Implementing 3ds Max for Design Visualization

July 19th, 2012

Architects, interior designers, and product designers are the most common users of Autodesk® 3ds Max in the field of design visualization. This article discusses the many things you will need to establish your career in this market including tools, concepts, and tips and tricks.

First of all, you will need to download and install any version of 3ds Max (latest version is recommended), which will be the tool you use in transforming your ideas into realistic looking renderings.

You will find the requirements for both system and hardware on the Autodesk Website ( Before you begin working with 3ds Max, you will need a license. If you are a student then your life gets better because Autodesk provides a Student License.

Once you are done installing 3ds Max and registering it with Autodesk you are ready to start bringing your ideas to life.

Set It Up

Before you start working inside 3ds Max, the first thing to consider is the units setup. There are three main types of units inside 3ds Max: Metric, US Standards, and generic units. I recommend you to work with either the Metric or the US Standards. I use Metric in all of my drawings.

Figure 1: Units setup dialog box, Customize>Units Setup

Units are important for many reasons. For example, you will need to scale your objects and you should use real life scale. This gives the best results when it comes to lighting, but also when importing or exporting with other software. If you are going to bring files from other software inside 3ds Max, you will be asked to set the incoming file units. This is just one scenario—there will be many others that require the units setup. The bottom line is that units setup is a very important step for more accurate results and easier workflow.


A very important function is the integration between 3ds Max and other software such as AutoCAD®, which will allow you to import you drawings from AutoCAD into 3ds Max to help as the starting point in the visualization process.

Figures 2 and 3: Floor plan for a company imported into 3ds Max, visualized and rendered.

Also you can import files from different programs such as Adobe Illustrator and work on it inside 3ds Max. 3ds Max supports many different file formats, which makes it very easy to interoperate with other programs.


You must know the workflow you will follow, which begins with modeling, then lighting, shading and texturing, rendering, and finally compositing and special effects if needed.


It usually begins with sketching your idea, then start drawing either inside 3d Max or any other software that allows you to import files into 3ds Max to finish your modeling process.


Many artists start lighting their scenes before applying materials, others do it the other way around. It depends on your scene, your materials, and finally the workflow you prefer. If you are going to do a lot of trials to set up your lighting system, then you are not going to enjoy waiting for a long time until it finishes rendering with heavy materials to see if the lighting is good or needs adjustments. Then you’ll have to make adjustments and render another time. Of course, there are many other ways to work with lighting and materials and it differs from artist to artist. I prefer to set up lighting first then apply materials in most cases.

Shading & Texturing

This is always the enjoyable part, because of 3ds Max software's rich and easy-to-use set of materials, which gives you a variety of simple and complex materials. Also you may purchase some useful textures or find free textures to download. The best part is when you make your own textures either by scanning your own textures from natural objects (fabrics, wood samples, drawings, and so on) or by shooting some photos with your camera, then doing some magic touches inside a photo editing program such as Adobe Photoshop and you have your own library of textures you may use for your different type of projects.


It is the important part of your workflow, because everything you do inside 3ds Max stays inside 3ds Max if you did not render it. You must have 3ds Max calculate it all—numbers you've entered, models, textures, settings, and many other items—to produce a nice, photorealistic looking image or movie of your designs. If you didn't do this part, I'm telling you you've done nothing.


This process is essential in many cases to add some objects or effects to the final renderings, either a still image or a movie. This is done inside 3ds Max or inside a photo editing tool such as Adobe Photoshop for still images, or a video editing tool such as Adobe Premiere for videos. You may add some special effects to your final rendering if you want to.


There are many techniques to produce realistic-looking visualizations. Let's talk about one of these techniques and how to apply it inside 3ds Max with using different tools.

Indirect Illumination

Indirect Illumination is a most important aspect in giving us the photorealistic look we seek for our renderings. 3ds Max calculates the direct lighting by default. Lighting comes from direct light sources inside 3ds Max and is standard, photometric, or even a light by a third-party program such as V-Ray). 3ds Max does not calculate the Indirect lighting or Indirect Illumination—unless you tell it to do so.

There are many different ways to calculate this amount of lighting—and it is a huge amount you do not want to ignore—which will illuminate your scenes naturally and give them a realistic appearance.

The figure below shows two scenes: one is illuminated with direct lighting only and the other is illuminated with both direct and indirect lighting together. Note the difference.

Figure 4: Illuminated with direct light only.

Figure 5: Same scene illuminated with both direct and indirect light.

There are multiple techniques that allow us to calculate the indirect illumination amount and control it as needed.

