THE BOTTOM LINE
This photo editing software offers effective automatic enhancement and some unique filters and adjustment tools. It still lacks some capabilities found in competitors, though, such as import options and focuses effects (think bokeh).MSRP $69.00$89.00 at AmazonSee ItPCMag editors select and review products independently. If you buy through affiliate links, we may earn commissions, which help support our testing. Learn more.
- Pleasing interface
- Good automatic photo fixes
- Lots of filters
- Local adjustments with brush and gradients
- Frequent feature updates
- Some operations slow
- Stability issues
- No face recognition or keyword tagging
- No depth-of field, blur, or bokeh effects
SKYLUM LUMINAR SPECS
Luminar is billed as a full, professional photo workflow solution, but its best features are its slick interface, auto-correction tools, and impressive effect filters. This fourth version of the Windows application reflects the clean-and-simple Apple design aesthetic—not surprising given that it was originally Mac-only software. But Luminar isn't the fastest performer for editing and organizing operations. The app also lacks some now-common library tools like face recognition and geotagging. Luminar has made strides since our initial review, though, adding catalog search, AI Sky Replacement, AI Structure, AI Skin Enhancer, and Portrait Enhancer. Unique adjustment tools and filters—and the fact that you can install it as a Photoshop or Lightroom plug-in—make it a worthy addition to any photographer's software toolkit.
Pricing and Getting Started With Skylum Luminar
Luminar is available directly from the Skylum site for $69 (often discounted), with no subscription required, though you don't get major updates included. It's not available in the Windows app store, but it is in the Mac App Store. I prefer desktop apps that are available on the app stores since they make updating and installing on multiple computers easier. There's a 30-day trial download available from the main site menu. For a pricing comparison, CyberLink PhotoDirector costs $99 (often heavily discounted); DxO PhotoLab costs $199; Corel AfterShot Pro costs $79.99, and Phase One Capture One costs $299.
You can optionally install Luminar as a Photoshop or Lightroom Classic plug-in (the non-Classic version has no plug-in support). It does overlap with several tools found in Adobe's photo software, but Lightroom Classic is the gold standard in workflow software, so installing Luminar as a plug-in makes sense. If Skylum can eventually equal Lightroom's organization features, you may be able to avoid Adobe's $9.99 monthly subscription model and just use Luminar.
When you first run Luminar after installation, it takes you through a very brief wizard, in which you tell it which folder you store your photos in; you can optionally add multiple folders, too. From then on, it scans those folders for presentation in its Library view.
The Luminar Interface
Luminar sports a clear, slick-looking, dark gray interface with modern, flat icons. I like how configurable it is—you can choose which adjustments appear on the right-hand control panel. But you can't completely pull off panels and place them where you like. Like Phase One Capture One, Luminar has no mode buttons to change the interface for tasks like Organize and Develop. Instead, the right panel switches between Library, Edit, and Info functions. I suspect that Luminar's friendly interface was a model for the revamped Lightroom, though that program is also big on cloud-syncing your photos, a feature not found in Luminar.
The eye icon switches the image display to the unedited original, and another icon lets you see them in a split view. You can't see both full versions side by side, however. Zooming is easy with the mouse wheel or from buttons at the top of the program window. There is now a Reset Adjustments button always displayed, which I appreciate for times when you feel the only way to get the shot the way you want is to start over.
Import and Organize
There's no Import button—instead, a very macOS-like plus-sign button gets you started adding images to the app. The File menu now does include an Import option that lets you transfer images from a card without any options—other apps let you apply presets, naming, and keyword tags during import. Your photos appear in tiled view in the central app area, with buttons for favoriting, color-coding, and picking or rejecting along the bottom. You can also apply these in the thumbnails.
The program features non-destructive editing (meaning you can always get back to the original) and allows multiple catalogs, as does Lightroom Classic. You can add a single photo to another folder at any time with options from the Library menu.
The Library mode of the right-hand sidebar groups photos by Date, Favorites, and a couple of options I particularly like: Recently Edited and Recently Added photos. The program lets you create your own albums and drag pictures from other views onto them.
I'm happy to see that Skylum has added a search capability to the program. This shows up in Library mode only (sensibly) and only in gallery display (less sensibly). I wish it also responded to the standard Ctrl-F keyboard shortcut. It also lacks DxO PhotoLab and Lightroom Classic's ability to search by image attributes like focal length and lens as well as any text in the filename.
