Originally Posted by uncholowapo
Best bet for free would be Blender. As far as the noob part is concerned, all rendering aspects will differ. A common knowledge of material selection, lighting, and camera use can make a good start for any rendering you do. Then it all comes down to learning how to implement that in the program of your choice.
This man speaks the truth. Rendering is the most difficult part of a 3d model. For a static scene, laying out a mesh is pretty simple. What makes it look good or real are textures and lighting. Camera work does play a part in it but not to the extent of textures and lighting.
Look at textures. Say you were making a brick wall. It's one thing to just make a mesh and throw a repeating texture on it. People will get the idea but it'll look like something out of wolfenstein 3d. It's a whole other bag of oranges to take that texture, drop the saturation and blast the contrast to use as a bump map.
What's the difference? Well let's take a look. Here is a very quick and dirty render in blender3d. Two planes with a brick texture, a simple lamp and camera.
The plane to the right has a bump map enabled. I just took the brick texture over to gimp, desaturated it and bumped the contrast way up. On that second texture, I imported that image, took off the color influence and set it to effect the geometry.
You can see the plane to the right has the bricks pop out due to the bump map. They will now cast their own small but more realistic shadows with an overhead light.