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How KeyShot became the most popular product rendering software

by Will Gibbons | Last Updated: October 3, 2022 •  12 min read

Is KeyShot the best rendering software for you? Or would you be better off using something else? Maybe you’re considering adding another render engine to your toolbelt. This article will make it clear why that’s not always practical or even possible, depending on your current pipeline. 

My goal is to explain why so many designers use KeyShot for rendering when there are plenty of other very capable rendering software. You’ll soon understand why it’s not just about personal preference or software features.

If you’re interested in my thoughts on choosing software in general and want a framework to use to help narrow down your choice, I recommend visiting my article (and video) on that topic right here.

After spending nearly a decade learning all about 3D rendering, I’ve become familiar with the 3D landscape. And unless you know all the major software programs and how they relate to one another, it can be hard to understand how they differ and which tools are right for you.

Wanna hear me talk about this topic? Watch the video instead 🙂

How KeyShot Actually Became the Most Popular Product Rendering Software

What’s so great about KeyShot rendering software?

Because I come from an industrial design background and a majority of you are also connected to the industrial/product design field, I’m going to frame this article around KeyShot.

KeyShot is a standalone progressive real-time render engine known for its ease-of-use and has become an industry-standard tool among industrial designers. Luxion, the makers of KeyShot developed the software to serve an unmet demand. 

Classification of computer generated images

I’m taking the liberty to place CGI into six distinct categories. This is important when trying to map different software to specific needs. When you are able to define what your needs are, it’s far easier to choose an appropriate software that will meet your needs.

For example, here are my six categories of CGI:

  1. Engineering Drawing
  2. CAD Rendering
  3. Industrial Design Rendering
  4. Product Visualization
  5. Visual Effects
  6. Visual Art

This list of categories begins with the most basic, engineering drawing and ends with the most complex, visual art.

Here are brief descriptions of each of these categories and how I see them:

Engineering Drawing – Simple, accurate diagrams to help define the dimensions and form of an object

CAD Rendering – Simple colored shading with basic shadows and highlights to help describe the form and texture of an object

Industrial Design Rendering – Realistic material appearances and light simulation to provide a reasonably realistic rendition of an object

Product Visualization – Photo-realistic visuals of products in situ or environments, either stylized or realistic

Visual Effects – Visuals of a product interacting with simulated media or undergoing complex form transformations to enhance storytelling and mood

Visual Art – Highly realistic visuals of both abstract and real-world elements and heavy use of metaphor to tell the story of an object

Note, that none of these are inherently better or superior to others, they are simply different uses of the technology behind CGI. Each job requires different deliverables and there are different software tools that are more aligned with some of these categories than others. It all comes down to your needs.

Here’s my attempt to map some common rendering tools to each of these above categories. Take this with a grain of salt, as this is purely subjective.

Why KeyShot exists (according to me)

Utility

KeyShot emerged as a simple rendering tool that CAD users could create realistic images of their designs with. Renderings from KeyShot help designers present more polished concepts to key decision makers in review meetings. Additionally, renderings can be used for documentation, pitch decks, ecommerce, CMF explorations, packaging and more.

Ease-of-use

KeyShot was built to be used by design professionals, not visual effects specialists or programmers. In this case, the rendering process is typically done by designers or CAD professionals instead of full-time rendering specialists. Designers are busy people and their priority is to bring a great product to market, not to spend all their time making images or animations. Generally speaking, KeyShot was designed to be a quick step in the process of bringing products to market.

Software agnostic

The decision to create KeyShot as a standalone software made it unique. Most render engines exist as plugins and require a host application to operate in. KeyShot does not. You simply run KeyShot on its own and import a 3D model and you’re off to the races. KeyShot supports more than 40 3D file formats and handles NURBs-based CAD formats too. In fact, there are some benefits to using NURBs in KeyShot, where other rendering software may not even support NURBs-based file formats.

CAD-friendly

Many CAD programs use a language called NURBs (non-uniform rational b-splines) to define surfaces and 3D forms. If you’re familiar with how Vector differs from Raster graphics, then think of NURBs as the Vector equivalent of 3D. Most CAD models are modeled parametrically with the intent of making quick and accurate revisions to 3D forms. The CAD programs help designers create files that are ideal for manufacturing processes and technologies. To take a CAD model created for manufacturing and be able to use it for rendering, streamlines the process of going from model to photo-realistic visuals.

KeyShot is a CAD-friendly tool, meaning the files created by an engineering team can be dropped right into KeyShot for rendering. This isn’t often the case with other rendering tools. 

KeyShot limitations

Now that I’ve made a strong case to use KeyShot, why would anyone use anything else? KeyShot isn’t without its limitations. For some people, KeyShot does everything they need and more. For others, KeyShot is unable to produce the visuals they need. 

Simulation

KeyShot can’t create soft-body, fluid, smoke or advanced rigid-body simulations. There is a physics simulation tool, but in its current form, it’s mostly useful for creating piles of objects or settling an object onto an uneven surface. KeyShot can render most simulations so long as they are created in a different program, then exported and imported into KeyShot correctly.

Advanced animation

KeyShot offers quite a few animation transforms and recently added keyframe animations. However, if you’re looking for tools that make it easy to animate lots of objects, quickly add variation or randomness, animate size, scale or dimensions, you’ll need to look elsewhere. And if reverse kinematics are not part of KeyShot. For example, if you want to make a gear turn as a result of rotating another gear, or creating variable rotational speed you’re out of luck. 

Hair, fur & grooming

Anything that consists of many strands of similar objects is typically referred to as hair or fur in 3D software. From hand towels to suede shoes, to grass to welcome mats and carpet, hair and fur generators are used. They’re a more specific version of a particle generator. Grooming tools allow you to sculpt or push the fibers around just like you’d brush hair in real life. With the right workflow, KeyShot can render curves as hair/fur, but the process doesn’t allow for easy editing.

