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Luminar 4 – Skipping the Learning Curve

The world of digital photography is moving forwards at an incredible pace, thanks to advances with in-camera technology and also with post-processing software. It used to be the case that Adobe’s Photoshop was the only game in town but these days you’re spoilt for choice, whether you want to go the paid-for route (Affinity Photo, DxO PhotoLab, Pixelmator, On1 Photo Raw, Aftershot Pro or Capture One) or free (Darktable, GiMP, Pixlr or RawTherapee).

Skylum’s Luminar 3, which I reviewed a few months ago, provided an excellent alternative to software like Adobe’s Lightroom Classic, as long as you aren’t too reliant on the digital file management side of things. And now Skylum are preparing for the launch of Luminar 4, which promises to take photo-editing in a whole new direction. I tested the release candidate version of the software, so some of the features that I refer to here may change before the full release.

It has advanced AI tools, but it also has more standard photographic tweaks, such as HSL modifications.

Open the Pod Bay Doors, Hal

The first thing I need to make crystal clear about Luminar 4 is that it is wholly different to Luminar 3. Its USP is its collection of tools powered by machine learning. Whereas Luminar 3 featured a comprehensive variety of the sort of tools digital photographers have come to know and love, Luminar 4 replaces many of them with simplified A.I. sliders of one kind or another.

It feels very much like this software is attempting to straddle the gap between the experienced post-processing photographer and the photographic novice who wants to achieve similar results. Whereas Luminar 3 enabled you to drill right down into the minutiae of photo editing, Luminar 4 says, “Fuck no, you don’t need all that geeky nonsense, just move this single slider to the right.” I’m being slightly pedantic of course, but I was struck by how different this generation of Skylum’s flagship application was to the one that preceded it.

Of course we’ve seen some of these tools already in Skylum’s software – particularly the A.I. Image Enhancer. But there are some extraordinary new tools in Luminar 4 that will, I have no doubt, cause a ferocious debate in the photographic community about what a photograph actually is. In particular I referring to the A.I. Sky Replacement tool, which is an amazingly effective tool for swapping out one sky for another.

Sky replaced, sunrays added, structure boosted, localised saturation increased.

Out With the Old

Luminar 4 sports a very similar interface to version 3 and includes the same file system based library tool, which eschews clever cataloguing for a stripped down but speedy photo navigation facility. Basically you just navigate the folders you’ve manually created for your images and the smartest the software gets on that front is offering an ‘On this day’ folder that shows you all the shots in your library that you took on this day, back through the years.

But the file system is not what Luminar 4 is about and anyone hoping to get Lightroom-grade DAM will be disappointed. This software is all about the A.I. and that is clearly Skylum’s main focus. The tiered and comprehensive range of tools in Luminar 3 have been either tweaked, stripped down, merged or completely removed and all of the tools collected together in four main tab categories: Essentials, Creative, Portrait and Pro. It is worth pointing out that much of the granularity of Luminar 3 is still in Luminar 4 but it is often hidden behind unassuming looked ‘Advanced Settings’ buttons.

In the Essentials category you get tools such as AI Enhance, AI Structure, Colour, B&W Conversion, Denoise, Landscape Enhancer and Vignette. In the Creative tab you get all the controversial stuff – Sky Replacement, Sunrays, Fog and Colour styles. In the Portrait tab are those tools specific to retouching photographs of humans and in Pro are tools such as Contrast and Split Toning.

Lucy in the Skylum

So let’s get straight to the most controversial tool in Luminar 4 and the one that’s been receiving a lot of attention from the big photo influencers on YouTube – the AI Sky Replacement. Once you try this for yourself you realise why everyone’s making a fuss about it – it’s nothing short of miraculous.

The process of swapping out your sky is a simple as choosing one you like from a drop-down menu list. The software then perfectly masks your scene, no matter how complex it is, and drops in a new sky. If you don’t like the one you’ve chosen then select another.

Sometimes the sky will look slightly off, though this is rarely a masking issue. It sometimes looks wrong because the horizon is slightly out of alignment or the sun in the replacement sky doesn’t match the position of your original. In those cases you can either use the Horizon Blending and Position Sliders or simply edit the mask using either the brush, radial, gradient or luminosity options.

I’m not sure what magic Skylum are using to perform the masking of these scenes so quickly, but it’s mightily impressive. Even the tiny little gaps between the small branches of trees get perfectly masked out so you can see the new sky behind them. Furthermore there is no fringing or noise introduced in this process – zoom in and you’ll see no tell-tale blue or green borders on the edges.

