My experience with Maya is that it's by far the most controllable of the mainstream packages, if you can dig deep enough. However, for the average user, it's extremely weak on the basic side of things. The potential's there, but you have to really know what you're doing. The main thing that I like about Lightwave is its price, and the fact that the modeler is split from the animator/renderer. That takes some getting used to, but it's nice. However, the lack of any kind of batch render outside of network rendering, or anything resembling scene states or render layers (Max and Maya relatively speaking) really hurts it.
Of the "Big 3", I find that Max has the best mix of power and useability (though this may be because I've got more experience with it than the other progs, and have been using it for longer.
) But the non-node-based material system really hurts it big-time, and I don't understand why they still use such an obsolete system, especially since it's particle system is node-based, and one of the best out there. I can get a nice plugin to make it do node-based materials, but that's not a perfect solution. That said, I much prefer the way it handles lighting compared to Maya, because I feel as if I have a lot more control, useful to me as someone who specializes in lighting. I've also found that Max's default scanline render...well...renders faster than Maya Software, with better looking results. However, I feel that Scene States are much clunkier than Maya's equivalent Render Layers, for the most part, though they also have some advantages as well.
The main thing that I'm liking about Max 2009, compared to earlier versions, is the incredible render element support for mental ray, especially the arch&design material. Yowza that's insane. And I love that, using mental ray, I can basically designate any map/map tree as a render element. That'll make rendering self-illumination maps much easier, as I can just designate different maps as different elements with their own output paths, and they'll save out seperately.
Right now, I either render out each self-illumination element as its own pass, which is time-expensive, or I render out several maps at once, and then a "matte pass" with each map as a seperate, distinct color, and use that to mask out the bits that I don't want in each pass. Bit easier on render time and disk space perhaps (though the new method will actually be worse on disk space than this...can't have everything), but it's a bit of a pain to set up. Now I can just say "warp drive, render as 'filename_warp#####.exr', windows, impulse engines, etc. etc." Definitely looking forward to playing with that in my next project!
I'll stop rambling now, if I must.
Ummm...to answer your question Cary
, I'm not sure if it is possible to access mental ray's shader library in Maya. I'll have to reinstall Maya and check it out.