Best 3D modeling software in 2021

Nov 16, 2021
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Looking for a career in 3D modeling? Or perhaps you’re on a hunt for new software to add to your 3D design workflow? Well, you’re in for a treat. We’ve selected the best modeling and animation software to suit every taste and pocket. Whether you’re already a master in 3D modeling or are just starting out, we’ve got some amazing software for you to check out.

TOP PAID
Maya, 3ds Max, ZBrush, Artec Studio, Freeform, 3DCoat
TOP FREE
Blender, Wings 3D, Meshmixer
ANIMATION
Houdini, MotionBuilder, Cinema 4D

Introduction

If you’ve read our article on how to make 3D models, you already know that there are various ways to create them. The main two methods include designing something from scratch using specialized 3D software, or creating a 3D model of an existing object, person, or scene by capturing it with a 3D scanner. Either on their own or together, both ways are widely used by professionals in various fields from industrial design and manufacturing to gaming, movies and animation, architecture, fashion, healthcare, and many others.

In this article, we’ll take a look at the best free and paid 3D modeling software suitable for both beginners and pros, and help you choose the one that best suits your needs and skills. For this review, we will be focusing on tools for polygonal modeling, digital sculpting, and scanning. Engineering, building design, architecture, and other CAD-related software will be reviewed separately in our Best CAD software guide.

Best paid 3D modeling software

Autodesk Maya

COST

US $215/month
US $1,700/year
US $4,590/3-years

OS

Windows, macOS, Linux

+

Powerful set of features, highly customizable interface

Steep learning curve, expensive

If you already have decent experience with basic 3D design software and are looking to refine your skills, Maya is an excellent next step in your 3D modeling journey. Developed in the 1990s, Maya is an Academy Award-winning 3D design software for character creation, animation, rigging, simulation, and rendering. The software is highly popular among VFX and animation studios, and is behind almost every blockbuster movie or animation film ever created.

 

Key point

A powerful software suite for professional 3D modelers to create assets for interactive 3D applications (including video games), animated films, TV series, and visual effects.

The reason why so many VFX artists love Maya stems from its extensive set of modeling, texturing, rendering, and animation tools which can be adjusted based on one’s particular design process. Dynamics in Maya can be applied to objects using rigid-body or soft-body settings, cloth and particle simulations, character modeling and animation, UV editing, hair grooming tools, and more.

For the very same reason, many new users find Maya's interface overwhelming at first; there’s definitely a learning curve before you can master this software. But, if you're looking for a robust 3D modeling tool, Maya won’t disappoint. There is a large community of users with whom you can connect, as well as lots of video tutorials to watch and learn from. The tool comes with a monthly or yearly subscription and has a 30-day trial, so you can test out the software for free.

Autodesk 3ds Max

COST

US $215/month
US $1,700/year
US $4,590/3-years

OS

Windows

+

Easy to use, extensive features

Windows only, expensive

Another popular software by Autodesk is 3ds Max – a great choice if you’re looking for a beginner-level yet professional 3D modeling solution. Designed only for Windows, 3dx Max provides a comprehensive modeling, animation, simulation, and rendering solution for design visualization, architecture, games, films, and animation.

Users choose 3dx Max for its simplicity and ease of use, which is why the learning curve is fairly gradual compared to Maya. Despite its relative ease of use, you'll be hard-pressed to find any other 3D modeling software with as many video tutorials, online courses, and third-party extensions. This is why it’s amazing software if you’re just getting started with 3D modeling! The software comes with a monthly or yearly subscription, though a trial version is also available for 30 days, and students and teachers can get the software for free for three years.

ZBrush

COST

US $39.95/month or US $895 for perpetual license

OS

Windows, macOS

+

Robust sculpting tools

Pricey, steep learning curve

ZBrush is a one-of-a-kind 3D software for digital sculpting and painting developed by Pixologic. What makes this software stand apart from other 3D design tools is its special design technique that replicates traditional hand-sculpting. ZBrush is perfect if you want to design realistic and highly detailed 3D models using production-quality shading, lighting, and rendering outputs. For that very reason, the software is used by a wide array of creative professionals, including filmmakers, game developers, toy/collectible makers, jewelry designers, automotive/aviation designers, illustrators, advertisers, scientists, and other artists.

