As Adobe continues to grow its customer base with its easily accessible subscription plans, other companies are looking to capitalize with their own software solutions. Luminar has been around for a while, but their new 2018 version introduces some amazing features. Regardless of how you look at it, at $69 for a perpetual license, it’s a steal. Nevertheless, how does it really compare to industry standards such as Lightroom or Photoshop?
Macphun (soon to be Skylum) first introduced Luminar just over a year ago after having previously only concentrated on standalone products for specific uses such as Aurora HDR, this year’s version of which just won Apple’s App of the Year. But pushing out their first all-in-one editor with Luminar wasn’t the only major shift: Macphun’s name change to Skylum, which will take place early next year, is indicative of the fact that their software is no longer Mac-only. Luminar 2018 is now available on both Windows and MacOS platforms completely subscription free at $69. It’s hard to imagine what would make someone not switch from Lightroom or Photoshop at those prices. But can Luminar really be a replacement?
Luminar has a significantly different layout compared to Lightroom. Most notably, Luminar has support for layers. In its current form, at least, it’s also a single image editor. You can save edits as a preset to use on other images, but each image is opened and edited in its own, separate editing window. This makes it more comparable to Photoshop.
On the other hand, there isn’t a single destructive edit available in Luminar, and all of the various types of edits (“Filters”) feature extremely user-intuitive sliders that create a very Lightroom-esque experience… if it’s set up properly. Personally, I prefer to think of Luminar as a sort of “Lightroom with layers support.”
Upon first opening Luminar, Mac users especially will immediately be familiar with the app design. It feels like an Apple-designed application in its simplicity. Something I don’t particularly prefer is the presets panel that is open by default. But this is easy to hide (and if you have your own presets built into it down the road, I could see this being something one might want to start with on a regular basis). Additionally, there are no filters in the sidebar by default. Essentially, imagine Lightroom’s Develop module without any of the sliders — just blank. So Luminar naturally takes a few minutes of setup to get just right for your own use.
Clicking on “Add Filter” brings up an additional Filters Catalog sidebar with around 50 options from Develop (essentially akin to Lightroom’s Basic editing section with exposure, contrast, highlight/shadow/white/black, and clarity adjustments) to lens correction or special effects filters. My own gripe with this section is that some of the names for these filters are relatively arbitrary. It takes a moment, for example, to try out Brilliance/Warmth, Golden Hour, Image Radiance, Orton Effect, Soft Glow, and more to understand what each really does relative to the other. Even once you try them all, it’s not always clear which creative filter would be the best for a particular situation. But I imagine users would find their favorites and stick to that.
Thankfully, you don’t have to worry too much about the setup of your workspace if you don’t want to. Lightroom switchers might want to try the workspace drop-downs “Professional” or “Essentials” for a good starting point with the filters they would most use. After this, you can still add other individual filters that suit your editing workflow.
Overall, the editing features in all of these programs really do the same thing. A lot of people will scoff at that statement. And of course, each company has better algorithms for certain things and worse ones for others. But to try and distill these differences quantitatively — that’s just not going to happen here. And for the most part, you really do get the same features, which begs the question: why not just stick with Luminar for a one-time $69 purchase? Well, of course, there are bigger differences. And we’ll get into those. But there are certainly a few amazing features with which Luminar really hits it out of the park.
Sun Rays is a new filter to Luminar 2018 and is easily the most impressive standalone upgrade. We’ve all seen those YouTube tutorials of creating sun rays through trees in the park by brushing a warm, increased exposure setting in ray-like patterns in Photoshop. You could arguably emulate a similar effect in Lightroom with an adjustment brush. However, Luminar 2018’s Sun Rays is pure magic. First, you can use the X- and Y-axis sliders to position a burst of rays in any location within the image. But completely inexplicably, Sun Rays automatically masks itself out of the foreground where the tree's branches would obviously block the sunlight behind it. You have control over how intense, warm, and numerous the rays themselves are. And you can also change the size of the light source, which is also impressive. Sun Rays will only make the absolute, brightest areas between the leaves brighter or larger as you play with the size settings. The leaves are unaffected; you’re not adding a giant orange sun in front of the trees that you then have to manually mask out.
Seriously, this feature alone is worth a download of the trial at the very least to play around with it. Moving the sun with the axis adjustments feels so real because of the automatic masking that it feels like you’re a god, just moving the sun wherever you want it with its rays truthfully adjusting around the foliage in your image. Absolutely amazing.
Having layers in Luminar is also great. This isn’t new to this year’s version, but it’s worth mentioning that there’s no real way to merge two images on top of one another in an application like Lightroom. Having the ability to do sky replacements without leaving to something like Photoshop is a nice feature. The same goes for Free Transform, which Lightroom should at least let you do in a basic way, but doesn’t.
The sheer number of filters is great as well. Although it is a bit annoying to me to have so many similar filters, it’s not really an appropriate complaint that there are too many features, which is the reason for this. Each filter, obviously, has a slightly different algorithm behind it that effects elements in the image differently. At the end of the day, having access to these different ways to tweak your images is what’s going to give you the greatest flexibility. “Did Clarity not quite give you what you’d hoped in this image? Perhaps tweaking the sliders in the Details Enhancer will get you what you’re after for that particularly tough spot, today.” That’s the kind of situation where Luminar is great; They throw all these options at you so you’ll have access to them when you do need them.
The Accent AI filter with its single “Boost” slider is really just an automatic enhancement filter that, in theory, is a one-slider-edits-all function. Of course, this simply didn’t work well for me on a number of occasions, and especially with film images where it doesn’t seem particularly well optimized. In fact, Accent AI seems to be somewhat of a magical HDR adjustment. I have seen great examples of it in action, however, which is why it deserves a spot here. Sometimes, for a simple landscape shot, throwing a bit of the Accent AI boost into the shot is all you need before you’re ready for a quick export and post to Instagram. If it saves me time at least once, I’m happy.
