I haven’t used blender myself, but I like to be on top of what’s available… give this one a shot if you want some good results, it’s also free and has some really good features.
Maya’s default renderer can be tamed with the proper settings, it’s actually not too bad, but I personally prefer Mental Ray because of the speed and the obvious difference in options and quality.
You could also try this one… http://www.3dvirtualight.com/mlt/. It’s a free plugin for Maya that works similar to Maxwell, from the looks of it. It’s very slow at the moment, but it’s still under development, by 1 guy, so we can’t expect too much yet. I haven’t tried it yet, but it’s on my list of things to do.
Another option is Pov-Ray, which is another free program, kinda tricky to use because it requires some programming knowledge, but you can use Moray to get an interface for it. This is actually how I started 3D, no interface, just text editing and a render button, lol. It’s a long ways since High School, but Maya is definitely my choice for everything now.
I did a quick test render of my scene with Maxwell and noticed some differences in the scene, mainly with the dropoff on my lights, so I think I’ll switch them from Cubic to Quadratic and adjust them from there. I’ll make a version 5 as my final one, especially now that I’ve noticed a few things with real candles [had some on today] and my fake ones, hehe. I’ll include a breakdown on my next version as well.
EDIT* Anyone interested in the new for lighting/rendering, head over to http://fryrender.com/index.html It’s a new renderer that claims to be physically accurate, like Maxwell, gallery looks real nice