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How to Choose the Best 3D Software to Learn

by Will Gibbons | Last Updated: July 11, 2022 •  10 min read

Choosing the best 3D software to learn is critical in getting your career off to a solid start. Which one to pick is the question I get most often (along with which computer I recommend). Today, I’m going to make that decision easier.

So, you’re scrolling through Instagram, Artstation or Behance and you see some art that stops you in your tracks. You take in all the details. Curious to learn more, you read the caption. Inevitably, you’ll come across comments asking what tools were used. For example, “What brush did you use?”, “Which render engine?” or “What software?”

How to Choose the Best 3D Software Video

How to Choose the Best Software for 3D Artists

Beginners often ask questions about what tools were used in making a certain piece of art.

Experts often roll their eyes at questions like “What brush did you use?”. This is because the expert knows that the tool did not make great art… the artist did.

Now, I completely understand where both the beginner and expert are coming from. 

But if you’re a beginner, I want to help you ask better questions to help you make better decisions. And if you’re an expert, I want to help you become a better listener and mentor to help this industry grow. 

Let’s look at some examples of tools and skills development.

When it comes to traditional painting for example, the brush might make the artist’s job slightly easier or faster. However, the fine motor skills an artist learns while holding the brush will transfer to any other brush. The same is true for skills such as seeing, understanding perspective and mixing color. Again, the brush plays little role in the overall success of a painting.

For analog skills such as carpentry, gardening, sewing and welding, the tools typically play a small role in the outcome of the work compared to the strategies and skill of the user. If a carpenter has to use a different drill than he normally uses, he’ll still be able to get the job done with the same level of craftsmanship.

What about us who use computers all day?

Today, many jobs rely completely on digital tools. One software might make a designer’s job easier or faster. However, not all digital tools offer the same features and capabilities. And this is to be expected.

A carpenter doesn’t try to cut a piece of wood with a hammer. She uses a saw to cut. Each task requires a specific tool.

In many cases, the same holds true for digital artists.

Now, here’s where things get interesting.

Most people can learn to use a hammer, saw, or other tools in a matter of minutes.

As digital artists and designers, our tools consist of specific software for specialized tasks.

Unfortunately, it can and often does take years of dedicated practice to become proficient in just one piece of software used for digital content creation.

And THIS is one of the reasons beginners ask questions about tools. 

When a beginner asks what software was used in creating a digital work of art, she is usually asking an entirely different question. One that goes something like this:

“Because I have limited time, resources and skills, what software should I devote my time to learning in order to give me the best chance of creating as good of a work of art as you have?”

But the beginner did not ask this question. The beginner asked what software was used. 

So, the expert rolls his eyes and says “The software doesn’t matter.” Meanwhile, the expert has forgotten that he’s already spent 15 years becoming proficient in a number of programs, allowing him to transform ideas into images with relative ease.

So, if you’re a beginner, be sure to ask questions that are specific and will help you make decisions to move toward your ultimate goal. 

And if you’re an expert, remember you were once a beginner. Help answer questions you wish you had answers to in the beginning of your journey. 

Why Choosing the Best 3D Software (for you) Matters

So, why does the 3D software you choose to learn matter? Let’s take a look at a few reasons.

Easier to find a job

If you want to be easy to hire, then learn the tools a company is already using. Pipeline is a term referring to the group of tools a company uses to see a project through beginning to end. The pipeline is refined to ensure seamless handoff between artists and departments. Having a refined pipeline ensures projects are completed smoothly, predictably and affordably. If you come to an interview already using tools that are part of a company’s existing pipeline, it makes you a much easier hire.   

Limits what you will be able to create

Understanding the limits of a software is important. In visual effects, many specific software are used for unique jobs. Fire simulations, water simulations, cloth simulations, architecture, automotive, game engines, 2D animation, character animations, additive manufacturing, 3D printing, sculpting, AR and VR are all examples of specialties that entire software has been written for.

Some DCC’s or digital content creation software will include more generic tools and some will be narrowly focused and will excel in one area. Understanding the limitations of a 3D application is important since you don’t want to dedicate years to learning a tool all to discover that you need to change software entirely to reach your goals. In some cases, choosing a DCC that supports lots of 3rd party plugins can help mitigate this risk.

