Luminar is a new photo-editing tool from MacPhun, the company behind Tonality, Intensify, Focus and other Mac photo-editing apps now bundled together into the MacPhun Creative Kit 2016. MacPhun also publishes Aurora HDR in conjunction with travel photographer and high dynamic range guru Trey Ratcliff.

So as the name suggests, MacPhun makes software exclusively for Apple Macs, and Luminar is a bold new take on photo-editing and how it should be carried out: “Meet the world’s first photo editor that adapts to your style & skill level,” says MacPhun. “Luminar is the supercharged photo software that makes complex editing easy & enjoyable. And it is as responsive and beautiful as your Mac.”

It’s been available as a beta version for a while, but as of November 17 2016 it’s a live commercial product for Mac owners to buy, and this is a guide to how it works and what it’s like.

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Luminar is a Mac-only application that offers one-click preset image effects, manual adjustment tools, image retouching, layers and masks.

How to open photos in Luminar

Luminar can be used as a standalone application. When you launch it, you see a simple window that prompts you to load an image to work on. This probably isn’t the best way to use it! Luminar doesn’t have any photo browsing tools built in, and most Mac owners will probably be using Apple Photos or maybe Lightroom to organise their images – locating photos in a Mac Finder window is a bit old school and low-tech for today’s photographers.

But Luminar also works as a plug-in for Lightroom, Photoshop, Elements and Aperture – yes, Aperture is supported. It’s nice to see MacPhun still has some faith in Apple’s terrific pro photo management software, even if Apple didn’t.

So if you use Lightroom to organise and view your photos, you can send them to Luminar for editing just as you would any other plug-in effects filter or external editing app.

In fact this isn’t a bad idea for the sake of image quality too. Luminar can open and edit RAW files directly, but its rendition of highlight detail is pretty harsh, at least in version 1.0, so for now it might be best to leave the initial RAW conversion to a host application like Lightroom (which can also apply lens and perspective corrections too).

It doesn’t have to be Lightroom. Luminar also installs as an Apple Photos extension, so you can send photos to Luminar from Apple Photos too.

Image effects are created by combining different filter effects.

Image effects are created by combining different filter effects.

How Luminar works

Once you’ve got a photo open in Luminar you can start to see how it works. Along the bottom of the screen is a filmstrip displaying different preset image effects. You can choose different categories using a button at the right hand end, for example ‘Basic’, ‘Street’, ‘Outdoor’, ‘Portrait’. To apply one of these preset effects, all you have to do is click it. Then, over on the right hand side of the screen, you can see the adjustments that have been made in a vertical tools panel.

This is the standard way of applying and adjusting preset effects in modern apps. You get to give your photos an instant ‘look’ with a single mouseclick, and then you can tweak the settings as much as you like to refine it or even create your own.

This is where Luminar starts to show off its ‘adaptive interface’, one of its key features. MacPhun says it can adapt to different users and needs, and it does this with a mix-and-match approach to its image-editing tools. Its multitude of effects are built up using 38 different tools, or ‘filters’. These include special effects like ‘Soft Focus’ and ‘Cross Processing’ alongside regular image-enhancement tools like ‘Curves’ and ‘HSL’.

So obviously you’re not going to need all these filters for every single effect, or for every style of photography, so MacPhun has introduced the idea of ‘workspaces’.

Image effects are organised into categories like 'Basic', 'Outdoor' and more, but you can also save your own custom user presets.

Image effects are organised into categories like ‘Basic’, ‘Outdoor’ and more, but you can also save your own custom user presets.

