Let’s face it – there is no shortage of photo editors on the market. Whether you’re a Mac user (like me) or on Windows, or even on Linux, there has never been more choice for digital photographers looking to process their digital negatives. You can process them on your laptop, on your desktop, your tablet or your smartphone. In many cases you can even sync your images via the cloud giving photographers unprecedented freedom to get their shots off the SD-Card and into their catalogs with little in the way of fuss.
And while Adobe are the market leaders in photo editing, with their flagship Photoshop and Lightroom behemoths – they aren’t exactly the speediest of innovators. Changes arrive only sporadically and when they do, they’re usually simply incremental tweaks to existing tools. Lightroom remains my ‘daily driver’ for my photographs, but that does not mean I am unwilling to look at alternatives. So when Skylum released Luminar 3 a few months ago, I decided to put it through its paces.
The main editing screen showing the filters and a selection of Looks.
The most substantial new feature introduced in Luminar 3 is photo management. The library functionality introduces some of the DAW (digital asset management) tools that we’ve enjoyed in Lightroom for some time. Its core functionality is based squarely on the existing operating system’s file management, as opposed to the SQL-lite database management employed by Adobe in Lightroom. This approach has advantages and disadvantages.
The main advantage of Skylum’s approach to asset management is that it’s simple and foolproof. Changes that you make to files or folders in Luminar become changes in the actual files and folders of the operating system. If you add photos or change a name then there’s no need to refresh or sync – it just updates to show the changes. The main disadvantage of this approach is that the system is not as finessed as Lightroom. For instance, you cannot stack files in Luminar, you cannot make Smart Folders and there is no search functionality at all – whether file or metadata based. I use all of those features heavily in Lightroom and, given that I always shoot bracketed (three or five exposure) shots, stacks have become absolutely essential to my photo workflow. You can create Catalogs and Albums within those Catalogs, but it is all managed manually. So as much as I love all of the other features of Luminar, I could not switch to it completely for asset management. Hopefully this sort of functionality will be rolled out in future versions and it’s certainly the case that what’s already there is useful and practical and solid.
Folders and files are shown on the right.
There’s a logical workflow to the design of Luminar that I really like and which is best described as macro changes and micro changes. Macro changes are substantial and whole-image tools such as cropping, transforming, cloning/healing and erasing. These are all housed in the Tools drop-down on the main menu bar and can be accessed in Library or Edit modes. When using these modes you’ll encounter another of the big differences between Luminar and Lightroom – layers. When you use the clone/stamp tools or the erase brush, all the changes are placed on a new layer which you can easily hide or delete from the toolbar on the right of the screen.
Also on the main toolbar are controls for view size, a before/after slider, interface functions (toolbar visibility toggles etc) and buttons to switch between Library, Edit and Info modes. I use a 27″ 2019 iMac and therefore have a lot of screen real estate to play with, but I still appreciate the fact that Skylum have tried to keep the interface as slimline as possible.
The crop tool includes a full selection of built-in crop ratios making it super easy to select a 4:5 ratio for something like Instagram. They’ve also included two named functions (Facebook Cover and Facebook Feed) which is a nice touch and you can of course add your own custom ratios. There’s also basic image manipulation tools incorporated into the crop tool that enable you to flip, transpose or rotate your image. There’s also a Free Transform tool but its purpose escapes me since it doesn’t appear to do anything the Crop tool doesn’t already offer.
The Clone and Stamp tool is similar to Lightroom’s Spot Removal tool, but not nearly as stupid. You can set brush size, opacity and softness (feathering) and it seems to do a pretty good job of merging a sampled area with the image. There appears to be some AI at work because some clever blending takes place at the brush’s margins. The Erase brush is equally simple and lets you paint out areas of the photo you want lose. I found it to be a fairly useless tool for two big reasons – firstly for some reason the results were consistently worse than the clone/stamp tool and secondly it’s not a ‘live’ tool – you only get to see the results of any paint once you’ve clicked the ‘Done’ button which leads to lots of undo and retry.
All Things to All Photographers
The core of Luminar is, of course, its editing functionality and I can tell you right off the bat that there’s lots to love here. Skylum have taken a long hard look at Lightroom, Capture One and ON1 and attempted (and largely succeeded) to distil the editing process down to its essentials. That’s not to say you can’t dive deep into the minutiae of post-processing, but you can definitely streamline the whole procedure.