Advanced users turn to ZBrush for its photorealistic sculpts, natural and intuitive process, robust suite of tools, and real-time feedback. However, many new users find the software challenging and not the easiest to get started with – that’s why it’s best to turn to ZBrush when you already have solid experience with other poly modeling software. The good thing is, the software has one of the largest communities of artists who share lots of useful tips, techniques, and inspiration on a regular basis. To try ZBrush, get a 30-day trial for free, or get a full license by subscribing to a monthly, yearly, or lifetime license.

Artec Studio

COST

US $1,200/year or US $2,900 for lifetime license

OS

Windows

+

Smart processing tools

Windows only

If your preferred method of 3D modeling is 3D scanning something from the real world, you should definitely give Artec Studio a go (paired with one of Artec 3D’s scanners, of course!). This powerful software suite for 3D scanning and data processing features the most advanced 3D data algorithms that make using Artec scanners so smooth, intuitive, and precise.

For new users who are just getting started with 3D scanning, Artec Studio has a smart Autopilot mode that gathers the information about an object, and then automatically chooses the right processing algorithms and settings to deliver the best possible results. For advanced users, there are plenty of tools for manual processing, too. One of the key features that makes Artec scanners and software particularly useful for 3D artists is their ability to produce high-quality, full-color 3D models and advanced color caption features, such as Automatic Glare Removal.

The feature automatically identifies which frames have glare by analyzing all other frames shot from different angles, and then takes them out of the calculation, resulting in uniform colored textures. Another useful feature is Dynamic Auto-Brightness, which automatically tailors brightness to an optimal level during both the scan preview and the duration of the scanning process.

Once processed in Artec Studio to form a final mesh, the model can be exported in any popular 3D format to other modeling software for further editing. Artec Studio is available for Windows OS and can be purchased as a lifetime license, or an annual subscription. There is a trial version you can test for 30 days at no cost.

3DCoat

COST

US $379 lifetime for 1 computer

OS

Windows, macOS, Linux

+

Affordable, extensive retopology tools

Few tutorials and community support compared to other tools

If you are looking for software where you can utilize both modeling methods (from scratch and with a 3D scanner), then 3DCoat is for you. This all-in-one software package for sculpting, UV mapping, and texturing comes in handy when you don’t just need to design something completely from scratch, but if – for example – you have a 3D model created with a scanner, and you want to edit the texture, create a fine-looking UV map, or retopologize the mesh. All that and much more is possible with 3DCoat.

Most 3D poly modeling tools such as 3dx Max or Maya don't support texture editing and have very limited painting options. Unlike them, sculpting tools such as 3DCoat support both mesh and texture post-processing. This includes cleaning up the scan from any defects or noise, as well as high poly mesh retopolization or extra sculpting and painting on top of a model as you would do in Photoshop. Plus, the program is quite affordable, especially if you have already invested in professional scanning hardware and software.

3DCoat comes with a lifetime commercial license and is free for universities, schools, and educational organizations.

Geomagic Freeform

COST

Basic license starting from US $7K one-time

OS

Windows

+

Comprehensive design and sculpting tools

Requires special drawing device

The last software on our list is Geomagic Freeform by 3D Systems – a multi-purpose 3D sculpting program for designing complex, organic shapes and preparing them for 3D printing, or mold and die manufacturing. What makes Freeform stand out from the crowd of other sculpting solutions is its hybrid workflow using 3D Systems’ special touch-based haptic devices (Touch or Touch X) which bring a user the real sensation of clay sculpting in a digital environment. This not only delivers freedom of motion for the user, but it also makes the design process more intuitive and effortless.

