Over the years I have observed that there are three broad types of photographers. Those who love to take photos, those who love to edit them extensively, and those who love both the taking and editing processes. Unfortunately I don’t fall into either of the latter groups. I’m not that much into spending hours editing my photos, so I am not the ideal person to review editing software, but here goes anyway.
I think a lot of my aversion to editing comes from the fact that I intensely dislike using Photoshop. I mean, I really hate it. I find visits to the dentist less annoying. Lightroom I am more than OK with but there are limitations on the kind of editing you can do with it. For instance, there is no way you can make an intricate selection in Lr, or use layers in any way. So, doing edits involving things like layer masks, which enable you to do some pretty funky stuff with multiple exposures, is usually only done in Ps.
Luminar 2018 however, is an image editing program that also allows you to edit using layers and masks, but it does it by using a much neater interface and in my opinion a more logical approach.
It wouldn’t be possible for me to do a fully comprehensive review of this software short of writing an entire thesis about it (which I definitely don’t have time to do), so what I am going to write about in this review are my impressions of the software and its use.
Working With Files
In a nutshell Luminar is kind of a hybrid raw converter and Photoshop-like editing program. You can use it to apply some pretty powerful filters to your raw files and then save them in whatever format you want to export into (eg, jpeg, png, etc).
Something I really like about it is that unlike most other raw converters that create sidecar files full of xml information and stick them in locations based on your preferences, if you are making a bunch of edits to a raw file in Luminar, when you save your edits it does so in its own proprietary file type, namely .lmnr files, which you can then open later instead of your raw file. Another really nice touch is that you can opt to save your history states with that file, so when you re-open it you will see all the different steps you took to get to your saved point. You can’t do that with Photoshop as far as I am aware. Obviously this increases the file size quite significantly but, it’s still nowhere near the size of a typical TIFF or PSD file typically created by Adobe.
Unlike Lightroom there is no digital asset management built in, so if you were using this program as a stand alone app to do your raw conversions, you would have to have a pretty good filing system for your raw files so that you know where everything is kept and what files you are working with. You wouldn’t be able to apply any key wording or do any flagging of images like you do in Lightroom, so that’s a pretty big hole in my workflow if I was to suddenly stop using Adobe products tomorrow. I wouldn’t be able to rely on Luminar for that. Yet. Read on.
Working With Layers & Masks
I will say straight off the bat that I am the worst when it comes to working with layers and masks. I find them highly confusing and I try to avoid them at all costs. I do understand the power of layers and masks, so in my assessment of this program I have tried to apply some edits to my photos using them. I can’t say that I have been very successful with this, so obviously the problem for me is one of conceptual understanding. I would need to invest much more time learning the processes involved in working with Luminar 2018 before I could offer any kind of meaningful assessment of the usefulness thereof.
What I did discover is that there are a lot of very helpful videos by a chap who goes by the name of Jim Nix on both the Luminar website and YouTube. If you’re considering buying this program as an alternative to Photoshop I would highly recommend watching some of his videos first. They will give you a much better understanding of how to edit in Luminar than I am able to at this time. Here’s one of his videos on working with Layers & Masks.
Working With Filters
This is much more my scene! I love nothing better than being able to click a button or drag a slider and see what happens to my image. And there are plenty of these to play with in Luminar 2018 so this aspect of the program has kept me very interested in Luminar.
Luminar calls every adjustment you make a “filter” and it groups these filters in categories called ESSENTIAL (develop, B&W conversion, highlights, shadows, structure, tone, etc), ISSUE FIXERS (dehaze, clarity, polariser, etc), CREATIVE (grain, soft focus, split toning, texture overlay, etc), PROFESSIONAL (advanced contrast, curves, HSL, channel mixer, etc) and UTILITY (brightness, exposure, highlights shadows, etc). This is not the complete list, there are many more that come with the default program, as well as what they call LUTs. There is also a large ecosystem of filter presets available.
You can turn on each filter panel individually and work with those sliders on your base layer, or if you have a higher tolerance level for editing than me, you can create adjustment layers and then paint in those filter adjustments selectively onto that layer using masks. There is also the ability to set the opacity of a layer and its mask. Me? I just click the filters I want to add, stack them all into the same layer and fiddle until I’m happy.
Working With Tools
Unlike Photoshop there are only 4 basic tools that come with Luminar 2018. You get Crop, Free Transform, Clone & Stamp and finally Erase.
