Our top 19 3D modeling software picks: free and paid.March 17th, 2022
With 3D modeling software, you can create just about anything. The industry is changing so fast, however, that it can be a little challenging to determine which 3D modeling program is the best for your 3D modeler needs.
We’ll walk you through the 19 best 3D modeling software options on the market right now. Even better? More than half of the options we’re sharing (10 out of 19!) are free 3D modeling software programs for budget-conscious 3D artists.
Once you have the right 3D modeling software, you’ll be able to produce stunning 3D designs for your online design portfolio—and featuring such a hot skill is sure to lure in potential clients and employers on the hunt for modeling software experts.
Now, let’s take a look at the best 3D modeling software programs out there!
Best 3D Modeling Software
Type: Subscription Price: $245/month
When you ask any professional 3D modeler in the industry which program they use the most, Autodesk Maya is the most common answer, and for good reason. Most of the leading animation studios use it (Pixar included) due in part to the massive array of powerful tools offered within the package. The last few years have seen some especially amazing new features burst into the limelight such as truly jaw-dropping live rendering.
There’s a catch, though: Maya isn’t cheap, and you’re going to need to learn to use it before you can create much of anything. There’s a lot to learn in 3D modeling programs, and if you can devote the time to truly learn this new artform then every penny you spend on Maya will be worth it. If you want a portfolio that floors clients from the start, this is how to do it.
Type: Subscription Price: $245/month
In addition to the titan known as Maya, Autodesk also offers Mudbox. It’s one of the easiest 3D modeling software packages on offer, but it’s more aligned to editing and sculpting 3D models using a simple, intuitive, and tactile toolset than executing complex 3D tasks. You can increase polygon counts on the fly, set up layers, and gradually adjust your 3D models until they are absolutely perfect. Then, built-in functions create textures, paint colors, correct meshes, and produce Normal maps.
You can also create things from scratch with this program, sculpting whatever you choose, but rigging, texturing, and animation are not its focus. To complete those steps, you’ll need Maya or other similar 3D modeling software. Master Mudbox and your design portfolio will be all the richer for it.
Type: License Price: $1995, $4495, or $499/year
Similar to Autodesk Maya, Houdini is another industry-standard tool that ranks as one of the best 3D modeling software packages available. It uses a different methodology than Autodesk Maya, using a node-based procedural style of production that affords artists a huge amount of control. Similar to Maya, there’s a rather steep curve to learning all the tricks needed to succeed with this modeling software. You won’t be creating masterpieces in 20 minutes, but, with a bit of persistence, you won’t have too much trouble making works of art.
It’s on the expensive side, offering yearly licenses or perpetual purchases of Houdini and Houdini FX, but there is also a free version called Houdini Apprentice available that we’ll detail in the second half of this article. All in all, Houdini is a solid choice for any VFX artist and will help you create some stunning CGI to make your online design portfolio truly amazing.
4. Cinema 4D
Type: License Price:$480/year to $2,850
Maxon’s Cinema 4D is also a serious competitor and easily among the best 3D modeling software programs you can find. Designed for creating perfect motion graphics, this powerful tool can compete head-to-head with the above entries and hold its own. It can crank out amazing quality that can turn heads, but its strongest lead over competitors is a simple one: it’s much (much) easier to learn. This could be a great help in making your design portfolio as gorgeous as possible—trying out a variety of 3D projects is a great way to show your range to clients.
A caveat (and one that will be problematic if you don’t have deep pockets): the cost. With a hefty cost to perpetual licenses (some of which expire), you need to make sure it’s the right choice for you before you commit. Thankfully, they also offer a free trial that lasts a bit longer than a month to help you make the decision (and they offer student licenses at a reduced cost).
Type: Subscription or License Price:$399/year to $1799
To stand out from the crowd, Modo does things a bit differently than the other 3D modeling programs. The Foundry made Modo with art in mind, not just animation, which led to it offering a rather robust and interesting selection of tools. Most notable is how user-friendly it is, allowing neophytes the ability to pick it up with relative ease and become 3D modelers without years of training.
While it lacks the higher-end tools offered in programs like Autodesk Maya, Maya won’t let you intuitively create great quality renders with a low degree of effort: Modo is easy to pick up and figure out in comparison. Finally, Modo sports a wonderfully powerful rendering engine that is easily on par with other high-end programs, allowing you to create pro-quality on the fly.
Type: Subscription Price:$215/month to $1700/year
3Ds Max has been around for a long time, as far as modeling software goes. It predates almost every other current program by several years and has plenty of performance patches under its belt as a result. It’s one of the most stable 3D modeling programs around (probably the most stable option on Windows, period) and has a gigantic library available that provides access to countless functions that can make the process of modeling less tedious. Many of these mods also make things easier for beginners.
It has a higher price point but offers free student licenses and a trial that allows you access to all of the features the app has to offer for 30 days, which should provide further incentive to give it a go and wow your clients.
Type: License Price:$895
When it comes to sculpting amazing creatures, people, and places, there are no competitors that come anywhere even close to ZBrush. It’s a staple in VFX on movies and television, and there are few 3D modeling programs that can match its stature in the video game design industry. If you’re into 3D printing, this is definitely your go-to option: nothing beats ZBrush for making vinyl toys or action figures. You will need training on the various tools and features to make the most of ZBrush, but know that this training is absolutely worth it.
Type: License Price:$995
Uninhibited design is the focus of Rhinoceros, providing all the tools and features you would expect in the best 3D modeling software, but with an easy-to-learn toolset that allows you to get cracking right away. It’s compatible with just about everything and has a well-designed rendering engine that can process even complex animations without unexpected slowdown.
It’s free for 90 days, after which point you’ll need to purchase a license to continue taking advantage of its features and power. It’s worth a look, especially if you want something simple to grasp and get started with.