To categorize photos, you can use color-coding, pick and reject buttons (a heart and an x), and rating stars. You can't, however, assign keyword tags to photos, which can simplify finding shots in a large collection.
Luminar doesn't let you filter by the color codes either, making them not very useful. And forget about advanced options like filtering using face recognition, geo-tagging, or AI object recognition.
Develop and Adjust
For raw camera file conversion, Luminar only has one of its own raw-developing profiles, Luminar Default, but you can also choose Adobe Standard (less vivid than the newer Adobe Color), as well as whatever profiles it gets from your camera; for my Canon EOS 6D, the choices are Faithful, Landscape, Neutral, Portrait, and Standard. My favorite initial raw conversion tool is still Capture One, but Lightroom has gotten mighty close, offering multiple conversion options for more or less vivid color as well as black-and-white treatments.
Switching the right panel into Edit mode brings up a very customizable group of adjustments. By default, you see the Essentials set of controls; buttons at the far right let you switch among Essentials (light, color, and AI enhancements), Creative (Sky Replacement, Sunrays, Dramatic HDR, Mystical glow, LUT filters, Film Grain, and Texture Overlay). For any of these adjustments (but not for basic tone adjustments), you can use a brush or a mask, the latter of which can be gradient, radial, or luminosity. There's also a Dodge & Burn local adjustment brush for brightening or toning down specific areas.
The Accent AI Filter impresses me—it's one of the best auto-enhancers I've seen. Its slider is able to both bring up dark shadows and tone down bright highlights at once. The AI Sky Enhancer finds the sky in your photo and adds drama. Sometimes it included distant mountains in its adjustments in my testing—luckily you can adjust the sky mask using a brush or gradient. You should try setting them both to the maximum and then them dial down, as they don't overly distort the image but clearly improve it, though in some pictures you get a pseudo-HDR look.
The program has just one workspace that gets you all the familiar tools expected in a pro photo application: Exposure, Contrast, Highlights, Shadows, Whites, Blacks, and Clarity. You also get Denoise, Remove Color Cast, and Curve Editing features. A special addition is Advanced Contrast, which lets you adjust contrast only in highlights, mid-tones, or shadows. This can be a very effective tool, especially if your photo has high overall contrast but not enough in the bright or dark areas. Other cool tools not found in most editors are the Foliage Enhancer and the Polarizing Filter.
Luminar has standard noise reduction tools that do a decent job of smoothing those bumpy low-light images. But it can't match DxO PhotoLab's unique Prime noise reduction. Luminar also has lens-based profiles that attempt to correct such problems as geometric distortion and chromatic aberration (CA). Distortion correction worked as expected in testing, reducing barrel distortion on a wide-angle shot, but the CA fix only moved the aberration from one side of objects to the other. So, in a shot of a twig with magenta on the left and green on the right, the colors switched sides when I applied the “correction.” The Defringe option is somewhat better but still doesn't match what you can do in Lightroom CC (9.99 Per Month at Adobe) or DxO Photolab. My test results varied by the individual shot and the camera used, and your results will undoubtedly vary, too. Vignette correction isn't part of the profile corrections, but you can adjust this manually.
One category of effect I am surprised to see missing in Luminar involves focus effects: There's no bokeh, tilt-shift, or depth of field options. Focus and blur effects let you do things like setting a subject apart by blurring the background.
The Transform group of editing tools lets you adjust your image's perspective, with sliders for Vertical, Horizontal, Rotate, Aspect, and Scale. There's also a Free Transform option from the Tools button atop the interface, and you must dig into this just to rotate your photo. Cropping, too, is hidden under this button (it works well, but doesn't offer auto-leveling). I'd prefer those tools to be easier to reach.
The Dehaze tool (in the Landscape Enhancer tool group) worked better than that in Lightroom in testing; the latter added a blue color cast to my snowfield test image, where Luminar (and DxO PhotoLab) did not. For the true tinkerers, there are full HSL and Split Toning capabilities. They can also use the program's Layer feature for adjustments, multiple exposure effects, or stamps. That tool is also useful for adding watermark images, and you get all the standard Photoshop blending options for transparency.
The first two options in this section accessed with the painter's palette icon involve the program's theme of the sky. AI Sky Replacement and AI Augmented Sky (new for version 4.3). Here you'll also find effects labeled Sunrays, Dramatic, Matte Look, Mystical, LUT Color Styles, Texture Overlay, Glow, Film Grain, and Fog.
