Three insider secrets to a lighting portfolio that lands your dream job.


Three Insider Secrets to a stand-out portfolio


3D Lighting Software: 23 Tools You Need in 2024

by | Last updated Jan 31, 2024

Lighting makes everything in films look good, including animated features. Using a set of 3D lighting software, 3D lighting has the power to highlight specific characters or objects, support the movie’s narrative, and elicit particular emotions among viewers. Without question, 3D lighting is one of the most vital elements of a visual representation. 

If you’re an aspiring lighting artist, you might ask yourself, what kinds of software programs should you use? Which 3D lighting software should you master? That’s what this guide is all about. 

What is 3D lighting?

Lighting is a part of a 3D animation pipeline and is applied using a collection of techniques and tools to illuminate a computer-generated 3D environment. 3D lighting is used to draw attention to specific parts of a scene, set the tone, convey the mood of a shot, and depict the time, day, even the climate of a scene using a combination of 3D lighting software programs.

Now it’s one thing to light a single shot and another to create a consistent, accurate lighting scheme in long projects, like an entire movie or TV show. That’s why top animation studios are always looking for talented and experienced lighting artists. 

As a lighting artist, you need to be well versed with different tools and techniques to light 3D environments and set up a scene in a specific way. This is especially important in animated movies. High-end 3D lighting software programs are used to create convincing scenes while different light effects are applied to make the lighting look as close to real-life as possible. 

Light Effects in 3D animation

In real life, we know that the world is illuminated by a burning star in the sky – the sun. But the light we see every day is more than just bright white light. It’s actually a complex combination of ambient light and additional light sources. The light from the sun bounces all over the environment, and without direct light, objects will be plunged into darkness. Light effects are applied in a computer-generated scene to achieve realistic lighting. 

A light artist would set up different light sources to illuminate a 3D scene or sequence in a way that supports the story. The 3D lighting software programs offer a vast selection of tools and settings, including light effects, light sources, and so forth that you can apply to enhance the film’s narrative. Lighting techniques are used to generate highly detailed, realistic images. 

Standard render engines are used to create convincing scenes. These applications work by adding a lighting value to all the pixels in an image. On the other hand, high-end render engines work by producing high-quality ambient lighting. Two of the most used light effects in 3D animation are Global Illumination (GI) and Skydome.

Global Illumination: Global illumination is a light effect that’s as close to real-world lighting as it gets. This is done by applying global illumination algorithms, which calculate the light that travels throughout the shot. The algorithms calculate both direct and indirect illumination, in which light rays from the same source bounces onto different surfaces in the scene. 

Skydome: This lighting effect illuminates from a dome above a shot – just like how the sun lights everything up in the world from the sky. It’s also used to illuminate HDR images for image-based lighting. Although the Skydome light effect is often used in outdoor scenes, it can also illuminate indoor scenes. 

Global Illumination and Skydome can be used in combination with different light sources. For aspiring light artists, you’ll need to practice and experiment with various tools and techniques to achieve close to real-world lighting. 

Lighting Software Applications 

Part of your job as a light artist is to use different lighting software applications to implement other light effects. A 3D lighting software allows artists to add characters and objects into a graphically accurate and appropriate setting, turning the scene into a fully realized image. 

The software brings characters and objects to life, adding depth and realism by applying different effects like texturing and lighting. Fully 3D rendered images are often interactive, scalable, and navigable. Some of the most essential 3D lighting software programs used in the animation and VFX industry are: 

  • Maya
  • Blender
  • Autodesk Arnold
  • 3DS Max
  • KeyShot
  • Cinema 4D
  • V-Ray
  • ZBrush
  • RenderMan
  • Katana
  • Unreal
  • Octane
  • RedShift
  • Houdini
  • Adobe After Effects
  • Modo
  • AGI 32
  • CalcuLuX
  • DIALux
  • Radiance
  • Microlux
  • LightCalc
  • Visual 3D

These tools let graphic artists render and manipulate 3D environments. The programs offer wind effects, texturing, lighting, shading, shadow mapping, etc., to achieve the most true-to-life results. Different rendering and lighting programs have different levels of complexity. That’s why it’s essential to establish a solid foundation to ensure a successful career in animation, and this includes formal training in various programs. 

What 3D lighting software do you need? 

