Verdict: 4 stars ★★★★
For value for money, features, power and the sheer innovation in its editing tools, Luminar 3 is brilliant. However, the new Libraries feature has some frustrating quirks and doesn’t feel quite finished yet.
+ Integrated organisation
+ Great filter effects and presets
+ Support for layers and masks
+ Value for money
– Library features less advanced than rivals
– No ‘live’ folder updates in Libraries
– RAW processing relatively basic
What is it?
Luminar started out as a Mac-only photo editor and effects program but now comes in both Mac and Windows versions and has added many new tools and effects along the way, including AI-powered Accent AI and Sky Enhancer AI filters, and now Luminar 3 brings a long-awaited Libraries feature. Before, Luminar was simply a photo editor and you needed to use other tools to organise and browse your images. Now it’s an all-in-one tool that can both organise and edit your pictures.
Who is it for?
Powerful as it is, Luminar 3 has a novice/intermediate ‘feel’ about it, and it’s unlikely to appeal to Lightroom, Photoshop or Capture one users, except perhaps as an external effects tool. However, it’s an interesting and innovative alternative to programs like Photoshop Elements, Corel PaintShop Pro and perhaps Alien Skin Exposure X4 and ON1 Photo RAW 2019. It’s cheap, it’s powerful and it’s packed with ideas for doing something different with your photos. Its big selling points are its easy preset effects, all-in-one capabilities and low subscription-free price.
Luminar 3 Libraries
With the addition of Libraries in Luminar 3, the interface is split into three panels: Library, Edit and Info. Let’s start with this all-new Library panel.
Luminar relies on an import process to add folders on your hard disk to your catalog. Once images are in your Luminar catalog, you must use Luminar for any further image reorganisation or renaming because if you do it outside the program the photos in your Library will become ‘disconnected’. It’s a shame Skylum didn’t use the same approach as Alien Skin Exposure X4 and ON1 Photo RAW, which combine regular ‘live’ folder browsing with search tools.
That’s the other thing missing from this version – search tools. Luminar 3 does not support keywords or IPTC metadata (this is coming in a future release) so for now the only way to narrow down your images is to use ratings, flags and colour labels.
You can create Albums where you can gather together related images without changing their folder location. A single image can be in as many different albums as you like. Curiously, the ability to ‘nest’ albums which was available in the Luminar pre-release version seems to have been removed now.
Your photos are displayed in an attractive and modern gapless ‘tiled’ display, and Luminar can scroll through them pretty fast. However, there’s no option for displaying filenames so you have to be able to recognise your images visually. That could be annoying if you’re in the habit of shooting JPEG and RAW images at the same time because you can’t tell them apart in the browser – you have to select one and open the Info panel or double-click it to view a full size version.
The Library panel displays the folders you’ve imported in the panel on the right side of the screen so that you can select them individually. Under a Shortcuts heading, you can view images organised by date, you can browse photos recently added and also photos that have been recently edited.
Previously, when you edited an image in Luminar you could save your changes non-destructively only by saving them in Luminar’s proprietary file format. With the addition of Libraries, all your adjustments are now applied non-destructively and ‘live’, with no need to save new images.
It’s a shame you can’t create ‘virtual copies’ like you can in other programs, then. You can only try out a different ‘look’ for a photo by abandoning the one you tried before or via complicated workarounds using layers.
One solution would be simply to export a processed ‘look’ as a new image file, but even this seems fiddlier than it needs to be, because there’s no option to export to the current folder and you have to navigate manually to that folder in the Export dialog. Worse, Luminar will not automatically register the addition of that new image in its library – the solution is to re-import the folder it’s in, but that’s hardly ideal.
This is the first implementation of Luminar’s new Libraries feature, and even though it feels unfinished right now, Skylum has published a features roadmap which includes handling of RAW+JPEG pairs, virtual copies, IPTC metadata and smart search tools, all currently scheduled for release in the period January-December 2019. It sounds like some fixes are coming, then, but with no exact dates.
Luminar’s editing tools
The Edit panel in Luminar 3 is essentially the ‘old’ Luminar. Here, you can choose from a range of preset image effects using a browser strip along the bottom of the window, or create your own by mixing and matching the program’s wide range of effects and adjustment filters.
The good news is that you don’t have to import images via the Libraries panel to get to these tools, since there’s a Quick Edit mode for opening images directly – though you still have to Export the image as a new file when you’re done.
Skylum is especially proud of its twin AI (artificial intelligence) enhancement filters. The Accent AI filter does a good job of automatically enhancing images with complex adjustments to colour and tone based on each subject’s unique properties, while the Sky Enhancer AI Filter gives skies a depth, drama and intensity that might take a significant amount of work to recreate manually using regular adjustment tools.
Between them, these Filters offer pretty well all the adjustments you’re likely to need for regular image enhancement and a great selection of effects too, such as Radiance, Drama and Clarity effects. What’s especially clever is that you can create individual ‘workspaces’ for different kinds of subject matter so that you only see those tools you use for that kind of work and you don’t have to wade through the whole lot. Luminar 3 comes with preset workspaces for Black & White, Landscape, Portrait photography and more.
There’s more. Underlying these Filters is a powerful system of layers and masks which provides not just adjustment layers for adding filter effects, but for adding regular image layers to create montages and composites. Luminar 3’s layers might not offer all the power of Photoshop, but they go a long way towards it – which makes the Luminar 3 purchase price seem all the more impressive.
The key feature in Luminar 3 is that all these adjustments remain fully non-destructive and reversible. You can go back days or weeks later and change a curves adjustment or add some clarity or even swap an image layer. In Luminar 2018 and earlier, you’d need to save an image in the bespoke Luminar format to be able to go back and make changes like this, but now they’re stored automatically in the Luminar library as you work, with no need to create a new file.
Luminar 3 also supports plug-ins, but they work inconsistently at the moment. You can’t launch a plug-in until you double-click an image to see a full size version, even though the menu option is available in the thumbnail browser, and while Aurora HDR and DxO FilmPack worked fine, trying to launch any Nik Collection plug-ins just produced a blank red window.
With the Libraries in Luminar 3, it feels Skylum has taken a risk with a feature that’s not quite ready. There are lots of updates planned, but until they arrive there’s a danger Luminar users might wander off towards some other photo-editing and organising solution that doesn’t have these quirks and omissions… and then never come back.
That would be a shame, because Luminar’s edition tools are clever, powerful and innovative – and you get a heck of a lot for your money. Luminar 3 costs just $69/€69/£64 and for that you get a powerful layers-based image editor, a comprehensive selection of adjustments, effects and presets and, as of this latest version, integrated browsing, sorting and organising tools.
Price and availability
Luminar 3 with Libraries is on sale from December 18 2019 and costs $69/€69/£64. Check here for offers and discounts and a free 30-day trial.