In addition, Geomagic Freeform supports the import of CAD and 3D scan data that can be further modified or combined with organically sculpted features, and prepared for production and printing. In fact, if you have an Artec 3D scanner, you can capture real-life objects in 3D directly within Freeform, then incorporate them into existing shapes and designs. Some advanced tools of Freeform include 3D data repair, automatic conversion of digital clay and polygons to NURBS surfaces, mold and die design, shelling, draft analysis, as well as parting line and surface creation tools for complex organic shapes. Such a mixture of functionality makes the software applicable for a wide range of fields including product design, CGI, healthcare, orthopedics, and many others.

Geomagic Freeform comes in two software packages, Freeform and Freeform Plus, and has a 30-day free trial to test out the software. If you’re interested in getting one of Artec 3D + Geomagic Freeform bundles, you can request pricing here.

Best free 3D modeling software

Blender

OS

Windows, macOS, Linux

+

Robust modeling toolset, large and developed community of users

UI can be overwhelming and difficult to learn

If you ask any 3D artist, whether a beginner or a pro, “What is the best free 3D modeling program out there?” you will likely hear the same answer: Blender. This free, open-source 3D creation suite is an ideal choice for those who want to see if 3D modeling is for them without needing to invest anything other than time. It’s also a great alternative to paid tools such as 3ds Max and Maya, as it has all that is necessary for modeling, rigging, animation, simulation, rendering, compositing, and motion tracking – even for video editing and game creation. It also has sculpting tools and while these are usually sold separately, Blender has them out of the box.

Key point

Best free open-source 3D creation suite for those who want to see if 3D modeling is for them without needing to invest anything other than time.

Blender supports 36 languages and is cross-platform, which makes it a super accessible yet powerful tool both for beginners and professionals, with an easy, flexible OpenGL-based interface and frequent updates. What Blender is also noted for is its vibrant community of users, where lots of useful and practical information for those who are just getting started in 3D modeling is shared.

Given the immense spectrum of tools and modules available, the biggest challenge that many new users have highlighted is that it can be overwhelming and difficult to start creating things with Blender. To be really fluent with the program, one has to spend time learning the shortcuts and watching lots of the community tutorials to get used to which features to use, and what for. As such, it requires some time (and patience) to master this all-round Swiss knife of 3D modeling.

To try Blender, visit https://www.blender.org/download/.

Wings 3D

OS

Windows, macOS, Linux

+

User-friendly, wide range of selection and mesh tools

Animation is not supported

One more open-source 3D modeling freeware well-suited for beginners is Wings 3D. It provides all the basic modeling tools like move, scale, rotate, extrude, cut, weld, bevel, and bridge, as well as some of the more advanced tools like sweep, plane cut, intersect, inset, bend, circularize, and shear. The AutoUV tool allows you to map the textures to your models, and export them for painting and texturing. There are also tweaking and sculpting capabilities for even more detailed modeling.

Like Blender, Wings 3D requires some time for you to learn all the ins and outs, and also has a developed community of users whom you can connect with to help accelerate your learning.

The program has been localized to 15 languages and can be downloaded for free at Wing 3D’s website.

Autodesk Meshmixer

OS

Windows, macOS

+

Easy repair of STL files, good basic 3D printing tools

Steep learning curve, not user-friendly UI

Not a 3D modeling software per se, Meshmixer is a useful freeware when you need to clean up a 3D scan, repair an existing STL file, or prepare a 3D model for printing. Supported by Autodesk, the software is most notable for its convert-to-solid capabilities for 3D printing, as well as drag-and-drop mesh mixing, 3D sculpting and surface stamping, hollowing, mesh simplification, and smoothing – and even for tools such as 3D measurements and thickness analyses.

It does take some time and practice to learn how to work in Meshmixer. Some users find the interface slow and not particularly intuitive, but if you’re working on a hobby 3D project that you want to print or fix, Meshmixer could be your tool.

Best 3D animation software

Some paid and free modeling software suites that we listed above, including 3dx Max, Maya, Blender, have comprehensive animation tools of their own. We recommend checking them out as well, especially if you are considering the software both for 3D modeling and animation. And here we’ve collected a few more 3D animation-focused tools for you to explore.