Knowing the fundamentals of lighting is the first step in a long and rewarding career in the animation industry. Learning which 3D lighting software programs that top studios use are the next step. Here are some of the most widely used 3D lighting software programs in the animation industry: 


Official Website

Maya is, no doubt, one of the most widely used 3D lighting software programs in the animation industry. It supports various aspects of 3D animation, including lighting, modeling, simulation, and rendering. With Maya, you can bring believable characters to life, shape 3D objects and scenes, create realistic effects and highly detailed simulations. It’s a complex software program to learn on your own so we highly suggest taking a formal training to master Maya, like an online course


Official Website

Blender is an open-source 3D animation program that can support the entire 3D pipeline – modeling, rigging, animation, simulation, rendering, compositing, and motion tracking. This versatile program is often used for VFX, gaming, and video editing. Because it is a cross-platform software, Blender is compatible with different operating systems such as Windows, Mac, and Linux and a port for FreeBSD. 

Autodesk Arnold

Official website

Autodesk Arnold is a renderer that features an advanced Monte Carlo raytracer. It renders on both CPU and GPU, allowing users to choose the best-suited renderer for specific workflow and needs. It offers real-time look development, interactive lighting, on-demand texture loading, and speed for shorter iteration cycles and reviews. It is available as a standalone renderer for Linux, Windows, and Mac OS X and a supported plug-in for Maya, 3ds Max, Houdini, Cinema 4D, and Katana. Arnold, just like Maya, is a complex program to learn on your own and we have the perfect online course that’ll help you learn everything you need to know about this 3D lighting software.

3DS Max

Official website 

3DS Max is used for creating digital images, character modeling, and animations. The software supports various animation workflow stages, including pre-visualization, layout, cameras, modeling, texturing, rigging, animation, VFX, lighting, and rendering. 3DS Max features a set of tool sets for rendering realistic images and objects while boasting unmatched speed and simplicity.


Official website

KeyShot is a 3D rendering software that lets you light and animate scenes with its set of scientifically accurate materials and real-world lighting effects quickly and easily. It comes with advanced features that let you generate incredibly realistic characters, objects, and scenes in real-time. 

Cinema 4D

Official website

Cinema 4D is an animation and rendering software program that offers a powerful toolset for animating, rendering, procedural and polygonal/subd modeling, lighting, and texturing. This award-winning animation tool lets you rig simple cartoon characters and use proprietary technologies to turn digital artworks into digital assets and speed up the generation of animations. 


Official website

V-Ray is a plugin-party 3D computer graphics software used for computer graphics and visualizations in the entertainment, film, video game production, industrial design, product design, and architecture industries. It is compatible with most digital software programs, including Autodesk’s 3ds Max, Maya, Nuke, Katana, and The Foundry’s Modo. It is also available for Houdini, Unreal, Cinema 4D, and Blender.


Official website 

ZBrush is an advanced 3D sculpting program that lets you create high-resolution 3D models for movies, video games, and special effects. It utilizes dynamic levels of resolution to enable sculptors to make global or local changes to their models. ZBrush is used for 3D/2.5D modeling, texturing, and painting using the brand’s proprietary “pixol” technology. The technology stores lighting, color, material, orientation, and depth information for points making up all objects on the screen. 


Official website

RenderMan is Pixar Animation Studios’ proprietary 3D rendering software program used to render all Pixar production, including feature films, shorts, content for theme parks, and marketing. It is used for geometry, shading, and lighting, among other things, and is “battle-tested by real production requirements at Pixar and studios worldwide.” This program has a commercial and non-commercial version and features a comprehensive toolkit to meet the ever-increasing demands of 3D animation and visual effects. 


Official website 

The Foundry’s Katana is a look dev and lighting management tool that simplifies the management of geometry, materials, textures, and image output (AOVs) to create and modify 3D scene data. It features a node-based workflow that lets users define the filters to use and inspect the results. Katana enables a system to process large files efficiently while letting artists work with multiple shots, frames, assets, and other variations from within one Katana project file simultaneously. Want to learn Katana at your own pace? Check out our online workshop here


Official website

Unreal is a render engine that harnesses the power of NVIDIA’s RTX graphics and Microsoft’s DirectX Raytracing (DXR) framework to create realistic, nuanced, and authentic visual effects and lighting in real-time. Its key features are physically accurate reflections, soft shadows, ambient occlusion, deferred shading, global illumination, lit translucency, GPU particle simulation utilizing vector fields, and post-processing. To learn Unreal and discover its amazing features, sign up for our online course here


Official website

Octane is the first commercially available, unbiased raytracer that’s fully GPU-based. With this render engine, you can cut the render time significantly while updating scenes in real-time. Because it is one of the world’s fastest and first physically correct renderers, Octane can calculate the final rendered image to achieve the highest level of design, quality, and realism. It’s used for volumetric rendering, lighting environments, creating realistic materials, and simulating real-world texture. Octane is one of the most dynamic render engines in the business and if you want to master this software, sign up for our online workshop here


Official website 

Redshift is the world’s first fully GPU-accelerated biased renderer. This award-winning render engine is production-ready, calculating elements of a scene – light, shadow, materials, etc. – reflections all at once instead of one after the other. The result? It works super fast, able to cut rendering time significantly without compromising the quality and realism of the shot. It’s incredibly responsive, and it has a real-time update viewer so you can modify your work as you go and achieve the highest level of photorealism.


