Luminar 3 Gives Lightroom a Run For Your Money

Namibian Desert auto-enhanced using Luminar 3. Image by David Cardinal

Over the last two years Luminar by Skylum (formerly MacPhun) has moved from being a boutique photo editor for Mac loyalists to a well-designed, cross-platform, non-subscription, alternative to Adobe Lightroom. Like Lightroom, it is fully non-destructive, so it doesn’t need to modify your original image, but it also doesn’t have all the power of Photoshop CC or Photoshop Elements when it comes to composite images, text overlays, etc. It does have all the tools most photographers need to work on their images. Luminar 3, which is now available for pre-order, adds both the beginnings of an image management capability and a lot of powerful new image enhancement filters and presets.

Highlights of Luminar 3

Version 3 is a substantial update to Luminar from the 2018 version. The first thing you’ll notice when you open it is an attractive “photo wall” of your images (which will look even better when it has your images in it instead of some samples). On the right is the Library Panel, where you can both look at and organize your images using simple drag and drop between folders and Albums.

Once you go to edit an image, you’ll see that Skylum has added a thoughtful set of default Workspaces to help you configure your editing tools to the specific task you’re performing. Of course, you can create your own custom workspaces to meet your needs. The Quick Awesome workspace features the Accent AI Filter automatic image enhancer as well as a sky-specific version. However, you’re only a click away from diving into either a large variety of Presets called Looks or using the manual editing tools to work on your photographs.

You can apply a set of changes to a batch of images fairly easily. The RAW files I tried also looked very good, although I haven’t done a massive comparison with Lightroom or Capture One results yet. You can run Luminar 3 as a plugin for Photoshop or Lightroom Classic, and in turn, Luminar 3 can load many of your favorite Photoshop and Lightroom plugins.

“AI” Image Enhancement

It goes without saying that every new image editing product is going to showcase “AI-enabled” or “AI-powered” image enhancement. The area is exploding with interesting research that is quickly finding its way into products. Some are more useful than others. Based on my initial testing Skylum has done a good job in Luminar 3 is picking out some areas where AI (which is mostly shorthand for training a neural-network-powered filter on large sets of images before letting it loose on your images) can be helpful. Its Sky Enhancer, illustrated here, eliminates the need to manual mask and gradient filter the sky before enhancing its color:

Luminar's Sky Enhancer does a good job of automatically selecting the sky and enhancing its natural color

Luminar’s Sky Enhancer does a good job of automatically selecting the sky and enhancing its natural color

Similar to the Sky Enhancer, Luminar’s Details Enhancer and Foliage Enhancer filters are designed to do the required masking for you, as shown by this Before and After preview.

Raising the Bar for One-Click Editing

Of course, the ultimate use case for AI-based filtering is complete automation (for those who want it, which isn’t to say that everyone does or always does). For as long as I’ve used Photoshop and Lightroom, I’ve never thought much of their “one-click” Auto correction capabilities. I much prefer DxO’s PhotoLab’s smart enhancement technologies when I want to do automatic processing of a large batch of images. But Luminar is raising the bar even further, with a large variety of well-implemented intelligent presets built-in to the product. Purists will likely prefer going deeper or building their own presets (something most of us do for Photoshop and PhotoLab), but even in that case the built-in presets (and loadable LUTs) serve as a great starting point.

Luminar 3 features a powerful single-click 'AI' Image Enhancer that is a great time saver for quick results

Luminar 3 features a powerful single-click ‘AI’ Image Enhancer that is a great time saver for quick results

Here is another example of cleaning up a scene with a single click:

The Accent AI one-click-fix Filter did a very competent job of cleaning up this image taking on a dull morning of a Brown Bear in Lake Clark Park, Alaska

The Accent AI one-click-fix Filter did a very competent job of cleaning up this image taking on a dull morning of a Brown Bear in Lake Clark Park, Alaska. There is room for some further improvement, but Luminar 3 does a good job of getting the process started automatically.

Luminar 3 Adds Filesystem-Centric Image Management

Until now Luminar has been fighting an uphill battle against Lightroom and even Photoshop Elements because it hasn’t offered an image management solution. Luminar 3 is aiming to change that. From what I’ve seen there is a lot to like about how they are approaching the problem, but there is also a lot of work to be done. Luminar assumes you want to leave your images where they are but still have the advantages of an image catalog. That means there isn’t any need to “Import” new images, or even manually “Sync” with folders once you’ve added them. This is absolutely the right approach, in my opinion. (Full disclosure: I co-wrote and published an early image management application for Windows from 2000-2015, DigitalPro, that worked that way — because there wasn’t anything on the market that did when friends and I first started shooting digital).

Luminar's Folder-centric organization system is a breath of fresh air, as it means you can leave your image filing alone and not get locked into a specific vendor system

Luminar’s Folder-centric organization system is a breath of fresh air, as it means you can leave your image filing alone and not get locked into a specific vendor system

Adding folders seems reasonably fast, and the fact that they are actively monitored after that is a huge time saver for those of us who add images to our network servers from multiple different machines, or who have multiple contributors working on a project. For now, you’re fairly limited as to how you can organize after that, with the ability to create static Albums and filter by Ratings, Colors, or Flags. I expect this area of the product to evolve fairly dramatically over the coming months.

Unfinished Business

As exciting as the early version of Luminar 3 is, there are quite a few rough edges and incomplete features. The biggest one for me is lack of interoperability with IPTC and XMP metadata. A system that builds on images as they are filed on the disk needs to both read and write captions, keywords, ratings, and other user-created metadata in a standard way that works with other current and future applications. Skylum understands that is a need and says they are working on it. Speaking of metadata, the Photo Gallery doesn’t seem to have a way to show the image names with the thumbnail, which makes looking through large projects for specific images a Herculean task.

Some of my RAW file thumbnails were also blurry in the early release version, even after I gave Luminar plenty of time to clean them up. Once I opened the images they were read perfectly. The interface is flexible and clean, but there were quirks in moving back and forth between views that I’m sure will get cleaned up soon. Adding large folders was quite slow in the first preview, but has already gotten faster in subsequent builds. Deleting a folder of images from my network share didn’t delete it from the Luminar library in the current version. Instead, I was simply shown the previously-generated preview. That isn’t always wrong, as perhaps the folder was on a removable drive, but there needs to be some indication or mechanism for handling that situation. Right now there isn’t even a “Sync” or “Refresh” option on the Library folders.

Is Luminar the Right Image Processing Application for You?

A bet on Luminar is really a bet on Skylum, which has been making a lot of waves with its growing cross-platform portfolio of image-related tools. Some fans have been disappointed by how long it has taken them to release a version of Luminar with image management, but they’ve used the time well. However, the version you’re buying today isn’t really complete. But if Luminar keeps up the pace, it should be fully able to challenge Lightroom by sometime in the coming year. For image editing, it is already a worthy competitor.

Luminar also has economics going for it. The pre-order price of $59 ($49 if you already own another Skylum product) gets you Luminar 3 with updates for use on five computers. Current users of Luminar 2018 get the update for free (the company’s way of making good on its commitment to add image management to Luminar as part of its marketing for Luminar 2018). Luminar expects to ship Luminar 3 to customers beginning December 18th, although I expect there will be a series of follow-on updates after that time.

Now Read: In Lightroom and Photoshop, Adobe Puts Profiles and Presets Front and Center, Adobe To Drop Support For Older OSes In Creative Cloud, and Mobile Photography Workflow: Pushing the Envelope With Lightroom and Pixel.

[Image Credits: David Cardinal]