 

 

Houdini

COST

Houdini FXUS $4,995/yr or US $6,995 one-time
Houdini CoreUS $1,995/yr or US $2,995 one-time
Houdini IndieUS $269/yr
Houdini Education – FREE

OS

Windows, macOS, Linux

+

Powerful animation tools, VFX simulations, procedural workflow

Steep learning curve, technical, not for beginners

Houdini is a powerful 3D animation software most commonly used for the creation of visual effects in films, commercials, and video games. Developed by SideFX, the tool is popular among major VFX studios such as Walt Disney Animation Studios, Pixar, DreamWorks Animation, Sony Pictures Imageworks, ILM, and other heavyweights. What makes Houdini stand out from other 3D design software is its procedural node-based workflow, especially its procedurally generated fluids and particles that add an extra level of realism to animated scenes.

Houdini’s animator-friendly workflow includes a channel editor, dope sheet, and interactive timeline. You can set keyframes on any parameter, or use Houdini’s Advanced Motion-editing tools for greater control. Apart from animation, the software also supports a wide variety of polygon, NURBS and subdivision surface modeling tools, cloud FX tools, character rigging, lighting effects, rendering, and compositing. Professional VFX artists choose Houdini for its node-based way of working for easy, quick changes in the pipeline and the ability to work on unique and complex 3D modeling projects.

The software has a very steep learning curve and requires a lot of technical knowledge to use it at its full potential, which makes it less suitable for novice 3D artists and animators. However, if your project is non-commercial, the developer offers a free limited version of its software called Houdini Apprentice.

MotionBuilder

COST

US $1,950/year
US $5,265/3-years

OS

Windows, Linux

+

Fast learning curve, easy integration with the rest of the Autodesk suite, highly flexible Performance Capture ability

Not very user-friendly UI, not available for macOS

Another 3D software from Autodesk designed specifically for character animation is MotionBuilder. The software is used in film, games, television production, and other multimedia projects for virtual cinematography, motion capture, and traditional keyframe animation. It was the major pipeline solution for the Avatar movie, where it was used for capturing the actors’ performances and transferring them to 3D characters.

MotionBuilder features a real-time 3D engine that allows animators to create realistic character movements and run highly dense datasets in real time. It also features performance capture (rather than just motion capture) and allows artists to capture facial, body, and re-target stock motion clips, as well as to combine, trim, edit, and adjust curves and graphs, thus fine-tuning the animation to match the individual character's personality. The software also offers a software development kit and FBX data exchange for easy interoperability with other 3D applications.

Like all other Autodesk 3D software suits, MotionBuilder comes with a yearly subscription and has a 30-day trial, so you can test out the software for free.

Cinema 4D

COST

US $3,495 perpetual or US $720/year

OS

Windows, macOS

+

Easy to use, intuitive UI, versatile

Expensive

The last software on this list, and another killer multi-purpose software for professional 3D modeling, animation, simulation, and rendering, is Cinema 4D by Maxon. The software is widely used by computer graphics artists, designers, and animators for motion graphics, VFX, AR/MR/VR, design, game development, and all types of visualization.

Cinema 4D offers a wide range of advanced yet easy-to-use character animation tools and features to create life-like characters, as well as lots of rig presets to quicken your animation workflow. It also features MoGraph, an award-winning procedural modeling and animation toolset that provides motion designers with the ability to quickly and easily create complex and abstract animations. Professionals like Cinema 4D for its wide functionality and versatility, and amateurs – for its friendly, intuitive interface.

Key point

Best free open-source 3D creation suite for those who want to see if 3D modeling is for them without needing to invest anything other than time.

The software has a huge community of users and offers thousands of tutorials and how-tos on their training portal, as well as weekly and monthly webinars hosted by Maxon’s training team.

Cinema 4D is available both for perpetual use and by subscription, and has a free trial and semiannual education license for teachers and students for just US $2.99.

Table of contents
Written by: 

Svetlana Golubeva

Tech reporter

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