Official website

Developed by Toronto-based VFX firm, SideFX, Houdini is a 3D animation software application that lets you create different visual effects, including complex reflections, lighting effects, particle systems, and animations. The program is based on the PRISMS suite of procedural generation software tools and was built from the ground up to empower artists. Houdini allows users to create multiple iterations and rapidly share workflows with fellow artists to achieve the highest level of design and realism. It is used for modeling, rigging, animation, VFX, look development, lighting, and rendering in film, TV, advertising, and video games.

Adobe After Effects

Official website

Adobe’s After Effects is a motion graphics, compositing, and visual effects software used for films, gaming, and television production. It comes with a host of special effects for creating Hollywood-level title sequences. With this software program, you can manipulate imagery in every way possible to achieve stunning visual effects. It also works as a non-linear editor, audio editor, and media transcoder. 


Official website 

Developed by Luxology, LLC, Modo is a polygon and subdivision surface modeling, sculpting, 3D painting, animation, and rendering application. It features a radically different workflow than most mainstream 3D animation applications such as Maya and 3DS Max. One of Modo’s key features is its multi-threaded renderer, which “scales nearly linearly with the addition of processors or processor cores.”

AGI 32

Official website

AGI 32 is a simulation application that artists use to design lighting projects. With AGI 32, you can calculate the amount of light being delivered on user-set parameters. It works by conducting numerical point-by-point calculations of incident direct or reflected light on any real surface or plane. AGI 32 is also used to quantify or calculate the distribution of artificial light in any environment.  


Official website

Developed by Philips Lighting Design and Application Center, Calculus is a PC-based lighting and design software designed for lighting engineers to conduct simple artificial lighting design calculations. It comprises three lighting design programs: Indoor, Area, and Road. It also comes with a luminaire database management program.


Official website 

Lumion is a 3D rendering software that lets you breathe life into a design and speed up the design development process with live, real-time rendering. It’s primarily used for architectural rendering, but it comes with a host of lighting tools and cinematic effects such as shadows, hyperlight, skylight, etc., that you can use to add a touch of realism to your 3D project. Lumion also comes with a massive library of materials and objects to choose from. 


Official website

Radiance offers a suite of tools for conducting lighting simulations, including a render engine. It utilizes ray tracing for performing lighting calculations. Radiance also uses an octree data structure to speed up the lighting calculations and implements global illumination using the Monte Carlo method to sample light falling on a point.


Official website

Microlux is a design and lighting software used for simulating lighting and visualization for 2D and 3D projects. The program has a great set of tools that you can use to explore different lighting in any environment. It’s a free software program, so it’s an excellent tool for anyone who’s aspiring to be a lighting artist. 


Official website

LightCalc is a design and lighting software that lets users take control of their lighting plans. The software will conduct the calculations to achieve appropriate lighting in different environments. The lighting analysis takes into account the height, width, and length of the space being lit. It’s user-friendly, so it’s a great program to hone your lighting skills. 

Visual 3D

Official website

Visual 3D is a software program designed to let users apply lighting in different scenarios. Visual 3D enables users to light and view photometric files using simple geometries with its set of graphic design tools. The software program could also conduct kinematics and kinetics calculations for biomechanical analysis of 3D motion capture data.

Over to you!

There you have it! Now you know which 3D lighting software you need to know as a 3D lighting artist.

Next, let us know in the comments below: 

Are you already familiar with any of these tools? Which one? 

Jasmine Katatikarn Headshot

About Jasmine Katatikarn

Jasmine Katatikarn is the founder of Academy of Animated Art. She has 20+ years of experience in Feature Animation and VFX. Jasmine’s lighting credits include movies like Ice Age, Ferdinand, Peanuts, and Rio. Read more here.

Jasmine Katatikarn Headshot

About Jasmine Katatikarn

Jasmine Katatikarn is the founder of Academy of Animated Art. She has 20+ years of experience in Feature Animation and VFX. Jasmine’s lighting credits include movies like Ice Age, Ferdinand, Peanuts, and Rio. Read more here.

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