3dsMAX vs. Lightwave

When I graduated from East Tennessee State University in 2004, I was well versed in 3dsMAX. Since then, I’ve picked up Lightwave, and it’s been enlightening to see the differences in the two packages.


I used 3dsMAX for about 4 years after I graduated, building visualizations of tradeshow exhibits and business environments. The shop I worked in used vRay for rendering, and I found it to be a very powerful rendering engine, although it is a bit complicated. Later, I started just using Mental Ray and found it to be almost as good at calculating realistic GI, but far easier and more intuitive to set up than vRay, plus, it’s included with 3dsMAX. The best thing I liked about 3dsMAX, and perhaps the thing I miss the most is the modifier stack.

For those who don’t know, in 3dsMAX, you can start with a primitive object, and apply various modifiers like warps, twists, meshsmooths, etc., and they’re added as modifiers, instead of affecting your original geometry directly. You are free to go back at any time, and change parameters down in the stack, to affect the final object. For example, let’s say you wanted to build crown molding for a room environment, but there was a good chance your client wanted to change the molding profile 17 times before they found one they liked. By using the modifier stack, you could set this up in such a ways so you could modify the path and profile of the molding any time.

The Good

  • Modifier Stack
  • Object Instances
  • UV Mapping Tools
  • Mental Ray Included
  • Single Application for Modeling and Layout
  • Large User Base
  • Frequently Updated

The Bad

  • Stability Issues with complex scenes
  • Expensive $$$$


Making the switch from 3dsMAX to Lightwave (9.6) was a challenge for sure. The overall workflow is quite a bit different in LW due it’s having two applications, one for modeling, and one for layout and rendering. Once I was accustomed to the workflow, and found the LW equivalents of the modeling tools I was used to, I felt like I could do most things with the same speed and quality. The modeling actually felt a little faster, and maybe a little bit more intuitive (once you learn some keyboard shortcuts). The price is probably what makes it so interesting. For around a thousand bucks, you get a solid 3d package, with great rendering engine, and v10 has the new VPR feature which helps drastically with texturing and lighting.

The Good

  • Relatively Inexpensive
  • Large following in TV Industry
  • Super-fast modeling tools
  • Included Renderer produces great GI results
  • v10 has a cool real-time preview feature (VPR)

The Bad

  • Text interface looks dated
  • Infrequent updates
  • Small user base
  • Two separate Apps for Modeling and Layout
  • UV Mapping is tricky
  • No real modifier stack
  • Integration with After Effects is difficult at best

My Verdict

If money were no consideration, I’d definitely go with 3dsMAX, hands down. However, if I had to spend my own money for a 3d package, I’d most likely go with LW. At one-third the cost of MAX, it is much more suited to a small shop / hobbyist. I think this may be the reason that LW is used for TV so much. For the same price, you can either have 1 or 2 people on MAX, or have a small team of 3 to 6 on LW. If you’re wanting to learn one or the other for the purposes of finding a job as a 3d artist, I’d recommend 3dsMAX over LW, because it’s has a much larger share of the market than LW.

Hope this has been useful!

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