- unfordable for small production studios and independent artists.

The medium-priced packages

The medium-priced packages like Cinema4D or Softimage do much of the same things as the high-end packages; it handles modelling, texturing, animation and rendering very well. With third party rendering engines such as V ray, the capability of these tools can be greatly improved. These packages are a great option for smaller companies and independent artists who want to keep it small but create professional and impressive 3D solutions.

Pros: Affordable price tag, robust capabilities

Cons: Relies heavily on third-party plugins, moderate knowledgebase

The free software or open-source (Blender)

The free software packages might seem to be a good learning tool and a starting point to see if 3D is what you imagined it to be or if a career in CGI is the right choice for your future. But be warned, most of these packages come with a high learning curve and clumsy user interfaces. Since they are open source, new users need to consider carefully the risk of developers withdrawing support for these applications. Will open-source software be still available in 5 years time; Hopefully, most of them will, but without proper funding and a solid business plan the future looks bleak for most of them. In a short period of time, your acquired knowledge might become obsolete. It’s interesting though that a large group of fans are making a full animated film using blender.

Pros: Software is free

Cons: Steep learning curve, thin knowledgebase, risk of discontinuity by developers

 Blender is a novel idea, and although used by many independent artists it’s not at this time advisable for someone seeking to pursue a career in the cg world

So which should I choose?

 As a newcomer to the industry, don`t fall into the trap of jumping into a specialized piece of software as few will hire you unless you have basic knowledge of all the aspects of 3d production. You might be brilliant in character creation and a master to model and texture, but you also might need to know how the rigging or complex UV mapping works to do your job properly.

Specialized software is primarily meant for artists with experience and with a minimum knowledge of the basics of 3D production. We will take a closer look at these types of software in later tutorials. 


It`s all about where you want to be in 5 or 10 years. You are most likely not going to show up to work on the first day of your dream job and find the blender icon on your desktop, it will most likely be something like Max, Maya or Cinama4D, so if you want a serious career in the CG world you should start with one of the heavies as soon as you feel ready and stick with it until you are comfortable with all of its aspects and ready to take on the world with your artworks. If you want to be an independent CG artist by all means go for the software you feel is right for you and your wallet. I know many who work entirely on free software and produce magnificent pieces of art, but they have all aged an extra 10 years by frustration, so consider yourself warned. If you are planning on enrolling in a school and getting educated as a CGI designer or artist the software has already been chosen for you (by the school) which makes things a bit easier.

If you are planning to enrol in a training school, you will have access to a free student version, however, you need to prove that you are indeed a student and the education provider needs to be accepted as a proper college or certified to teach the software.

So, my final advice is this. Do your research, download the software trials and make up your own mind. The truth is they all do pretty much the same thing, just in different ways and with different user interfaces, so it`s all about familiar workflow and what UI speaks to you and what software has an intuitive feel that you can relate to. And most importantly, try to imagine where you are in 10 years and choose accordingly.