3D environmental rendering in 3D file format

A guide to 3D file types.

3D’s advancement over the past few decades has been a massive, shared effort. That’s why there’s no one size fits all solution to file formatting. Here’s everything you need to know about file types and how to use them.

3D file types

With more and more companies entering the 3D space, and continual advancements in technology, such as VR, AR, game design, VFX, and more, it is only natural that new file types surface to handle these different capabilities.


Here are some of the most common file types you may encounter and when you should consider using them.

3D architectural rending by ZUH Visuals in 3D file format.

Image by ZUH Visuals.


OBJ files (.obj) contain 3D geometry information. This is a common choice for exporting a mesh from most modeling software. As a relatively universal format, it can be useful when you need to work with an object in multiple applications. It’s also commonly used in CAD and 3D printing.


Objects saved in the OBJ format:


• Are vectorized, so they are fully scalable.


• Support unlimited colors.


• Supports multiple objects in one file.


• Has a wide compatibility among software.


FBX files (.fbx) are like OBJ in that it contains 3D object data; however, it also contains animation data as well. This makes this file type most popular in film, gaming, and VFX—all industries that need complex models, materials, and animation.


• FBX files store data for full animation scenes, including bones, meshes, lighting, and cameras, and geometry.


• Compatible with industry-standard game engines.


• Compatible with AR/VR workflows.


GL Transmission Format (.glTF) is a file format that serves as an open-source, royalty-free counterpart to formats like FBX. This file supports static models, animation, and moving scenes. Developers often use this format in native web applications. An updated 2.0 was released to support PBR materials. It was first developed in 2015 by the Khronos group.


• Can be embedded in Word documents and PowerPoint presentations.


• Compatible with many popular 3D applications.


• Relatively small file sizes and fast loading.


USD (Universal Scene Descriptor) is a file format developed internally by Pixar that is now open source. It contains object, material, scene, and animation data. In many ways, USD is superseding typical expectations of a file format, as it efficiently stores entire scene data.


USDZ is a proprietary format created jointly by Apple and Pixar specifically for AR. With this format, you can create 3D augmented reality content for newer Apple devices.


• Despite being relatively new, USD is gaining wide support.


• Flexible, powerful, and efficient.


• Compatible with PBR materials.

Other 3D file formats

The list of file formats across 3D industries is extensive. Here are some more common files you might encounter:


• CAD files


• BLEND files


• COLLADA files


• IGES files


• VRML/X3D files


• Substance 3D files

3D building rendering by ZUH Visuals generated with 3D file formatting

Image by ZUH Visuals.

How to pick the right format for your 3D project.

Deciding which file format you should use for your project may depend on a number of factors. First, verify compatibility above all else. If you need to transfer 3D components between software, you don’t want to waste time exporting to a file type that won’t work.


Other considerations may include the size of the exported file. This can especially be important when developing a video game or any 3D project that has specific hardware constraints. Above all, remember that file formats are created for specific reasons, so understanding your software and why each format is included will help you make knowledgeable decisions every export.

Frequently Asked Questions

3D file formats are created for specific reasons. Thus, choosing the best format depends entirely on what you need the file to achieve.

The most common file types include OBJ, FBX, STL, AMF, IGES, and more.

Adobe Photoshop can open OBJ, 3DS, U3D, and KMZ (Google Earth).