If you just want to quickly improve your image without getting into the nuts and bolts of the editing process, then you have a couple of options in Luminar. Firstly you can simply choose one of the preset ‘Looks’ and secondly you stick with the ‘Quick and Awesome’ filter panel and let the software’s AI go to work on your photograph.
Luminar’s ‘Looks’ are of course the equivalent of Lightroom’s presets and work in a similar way with one fundamental (and useful difference) – you can dial each filter back from a single slider. I’ve never understood why Adobe didn’t include this functionality in Lightroom because it’s incredibly useful. Sometimes a filter is doing what you want, but is over-powering the image – it’s great to be able to walk it back to a more subtle arrangement. Out of the box there are about 50 looks built into Luminar but you can download additional packs if you want and you can also save your custom looks.
If one-click looks aren’t doing it for you then the Quick and Awesome workspace is a good next step. Selected from the main Filters toolbar, the Quick and Awesome workspace has just four sliders – Accent AI Filter, AI Sky Enhancer, Saturation/Vibrance and Clarity. These AI filters use machine-learning to enhance your images, adjusting all the basic elements (colour, highlights, shadows etc) with a single click. The intelligent element of these filters is such that if the AI thinks it can’t improve your image by means of tweaking the various sliders, then it will leave it alone.
Before and after slider after the application of the AI Landscape Enhancer look.
Getting Your Hands Dirty
If you’re the sort of photographer who enjoys the post-processing part of photography as much as the actual photo-taking part, then there is a huge amount of tweaking you can do with Luminar. If you’re happy to get your hands dirty and dive down into the nest of filters in the catalog then you tweak your images to the smallest degree. By way of example, the Professional workspace comes equipped with a Develop module (exposure, highlights, white/black etc), denoise, saturation/vibrance, AI filter, AI sky, dehaze, remove colour cast, advanced contrast, curves, polarising filter, HSL, split-toning, structure, LUT mapping, vignette and dodge and burn. Those 16 filters are just the start however, there are a total of 50 to choose from.
Most of the filters work in the usual way, but the addition of layers and filter-level masks means you can be far more precise than is possible in Lightroom. Click on the masks tool on each filter’s toolbar and you can apply that particular effect by brush, radial mask, gradient or luminosity – and of course globally if you’d prefer. Furthermore you can apply blending modes (darken, colour burn, soft light etc) to those masked individual filters.
The filters are helpfully broken down into different sections as Essential, Issue Fixers, Creative, Professional and Utility. Thus you can work on fixing any problems you have with your photograph and then start enhancing it using the creative tools.
In practical use the tools are powerful, refined and effective. Obviously some of the filters are going to be of more use than others and you can add all your ‘go to’ effects as favourites. I primarily take landscape photographs and found the foliage enhancer to be of particular use – no masking required – just adjust the strength as you like and the foliage becomes lusher.
The Right Tool for the Job
There’s little doubt that Luminar 3 is a powerful and versatile photo editor, but it needs to mature and develop before it could become my main photog app. The digital asset management is the software’s main flaw – it’s far too limited to be of real use for any half serious photographer due to the almost total lack of file filtering and search. It’s all well and good being able to enhance your image so effectively but you need to be able to quickly find images at a later stage. Skylum also sell Luminar Flex which functions as a plugin for Lightroom Classic and thus enables you to have the best of both worlds – the asset management of the Adobe software and the excellent photo editing tools of Luminar.
The software’s strength lies in its editing facilities which are more than a match for Adobe Lightroom’s. It seems that Skylum are focusing on the AI toolset in their software and have announced that version 4 of Luminar will include an AI powered sky filter that will enable you to instantly swap out any sky for any other. But don’t get the idea that these tools are in some way gimmicky – they’re actually highly effective and can seriously cut down the processing time for images.
Looking at Skylum’s roadmap, it’s evident that they recognise their flagship application’s key flaws. In forthcoming versions of Luminar 3 they will add IPTC editing (no professional photographer would use software that doesn’t support this) and a search tool for the photo’s metadata. It’s definitely a step in the right direction – I can only hope they look at adding stacks and some sort of map functionality too. In the mean time, Luminar 3 is a powerful and useful application that offers highly granular control over a comprehensive range of effects and filters through a familiar but refined slider-based interface. If you’d like to step outside the Adobe subscription model or find Lightroom’s toolset to be too restrictive, then it’s an excellent choice.