Many people have the impression that you need to pay a lot of money to get good graphics software. And while it’s true that something like Maya or 3D studio with all the trimmings is painfully expensive for an amateur or hobbyist, there are many options that are powerful and cheap, or even free. This article examines some of them.
For the purposes of this article I will treat under £50 as ‘cheap’. That’s about 60 Euros, $75 US at the time of writing. I will cover 2d and 3d software, but my main interest is in the 3d software. I’m primarily Windows, and occasionally Linux, but I’ll try and mention if Mac versions are available. For the record, my main 3d software of choice is Lightwave 3d, but you can get something very serviceable for absolutely nothing, as we will see.
Bitmap Graphics. Bitmap graphics are what you see over 95% of the time on a computer. They are images made up of many tiny squares (pixels) of colour, like a very detailed mosaic. Your digital camera takes bitmap images, and video is a sequence of bitmap images.
Vector Graphics. Vector images store shapes and colours, unlike a bitmap. So a circle shape will be stored as exactly that, and can be turned into a bitmap at any required resolution.
3D graphics. 3D Graphics software works with simulated lights and shapes to produce an image, normally using models, (a collection of polygons and colours), which can be moved through 3d space and turned to view from any angle. 3d graphics software is the cornerstone of modern film specials effects.
Morph. To change one shape or image into another. This can be done to turn a photo of one person gradually into a different person, (As seen in the 10cc video “cry”), or to turn one computer model into another, or a person into a computer model.
Gimp. 2d bitmap image editor. Free and Open Source.
Linux fans like to say Gimp is a substitute for Photoshop. It’s not even close in terms of advanced features, (no heal brush, auto levels, auto red eye removal, photoshop filter support), but it is extremely serviceable and in a few areas is better. It is much faster on cheaper low end PC’s, is extremely good at extremely large images, and I find it easier when you want to enter precise numeric values. It also supports many obscure scientific image formats.
GIMP stands for Gnu Image Manipulation Program, its available for Windows, Mac, and Linux.
Get it here: http://www.gimp.org/
Groboto, 3d software.
Groboto is an unusual 3d program, which grows abstract shapes from basic geometrical units, which you can use to paint in 3 dimensions. The software will morph between these often organic shapes, making it easy to produce strange thrashing animations.
The results can be exported as 3d objects for use in other software.
It's available for Mac and PC, for $79. http://www.groboto.com/v3/
Rendering is simple, no fancy effects, but is VERY fast, (often sub second).
What I like:
What I like less:
The most recent versions add much improved facilities to combine the primitive shapes into an exportable model, meaning it plays a LOT nicer with other software, and works rather well as an unusual modeller.
Stella is a mathematical program, which deals in the complex regular 3d shapes of polyhedra.
Prices for differing versions vary from $22 to $99 for private use. The more expensive versions include Stella 4d, which can handle 4 dimensional morphs.
The shapes can be exported in several well supported formats, producing clean meshes. In practice, this is likely to be the way you use it most. It can produce a vast range of shapes, and the colouring used on screen can be preserved.
Intriguingly it also produces plans you can print, for every shape, to make real physical models from card, and several users on their forums have made very ambitious physical models.
What I like:
What I like less:
Find out more or get it here: http://www.software3d.com/Stella.php
As you probably guessed from the name, a fractal program! £44 for the main edition, £79 for the animation edition.
You might consider this a little steep for a fractal program, but it does have some very impressive features, particularly in terms of ease of use, and a huge library of formulae, gradients, colouring algorithms, you name it.
The batch rendering system is great, letting you queue up renders, and automatically suspending and resuming long render sequences as you start and stop the program. It also does a good job of using available CPU without getting in the way of other programs, so it runs well in the background.
It has built in support for layers and transparency, enabling some extremely impressive results from a master. (not me!)
Program web site: http://www.ultrafractal.com/
Showcase images: http://www.ultrafractal.com/showcase/index.html
The animation system is easy to use, once you get the hang of the default settings
What I like:
What I like less:
Mandelbulb, 3d fractal software
Mandelbulb renders a 3d version of the Mandelbrot set. The search is still on for a full 3d equivalent to the 2d Mandelbrot set, but this is the best found so far. It’s fairly demanding on the hardware, but includes many impressive shading and colouring options.
In the hands of a master, it can produce animations which feel like you are floating through an infinitely detailed psychedelic temple.
Collect the free software, and find out more, from the Fractal Forums: http://www.fractalforums.com/mandelbulb-
Watch this animation full screen if you possibly can!!
And here’s a still of the whole thing:
Xenodream, 3d fractal software
Xenodream is a very unusual 3d fractal program. It’s difficult to describe what it does, but roughly speaking you combine shapes with fractal properties which sort of resonate with each other. The controls are fiendishly complex, and I can’t say I understand them, but it doesn’t really matter – it’s much more effective to simply start with a sample object, and change parameters until you find something interesting.