The first one is the radiosity which offers you significant benefits over standard lights.  Radiosity is a rendering technology of 3ds Max that produces more accurate photometric simulations of the lighting in your scenes and realistically simulates the way in which light interacts in an environment. Also note that effects such as indirect light, soft shadows, and color bleeding between surfaces produce images of realism that are not attainable with standard scanline rendering. These images give you a better, more predictable representation of what your designs will look like under specific lighting conditions.

The second one we will talk about is Global Illumination with the mental ray renderer. Global illumination enhances the realism in rendered images by simulating almost all light inter-reflection—reciprocal reflection between two reflecting surfaces—effects in a scene. It generates such effects as "color bleeding," where, for example, a white shirt next to a red wall appears to have a slight red tint. The mental ray renderer generates global illumination without requiring you to generate a radiosity solution.

Finally, let's talk about the indirect illumination or Global Illumination solution inside V-Ray. V-Ray is a fast rendering solution developed by Chaos Group that provides many features inside 3ds Max, different lights for different scenarios, objects, advanced materials for many different applications, textures, effects, rendering elements, and many other things including, of course, the possibility to calculate physically accurate full global illumination solutions.

You can use Indirect Illumination with V-Ray and give realism to your scenes like never before. V-Ray implements several approaches for computing indirect illumination with different trade-offs between quality and speed.

The indirect illumination controls in V-Ray are divided into two large sections: controls concerning primary diffuse bounces and controls concerning secondary diffuse bounces. A primary diffuse bounce occurs when a shaded point is directly visible by the camera, or through Specular reflective or refractive surfaces. A secondary bounce occurs when a shaded point is used in GI calculations.

My Recommendation

Brute force for the Primary GI engine. This is the simplest approach; indirect illumination is computed independently for each shaded surface point by tracing a number of rays in different directions on the hemisphere above that point.

Light cache for the Secondary GI engine. The light map is a universal GI solution that can be used for both interior and exterior scenes. The light map is built by tracing many eye paths from the camera. Each of the bounces in the path stores the illumination from the rest of the path into a 3d structure.

Figure 6: Recommendation for both primary and secondary bounces engines.


I want to talk about the importance of optimization inside 3ds Max for faster results.  Optimization can be done inside 3ds Max starting with the number of polygons inside your scene. You must know that every polygon counts when it comes to rendering; so before you do your final renderings, you may want to check on you scene and if there is anything you can do to reduce the polygon count, do not hesitate to do it!

A few 3ds Max modifiers can help you lower the polygon count of your models. The MultiRes modifier reduces the memory overhead needed to render models by decreasing the number of vertices and polygons. The Optimize modifier lets you reduce the number of faces and vertices in an object. This simplifies the geometry and speeds up rendering while maintaining an acceptable image. The ProOptimizer modifier lets you select objects and interactively optimize them.

Rendering  Engines

Finally, I want to talk about the different rendering engines you may use to render your scene.

  • The Quicksilver hardware renderer uses graphics hardware to generate renderings. One advantage of the Quicksilver hardware renderer is its speed. The Quicksilver hardware renderer accelerates rendering by using both the CPU (Central Processing Unit) and the Graphics Processing Unit (GPU). It is somewhat like having a game-engine renderer within 3ds Max. The main role of the CPU is to translate scene data for rendering; this includes compiling shaders for the specific graphic card in use. Because of this, the first frame you render can take a while, as shaders are compiled. This needs to happen only once per shader. The more often you use the Quicksilver renderer, the faster it will become.
  • The iray renderer by mental images creates physically accurate renderings by tracing light paths. It requires little setup compared to other renderers. The principal approach of the iray renderer is time-based: You can specify the length of time to render, the number of iterations to compute, or you can simply launch the rendering for an indefinite amount of time, and stop it when you are satisfied with the appearance of the result. Early iterations of the iray renderer appear more grainy than the results from other renderers. The graininess becomes less apparent the more passes you render. The iray renderer is especially good at rendering reflections, including glossy reflections; it is also good at rendering self-illuminating objects and shapes that cannot be rendered with as much precision in other renderers.
  • The mental ray renderer from mental images is a general-purpose renderer that can generate physically correct simulations of lighting effects and it provides a complete library of premade materials which will give your materials the realism you seek.
  • The V-Ray rendering system has many advanced features such as distributed rendering, efficient shading system specifically optimized for ray-tracing, efficient geometry handling, and displacement mapping. It also supports image sampling features including three different image sampling methods, full-scene antialiasing, progressive path tracing, support for additional render elements (diffuse, reflection, GI, etc.) as we mentioned before. Also, it supports physically accurate, full global illumination solutions with different GI algorithms such as light cache as well as some camera effects including depth-of-field and accurate motion blur, and many other features you may find it useful in your workflow.


The design visualization market is huge and entertaining as well. And if you are seeking a career in this field you are going to need Autodesk 3ds Max!

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