3D file formats


There are many different file formats in use concerning 3D. They can be looked up at Wotsit. I'll summarize their specifications here.
The summary is admittedly biased with a side glance to OpenGL and GLScene. There are some formats that only hold
shapes. Depending on the application they may differ in one or another aspect. A milling machine is happy with shapes,
no colors needed. Some file hold only shapes and surface information. Their viewer may or may not use light. There are
files that hold a complete scene including a camera with a certain setting. It all depends on what is required.

feature matrix

format Shapes Surfaces Textures Lights Transformations Camera Animation special
3D2 y y   y        
3DMF y y y y y y    
3DS y y y y y y   morphing, raytracing
3DX y     y   y    
GeoTIFF y              
Imagine y y y y        
Infini-D y y y y y y y  
Inventor y y y y   y    
ISFF y              
Lightwave_3D y y            
MC4D y y y y y y    
MGF y y y y y     physical light
NFF y     y   y    
OBJ y y y          
OpenFlight y y y y   y y  
POL y y            
POV y y y y y y y shadows, dust, halo
RPI y              
SDML y y       y y triggers
SHP y              
SLC y              
STL y              
VRML y y y y y y y triggers

The content is browsed from a few files and may contain errors. Reporting of an error is encouraged : send a mail

3D2 - stereo CAD 3D 2.0

40 named objects, 3 lights + ambient. Colorpalette. positions are in fixedpoint format as integer. Objects from vertices.

3DMF - metaformat

Hierarchical description of a scene : named objects, textures, surfaces, lights, camera, position, rotation, fog, nurbs, matrix - & quaternion transforms

3DS - 3D studio

Binary. Hierarchical description of a scene : named objects, textures, surfaces, lights, camera, position, rotation, distances, fog, raytracing, morphing.


Appears game oriented. 3 lights, 3 distance grades allow 3 different representations.


A geographic format, basically 2D with height optionally. Focuses on system transformations and projections


Hierarchical description of a scene: textures, lights, fog, surfaces, tracks.


Hierarchical description of scene or animation :textures, surfaces, objects, terrains, lights, fog, text, camera, path, sequencer, ...


Hierarchical scene description. Triangle lists, quad lists, and primitives build a shape. The complexity can be controlled. The environment allows ambient light, spotlight, fog. Material, camera, picking, translation, rotation, texture.

ISFF - Intergraph Standard File Format

Hierarchical description of objects only.

Lightwave 3D

Objects stored as mesh. The surface has a detailed list of attributes, such as color, shade, glossiness, reflection mode, refractive index, transparency, texture

MC4D - Cinema 4D

named objects, lights, camera, textures, positions, rotations.

MGF - materials and geometry format

textformat. Describes bodies from primitives. Transformations, chromaticity, colorspectrum, materials with transmittance, reflectance, complex fraction index, no lights though.

NFF - neutral file format

Simple scene description. Background, lights, viewpoint, frustrum, cylinder, cone, sphere, polygon

NMGF - noise model grid format

Specialized to hold acoustic noise data together with geographic data.

OBJ - Wavefront object files

grouped vertices allow any form to be described. Simple rendering choices : colors, shadows, reflections, textures, no lights though.


Scene description, Level of detail, sound, bounding boxes, lights, textures

POL - polygonal models

Vertices define polygons. Optional color information.


Scene description with bodies, lights and shadows, textures, pigments, reflection, refraction, attenuation, halos, fog, dust, rainbows, animation.

RPI - enhanced STL

instead of unordered triangles, this format uses facets, edges, faces and primitives such as cube, cylinder, cone, sphere and torus to describe a shape. The file is more compact than STL.

SDML - spatial data modelling language

vertices and polygons define shapes. Colors, viewpoints, animation, triggers to URL's. expecilly suited for terrain viewing.

SHP - shape file

Binary. build shapes from points, arcs, polygons and multipoints, fans or strips. The shapes have bounding boxes. It appears the shapefile is a very versatile set of files :more info (pdf)

SLC - layered contour

Defines (x,y) contours on layers (z) in a text format.

STL - stereo lithography

Binary or text. Triangles with or without normal. No neighbour or color information. Triangles can be grouped as objects.

VRML - virtual reality modelling language

Hierarchical description of a scene. Bodies, materials, camera, transformations, lights. Newer versions have fog, animation, multimedia, sensors (triggers), grouped objects.


last updated: 5.march.01

Copyright (99,2001) Ing.Büro R.Tschaggelar