KeyShot product rendering flat lay
Flat lay rendering of coffee mill modeled and rendered by Will Gibbons

Impacts abandonment rate

Have you ever decided to learn something new, then quit after a few days or weeks? It’s okay, I have too. Choosing a tool with a steep learning curve can increase your chances of quitting before you get good, especially if you are a beginner and or learning on your own.

Choosing a software that isn’t wildly above your skill level will increase your chances of sticking with it and becoming proficient. 

Community affects your output

Finally, I recommend looking at the community of users. Every 3D software has its own community of users. How they communicate, how open and encouraging they are and what resources are available for beginners will largely impact your success as a beginner.

Also, take a look at the level and kind of work being produced by existing users. If you love what you see, and the work of the community gets you excited, then chances are you’ve found your tribe. But let’s say you’re bored with the engineering-focused work coming from one software’s community. Perhaps you want to create imaginative and immersive worlds for fantasy video games. Find out what software’s community members are creating that kind of work. Once you adopt a software, there’s a good chance you’ll end up creating work fairly similar to what you see produced by that community of users. 

KeyShot caustics rendering will gibbons
Whiskey sipper designed and modeled by Jerry Kung, rendered by Will Gibbons in Keyshot

How to Choose the Best 3D Software

Here are some tips to use when figuring out what 3D software is right for you. 

Narrow down by industry

This is related to the ‘easier to find a job’ section above. If you want to create video games, then Unreal Engine is probably the way to go rather than Alias. Sure, you can create a car in both software, but Alias is used for producing physical goods with a focus on surfacing. Unreal Engine is used for creating real-time computer graphics and video games. 

There’s no sense in trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. So, begin by eliminating software that doesn’t lend itself to the industry you wish to work in.

Narrow down by learning resources

This is related to the point above about abandonment rate. If there isn’t any official support or learning resources for a software, consider this a red flag. This makes it lots harder to troubleshoot and learn new programs.

On the other hand, some communities are so large and generous that there are endless tutorials and courses available. Making sure there’s plenty of learning resources available will help ensure you stick with it and become proficient in your software of choice.

Will Gibbons YouTube channel rendering tutorials
Will Gibbons YouTube channel full of rendering tutorials

Narrow down by features

If you know there are specific outcomes you want to achieve with a 3D software, then be sure to research those features. If you want to be a specialist that focuses on simulations for example, and are torn between Blender and Houdini, then Houdini might be the better choice. While Blender has support for some simulations, it’s not the main focus of the tool. Houdini, on the other hand, is largely built around efficiency and power when it comes to simulating a wide range of materials.

If you want access to tools or features that don’t seem to be supported natively by a software, then research 3rd party plugins. 3DS Max for example may not have tools for everything you wish to do. But some quick research will reveal the many plugins available. These plugins extend the functionality of this software. Not all tools have 3rd party plugin support though, so do your research. 

KeyShot rendering roadmap
Level up your KeyShot renderings skills!
Download the free step-by-step framework I use to create better renderings.

Do  NOT Choose Software Based On the Following

Finally, a few suggestions on what you should not choose software based on.

Price

With limited resources, it’s easy to let price guide your decision. If you’re a hobbyist, then perhaps this makes sense. But if you plan to become a paid professional, then price should not prevent you from choosing a tool. If you end up creating good work, you will be able to earn more than your tools cost. In many cases, the more specialized your work is and the more expensive the tools you use, the more you can charge.

Operating system

Mac vs. PC? Lots of people have preferences in computer operating systems. There are plenty of software that will only run on one operating system. While it may seem expensive or inconvenient to switch to a new operating system or buy another computer, it’s not as expensive as wasting years of your energy and drive.

Once you decide what you want to learn, commit to buying the tools to get the job done. Say you’re driving a small electric car. Then, you become an independent contractor. You will likely need a large, powerful pickup truck for your work. So, you buy the truck. You don’t change careers simply because you don’t want to drive the truck.

Hype

Finally, don’t choose a software just because it seems to be popular. Every software will come and go. Some stay relevant longer than others. Technology evolves at a rapid pace. Fight the urge to choose a software just because you see it all over social media. 

Your career will hopefully span decades. You don’t want to build it on a foundation that’s based on a fad or fleeting hype. 

Good Luck

Whew! Lot’s to cover there. Hopefully this was a helpful guide and makes your job in choosing a 3D software a bit easier.

Will Gibbons
Will Gibbons is an industrial designer-turned rendering specialist. He's trained and worked with some of today's most recognizable brands and now is focused on creating the best product visualization content on the internet.
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