Verdict: 4.5 stars
Luminar 4 is an unusual and constantly evolving program. Increasingly, it’s specialising in altered, enhanced and augmented reality effects – and these are exceptionally effective. You will find them either amazing or ‘cheating’, depending on which side of the fence you stand. Apart from that Luminar also has a full selection of basic photo editing tools like curves, cropping, layers and retouching. It’s very powerful and effective photo editor at the price, even without all the AI fireworks.
What is it?
Luminar is an all-in-one photo editing and effects program that comes with its own built in Library tool for browsing, searching and organising your photos. All its tools are ‘non-destructive’, so you can go back at any time to undo the changes you’ve made to your pictures or try a different look completely. Imagine Lightroom with massively expanded editing and effects tools, but much less sophisticated cataloging. Luminar does not have Adobe’s cloud sync and mobile app support.
Luminar’s speciality is AI (artificial intelligence) tools which can analyse the image to identify objects and subject types to mask and edit them selectively. The AI Sky Enhancer is an early example, but the technology has moved on a long way since then, with the AI Portrait Enhancer panel in the latest version, AI Sky Replacement and AI Augmented Sky tools.
You can carry out all the usual routine photo editing adjustments too, but Luminar’s real drive is towards enhanced, augmented and reimagined reality. If that’s your bag, it’s spectacular. If you like your photography ‘real’, there are all the tools you need to enhance your images in more traditional ways too, but there may be more traditional programs that suit you better. Given Luminar’s price, though, it’s going to be hard to find one that delivers as much for the money.
How does it work?
You can use Luminar 4 as a standalone program or as a plug-in for Photoshop and Lightroom. If you use it as standalone software you get an integrated Library screen for browsing your photos and an Edit screen for adjusting and enhancing your pictures.
If you use it as a plug-in, you just get the editing tools. When you’ve finished editing your photo it’s returned to the ‘host’ software. With Luminar 3, Skylum briefly offered this plug-in version as a separate product (‘Luminar Flex’), but it’s now been rolled back into the main program so that Luminar 4 comes with the plug-in included.
The main Library window is basic but effective. You import the folders you want to include and they appear in the sidebar to the right. You can also create Albums and use Shortcuts, such as Recently Edited and Favourites, to find your pictures. You can add Ratings, Flags and Color Labels and filter your images with these properties, but that’s the extent of Luminar’s search tools.
The filters and tools in the Edit window are split into four workspaces. This is a major departure from earlier versions of Luminar, where the workspaces were endlessly customisable. The filters have been consolidated too, and they are now found in specific workspaces.
The four workspaces are Essentials, Creative, Portrait and Pro. It’s not always obvious where you might expect to find the filter you need, but it won’t take you long to remember..
On top of all these effects, Luminar has a whole catalog of ‘Looks’, accessed via a button on the top toolbar. These apply preset combinations of filters and settings you can apply with a single click. You can create and save your own and download more from the Luminar website.
Quality of results
If you’re looking for a traditional photo editor with all the usual tools that behave in all the usual ways, you’ll find them all here, though sometimes you need to know where too look. For example, the Levels and Curves settings only appear if you click the ‘Advanced Settings’ button in the Light panel. Nevertheless, even without all of its AI-driven special effects, Luminar is an extremely capable all-round photo editor with lens and perspective corrections, layers and masks and a remarkably powerful set of tools for the money.
However, its regular tools are woven in and around its AI effects and filters. These are separated out to a degree in the Creative and Portrait workspaces, but the Basic and Pro workspaces mingle traditional tools and custom effects too.
Luminar’s regular editing tools are very good. They’re not the same as Lightroom’s, or Photoshop’s or Capture One’s, but it’s not aimed at that kind of user.
Its AI effects are quite stunning. Or controversial – depending on where you stand on image manipulation and enhancement. The AI Sky Replacement tool is exceptionally good at identifying and masking skies and then seamlessly blending in a new one. The AI Augmented Sky tool can add planets, moons, clouds, birds or fireworks to your sky, mostly so well that you’ll curse all those years you spent struggling in Photoshop.
The AI Portrait Enhancer is equally impressive – this time for its remarkable subtlety and restraint. Instead of turning human faces into elf-faced porcelain dolls, it offers progressive and controllable enhancements that retain your subject’s unique character, which often includes their quirks and flaws. The Portrait workspace is a bit of triumph, to be honest.
There is one glaring omission in Luminar 4 – you can’t create virtual copies in the Library. It’s been promised for a long time but it has never appeared – and yet a program like this which can create so many dramatically different variations on a single image is crying out for virtual copies.
Who is it for?
Luminar is a good value alternative for traditional photo editors who want a competent set of tools at a good price.
Really, though, it’s aimed at experimenters and image-makers, photographers who are excited by the medium and its potential but still relatively new to the genre. Its aim is to offer spectacular imagery without the time or technical know-how that’s been needed in the past, and it certainly succeeds at that.