The AI Sky Replacement, as its name suggests, lets you swap out your picture's dull sky for an uplifting one with puffy clouds in deep blue. The Augmented Sky option lets you place celestial items such as aurora borealis, fireworks, a moon, mountains, and flying birds. These are fun effects, and they're more realistic looking than you might expect. In my testing, I found that you can’t use adjustment layers to add more than one effect, however. The solution is to instead use Stamped Layers.
The smiley face icon takes you to the Portrait tools, including AI Skin Enhancer, Portrait Enhancer, High Key, and Orton Effect. Skin Enhancer seemed only to blur the face skin for me, but its Shine Removal slider is effective on some test photos. The AI Skin Defects tool removed some blemishes but for real retouching, you need more powerful local adjustment tools like those in CyberLink PhotoDirector. The Portrait Enhancer group includes a dozen tools, standouts among which are Eye Enhancer and Slim Face 2.0, and Teeth Whitener. High Key and Orton produce dreamy, classic portrait effects.
Luminar throws in a good selection of LUTs, grouped into Cinematic, Creative, Cross Processing, and Portrait Toning. You can load LUTs from other sources, as well as adjust their contrast and saturation. LUTs are familiar in the video industry; they can adjust for particular camera models, film types, and even accomplish effects like Day for Night.
These Looks are not Instagram filters, but rather professional-looking effects. There are more than 70 filters in Luminar, ranging from black-and-white choices to Soft Portrait and Golden Hour. You don't quite get the specific film looks as you do in ACDSee and DxO PhotoLab, but the selection is substantial. You can buy more in collections on Skylum's online marketplace, with themes geared to landscapes, cinematic, and travel. They're all named to give you an idea of how they look, unlike Lightroom's unmemorable numbered effect names.
Luminar: Speed and Stability
Luminar's stability has improved since my first review of the previous version, and it's one of the focuses of the newest version. The program still takes longer than Lightroom to open raw camera files and perform noise reduction, however. And after adding a large number of images, it took too long to display thumbnails in the gallery view. I didn't experience frequent unexpected shutdowns in version 4.3, though at one point during editing, the program stopped responding, so the stability issues aren't completely licked yet.
The standard way to use the program is simply to add folders to view and work on photos, but since my last review, but Skylum has added an Import function from the File menu. It displays a progress bar saying Creating Image Gallery during import, but it doesn't let you preview and select images the way other programs' import features do.
So how was Luminar's import speed? A tad is slower than the competition. Importing 190 raw images from a Canon EOS 80D to my Windows 10 PC with 16GB DDR4 RAM, a 3.4GHz Intel Core i7-6700 CPU, and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 745 discrete graphics card took Luminar 5:03 (min: sec). That was slightly behind the competition: Lightroom took 3:51, Capture One took 4:55, and Zoner Photo Studio took 4:54.
Sharing, Output, and Help
Options for sending your edited image out into the world in Luminar are fairly basic, but they're more than what you get in Lightroom (non-Classic)—yes, Luminar can print. The up-arrow sharing icon has just three options: email, SmugMug, and (new for version 4.3) 500px. Far more people still use the SmugMug-owned Flickr, so I'd love to see that added, as well as other social network outputs. You can also export your work as JPG, PNG, TIFF, PSD, or PDF—more than Lightroom's options.
The help and support options for Luminar have been beefed up since my last review. The User Guide link in Luminar's Help menu takes you to an indexed webpage, now including a search feature. The company also provides video tutorials, and there's even a Skylum Academy, which is basically a page that aggregates tutorials, online classes, and podcasts on the product.
Should You Buy Skylum Luminar?
If you like to try a lot of looks on your pictures, or you'd just like an effective one- or two-step auto-fix for them, Luminar is an excellent choice and well worth the reasonable one-time purchase price of $69. It doesn't handle workflow and organization as well as Lightroom, but you can take advantage of its plug-in capability if you want to stick with an Adobe workflow. Luminar's interface, effects, and some adjustment tools are impressive, but performance and stability are still issues (though less so than before). It's certainly worth buying Luminar for its cool instant effects, but if you just want one app, you're still better off with our Editors' Choice, Lightroom Classic, which offers better workflow, performance, and output options.
- Pleasing interface
- Good automatic photo fixes
- Lots of filters
- Some operations slow
- Stability issues
- No face recognition or keyword tagging