Luminar 3 Review
This article has been updated from a Luminar 2018 Review originally written by Max Thierry, to include all the software features of the latest release of Luminar 3.
For Luminar to be considered a viable alternative to other image editing software on offer here in 2019, it desperately needed one particular feature…
Thankfully, the Skylum software team has finally managed to add a digital asset manager (DAM), in the form of image library, to organise photos in a similar (or better) way to Adobe Lightroom.
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Released earlier this year, the first update to Luminar 3 which included the new library system was a rather buggy experience. Based on early-adopter feedback (including my own), Skylum worked hard to rebuild and refine.
With the release of their most eagerly awaited update, can Luminar 3.1.0 really compete head to head with the big boys?
I spent a few weeks road testing this latest version to see what improvements have been made. Let’s dive straight in to the review.
[Unless otherwise stated, every reference to Luminar in the review below is the latest version 3.1.0.]
Luminar Review | Index
This is the most in-depth review of Luminar you’re likely to find – I wanted to cover all the angles, and will make sure it’s kept updated as and when Skylum decide to roll out new features.
Click the links below to jump to the sections that interest you the most:
What is Luminar?
Luminar is an advanced standalone photo editing program. It’s packed with all the features you need to take an image from beginning to end.
Like Lightroom, it has a right-hand column where you can make adjustments using sliders. (You can choose which adjustments you’d like to show up in that column.)
With this latest update, Luminar also has a digital asset manager (DAM) for viewing and keeping your images organized, as well as options for quick editing and batch processing… just like Lightroom.
Unlike Lightroom though, Luminar also offers Photoshop-like layers, layer masking (including luminosity masks), blend modes, numerous filters, and advanced options such as LUT mapping.
Combined with Luminar’s proprietary AI filters – designed to fix common issues while optimizing color, detail, and tone – this gives you an amazing amount of editing power.
You can do as little as move a single slider or get as complex as multiple layers and masks, and even experiment with some third-party plugins.
There are also a number of filters unique to Luminar (e.g. the AI Sky Enhancer, Sunrays, Top and Bottom Lighting, etc.), as well as all the standard editing tools (Raw Develop, Curves, Shadows/Highlights, B/W, etc.).
Together, they offer endless opportunities for creative and artistic editing, as well as straight-up batch processing editing work.
Unlike Luminar 2018, Luminar 3 doesn’t automatically come as a plugin. For that you’ll need to download a separate program called Luminar Flex, which is free if you already own a copy of Luminar 2018 or 3.0).
Luminar works with all forms of image files, and there’s an advanced Raw Develop module that includes lens adjustments and extensive transform options.
For established Lightroom users, the interface will look quite familiar and intuitive, and just about anyone will find it easy to get started and learn the ropes.
You simply open an image, choose your work-space and/or filters, and then start adjusting with sliders.
Everything is infinitely customizable, and once you find a workflow or filter set that works for you, you can save it as a preset to use with other images.
You can even set up a custom workspace to mimic Lightroom’s, if you so choose…
Updated Features in Luminar 3
I’ll delve into the core features of Luminar in a moment, but first let’s have a look at the exciting new updates which are including in this latest release:
- a library for organizing, viewing and editing multiple photos
- multiple viewing options (single image view, gallery view, and filmstrip view)
- the ability to sync adjustments between multiple images
- folders that always stay in sync with what’s on the hard drive (unlike Lightroom)
- a new, human-aware Accent AI filter
- smart shortcuts for automatically organizing photos
The Library, Luminar 3′s main advancement, places images front and center. The sleek and minimalist interface offers only one sidebar and a narrow strip at the top for navigation, to really maximise your viewing space.
The right-hand sidebar is where most of the action takes place, allowing you to toggle between the library, the editing filters, and a photo’s info.
Editing works the same as it did in Luminar 2018 – you can choose a workspace or create a custom one.
If you choose to start with an empty workspace (as I do because I need different things with different photos), a simple ‘Command + L’ (Ctrl + L on Windows) brings up the filter options… of which there are a great variety.
Like Lightroom, all editing that’s done is non-destructive, i.e. the original files stay untouched. All edits or changes are stored in a separate .state file in the catalog.
The Image Library
The new image library is Luminar 3’s pride and joy, and the Skylum team put a lot of work into it.
You can do many of the actions that Lightroom users are used to: flag images as favorites or rejected, rate them, etc.
There are also some improvements over Lightroom and some areas that still need to be developed. (We’ll get to those later in the article.)
When you activate Luminar 3, the first thing the library does is scan your hard drive and update itself to match what your hard drive looks like.
(This was apparently the source of many crashes in the previous version, but it works seamlessly now with Luminar 3.1.0.)
The only drawback is that the import can be pretty slow, depending on the size of your hard drive and how many photos you have on it.
When the library panel is in action, it shows the same folder hierarchy as your computer’s. (This could be a source of confusion with Lightroom, as the two aren’t always the same.)
There’s also a virtual organization system – Albums – that allow you to organize your images into groups without changing where your files sit on your hard drive.
This is a really neat feature, particularly if you have your images all over the place on your computer like I do.
Let’s have a closer look at the two main ways to organise and access your images via the new Luminar library:
As I’m used to working with folders, I started here. It’s all pretty straightforward: any changes you make to your folders will be reflected on your hard drive and vice versa. I prefer this as I don’t want to keep two different structures in my head, and I’m not always in an editing program when I’m dealing with my images.
Any new images that appear on your hard drive are automatically added to your Luminar library, so you really don’t have to import anything that you’re not bringing from outside.
Before, when I’d edit in Photoshop without going through Lightroom, I’d have to re-import it to Lightroom later. This all happens automatically with Luminar 3, which is really good for your workflow.