Ease of use is something that professionals all too easily dismiss. I believe this dismissal comes from the hasty assumption that something that’s too easy to use or that looks too simplistic can’t possibly be as powerful as its more complicated counterpart. However, that’s simply not the case with Luminar. Its ease of use makes it approachable for everyone, but its overall feature set is powerful enough for any professional user. So while there might be other reasons this doesn’t work for your workflow, it’s a silly error in your own psychology to be put off by Luminar’s easy user interface. And for those that are new to the editing game, this is something that really makes it easy for me to recommend to anyone that’s starting from square one and is choosing their first editing application.
It's hard to quantitatively measure the power or effectiveness of each filter. But with noise reduction, it's slightly easier. Still, setting each to the same number is far from necessarily an apples to apples comparison. But in this case, the noise reduction power was fairly similar. Both applications do allow for a good control over how strongly your reduction is applied.
A quick word on performance, since performance isn’t exactly a benefit, but it’s not something that’s bad, either. For this, we really have to compare more to Photoshop than Lightroom, since Luminar is still really opening each image individually and isn’t (yet — more on this later) managing an entire catalog in the background. But it’s worth noting that Luminar worked seemingly as quickly as Photoshop in most instances. Sliders and the changes they make occur instantly. It might, however, take a bit longer to load the image initially, and the amount of RAM used per image in Luminar is “up there” compared to Photoshop. So while it might behave similarly, Luminar was using about 2 GB of RAM while it had a 200 MB TIF file open while Photoshop barely broke 200 MB extra once it opened that image. Of course, that increased for both programs as edits were applied. But that’s a massive difference in resources. While you might be able to open several dozen massive images in Photoshop, I could never recommend more than a handful of large TIFs in something like Luminar.
I noticed next to zero bugs in Luminar 2018. The only strange thing would be the occasional hiccup, especially when undoing a change such as a Clone and Stamp adjustment. In this case, every time I would undo any of my changes, the brush would quickly “activate” each previous adjustment all in a second or so and then would jump back to my cursor where I had left it, finally undoing the change as requested. This all happened very quickly, but it wasn’t an instant undo and was a bit of a strange behavior.
Unfortunately, there are also some waiting periods while the image process when you go into certain tools such as Clone and Stamp, etc. It just takes several more seconds for some processing to take place before Luminar will let you start to use that tool. Not a huge deal, but not the most fun.
I’m not too happy with Lightroom’s spot removal feature. It works really well, honestly. But it bothers me that Adobe can’t include the powerful features in the Content-Aware Healing Brush that is still only available in Photoshop. That said, I do like its function better than that of the Clone and Stamp function in Luminar. First, there is no magical content-aware-type healing brush in Luminar, either. Second, the content pasting preview that shows what it will look like within the circular outline of the brush is something I (and many editors) have come to rely on. I feel blind when I can’t see that well, and the inside of Luminar’s clone stamping tool has a sort of low-opacity overlay on it in addition to an orange-colored feather-indicating circle. Both of these factors disrupt the view of what is being cloned in behind the brush, making it more difficult to use. It does work well, but it’s just not as nice or smooth in practice because of this lack of real-time preview capability.
A new High Key filter is again something that I’ve seen excellent examples of, but in the images I was trying to use it within, it seemed a bit too overzealous and would create a bit too much of a high-clarity look to the point of being grungy. Used sparingly, it could be nice for landscapes, but I just couldn’t get it to be as amazing as it looked in the example photos for portrait use.
Being limited to opening one image at once and not exactly having something akin to Lightroom’s timeline is the main drawback for me, personally. I’ve gotten incredibly used to this format, which allows me to batch edit and “single edit” side-by-side from the same import or shoot. This is important since I usually have a few panoramic images or subsets of images that in one way or another need to be merged or processed together, while all of the rest of the images need to be culled and treated separately on their own. Lightroom makes this easy, but Luminar doesn’t — yet.
Luminar 2018 doesn’t currently have any kind of cataloging or asset management system, but it has been announced and will be a free upgrade coming to users early in 2018. This is another reason why it’s fit to compare Luminar to Lightroom. Unfortunately, though, we have next to zero information about this new system and how it will work. Will it be simply like Adobe Bridge, which is honestly on its way out for all that didn’t start with Bridge early on, before Lightroom was ever a thing? Or will it be as or even more powerful than Lightroom’s catalog and collections features? There’s really no point in speculating, but if Luminar gets this right — well, that’s what it needs to become a true Lightroom replacement. And then it absolutely could be just that.
The thing is, the beauty of Luminar is that it doesn’t have to be a complete replacement. As-is, the Sun Rays feature is honestly enough for me, personally, to use Luminar’s plug-in feature. From either Photoshop or Lightroom, I can easily export an image for editing in Luminar, where I can use specific filters that suit my needs to quickly make changes that the other two just can’t cover in the same way. Why bother painting in all my sun rays when I can use Luminar’s seriously awesome automatic filter for that (honestly, girls and boys, just try it out already)? Why bother opening Photoshop when it’s honestly a three-click and quick brush process to do a sky replacement in Luminar?
I can tell you honestly that I won’t switch for my uses until and/or unless this asset management really works. And even then it’s a big “if,” since it’s already a hassle to think of switching my entire workflow and my existing system in general. I also don’t think professional retouchers will make the switch. But for 99 percent of the population, Luminar is a great alternative and an even better supplement to your current workflow. And as a supplement — well, I’m already using Luminar that way plenty. It’s not like it’s expensive.