For most of what you’ve mentioned that you want to achieve, I think that you’ll find a fantastic home in Carrara. I didn’t know that the trial didn’t come with the native content. When you purchase Carrara, it comes with a separate installer for the native content, so that you can opt whether to install that or not. I really like having it in there - but I also find that I don’t use it very much at all.
I do know that the Carrara 8.5 beta doesn’t have wizard functionality yet - unless I’ve missed something.
Soft body physics is better in the 8.5 beta, especially for single-frame renders - as it doesn’t yet animate dynamic cloth - style soft body to a very useful solution - or so I come to understand, as I haven’t been doing that.
I bought Carrara Pro as a hobbyist solution towards making a series of animated movies mostly because of the modeling capabilities it has - but the rest of its wealth of easy-to-implement features lends nicely into my vision.
I have to admit that I have NOT been disappointed!
I find that Carrara’s render engine is exactly what I needed. It has so many possibilities that it may take a little ‘getting used to’ before you find your favorite settings - because it can go from super-fast to performing such a realistic render that your machine may not be able to finish it. I have found a meager default that I like very much - which is really quite basic compared to what it can do, but is better than what I was doing in Poser, and much, much faster - with much superior ray tracing.
Lighting is refreshingly a complete array of various techniques from placing various “lights” that perform different tasks, to adding light (anything glows) to objects, to HDRI, to using a sun light in combination to the realistic sky and atmosphere settings, etc., and I’ve undoubtedly left some out… the choices and combinations are vast! But the lighting set up has a lot to do with your rendering capabilities. Again, I’ve been very happy to find ways that work very well for what I’m doing - since I need to render out animated sequences (and LOTS of them), I need to find efficient ways to keep my render times and quality of images to a happy medium - or I’d never get anything done. Which brings us to another of my favorite aspects about Carrara:
Shaders (textures) are all edited in the Texture Room, which also plays a big hand in how your renders behave. With a little practice along with advice from some of the great tutorials found in the freebies forum, you’ll quickly learn how to adjust materials to look exactly how you want them to look. There are also a plethora of shader products for Carrara in the Daz store - each of which can teach you a lot about how to produce different effects - and the shaders can also be animated! [WARNING - Shaders sold for other apps, like Daz Studio or Poser, do NOT work for Carrara - only purchase Shader products advertised to work specifically for Carrara!!!]
Daz/Poser figure compatibility is second to none. If, like me, you find that you’d rather spend your time doing other things than modeling every object yourself, and instead prefer to purchase models from Daz, you’ll amaze at how well Carrara works with this stuff. It’s been years since I’ve touched Poser, but I remember how surprised I was when I realized how easy it is to load and use Poser-style figures, props and such. If dynamic cloth is your thing, and you have a copy of Poser, you can use Poser’s dynamic cloth and save the scene, then open the scene in Carrara. Remember to delete all Poser lights and cameras before continuing because that part is not compatible, but the cloth simulation comes into Carrara just fine.
There are so many more features about Carrara that I’d like to tell you about - that I feel you would find superior over the next product - but instead, I’ll just say that I have been more than pleased with the whole experience - but everybody’s got their own dream. Undoubtedly, 3DS Max and Maya are going to blow you away with features. Those two are highly polished and very professional applications that allow you to perform Hollywood quality effects - which may also require the further purchase of various plugins…
Lightwave is priced right in between Carrara and the least expensive version of Max.
What I have to say about Carrara vs Max/Maya is all about ease-of-use. I don’t have any experience with Lightwave, though. But when I tried Maya after already having some practice in Max, I quickly began to realize that I was going to have to purchase some training or enroll in CG college somewhere, which I’ve looked into… oooops! For a very affordable offering, I was looking at well over $95,000 just for tuition. I felt quite comfortable in 3ds max, but not so much compared to Carrara. Carrara is set up to help you learn on your own, simply by exploring the tools on the interface. Max and Maya aren’t that simple - where you’d really need to know what function you’d need to perform and how to get that going… very little hand-holding.
That’s not to say that I wouldn’t buy Max or Maya (or Lightwave) if I had the means, but it would definitely put my whole endeavor on hold for who knows how long.
With that realization in mind, I set about “Creating a Look” for my scene style - so that my animations will all be coherent.
Howie Farkes and Mark Moir (mmoir) product documentation along with the scenes that they come with have taught me a bunch about lighting vs render settings to produce quality vs time comparisons, which launched me well on my way to creating my very own default ‘Artificial Global Illumination’ in conjunction with render settings. Then I just save various scenes: Blank (just includes render settings and resolution) and pre-lit empty scenes was a great start. Now I have a whole catalog of “Beginning Point” scene files that save me gobs of time.
Sorry for the rant, but it is not the easiest question to answer without going into some length.
I have to go play my drums now, or I’d probably elaborate - we’ll touch base later, though