I know that most people who are interested in 3D art, either as a hobby or future profession, often hit a wall before they even start simply because they do not know what software they need or how to acquire it. If they are going to school then it is not usually a problem, but if they are attempting to be self-taught this can be an issue. Fortunately through school and my own personal interest I have been able to try out and use several different 3D art tools and programs. I am hoping to use my experience to help whoever reads this to know what they need and how to get it.
The first thing before trying to decide what software to learn is deciding what you want to do. 3D art is used in many industries and within those industries are varying positions and specializations. From film to architectural visualization to games, different tasks need to be done and different software packages are necessary. Usually the best place to start learning is with one of the main 3D software packages such as, 3D Max or Maya. These programs are designed to be able to provide you with the tools for any job in 3D art and are updated with new functionality every year. Usually one can complete an entire project from start to finish with one of these packages, which is what makes them so powerful. You can create models, rig and animate those models and render out the animations all within one program. There are even limited tools for more specific functions like creating hair and particle effects. These packages are often the central piece that ties an entire workflow together.
When choosing a package to learn it is often more important to decide what is most convenient rather than what is "better.” If you are learning with a group of people or have access to tutorials or other resources for a specific product use that product. Maya, 3D Max, XSI, Lightwave, Blender, Cinema 4D and many other programs all share similar functionality. Though these programs may have their strengths and weaknesses you can achieve the same results and accomplish the same tasks with all of them.
The most popular packages, Maya, Max and XSI, are all owned and sold by Autodesk. These programs can cost nearly 4,000 dollars each, but luckily Autodesk has a few ways for those using the software for non-commercial purposes to learn and use their program. The main way to acquire their software easily is if you are a college student. With a university email address you can download any of these programs 100% percent free for a year, and when your year runs up if you still have that email address you can re download and do it again. These programs are the industry standard and having access to them for free is an incredible opportunity. If you are not a college student, there are other alternatives as well. Lightwave 3d and Cinema 4d are both less than a thousand dollars and while that is obviously still a lot of money for a hobbyist, Blender may be the best option resting at zero dollars. Any of these programs are a great way to learn and they all have broad online help communities that are incredibly important if you are trying to learn things on your own.
Once you have gotten some experience with a main package you will quickly notice that their are some tasks that cannot be performed as well in your central package as they can be in a more specific program. A great example of this is texture creation. When you need to create a specific image to project onto your model then you will need some outside help. Photoshop is the main program used for creating textures, but unfortunately adobe has not released its software for free even for students who still have to pay about 200 dollars for the student version. Luckily Gimp, the free image editing software, is available to all and, when it comes to texture creation, it has most of the tools you would use Photoshop for.
Digital sculpting is another task that no main 3d software package can perform. This newer, more freeform type of modeling is done in a separate program before sending the sculpted model into the main package once completed. Autodesk's Mudbox and Pixologic's ZBrush are the most popular sculpting packages available to the public and are both widely used. Both programs can often achieve the same or similar results, but both are used in different ways. Mudbox is created as an auxiliary program to Autodesk's other packages. It works very well with both Max and Maya, is easy to use, has a simple and sleek interface and controls very similarly to those other packages. ZBrush, on the other hand is intended to be as standalone as possible. It integrates well with other software packages, but it also has many tools that allow you to use it for many more tasks than Mudbox. It also has a much more complex interface than Mudbox and operates very differently than any of the main 3D packages. Mudbox is available for free to students like all other Autodesk software and is often available for free when you buy the others as part of a package. ZBrush's commercial pricing is 700 dollars and they have a student license available at 450. This purchase also includes any ZBrush upgrades for free, which is a pretty good deal. However Pixologic recently acquired the freeware sculpting software Sculptris. This program is a free basic sculpting tool that can be great for learning the basics of sculpting without the complexities of ZBrush.
As you can see, there are many great options available to the aspiring 3D artist. Hopefully after reading this blog you can apply this information to your situation and decide what software will be appropriate for your situation. Once you have the software you want or need the next step is to practice and learn. Between Youtube tutorials and websites dedicated to 3D art any question you may have can be answered easily by just looking online.