Autodesk 3ds max tips & tricks

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Autodesk 3ds max tips & tricks

If you are a new user of 3ds max or an experienced one you know that if you want to improve your workflow you need to see inside the application a bit more. Every application can be used in a so called general way where you just use the basic functions for your purpose, but if you want to get from it the maximum you have to know something extra. With just some extra knowledge you can improve your viewport navigation, tools selection or optimize the time for test renders. There is a lot of ways how to improve your modelling or rendering skills but as by any other software you should first improve the skill needed to handle the application itself. I will focus on the default install of 3ds max which include also MentalRay and not on any third party tools, plugins or renderers.

These tips & tricks can help you to optimize and speed up your workflow and get more experience with 3ds max. Take them just like a guide and not something you need to strictly follow. Also, the workflow tips listed below are used by our tutorials and can help you to follow them.


Keep your 3ds max up to date

Every new release of 3ds max brings a lot of new improvements and bug fixes but also brings new ones. Even that it’s not so bad like by a popular OS system, still it needs to be fixed. The developer team by Autodesk is trying to gather all bug reports and suggestions form users and implement fixes for this as soon as they can. Sometimes the fixes are fixing things which you even don’t use or need but sometimes you are just waiting when they release a new service pack or update. So, a basic rule here is to keep your program up to date and try to follow the releases of the updates or service packs to be able to install them before you face any problem.


Configure your default scene settings

By default 3ds max is configured to load the scene using preconfigured default settings which includes so called „Generic units“ which is a virtual unit system used by 3ds max, Default Scanline Render for rendering and also standard maps inside the „Material Editor“. Usually users are changings this only for a certain purpose at a certain moment, but if you want to save time you can configure 3ds max to load customized settings just on start-up.

  • Unit system– Modelling and object using the „Generic units“ it’s fine, but when you want to use physical accurate lightning after you need to make it in real world units (mm, cm, inch,...). Using the menu „Customize > Units Setup“ you can change the settings to anything you want.
  • Default renderer – If you are either using MentalRay or any third party renderer you can set-up them as your default renderer which will save you some time
  • Default materials – together with changing the renderer you can also choose your default materials inside the material editor, this means that instead of „Standard“ materials you would have all slots filled with „Arch & Design” materials


Know the shortcuts

The workflow inside 3ds max can be optimized just by knowing the some important shortcuts which makes your life much easier and save a lot of time. The shortcuts can be customized and for sure you will not use all of them but some you should know and use every time you model. Here few which can help you with speeding up your workflow.

  • „ctrl + left mouse button“ – moving the scene (horizontally & vertically )
  • „ctrl + middle mouse button“ – rotating the scene
  •  Mouse wheel – zoom in/out
  • „L, P, B, F“ – toggle the viewports (Left, Perspective, Back, Front)
  • „z“ – zoom on the current selection or object
  • „alt + x“ – makes selected object see-through
  • „c“ – select camera in the current view. If more cameras are present in the scene 3ds max will roll out all of your cameras to select the desired one
  • „x“ – does your transforming gizmo disappeared? Try „x“
  • „ctrl + x“ – expert mode
  • „F10“ – rendering window


Modelling is basically a process where you use all available tools and options to recreate an object or a character using a technique with which you are familiar or is the most useful for this purpose. If we are talking about techniques you can be sure that there a lot of them which you can use for a certain object but usually is only one the „right“ one. It’s not about that you somehow create the object or character, it’s about you do it right. Every mistake, every triangle and every bump on your mesh would be visible if you will not start your modelling process with the right technique or you will close eyes on every failure you did to the model.

  • Study the references– if you are going to model something according blueprints, study also the real world object to know all the details and to predict the next step by modelling.
  • Editable poly– use always „Editable poly“ as your modelling way
  • What object to start– think about the primitive you want to start from
  • Use new tools– every time Autodesk release a new version of 3ds max they also place there some new features, learn them and use them for your purpose. One of the features you can use are the „Graphite modelling tools“
  • Keep a clean geometry– There are three possibilities how your polygon can look; triangle, quad and n-gon. Both triangles and n-gons can cause your troubles by applying smoothing modifiers or any modification which will bend the mesh. Try to keep your polys always as quads
  • Use snap – if you are in need to rotate in a certain angel or you have an symmetric model you can use the snap tools for rotating in a step you choose



One of the most important parts by rendering is the lightning. Here not only depends which lights you choose but also what configuration you set-up for the scene. If you want to push your renders to realistic you need to master this part of rendering. You need to understand also the fact that every scene will probably need a different set-up and parameters with which you can achieve the best render and this of course in halt a lot of test renders before you can be sure that this are the right one. I will focus on MentalRay and not at any third party renderer but this don’t mean that you can’t use this also for them.

  • Photometric lights vs. Standard lights – by default you can choose from two lights in 3ds max; Photometric lights and Standard lights. The Photometric lights are physically accurate and you should grab these first but remember to render something physically right you need to have the model also in real-world scale. Of course you can use also a combination of Photometric lights and Standard lights.
  • Raytraced shadows – by both lights you can choose from different set-up for the shadows the light will cast. In real world the shadows have not sharp edges and are semi-transparent. A very quick way how to achieve this with Photometric lights is to choose Raytraced shadows from the configuration of the light.
  • Exposure – rendering with MentalRay allows you to use some tools similar by taking a photo with a camera. You can change and adjust the exposure of the render and so control the highlights and shadows in a deeper way than just with the lights and render set-up.


Rendering is the final step and it’s also depending on every step which was before; modelling, materials and lightning. With a good set-up you can achieve a realistic render within a good time, but if you set-up this wrong you either will render the image for a long time but without any visible improvements or your render will look too plastic and unrealistic. By rendering is a simple rule; start low and go high. This means that before you place high values for samples and rendering, do some test renders to see if everything is as it should. Test renders will help you to save valuable time and set-up the render right.

  • Frame window – in the moment you render your first image with MentalRay you will notice that in the frame window are some combo boxes and scroll bars. Using them you can quickly change some of the render parameters and do a render again without the need to close this window. Also, you can render just a part of the scene, just an object and so on, just by choosing the parameters inside the frame window.
  • Buffer – the image buffer is very useful for comparing renders. You don’t have to past this anywhere but save into the buffer and compare two renders and get know if your changes affected the quality or not
  • Z-Depth and Ambient & Occlusion
  • WIP render – a clay or wip render isquickest way how to show your progress or your un-textured model to another users or just for checking the geometry. The system by MentalRay is very simple, you just apply a „Standard“ white material to your model and as well on the plane the model is standing, drag a „skylight“ into the scene and render with MentalRay with; samples 1-4 and 200 FG points.


Rendering issues „memory limitations“

By rendering high resolution images you can be challenged with „low memory“ issues caused directly by 3DsMax. This issue using MentalRay can be interpreted by 3DsMax as error messages, crashing or by strange elements in the final render.

  • MentalRay erros message: cannot allocate enough memory
  • Render elements: black areas in your render while others are fine
  • MentalRay crash: after the error message 3DsMax can crash or stuck, and you need to restart the system.

The solving of this issue should be simple by adding more memory to your system, but when you are running a 32-bit system you are limited by the architecture of the system which will allow you to use something about 3GB of RAM. From these 3GB RAM your system is taking a noticeable part and at the end you would be left with 2GB RAM which would be not enough no matter what you do.

  • To release more memory for a 32-bit system you can try the /3GB Start-up Switch in Windows to allow a maximum of 3GB. Of course this solution is determined by the application and also your system.
  • You can write a „script“ which would release some part of 3DsMax allocated memory from „garbage“ and so release more memory to your render. Be aware that the command below will delete also your „undo“ history.

gc() - Garbage Collection 
freescenebitmaps() - Cleans up in texture memory 
clearUndoBuffer()- Removes your Undo’s