The objects are fully 3d, and you can rotate them to view from any angle. Images are built up as a series of points, generated in a semi random sequence, so you gradually see the objects fill in.
For those who prefer working with polygon based 3d software, it has absolutely superb export facilities. After a couple of minutes of pre processing, you are presented with a view of a polygon version the object and a slider. Moving the slider controls the polygon count, and you can instantly see the resulting shape. When happy with the compromise between detail and polygons, you can export the result as OBJ.
Here’s the Xenodream home page: http://www.xenodream.com/
Where you can buy a copy for $119 US, less for the older version
You can see a gallery of my Xenodream images here.
And a couple of renders are provided just below:
Handy AVI – Web cam tools
Handy AVI lets you do really clever things with a web cam. It does time lapse photography, stop motion, motion detection movies, can take control of a telescope or layer up planetary images. Sort of Swiss army knife for webcams.
I like to use it for time lapse photography of clouds, but it’s just as powerful for astronomical video, security footage, and other things.
Handy AVI: http://www.azcendant.com/
And here’s one I prepared earlier…
Blender 3D -
A full blown powerful 3D graphics program for free! It has a reputation for being difficult to learn, but in my opinion has got a LOT better in recent years, and the active and friendly forums help too. It has some surprisingly advanced features, like fluid simulations, and in the hands of someone who knows what they are doing is extremely effective.
There’s even a ‘Blender for Dummies’ book. Considering the sometimes huge cost of commercial 3d software, this is a truly impressive package.
Not only is the software open source, but the Blender Foundation have made several impressive short films, and released all the scene files for you to examine and play with. My personal favourite is “Big Buck Bunny”.
Get the software here:
Ubuntu Studio -
If a complete 3d CGI program is not enough for you, how about an entire operating system, with a full suite of media creation and editing software included? For free?
Ubuntu Studio is a version of Linux (a distro in the jargon), which is exactly that. And being Linux, its very efficient and will run extremely well on older and less powerful hardware.
It includes Blender (mentioned above), vector and pixel based 2d image software, photo organization tools and RAW processing, video editing and DVD menu software, sound software, the full works.
Few of the software tools would be considered best in class, but even so it’s a stunning collection.
Sculpting software was, until recently, expensive. It’s a variant on 3d modelling software designed to be good at handling very high polygon counts, and letting you work in a manner similar to a conventional sculptor, pushing things into shape or raising fine ridges, and painting geometry onto a surface, perhaps to add veins on to a figure, or craters onto a planet.
This approach feels a lot more natural than polygon pushing to traditionally trained artists, but often leads to high polygon counts, due to the amount of fine detail it encourages.
Sculptris is a free sculpting program, and a pretty good one at that.
Here’s a model by Taron, from the Sculptris site:
PT Gui -
There's a lot I like about PT Gui -
The conventional wisdom on panos is that it pays to be ultra careful, using a tripod with the camera offset to the optical centre, locking exposures and so on. In my experience with a bit of care and nothing very close to the camera, you can do just fine hand held. And you can do tricks, like getting the same person to appear several times, by having them in individual shots.
A very useful feature of PT Gui for the more advanced user is that it can output a Photoshop format image with the component shots in separate layers, thus making it really easy to fine tune, and control exactly what parts of which input image come out on top.
The program is 79 Euros, and there’s an advanced version for 149 euros.
Daz Studio Pro -
Daz Studio Pro: http://www.daz3d.com/i/software/daz_studio3?_m=d
Daz studio is aimed squarely at the human figure market -
The figures are unlikely to impress a skilled organic modeller -
There’s an active and helpful forum to support new users, and it’s a very good choice to learn if you want to include human or animal figures, but do not want to learn the difficult art of modelling convincing people. The content can add up in price if you buy a lot of it, but it is possibly the fastest way to start producing decent CGI.
Previously, only the core version of Daz Studio was free, but now the fully featured “Pro” version is free as well.
Most poser format content is very reasonably priced compared with what you will find on the sites like Turbo Squid, and while there is a lot of mediocre or worse content out there, the best stuff is very good indeed.
And I know full time professional artists who use Poser figures to experiment with positioning and pose, before doing the high quality stuff manually, so don't sniff at it!
Daz have a 'platinum club' which gets heavy discounts -
While people are the main focus, there’s also a good selection of environments, vehicles, and other objects to buy. Prices start at about $2, and it comes with a good mix of completely free content for you to use.
Renderosity have much stranger stuff, and the best of it is very good indeed -
Here are my galleries.
And here are a couple of my images with it: