How do you know which one of the many architectural rendering software is the best? What qualifications make it the best option for you, and how does one trump all the rest?
In deciding which rendering software or engine is best for you, you must first understand the technology and jargon. There are two main types of rendering: Pre-rendering and Real-time rendering.
Pre-rendering is done by manually setting the lights, materials, and other assets that will help make the model look photo-realistic before rendering. Once you've tweaked the settings and you hit render, that's the only time you will see the image slowly progress from a cartoon-looking model to a photo-realistic model. The process is similar to cooking; You somehow let the render engine do its magic while sitting and waiting. Pre-rendering usually requires lower system requirements than its counterpart, real-time rendering, because your CPU's computing power and capabilities are only used during the rendering process. A GPU isn't necessary because you don't need to produce instantaneous photo-realistic graphics while navigating your model.
The disadvantage of Pre-rendering is that it is pretty challenging to get it right the first time. It's like setting up your assets blindly and visualizing how the numbers will affect your model before rendering. You cannot immediately see the changes without test-rendering it first. For beginners, it's pretty much like a hit or miss, but it gets better through time and practice. Because you don’t have a clear idea of how your final render will somehow look like, you are required to test your model constantly until you get the details right.
On the other hand, real-time rendering allows you to see changes while you tweak your settings. The addition of lights and other assets shows up on your screen instantaneously, and rendering the final image only takes seconds. The learning curve for real-time rendering is pretty steep because it allows you to see how your settings will affect your model in, real-time which is perfect for people who don't have the time to learn sophisticated rendering programs because of their ease of use.
Of course, the advantage real-time rendering has is that it requires a lot of computing power from your PC. Typically, you would need a lot of memory and computing power so that your computer can process the rendered images. You would also need a really strong GPU or video card in order to run the program smoothly. Because the model is dynamic and rendered real-time, you will need a lot of VRAM to sustain the memory requirements of your computer as you pan through your model.
Now that we have tackled the two main types of rendering let us move on to the three standard rendering techniques: Ray-tracing, Path-tracing, and Rasterization. Between the three, rasterization is usually faster because it is not computationally intensive. Rather than computing exactly how your lights cast shadows, it approximates how the scene will look based on the general lighting applied. Between all of the techniques, rasterization creates the least photo-realistic output.
On the other end of the line, we have ray-tracing and path-tracing. These techniques intensively compute how the lights affect the objects in the scene and vice versa. It's slower but more accurate. Ray-tracing is common in pre-rendering, while rasterization is more common in real-time rendering. Although thanks to technology, some rendering programs can now use both in real-time rendering. Ray-tracing and path tracing is known to produce better quality still images because of the accurate calculations involved, which is why it is primarily a preferred
The truth is, there is no single best rendering software out there. It all still boils down to what you need and what you can afford. Performance, Features, User experience, and cost are some of the criteria most people usually consider when choosing the right software. Because of this, we have rounded up the best rendering software based on common considerations to help you assess which one may work best for you.
If you're looking for a basic 2D rendering program that does not require a lot of computing power from your CPU and GPU, V-Ray is the perfect program for you. It's compatible with both Mac and PC and can create stunning photo-realistic images through ray-tracing.
V-Ray only needs a minimum of 8 GB RAM to run, although 16 GB RAM is recommended. The plugin can run seamlessly even without a dedicated graphics card, making it able to run also on Mac OSX.
V-Ray could be the right program for you, depending on your workflow. Since V-Ray is offered as a plugin to your CAD software, you can create the model and render it simultaneously within the same program.
If you're looking to create 3D animations, skip this part and move on to the next bullet point. Animating 3D Models using V-Ray could be a challenging and time-consuming job. V-Ray is better off for rendering still photo-realistic images over video animations.
As for pricing, V-Ray offers both perpetual licenses and subscription-based licenses. The subscription-based pricing isn't all that bad either. Prices start at $ 60 per month for SketchUp and Rhino, which isn't bad for a monthly subscription that you can cancel anytime you like.
