Before seriously working on the materials and textures for the models, I found that it would be wise to establish my lighting so that the materials can be viewed as they will appear in the scene. After getting some less than satisfying test renders using the Blender Internal Renderer (BI), I began looking at other render engines to see if I could get better results.
The first renderer that I explored was Yafaray. I was not able to render my complete scene due to some unknown error. I could bring over pieces to a fresh blender file and test out some lighting conditions. The out-of-the-box renders looked much better than I was getting from BI and was pretty fast. I thought the shadows looked exceptionally good and the textures seemed to have more fidelity. I was encouraged by this until I discovered that Yafaray does not yet support Normal Maps — only Bump Maps. Since Normal mapping is an important improvement to my model, Yafaray is disqualified for now.
I had played with Kerkythea months ago and decided to give it a try with the test scene. Unfortunately, it appears that textures do not import with the model and must be relinked in the Kerkythea interface. This is too much trouble at the moment.
I downloaded Luxrender to see how an unbiased render would look. It worked but after about 30 minutes of rendering, the scene still looked completely noisy. This is totally unsuitable for my application.
There is a new version of Vray that works with an exporter for Blender. This ‘VRay for Maya Standalone’ costs about $300 but might be worth the price if it delivered good results. Unfortunately, I could not find a download for the demo version.
So all of this research led me back to BI to see if I could improve the render results. After playing with the settings for a Sun Lamp, a Hemi Lamp and Ambient Occlusion, I think I have some results that are as good as what I was seeing with Yafaray (for my scene). As a bonus, I found that the render in 2.50 looks a little better still and completes in about half the time.
My conclusion is that, for now, BI is still the way to go.