You don’t need expensive high-end 3D-software in order to create three-dimensional objects or scenes. There are tons of free 3D-modeling-tools which are working quite well. Most of them are supported by great communities and so there are good tutorials and documentions for these complex applications. Here is a small list of the best 3D-applications which are available in the web.
Blender is the ne plus ultra 3D-application which has everything you need in order to create professional 3D-renderings. At first sight the software looks confusing because the UI (user interface) differs from other 3D-applications. But if you have adapted to the interface, you’ll see that Blender has one the most innovative user interfaces out there because you can configure the window layout with as many screen setups as you prefer.
The software acts as a complete 3D-environment, including features like modeling, animation, rendering, physics, compositing, UV-mapping, rigging and a game-engine. The current version also supports hair/fur, clothing simulation, glossy reflections, approximate AO, render baking, armature drawing and soft shadows. These features are just awesome and impressive, so Blender is more than an open-source 3D-application – it’s a professional 2D/3D creation-suite for still images, complex motion-design and game development.
You can use your preferred modeling-technique whether it’s subdivision surface-modeling or NURBS-modeling – Blender supports very fast Catmull-Clark subdivision surfaces with sharpness editing and even full multiresolution sculpting capabilities with 2D bitmap/3D procedural brushes. There are lots of modeling-operations like extrude/bevel/inset/smooth/subdivide/taper/noise and so on. There’s a powerful modifier-stack where some special modifiers can be added/removed as you wish. So you can apply a subdivision surface-modifier to your model while modeling on a low-poly model with only a few vertices!
Animations can be controlled through curves/keys – there are great tools like a schematic scene diagram, a generic node editing system and non-linear video sequence editing. There are even basic features like a file browser, an images browser, a text editor and an audio window. Blender also supports scripting with Python – you can write your own plugins/modifications in order to do special operations!
Finally, Blender supports the import and export of popular 2D/3D file-formats like TGA, JPG, PNG, PSD, AVI, MOV, 3DS, OBJ, AC3D, MD2, X3D and many more.
So this package has everything you need to start your 3D-modeling-career! Blender has great communities like BlenderArtists and BlenderNation - there are also lots of tutorial-sites like BlenderMasters, BlenderUnderground and Blender Newbies. Just check out the Community-section on the official Blender-website.
If you’re looking for a powerful subdivision modeling-tool you should take a look at Wings 3D. This small 3D-application is optimized for modeling with subdivision surfaces. So it has lots of special operations for modifying vertices, edges and faces. You can extrude/tesselate/smooth/inset/intrude/bevel faces and apply deformations (like crumple, taper or twist) to your vertices. There are just tons of operations and modifications you can apply to your 3D-model. Of course you can also render your models with the internal renderer or a renderer supported by Wings 3D (like POV-Ray, Toxic or YafRay ). It is also possible to assign materials, vertex colors, UV coordinates and textures to your 3D-models so the application has all the basic features you need in order to get a good 3D-model. Wings 3D doesn’t support animations because it’s a pure modeling-tool (if you want a complete 3D-suite, choose Blender).
The whole user interface of Wings 3D is just awesome and very intuitive – the 3D-view can be rotated by clicking the middle mousebutton and when being in rotation-mode you can pan/zoom by pressing modifier-keys so navigation in 3D-space is quite a joy. UI-colors can be customized and there’s also the possibility of creating multiple views so that you can view your 3D-model from different sides. The views can be saved and switched so you can define presets for your 3D-modeling-session. A great advantage of Wings 3D is the feature of creating custom keyboard-shortcuts – every command which is accessible from the menu can be assigned to a keyboard shortcut (or a key-combination of your choice). Wings 3D also has some useful tool-windows like the palette, the outliner and the geometry graph: select objects, assign colors to objects, toggle visibility and many more options are available.
Wings 3D can import/export popular formats like 3DS, OBJ, NDO, LWO and EPS/AI. So this lightweight 3D-application is a very good choice in order to create complex 3D-models.
K-3D is another innovative 3D-modeling-suite which supports basic modeling-features like subdivision modeling, NURBS-modeling, patches and curves. The software is built up using nodes (visualization pipeline) in order to control settings and properties of an object or an operation (procedural modeling). So every operation you perform is added into a node-list which allows you to jump back (navigate) in the operations and change the values. So you can design a whole 3D-model and when you’re finished with it, you’re able to change and refine the settings you’ve applied (e.g. the depth of extrusions, amount of iterations and so on). In addition to the node list there’s an undo tree which logs every action (even pan/dolly of the 3D-view) so you can also jump back in the undo tree to make actions undone. That’s why the application may be a bit harder to learn but this type of modeling is just great if you know how to use it.
The software has a very nice GUI and it works like other common 3D-applications. You can select the standard properties of a 3D-object and modify them by using operations like move/scale/rotate/bevel and so on. K-3D also supports animation features with its procedural system – any object property can be connected to any other compatible property. So you can animate any value and the number of animation channels is unlimited. You are even able to animate modeling operations so K-3D gives you lots of possibilities to animate your 3D-objects.
Another great feature of K-3D are the interactive tutorials: the application comes with some readymade introduction tutorials which demonstrate the basics of the program. The mouse pointer is moved automatically so you can watch and see how the things work. The application allows you to create your own tutorials easily by using the included tutorial system.
K-3D supports primary file formats like OBJ, GTS, JPG, PNG, TIF and BMP. The application also has a full RenderMan support for renderers like Aqsis, Pixie, BMRT, PRman, 3Delight and Render Dot C. But you’re also able to use the YafRay renderer which is also a good choice. You can also create your own scripts by using Python or the K3DScript engine in order to do special operations.
So, this program has a lot of nice features and provides everything a solid 3D-modeling-software should have.
As I've tested many more *free* 3D-applications here's a list of other tools which are available for download.
Art Of Illusion— http://www.artofillusion.org
Google SketchUp— http://sketchup.google.com
Moonlight 3D— http://www.moonlight3d.eu
Now 3D— http://www.now3d.it/Eng
If you want to learn the common high-end-software you can download trial versions or special versions like personal learning editions which allow the unlimited use of the software for non-commercial uses. Most of the software companies are providing free learning editions of their state-of-the-art 3D-applications so here’s a list of those editions.
Houdini Apprentice— http://www.sidefx.com
Maya Personal Learning Edition— http://www.autodesk.com
Softimage XSI Mod Tool— http://www.softimage.com
Vue Personal Learning Edition— http://www.e-onsoftware.com