Out of all the 2D Rendering Softwares available in the market, V-Ray is ultimately the best. It's packed with features; it has an extensive material library, comes at an affordable price point, and does not require sophisticated system specifications.
Lumion is visualization software that offers real-time rendering. Real-time rendering means that as you pan through your 3D model, the image automatically shows you the final rendered image based on the settings you input requiring higher system requirements and computing power for your PC.
Lumion uses a technique called rasterized rendering in delivering photo-realistic videos and photos. It provides a quicker way to create photo-realistic images of your 3D models at a faster speed. Compared to its counterpart ray-tracing, the quality of shadows and lighting produced isn't as accurate, but the upside is that it allows you to render images up to 20 times faster.
Other basic rendering programs require you to set the scenes, lighting, textures, and colors manually and then test render it to see if the image is perfect. In Lumion, this isn't the case. Once you define your settings, the image automatically generates in real-time, eliminating the back and forth step of setting your scene and test rendering the image. The downside of real-time rendering is that a basic PC cannot run it. Lumion requires a lot of GPU power in your PC, and upgrading your computer would be necessary to run Lumion.
Speaking of quality, the details produced by Lumion is outstanding. This program allows you to create hyper-realistic architectural renderings. Specifically excellent in displaying glass and water elements in your architectural model. Lumion is not only great for creating hyper-realistic 3D still images, but it also renders incredible 3D walkthrough videos, 360-degree panoramic views, and VR walkthroughs. If you value animation over photorealism, then Lumion could be the best option.
Lumion works with most CAD modeling programs, allowing you to import models created from SketchUp (view our list of top sketchup rendering plugins), Revit (view our list of top revit tutorials), AutoCAD, ArchiCAD, Rhino, Vectorworks, BricsCAD, FormIt, AllPlan, Microstation, Infraworks, Chief Architect, Softplan, Blender, Cinema 4D, Maya, and Daz Studio.
Lumion comes with a hefty price tag of $ 1,695 for the standard version and $ 3,389 for the Pro version. The great thing about Lumion is that the license is perpetual; you'll only need to pay for the program when you decide to upgrade to a newer version. Special promotional pricing is often given to old Lumion users, which is an added value since you don't have to purchase a separate license to upgrade.
We love most about Lumion is that it has been the leading real-time rendering program out there. Because of this, it has by far the most extensive asset library out of all real-time rendering software.
Twinmotion works like Lumion but has higher system requirements since it produces more realistic 3D animation. The great thing about Twinmotion that sets it apart is its ability to run on Mac OSX. However, this downside is that the system requirements are so high that a basic iMac or Macbook Pro won't be enough to run it. You will need a Mac Pro with at least 64 GB RAM and a 12 GB dedicated memory card.
Like Lumion, Twinmotion also comes with a massive model library filled with various textures and animated 3D models.
Twinmotion is a relatively new program. The nice thing about this is that it comes with an unlimited free trial that allows you to explore the application giving you access to all features at a fraction of the cost of Lumion. However, this comes with some limitations, such as full-resolution exporting—no need to fret because a perpetual commercial license for Twinmotion would only cost you approximately $ 250.
One of the other advantages of Twinmotion is that any changes introduced in the model within Twinmotion automatically sync to your original model through a direct link between programs, eliminating the need of saving multiple versions of one model that usually ends up confusing.
Another central plus point Twinmotion has over its other counterparts is choosing between Path/Ray Tracer or Rasterized Render or a hybrid of both. This feature creates stunning photo-realistic images and animation that trumps other rendering software programs.
On top of that, vegetation such as plants and trees can be modified based on age. You can also adjust your grass and make it taller or shorter in seconds. This added feature makes Twinmotion superior to Lumion.
From the makers of V-Ray, Chaos Vantage is a real-time, ray-tracing rendering program that offers the best of both worlds. Real-time rendering produces photo-realistic images in seconds plus ray-tracing, delivering high definition, photo-realistic images with accurate lights and shadows.
Chaos Vantage, formerly known as Project Lavina, allows you to import V-Ray projects and render in real-time, similar to Lumion and Twinmotion.
As for pricing, Chaos Vantage was free until June 2022. However, there is a catch. The GPU requirement for Chaos Vantage is very specific; It can only run on the NVIDIA RTX GPU series. A piece of sad news for users with a Radeon GPU and an NVIDIA GTX GPU.
If you are on the hunt for an All-In-One solution for your modeling and rendering needs, Cinema 4D wins; Providing impeccable 3D visualization for architects creating stunning 3D animations and visual effects for movies, making it an extremely effective powerful animation software to date.
Other rendering programs mainly focus on architectural and interior visualization projects. The assets and the tools that come alongside them are targeted for the use of architectural visualization. Cinema 4D is different; It's used chiefly by motion picture designers and not by architects.
The interface of Cinema 4D can be overwhelming without the proper training. It's not exactly as intuitive as the commonly used CAD software and render engines available in the market, but it is packed with many features. It's the preferred software of most tech-savvy architects and designers.
With an annual subscription price of $ 999, it's not exactly your most affordable option. Unless you love learning and navigating complex programs, Cinema 4D could be for you. Because it isn't made precisely for photo-realistic architectural renderings, the rendered images produced by Cinema 4D may not be precisely at par with the ones offered by its competitors. It takes a lot of practice to master Cinema 4D alone, and it will take even more training to master the built-in render engine that comes with the software.
If you lack the patience to learn a sophisticated program such as this, we suggest you move on and consider other options. The learning curve for Cinema 4D is pretty shallow, taking as long as a year or two to grasp the basics. On the other hand, if you have the enthusiasm and the privilege of time to learn a new skill, then this may be for you.
Another Real-time rendering plugin that works for SketchUp, ArchiCAD, Rhino, Vectorworks, and Revit, Enscape, is an intuitive render engine that can create static and dynamic 3D visualizations. Although it lives within your preferred CAD program, it's a powerful plugin that surprisingly creates stunning 3D images and video walkthroughs.
The nice thing about Enscape is it does not require sophisticated system requirements to start. Because of this, this has been a popular real-time rendering engine for architects. It's interesting because you only need a dedicated GPU with 4GB of memory is all you need to run this plugin. In simpler terms, a starter gaming rig is what you need. Unfortunately for Mac OSX users, Enscape is only available for Windows.
Because Enscape works as a plugin, you will still be working on your model within your preferred CAD program while a pop-up Enscape window shows the rendered image in real-time. You navigate within your CAD program, and the rendered image is shown in a different window simultaneously.
Enscape offers a subscription-based model for its plugin for as low as $ 40 per month. It is by far one of the most affordable subscription-based rendering software. If you want something that is light on the pocket, Enscape is perfect for you.
What's interesting about this plugin is its collaborative annotation feature. This feature allows clients to make comments on the model in real-time. Saving the back and forth process from drafting to presentation and vice versa, making it another plus point that has captured the heart of most architects. It's a great workflow that is both efficient and impressive. It allows the client to be fully involved in the design process, providing a collaborative setting to exchange comments and ideas.
On top of all of this, for only $ 40 a month, you can create magnificent walkthroughs exported to video or virtual reality. Enscape recommends an Oculus Rift S or HTC Vibe are perfect VR headsets to pair with Enscape VR walkthroughs.
Let's not forget the ton of features Enscape has built-in within its engine. Realistic and customizable sky settings where you can easily adjust the density of clouds, sunshine, weather, and time of day by moving through the sliders. A growing asset library of various vegetation, people, accessories, and street props will enhance your model and make it more realistic.
Overall, if you're looking for a bang for your buck, Enscape is for you. It offers the best of both worlds: real-time rendering at an affordable price point.
The simplicity in the interface of Eyecad VR makes it win the most intuitive real-time rendering program of 2023. The interface and the commands in Eyecad VR are easy to understand, and exploring the program is fun and exciting through a gamified user interface.
The program is reasonably cheap, for $ 199 for the starter license and $ 399 for the pro license for a lifetime license, both offering lifetime licensing. The difference between the two pricing models is the addition of VR walkthroughs in the pro version, perfect for those who would like to create video animations and panoramic tours.
It's surprising that Eyecad VR has not hit mainstream status considering its powerful render engine. The program is packed with a lot of features with its Virtual Reality capabilities as one of our favorite features.
Like Enscape, Eyecad VR can be run by a basic gaming PC. A minimum requirement of a 4 GB GPU and 8 GB RAM is enough to load basic residential 3D models. Unlike other sophisticated real-time rendering software, Eyecad VR is low maintenance yet still offers a powerful solution to your rendering requirements.
Eyecad VR is perfect for those who want both easy-to-use and affordable rendering software to create stunning architectural visuals. It uses ray-tracing to accurately display lighting, shadows, and reflections based on your input settings.
An underrated rendering plugin that you've probably never heard of. SU Podium, more commonly known as Podium, is a SketchUp plugin and 2D renderer, which may be small but mighty. The great thing about this application is that it does not need powerful PC specs to run, unlike other real-time rendering programs. It's an essential plugin that allows you to set your lights and render images via ray-tracing and global illumination.
The plugin has a few options that make it less complicated to learn, making it the perfect choice for those who want to learn the basics of rendering without being overwhelmed with many buttons and settings. It takes a bit of practice to create stunning renderings using SU Podium, but the learning curve is steep, and it renders pretty fast, so it could be a pro in just a few days.
This plugin has one advantage and disadvantage: small details from a distant vantage point won't be seen once you render your model. It's an advantage because you don't have to spend time manipulating your model. You don't have to worry about this because the final rendered image will still be satisfactory, becoming a disadvantage. After all, compared to V-Ray, the quality of your render may become a bit inferior.
Like other render engines, SU Podium comes with its asset library that you can download directly via the SketchUp 3D warehouse. These render-ready objects help elevate your model by providing realistic items that help in creating stunning images.
SU Podium's downside against the competition is its inability to render 4K images. In most low-light scenes, the rendered image usually appears grainy and can be frustrating at times. There also aren't many options for sky scenes and HDRI backgrounds available, so you need to do it yourself or import them yourself.
SU Podium works a lot better when the rendered images are post-processed in photoshop. The lighting effects within SU Podium are a bit limited compared to V-Ray and other Pre-rendering engines. You could apply a lot more effects and drama to your image if you make manual edits.
Overall, SU Podium is a satisfactory rendering program if you want to create renderings fast. Depending on the number of lights and components you have in your model, rendering time can go as quickly as 60 seconds or as long as a couple of hours. When using SU Podium, it would be wise to create a separate render file only with the components you need for a specific scene to cut down on the rendering time. It may seem daunting at first, but it takes some getting used to.
It comes in both free and paid versions; Twilight Render is a basic rendering plugin that works within SketchUp. A single-user license for Twilight Render starts at only 99 USD, the cheapest paid license for a 2D rendering software available in the market.
Twilight Render also comes with a vast material library with commonly-used architectural textures with render-ready materials that will help you create stunning architectural visualizations.
The downside to Twilight Render, I would say, is that it takes a lot of practice to get the lighting perfect. Like any other pre-rendering plugin, you need to get the settings right to create the ideal image. Your rendered image may come out dark most of the time if you don't know how to work through the light settings.
You also have to consider the amount of detail in your image. These details will help your model render nicely. In this specific rendering plugin, You need to remember that God is in the details. It's essential to add a lot of geometry to your image. Your tiles, windows, and roofing need to be modeled perfectly to render nicely.
For a fraction of V-Ray's price, the textures library of Twilight Render is pretty impressive. In this plugin, you can manipulate tiny details like bumps, reflection, refraction, and transparency to produce better renderings.
Just like SU Podium, Twilight render works best once post-processed using photo editing programs such as Adobe Photoshop. There are a lot of possibilities with regards to lighting effects and material mapping once you post-process your rendered image using a sophisticated photo editing program.