Verdict: 4 stars ★★★★
Luminar’s innovative approach to image-editing, its presets, workspaces and filters, are a fresh new take on the photo editing experience, and underneath is a surprisingly powerful image-editor with layers, masks and blending tools. It’s not that fast, though, and really needs the integrated DAM (digital asset management) tools coming later in 2018.
A lot has happened since MacPhun launched Luminar on to an unsuspecting world back in 2016, including two new versions and a company name change. We’re now up to Luminar 2018, which has just received a January 2018 update, and MacPhun has changed its name to Skylum. That’s because the old name didn’t work so well for a company that started out making Mac software but now supports Windows too.
So there are some crazy headlines circulating that Luminar is set to take on Lightroom, but since so many commentators have only the sketchiest notion what these programs do, it’s probably worth spelling it out.
Lightroom is a combined image cataloguing, RAW editing and effects tool, a digital photography hub designed to work across a range of devices and alongside plug-ins and editors like Photoshop. Luminar is a photo and effects editor designed to offer quick and simple treatments for individual photos and has no Lightroom-style image organising tools. It’s a photo editor, not a photo organiser.
On the other hand… Skylum is promising to bring in DAM (digital asset management capabilities) in 2018.
That won’t be a moment too soon, to be honest, because at the moment you’re reliant on other software like Lightroom or Apple Photos to organise your images, and Luminar leans heavily on its add-on interaction with these tools. Otherwise, you have to go rummaging through your own image folders to find and open pictures, using your computer’s regular folder browser. This feels very low-tech.
How does it work?
Luminar is a photo editor with a difference. Where regular photo editors offer their adjustment tools in an array of panels, palettes and dialogs, Luminar displays them as ‘filters’. You can use as many of these filters as you like on a photo – for simple adjustments, one will do, but for more complex effects you can use several. This approach means that the interface is not cluttered up with a thousand and one different panels when you only need a couple of them.
This does make a difference, because Luminar sports no fewer than 50 different filters for everything from regular Tone, Black & White and Curve adjustments to complex Orton Effect, Sunrays and Matte filters.
If you find yourself using the same filters in combination again and again, you can save them as a ‘workspace’. Lots of photo editors have customisable workspaces, but Luminar takes them to a new level by making them a part of your workflow. It comes with Professional, Quick & Awesome, Essentials, Aerial Photography, Black & White, Landscape, Portrait and Street workspaces as standard, but you can quickly add your own.
If finding and combining filters sounds like a lot of work, don’t worry, because it’s possible someone else has already done this for you. Luminar ships with a collection of preset effects organised into categories, and you can download more from the Skylum website.
Each preset is a combination of filters and adjustments to create a particular ‘look’. You can browse the presets via a horizontal panel at the bottom of the screen and take a look at the filters and adjustments used in the tools panel on the right and modify them if you need to – or save your own adjusted custom preset.
There’s one more thing. Luminar also offers layers and masks, so that you can not only combine effects and filters selectively in different parts of the picture, but even combine different images. It doesn’t just support simple adjustment layers, but image layers too.
When you combine the range of filters with the layers tools you get a program with an enormous amount of potential – it can take some time just to scratch the surface.
For those using the previous version, Luminar 2017, there are some new features here which might tempt you into upgrading.
The most obvious is a new, more professional-looking interface with a finer, neater design. Skylum says it’s rebuilt Luminar for performance up to 150% faster, which it did need, to be honest. There’s a new dedicated Raw Develop module with improved processing for handling RAW files, and a raft of new filters, including Dodge & Burn, Brilliance, Matte and LUT (lookup table) filters.
Luminar looks better, works faster and does more than it did before. Even so, the really big change to its capabilities won’t come until the arrival of its digital asset management tools later in 2008. Until then, it’s still going to be an innovative image editor and effects tool but one that relies on other software for organisation.
Is it any good?
I gave Luminar 1.2 a solid 88% back in June 2017, and an awful lot has happened since then. It’s not just Luminar that’s changed, however, but the whole photo-editing landscape. Skylum has been bringing updates thick and fast, but its rivals haven’t stood still either. So Luminar 2018 is a much better, slicker, more powerful product than it was back then, but it’s still essentially doing the same things – and there’s been enough time for some of its niggles to become a little more apparent.
For a start, there are too many filters doing apparently similar things. Why are Structure and Microstructure two different filters (in two different categories – Essential and Professional) when they’re clearly related? And why do we also need a Details Enhancer filter and a separate Sharpen filter? Obviously all these different tools produce subtly different effects, but while these may be clear to the software design team, the average end user is going to have to do a lot of head-scratching to work out which to use.
This reminds me of Color Efex Pro in the Nik Collection, which has dozens of filter effects you would never, ever use, but a handful you would never, ever want to be without.
I think Skylum needs to take a breath, step back and stop throwing more and more things at Luminar and concentrate instead on how the end users is going to make sense of all the choices. Some photographers will be happy enough clicking on preset and trusting the magic; others, like me, need to know exactly how these things are working on a technical level in order to pick the right tools. We need a bit less spectacle and a bit more clarity.
The new Raw Develop filter isn’t great, either. It seems to open all my RAW files, but delivers somewhat flat-looking renditions with unimpressive detail. You can correct chromatic aberration manually with sliders (like, that went out five years ago guys) and distortion too, but there are no automatic lens correction profiles. You can correct horizontal and vertical perspective in this filter and there are basic Adjust tools too, but Luminar is not going to trouble Lightroom, Capture One Pro or DxO Optics Pro for RAW conversions. It’s handy if you don’t have any other means of opening RAW files, but that’s about it.
The new LUT filter is smart, but highly technical. How many of us know how to create a lookup table or where to find them? And if you want to add a texture overlay you’ll need to create your own because there are none built in. Skylum does provides many free resources on its website, to be fair.
And some of the filters don’t really go far enough. The new Dodge & Burn filter’s tools are comparatively weak even when used at full power, and the same goes for its Adjustable Gradient, say, which can darken a sky up to a point, but if it’s still not strong enough you’ll have to add another instance of the same filter to double the effect.
Luminar 2018 is a powerful, innovative and inexpensive photo editing and effects tool that’s definitely worth a download. It’s not perfect, however, and it doesn’t really do anything that rival programs don’t – it’s more about HOW it does it. It will either click with you straight away and become your best-ever favourite image editor, or it will leave you vaguely dissatisfied and confused.
Luminar 2018 is a far better, faster and more polished product than it was when it arrived less than two years ago. Skylum should be congratulated not just for this but for launching another new product at the same time (Aurora HDR), for migrating both to the Windows platform (not bad for a Mac developer) AND for handling a name change at the same time.
But just throwing more and more stuff at Luminar is not the answer. It’s starting to feel a little bloated and muddled; more Instagram than Photoshop. As a plug-in for Lightroom or Photoshop it’s still a great tool, make no mistake, but as a standalone program it’s less convincing. Maybe Luminar’s new DAM system will give it the reboot it needs.