Architectural Rendering software has come a long way in the past few years. Today there are dozens of rendering apps that allow you to make realistic or semi realistic depictions of your 3D architectural models from Sketchup, Revit, 3dsMax, etc. While there are numerous choices I wanted to highlight 5 software packages in particular that work well for architectural renderings.
Developed by the Chaos Group, V-Ray has become the go to rendering program for a large number of 3d artists and visualization firms. V-Ray boasts some of the fastest render times in order to achieve realistic results and scales well when added to a network for cluster computing. While it has a tremendous amount of flexibility, V-Ray is easy enough for most artists to learn and eventually master making it very popular with individual artists. V-Ray typically runs as a direct plugin in 3dsMax, Cinema4D, Maya, and Sketchup among others with 3dsMax being the most popular and deeply integrated plugin. For that reason, you need to make sure that before adopting V-Ray as your main renderer your modeling package is compatible and deeply integrated with it. Overall, V-Ray is fast becoming the most popular renderer among professional artists and visualization firms alike with a strong development roadmap.
Like V-Ray, Maxwell render is a standalone render that plugs into modeling packages like Maya, Cinema4D, etc. Maxwell's claim to fame is that it's easy to use and gives ultra realistic results. The downside is that Maxwell render is much slower that other renders like V-ray due to the way it calculates lighting. See, Maxwell uses a process called 'unbiased rendering' that computes using actual physical lighting equations without any tricks or compromises to reduce render times. While this approach ensures upmost physical accuracy it can make rendering times extremely long, particularly for animations and ultra high resolution images. To compensate for this, the developers created a sub renderer called Maxwell Fire which allows artists to see an almost realtime (albeit grainy) view of the final rendering. They can tweak most of the parameters and see the results almost instantly making iteration much quicker. Then when you get the result you want you can start the final render, eliminating time consuming re-renderings. Another great feature is Multi-Light which allows the artist to adjust the intensity of the scene lighting after the rendering is completed. That way you can render using all the possible lights in the scene and selectively turn on/off lights to get different effects like turning off the sun and just showing the interior lights for a night shot and vice versa.
Octane Render - An up and comer, Octane render is unique in that it uses the power of the graphics card to do rendering calculations. Like Maxwell Render, Octane Render uses the 'unbiased' method of calculating light making the image look as if it was a photograph. However while Maxwell uses the CPU(s) to do the heavy calculations, Octane uses the GPU(s). The advantage of this is dramatically faster render times especially when using multiple high end graphics cards. The downside is that only Nvidia GPUs work with this app so if you have an ATI card you're out of luck.
The last two apps are not just rendering programs but complete 3D apps bundling modeling, animation, and rendering all under one roof. Cinema4D as a renderer is quite a capable one. Along with being known as one of the fastest renders, they have recently added a physically-based renderer with real world elements like real camera characteristics, physical lighting calculations, etc. making for some very accurate and beautiful renders. Cinema4D also has strong integration with Adobe Creative Cloud Apps, particularly Photoshop and After Effects for post processing. If you also use Archicad or Vectorworks you would want to put Cinema4D at the top of your list since they are all owned by the same parent company, Nemestchek, and have excellent two way communication between those apps similar to how Autodesk syncs Revit and 3dsMax files. Finally, Cinema4D is a very stable app, that as many users can testify, rarely crashes.
Last but not least, Modo is worth mentioning because of several factors. Like Cinema4D, Modo is an all-in-one modeling, animating, rendering app so can model then render then make modeling corrections and render again without leaving the app. This is a great advantage on a tight deadline when you have to correct errors in the model and don't have time to continuously export/import files back and forth between the 3d app and the rendering app. In fact Modo's modeler is considered the best subdivision surface modeler available and one of the best, if not the best, polygon modeler. When coupled with the dedicated MArch plugin for dedicated architectural modeling you have a fantastic all-in-one app for your architectural needs. When it comes to rendering Modo's render is super fast and flexible allowing you easily break up the scene in to parts or passes and reassemble them in photoshop for flexible post processing. (V-Ray, Maxwell, and Cinema4D do this as well). The render's greatest strength is its Preview rendering capability. While several renderers have a preview renderer (V-Ray RT, Maxwell Fire, Octane) none are as fast and flexible as Modo. Even on my MacBook Pro Modo can give me an accurate, nearly instantaneous rendering for testing new ideas and scenarios. This allows me to experiment with lighting and materials and save a ton of time as well as improve my results. For the money, Modo is also the best bang for you buck, you get everything all in one package for $1495.
A word of advice, choosing one of the above renderers has just as much to do with your other tools as with the tool itself. For example, if you use Revit as your primary BIM program then getting V-Ray for 3dsMax is a solid choice since Revit and 3dsMax have a solid import/export workflow since they're both owned by Autodesk. If you use ArchiCAD or Vectorworks then you should consider Cinema4D first since their import/export process is well integrated. If absolute realism is your goal then Maxwell or Octane should be on your short list since they calculate only physically accurate light with no shortcuts. If you're in need of modeling within an all-in-one package then my recommendation to you would be Modo. It's renderer, with proper skill, can approach the quality of what you can get with Maxwell and Vray but with the added benefit doing everything in the same app. Coupled with it's price, learning curve, and capability it is the best all around value for the the independent freelancer and small studio.
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