Particle systems

Particle systems allow you to generate many objects in a scene based off of a single parent object. Usually particle systems give you control over variation of the child objects. Examples could include a forest of trees, a pile of Halloween candy, droplets of water or condensation on a beverage can. Particle systems save you from creating thousands of similar objects and typically create proxies, or lightweight placeholders of the child objects. This keeps the 3D tool running smoothly and only reveals the full detail of the particle system at the time of render. 

Advanced input and output control

Anyone who may be rendering digital assets that will be handed off to a retoucher, 3D artist, compositer, editor or digital agency, the need for advanced control is critical. Being able to define things like color space, bit depth, color gamut, gamma and more ensures the final imagery (still or animated) looks correct and matches the other media it’ll be used with. Features like physical camera controls, film emulation tools, OCIO profile and Multi-layered EXR support are just a few examples that feel like they’re missing here.

Finally, I’ll mention integration

Sure, KeyShot has some plugins that allow you to send a model from one CAD program into KeyShot, but that’s about as far as it goes with integration. The ability to make alterations to a model or 3D scene while working in the rendering environment is a huge element missing with KeyShot. And unfortunately, can slow the rendering process down significantly. Because it’s a standalone software, every time you want to make a change to a model or add to your scene, you must use another software and re-import the assets into KeyShot. This is one of the main reasons most other rendering software are plugins within a 3D application. 

While this isn’t a comprehensive or hyper-specific list of limitations, they are some of the larger ones that I believe are likely to steer some users to other software for 3D rendering and animation.

KeyShot rendering roadmap
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Download the free step-by-step framework I use to create better renderings.

Rendering Pipelines

Perhaps one of the most critical components of choosing a rendering software comes down to something entirely different from features. Let’s briefly discuss the rendering pipeline and why this matters.

Pipeline refers to the chain of tools or steps in a process, often involving specialized software. The image below outlines a dozen common steps encountered throughout the CGI process. Sometimes specialized software is used at each of these stages. Many DCCs allow you to perform most of these steps without using external software. While this is not a completely realistic pipeline, I’ve included some common software used at each of these stages.

Rendering pipeline example (general and not 100% practical)

KeyShot & product development

When it comes to physical goods, rendering is part of the product development cycle. Periodical renderings offer a rough idea of what the final product will look like. It takes little cost or effort to take the CAD model and render it out. Because KeyShot is a simple, standalone tool that’s CAD-friendly, many designers have access to KeyShot and can use it to create reasonably realistic images and presentation-worthy animations.

DCC plugin rendering software

If you need to render or animate anything on the list of limitations I mentioned above like particles, simulations, deformations, reverse kinematics, or need more granular control over the rendered media, then you’ll likely need to rely on a polygonal-based DCC. 

It’s likely going to be more geared toward use in the entertainment industry. This then gives you access to deeply-integrated plugin render engines like Vray, Octane, Redshift and Cycles. The features and capabilities of these render engines hinge on the features of the DCC they’re operating within.

popular plugin render engines chart
Some of the more recognizable and popular DCCs and render engines available for them

If it’s not obvious already, using a DCC typically means creating a pipeline that incorporates new software. These tools can have a steep learning curve. Most designers do not have a surplus of time, while juggling their existing tools and responsibilities. 

Additionally, it means managing a library of 3D models and assets used for rendering outside of the CAD data used for production. This is because many of these popular DCCs are not NURBs-based, they’re polygon-based. They use an entirely different 3D language than many CAD tools do. Imagine having to re-create a 3D model from the engineering team in an entirely different software before getting to rendering.

KeyShot vs. other rendering software, what’s right for you?

By now, you should see that comparing KeyShot to other popular render engines is a bit tough. 

If you’re a CAD user…

If you’re using one of the following popular CAD packages for 3D modeling, then KeyShot is likely the best rendering solution for you:

I believe that KeyShot and CAD software never were intended to create truly photo-realistic images of objects. This is especially true when it comes to organic stuff like plants, worn wood, concrete, woven textiles, carpet, fur, rocks, dirt, skin, fire and detailed environments that typically bring CGI to life. These are all elements of visual effects seen in films. Don’t get me wrong, KeyShot can create some very realistic images, but it’s mostly used for simple product rendering.

If you’re using one of the following popular DCCs to create 3D models and scenes, then you have plenty of rendering options. I recommend choosing a render engine that is deeply integrated with your DCC and has a reputation for stability.

If you are expected to create completely photo-realistic scenes full of complexity and organic materials and objects, then the above tools will make your life easier. Some designers catch the render bug and decide to specialize in 3D rendering and animation. Yes, I’m speaking of myself. It wasn’t long before I was asked to create visuals that I couldn’t create with KeyShot alone. So, it’s not uncommon for designers to learn visual effects software or other DCCs once they choose to become a render artist. New tools allow you to continue to grow your skills and determine what clients you can work with. 

On the other hand, if rendering is not your sole focus, and you’re a product designer or engineer, then KeyShot is a great tool. It especially shines when having to replace product photography. Or when rendering lots of variations of a product for e-commerce or packaging for example. As long as you don’t need to combine the rendered frames with live-action footage, then KeyShot is a great choice.

So, why do so many designers use KeyShot? I think it comes down to, one, ease-of use. Two, how fast KeyShot makes it to create a nice image. And three, that it plays nicely with CAD data. Hopefully you now understand the complexities of integrating a new render engine into an existing CAD pipeline.

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.
KeyShot rendering roadmap
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