Type: License Price:$19.90/month and up
There are many steps to 3D model creation, and producing realistic textures can be very time-consuming and involved. Enter Substance Designer, one of the most powerful and astounding texture creation applications there is. It can generate some truly astonishing surfaces for your models, and the resulting texture maps will turn your creations into extremely detailed art that not only looks realistic but saves you a ton of time fiddling with bits and bobs.
If you’re serious about becoming a 3D modeler, you owe it to yourself to at least give it a try. We guarantee that the results will please you, and afterward, you won’t want to use anything else for your skinning and texturing.
Free 3D Modeling Software
If you’re on a fixed income and can’t afford to shell out hundreds of dollars for a full license but still want to learn the skills needed to become a 3D modeler, you’re in luck: there are some free 3D modeling software options out there as well, and many are quite powerful and capable of producing professional-grade content.
The king of the castle among free 3D modeling software is, without a doubt, Blender. It’s been around since 2002 and is quite polished. Running on every major operating system, it provides all the tools you expect in modeling software, including rigging, texturing, sculpting, UVing, and animation. With a solid rendering engine, it has proven itself time and again when compared to the fancier programs out there.
As an added bonus, it’s open-source! This means that there are constant improvements and available add-ons for new functionality that are not only common but always free of charge. This puts a lot of power in your hands. If you can’t swing an expensive license for Maya, this is the next best thing.
11. Daz Studio
Recently made free to all, Daz Studio is accessible to newcomers as well as experienced 3D modelers, and is focused around creating art using people, animals, and other assets from their list. Unlike most other entries on the list, this is more akin to a posing tool than one designed to create high-end 3D models for production.
While the program itself is totally free, be advised that a lot of the content on their marketplace is not: this means that to really make the most out of it, you’ll still need to put down a bit of cash. If you are in it to make art rather than animation for your portfolio, you can’t really go wrong: a large amount of content is available right from the start, and anything you make is royalty-free!
A surprisingly easy 3D modeling software option, SketchUp works on every major operating system—it will even run smoothly on your Chromebook!
You can draw, set orbits, and combine elements to create true 3D art with ease in a natural, sketch-based approach. Through Sketchup, you can draft some cool home layouts, furniture, and isometric art without needing to create primitives and extrude for hours. This is super-handy for those looking into becoming an interior designer. You’re also spared the rigor of rigging, and the annoyance of UV maps as well. This is a great tool for those more looking to make cool art.
Sculptris has a lot going for it: it has, for example, some of the sculpting power of Zbrush (but none of the price associated with it). It’s the absolute best free 3D modeling software for sculpting; nothing else even comes close to it. Within a few short minutes, you’ll be able to figure out the way the controls operate; even pint-sized artists have no problem and can get to creating silly faces in no time.
While it can produce some truly neat models, you will still need another 3D program to make the most out of it. If you are looking for a way to make insanely awesome sculpts and feel like a master 3D modeler without shelling out for Zbrush, nothing else available can compare.
SideFX’s Houdini is a great program—one of the best free 3D modeling software options on our list, in fact. Equipped with all the power and flexibility offered by the paid version of the program, Houdini Apprentice will allow you to learn to use all its features without shelling out the $2,000 required for the pro version. Personal projects are totally fine, but without a license, you’ll still need to purchase the full version to make use of it for commercial purposes.
Vue is known for being the 3D modeling software of choice for creating amazing 3D landscapes. Compelling worlds are a breeze to shape, and it even has numerous features bundled in to make sure your creations don’t look too real. Camera lens distortions, depth of field, and anti-aliasing strategies all combine to give a huge amount of control to your scene and how it renders.
The catch? You won’t be able to save in the same format compatible with the paid version, and your files will be auto-watermarked to avoid the use of assets in commercial products.
16. Autodesk Maya
If you want a chance to learn the best 3D modeling software on the market, you have that opportunity: Autodesk Maya offers a 30-day trial to everyone interested in checking out what it has to offer. Students can even enjoy a student license for the duration of their studies. This gives you plenty of time to hone your abilities and master the program by the time you’re serious about using it professionally.
The only limit you have with the free version is a simple one: you can’t use the assets you create in commercial products.
FreeCAD is still in active development, but it already has tons of cool features. As far as free 3D modeling software goes, it’s hard to beat something with this many useful tools. Thanks to parametric models, you’re able to define shapes based on properties (and even other objects), which means you can recalculate entire sections on-demand.
With a simple UI, MakeHuman allows budding 3D modelers to easily design humanoid characters with a suite of useful and intuitive tools. As simple 3D modeling software goes, it’s extremely focused and serves a single purpose: character design. If you’re looking to dive into the pools of 3D art this is a great place to start. Within a few minutes, you’ll be able to figure out how to combine meshes and create interesting personalities for use in your next project.
Less about the artistic and more about the functionality, OpenSCAD is entirely intended for the more technical side of 3D asset production. Through programming and math, this program excels at producing exact replicas of your designs in a 3D printer, making it an exceptional option for anyone who is looking to make devices and toys rather than character models and creatures.
Don’t forget to upload your creations to your online portfolio!
If you’re looking to cut your teeth in this fun and relatively new art form, now is definitely the right time to do it: the gaming industry is booming; and VFX are used in just about everything we consume online, on TV, and on the big screen. And clients love finding designers that you can keep up in this 3D modeling software realm.
Once you’ve created some awesome new pieces of work, make sure to upload them to your online portfolio website. If you don’t have one, just use a website builder to build one in minutes. Pick an online portfolio that comes with stylish templates along with designer-friendly features like client proofing, so your clients can proof designs, right on your website.
You can create entire worlds in 3D modeling software—now go have fun!