Hopefully we all know what a crop tool does, so let me start with comment on the Free Transform tool. Basically this allows you to rotate, flip, invert, squash and stretch a layer. So if you need to fix keystoning you’d probably need to use this tool somehow, but unless I am missing something I can’t see how to do this because if you drag the corner handles it stretches everything on that side, not just the corner you’re dragging. There’s a transform tab in the Develop filter but this is equally baffling and I can’t get it to fix converging verticals. Hopefully this feature will be added in a future release.
Clone & Stamp works similarly to Ps, but you need to be careful where you select your source point to replace what you want to paint over because there’s no artificial intelligence going on here - it will grab everything from around your source and paint it over where you want it. This tool still needs some refining in Luminar.
Erase uses surrounding pixels to take out objects you don’t want in your frame. Sometimes it does a good job but other times I see obvious artifacts from where it has tried to remove things. Also needs more refining.
Working With Profiles
You are able to load profiles from both your camera, or if you have them custom profiles made from tools such as Xrite, etc. Raw files seem to default to the Luminar profile though and because there are no preferences you’d have to change this for every image you’re editing. Might become a little painful as an exercise.
I am quite happy with the way the Luminar 2018 interface looks and works. It is very simple to operate the program and you aren’t bombarded with endless panels, menus and icons that change function entirely when you hold down the ALT key like Photoshop does. It’s a minimalist, yet powerful interface. In fact, there isn’t even a preferences panel for this software in the Mac, so if you don’t like it, about the only change you can make is to the colour of the background. I don’t see this as a bad thing.
Something I am not sure I like though is that when you want to use one of the tools it changes the interface and you don’t see your layers or filters panel until you have finished working with the tool. I think that could become a bit confusing for those who like to work with layers. They may inadvertently be editing the wrong layer and only discover this after hours of work (eg, removing dust particles).
Can It Replace Lightroom & Photoshop?
No. Not yet anyway. There are specific features of my Lightroom workflow that I have honed after years of using it and for any program to supplant it, it will have to offer DAM, second screen functionality, as well as a bulk export feature with specific presets for different client types.
For example, when I am editing my real estate work I flag each completed image as ready to export by using the Pick shortcut. Once I have completed a property I select all the flagged images in that job folder, right click and export them directly to Google Drive using one of my client specific presets. From what I can tell in Luminar 2018 I would have to export each image individually, which will just slow me down something terrible.
Now it just so happens that while I was writing this review yesterday I got an email from Luminar advising me that they are releasing their Luminar Libraries product later this year. There aren’t too many details yet, but you can read about the plans here. It sounds like it will be similar to the Lightroom Libraries module, which is very promising news!
What I found most interesting about that blog post is that they are planning to offer the upgrade to Luminar 2019 for free to existing users. Usually existing users have to purchase the upgrades every year. This product is now available for only $60 which in my opinion is an absolute bargain.
If you are editing an image on its own I don’t see any really big differences between it and Lightroom on my 6 year old iMac (3.2Ghz i5 with 16GB RAM). It seems to render the filters in an acceptable speed and zooming in to 100% is just as responsive. I can’t comment too loudly on how it compares to Photoshop because (ahem) I very seldom edit in 1995 mode. 😉
As far as processing the raw files goes, I can’t really tell if there’s a difference between how Lightroom renders my Olympus raw files and what Luminar is doing to them. Looks good to me.
It’s certainly very good to see that there are inroads being made by software developers that are hopefully going to dislodge the behemoth Adobe from its seat of dominance. I don’t find the price of the Adobe Photography suite objectionable, but given my recent workflow issues after they brought out version 7.3 of Lightroom Classic, it shows that they are totally out of touch with the people who actually use their products to run photography businesses and who rely on them to not mess things up. Granted they did fix the problem but it took a few months. I only upgraded form Lr 7.2 to 7.5 a few days ago.
Luminar 2018 for me slots in to the realm of a nice to have filtering program. I like that they are expanding on this and providing the user with a lot more control over those filters, including the use of layers and masks, but as it currently stands I don’t see it being something that I will use that often in my paid photography. If I can get out and do more landscape work then yes, this program will absolutely find itself being used a lot more to refine my output.
And so I definitely recommend it for photographers who would like to get seriously creative with their work. For only $59 including updates throughout 2019 it certainly is a lot cheaper than many less impressive editing products out there.
If you are a Mac user you can purchase Luminar 2018 from the App Store or if you have a PC (or both) get the bundle deal from their website.
Unedited Olympus raw file
After some fiddling and tweaking (no layers or masking).