Create a basic scene you always load before you start a new project. 3ds Max has a lot of setting that are scene-based. I like to have a base scene with mental ray set as default render, gamma/LUT enabled and metric unit. This can save you a lot of trouble down the road when and if you need to merge scenes together or multiple people work on the same project.
Know your shortcuts! Sometimes you accidentally press a button and 3ds Max does something weird. Here are some of the buttons you want to know to avoid headaches:
- "O" toggles Adaptive Degradation, so if your objects turn to boxes when you navigate your scene, press "O" again. Use this option if you scene is very heavy and hard to navigate.
- "X" toggles the Transform gizmo. Did your XYZ gizmo on your selection disappear? Pressing "X" will switch it back on. (Use "+" and "-" to increase or decrease the size of the gizmo).
- "Ctrl-X" toggles Expert Mode. If your command panel has disappeared and your viewport takes up most of the screen, you probably activated Expert Mode. Press "Ctrl-X" again to exit.
- "Space" locks your selection. If you can't select anything in your scene except for your current selection, and a small padlock icon below your timeline is yellow then you have locked your selection. Press space again to unlock it.
Right click on the snap button to access a whole range of options. I like to have Vertex snap as my default snap option. If you have trouble with a vertex that doesn't want to snap to another, try and see if Use Axis Constraints is on in the options tab, and turn this off (Fig.01).
Use Editable Poly when polygon modeling. Editable Mesh is leftover from earlier versions of 3ds Max and is no longer developed with new features etc. So if you do come across an editable mesh, just right click Editable Mesh in the modifier panel and choose Editable Poly, and you will now have access to a much larger range of modeling tools (Fig.02).
If you want to export a mesh as OBJ, but get a warning saying "rats nest in mesh" then you probably have an isolated vertex in there somewhere. This typically happens when you use the Symmetry modifier. Simply check you mesh again in wireframe mode with vertex sub-object selected, and find and delete the lone vertex, or click Remove Isolated Vertices as this might also fix the problem for you (Fig.03).
When adding more loops to a mesh, use the Swift Loop tool to create a loop that flows with the surface curve. Simply select the Swift Loop tool, hold down Shift key and click where you want the loop. Note: that the UV coordinates will have to be adjusted afterwards (Fig.04 - 05).
Lighting (Mental Ray)
When setting up lights always use Photometric lights. Photometric lights are physically based lights, and important to create a real-world natural look in your scene. Note: To achieve the best result it's also important that your scene is modeled to real-world scale (Fig.06).