Luminar workspaces

Each workspace is simply a collection of filters for a specific photographic genre. Luminar comes with four workspaces as standard: ‘B & W’, ‘Landscape’, ‘Portrait’ and ‘Street’. Each workspace displays a smaller subset of the full set of filters, so the ‘Landscape’ workspace, for example, includes the ‘Color Temperature’, ‘Tone’, ‘Saturation/Vibrance’, ‘Polarizing Filter’, ‘Foliage Enhancer’, ‘Clarity’, ‘Structure’, ‘Image Radiance’, ‘Top & Bottom Lighting’, and ‘Vignette’ filters. Yes, that sounds a lot, but if you decide this Landscape workspace is too complicated, you can hit an ‘x’ button to delete the filters you don’t need to make it simpler – and then save a new, custom workspace of your own.

This is MacPhun’s way of making your Luminar experience as simple as possible. You could even approach it the other way around and start with the ‘Clear’ workspace option which has no filters at all, and then add the ones you want, one by one.

So for myself, I might create a simple and basic enhancement workspace with the ‘Curves’, ‘HSL’ and ‘Structure’ filters.

Now it’s looking pretty good already, but there’s more. Luminar can also carry out some useful basic image repairs…

Luminar includes cloning, object eraser and denoising tools.

Luminar includes cloning, object eraser and denoising tools.

Retouching and repairs

Over on the far right of the screen is a vertical tools panel. At the top is a small collection of masking tools (more on those in a moment) and underneath is a clone stamp tool for blotting out unwanted objects, an erase tool for content-aware object removal, a denoise tool for cleaning up high ISO images and a crop tool.

Now these aren’t massively sophisticated, but they are quick and effective. The clone stamp and erase tools lack the sophistication and control of Photoshop’s equivalents but they do a decent enough job, and the denoise tool has preset options that look a lot like those in MacPhun’s separate DeNoise program, though without the in-depth adjustments.

But if these retouching tools are a pleasant surprise, the layering and masking options are going to really make you smile.

Luminar offers not just adjustment layers but image layers too – you can create composite images using layer masks and blend modes.

Luminar offers not just adjustment layers but image layers too – you can create composite images using layer masks and blend modes.

Layers and masks

This is a very pleasant surprise in a program that might have started out looking like a regular image effects tool. Luminar can not only ‘stack’ effects using layers, complete with opacity settings and blend modes, it also has a masking brush, radial and gradient mask tools for blending in these layers in specific areas.

This is done using ‘adjustment layers’ – but MacPhun takes one more unexpected step by offering image layers too. You can actually combine different images using this software, which makes it a very effective all-round image-manipulation tool. The masking tools lack the precision and sophistication needed for pixel-perfect cutouts and composites, but for subtle blends and multiple-exposure effects it’s fine.

It's possible to create quite complex images. This one consists of a landscape blended with a new sky and a layer mask with additional adjustments applied to the individual layers and the whole image.

It’s possible to create quite complex images. This one consists of a landscape blended with a new sky and a layer mask with additional adjustments applied to the individual layers and the whole image.

So what’s the verdict?

The Luminar interface is simple, elegant and classy. I like the way you can choose just the filters you need to create your own customised workspaces, though it would be even better if you could collapse each filter to just its title bar and show only the filter/tools you’re using right at that moment – it would make that tools panel even cleaner and simpler.

I’ve also got a nagging feeling that the preset effects supplied as standard don’t quite reveal this software’s full potential. I think I’d like to spend a bit of time pushing the filters that little bit further and combining them in different ways to create some more dramatic and varied looks. Maybe there are some future tutorials here!

A bokeh filter would be nice, and maybe some border effects and other ‘analog’ filters – this is the kind of thing you get in Google’s Analog Efex Pro, ON1 Photo and Alien Skin Exposure X2.

But Luminar is a different product heading in a different direction. It’s an all-in-one photo enhancement, effects and layering tool, and it is in its first incarnation. It’s priced pretty keenly at $59/£44 for existing users of MacPhun software, or $69/£52 for new users, and its ability to run as a standalone app, plug-in or Apple Photos extension is a real bonus.

You can buy it direct from the MacPhun website, and these guys are always coming up with new and tempting offers, so it’s worth registering with your email address to get updates.