Machine Learning

Many of the tools in Luminar 4 hide a huge amount of complexity behind a simple slider control. For instance the A.I. Accent filter incorporates over a dozen controls in one. So from this one slider you can intelligently tweak elements such as shadows, highlights, contrast, tone, saturation, exposure and details.

The Accent filter is paired with the A.I. Sky Enhancer which (using machine learning) intelligently tweaks the look of the sky. And when I say tweak I mean, work out where the sky begins and ends (not a simple process as anyone who’s done this manually knows), then look for any objects in that sky-plane (such as bridges or trees), then use semantic segregation to separate that sky into different (hidden) layers to better tweak each element, then apply brightness, contrast, saturation, vividness alongside, detail recovery and texture improvements to each. By training the software using hundreds of thousands of photographs of skies Luminar 4 can accurately modify your images in a way mere humans would struggle with.

I hardly ever take photographs of humans, but if you do then you will undoubtedly enjoy the A.I. Skin and Portrait Enhancer tools which automagically remove zits, dark circles and red eye, smooths the skin, tweaks the detail on eyelashes and enhances the lighting. And again, it does all this within one slider.

The image navigator.

‘Traditional’ Editing

It’s worth pointing out that pretty much every tool in Luminar 4 can be finessed using masks – brush, radial, gradient or luminosity masks. I suspect that most of the people who will be attracted to this software won’t ever go near them but I think it’s cool that Skylum included them so that photographers can take things a step further if they want.

Many of the tools in the digital photographer’s toolbox are still evident here and can be applied to images if the funky machine learning tools aren’t quite getting your photograph over the line. In the Pro tab for instance, there is an advanced contrast tool which enables you to tweak the shadows, midtones and highlights separately.

And if you want to darken or highlight a specific area of your photograph you can use the Dodge and Burn tool by painting on your image in the usual way. The Photo Filter enables you to either warm up or cool down your image with control over the specific hue you use in the process and if you want you can maintain luminosity levels across the photograph.

Luminar 4 also includes classic tools such as vignette, denoise, grain and split toning. At no point when I was testing this software did I think, “Oh, I miss *some particular tool* from Lightroom.” In fact, given that Luminar has layers, there’s a lot here I wish was in Lightroom.

The Merits of A.I. Retouching

So the big question is – who will buy this software? The way I see it the hardcore landscape photographer will probably shy away from it because they will be keen to protect the (relative) purity of their imagery. Swapping out entire skies is, I suspect, one step too far for someone who will quite happily recover details from skies in Lightroom using the Highlights and Shadows sliders. And since (once you take out the A.I. sliders from the equation) there’s nothing you can’t accomplish in one of the other editing suites, the purists will probably stay away. That said I also believe that some serious landscape photographers will use Luminar 4 but never reference it, particularly since you can use your own skies in the Sky Replacement tool. If it looks like it was meant to be there and if it’s your own sky photo that nobody else will be using the temptation will be strong!

But hardcore landscape photographers are very much a dying breed these days anyway, having been usurped for the most part by Insta-photographers. Instagram was built from the ground-up with dramatic filter functions and nobody on the platform seems to give too much of a shit how outrageously you modify your photograph – all that seems to matter is how it looks in that 1×1 frame on your feed. There has been some push-back against influencers switching out skies in their photos, particularly when they do it clumsily, but I suspect people’s reservations will pass once everyone starts doing it. Musicians used to say they’d never used Autotune too …

So influencers, travel bloggers and the kind of folks that rely on making as big an impact as possible with their imagery will love Luminar 4. I also suspect that real estate photographers will be rubbing their hands with glee, because Luminar 4 seems like a dream toolset for those purposes. They will love the Sky Replacement tool and also the A.I. Enhance sliders which will enable them to bring the most details out of images they would otherwise have to use HDR for.

Personally I will continue to use Luminar 4 on a selective basis. I don’t intend to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes when it comes to my landscape photographs, but if I can arrive at the same end result with two minutes of tweaking in Luminar as opposed to half an hour of noodling in Lightroom, I’m obviously going to choose the former option.

I also do some commercial photography work for local businesses and don’t usually get to choose the day (and therefore the conditions) that I’m shooting in. So if I have to photograph a winery on a dull and overcast day, you can bet your bottom dollar that I’ll be using Luminar 4 to swap out that sky and jolly up the foreground, because nobody cares about artistic integrity when it comes to commercial imagery.

Luminar 4 is going to cause huge waves in the world of photography and its influence will be felt far and wide. With Adobe’s continued push into machine learning (as evidenced by the most recent release of Photoshop), it’s only a matter of time before they jump completely on the A.I. train for fear of becoming irrelevant.


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