If you outgrow the drive you’re working on or you need to move your photos to a new machine, this recent update of Luminar 3 has made that super easy – simply move the folder with Luminar closed, restart Luminar and then right-click on the master folder. A “find folder” option will show up and if you’ve kept the same name, it will find it automatically.
If you’d rather not affect the organization on your hard drive, you can organize your images inside of Luminar using albums. Albums are sort of like playlists.
You can create an album based on who took the photos, where they was taken, what project they were taken for, etc… all while leaving your hard drive untouched.
Like a playlist, if you delete a photo from an album, the actual photo remains untouched. It’s only the album that changes.
Accent AI 2.0 Upgrade
Accent AI is a single-slider adjustment that uses artificial intelligence to assess and enhance an image.
It’s great if you want to quickly develop your photos and handles everything from tone, depth, and detail, to exposure, color, and contrast… with remarkable accuracy.
This new version of Accent AI can speed up your workflow immensely. In the past, it didn’t work too well on portraits or any image with people in them. With Accent AI 2.0 though, all that’s changed.
Accent AI 2.0 is said to be human-aware, meaning it recognizes when humans are present in an image and treats their skin tones accordingly.
Whereas in the past, the skin tones were lumped in with the global image enhancement, now they’re adjusted selectively.
Take the image below, for example:
While Accent 1.0 added in a lot more contrast globally, Accent 2.0 backed off on the contrast where the subject was concerned, creating a much more natural look.
In the next example, Accent 1.0 adjustments created a glossy, orange, overly-contrasty look to the subject’s skin.
With Accent 2.0, the transition between highlights and shadows is much more gradual and the glossy look is no longer there – the skin tones of the subject were treated differently than the rest of the image and it looks a lot better.
In the past, when I liked what Accent AI did in the environment but not what it did to a subject’s skin tones, I’d simply mask it out. Now I’m more likely not to have to do this.
I have to admit though, that even with the vast improvements in this update, Accent AI still might not work for everything.
However, it’s definitely worth trying out. Accent AI can really speed things up, especially if you’re just working with snaps or photos that don’t need to be portfolio quality.
(I confess, I often use Accent AI just to see what it will do to my photos!)
Improved Sync Adjustments
Another improvement in this Luminar update has to do with how the library works.
In the past, if you wanted to work on one photo and then transfer the look to other photos, all adjustments would be transferred.
That’s pretty inconvenient when you consider that there are a number of adjustments that work only for an individual photo.
Now, when you apply the same look to several photos at once, Luminar knows not to make transfer selective adjustments like cloning, cropping, or erasing to all the photos. That’s a huge improvement.
You can now also copy and paste your adjustments over individual images, or sync adjustments across multiple ones – if you come from Lightroom, you’ll be familiar with this functionality, which is absolutely essential for a fast workflow.
RAW + JPEG organization
If you shoot in RAW + JPEG mode, it’s now much easier to work with the pairs.
First, you can choose one or both file types on import. Second, there’s a view option that let’s you choose to view just the RAW photos, the JPEG, or both together at once.
If you want a less cluttered library, view just the RAW or JPEG. Want to compare your editing to how your camera edits? (Yeah, I’m talking to you, Fujifilm fans!) View both at once and use the JPEG as a reference while you edit the RAW version.
The edits to each file are kept separate, but if you want to apply them to both, simply sync them and there ya go.
One of the issues I had with the previous version of Luminar was that it was hard for me to find my images.
This update brings more sorting options, including color labels, file size, and ratings, to name a few.
Once the design team adds in metadata and some way to search, they’ll be golden…. but that’s probably another update or two down the road.
Luminar was originally created for Mac, and it shows. That being said, 3.1.0 contains a huge update for Windows users. Actions that Mac users take for granted are finally getting their day in the sun.
These include the ability to:
- import images from a memory card or hard drive and copy them to a folder
- add folders and user albums to the shortcut list
- rotate images by 90-degree increments in the gallery
- post images directly to SmugMug
- and install the Luminar plugin into Photoshop Elements.
Yeah, I know – these are basic things one wouldn’t expect to be missing. Still, the good news is that everything gets addressed eventually.
It’s one of the benefits to Skylum’s adherence to frequent updates.
Core Features of Luminar
Luminar has all of the necessary tools of a full-featured photo editing program (Crop, Eraser, Clone and Stamp, Free Transform, etc.), but where Luminar stands apart from other programs is in some of its more exemplary (and often intelligent) filters.
The types and use of the various filters run the gamut. Some, like the AI editor, are designed for super-quick, pain-free editing.
Others, like Sunrays and the Orton effect, are meant for more creative uses. Here’s a brief run-down of some of its more unique filters.
The AI Editor
If you’re looking to get your photos edited in a single stroke, Luminar’s artificial intelligence (AI) editor might be a godsend.
It does a passable job of fixing tone, brightening foregrounds, adding clarity, and other basic adjustments, all with the use of single slider.
It works better on some types of shots than others (i.e. landscapes, not portraits), and often doesn’t improve my photos at all, but when it does, it’s a huge time-saver.
The Sunrays filter is a Luminar exclusive and one many people believe makes Luminar worth purchasing all on its own.
This unique feature lets you add the sun and its rays into your photo, all the while customizing every aspect of it.
What makes it particularly unique, though, is that the filter senses the dark and light parts of your photo and adjusts accordingly, placing the sun behind objects and allowing the rays to shine out around them. When used well, you can get a realistic look that can save you lots of time ‘faking it’ in Photoshop.
Top and Bottom Lighting
If you’re a landscape photographer, you’re well acquainted with images that have an over or underexposed sky or foreground.
The Top and Bottom Lighting filter allows you to adjust the exposure for each separately—priceless if you’re with single exposures and neglected to use a camera filter.
It’s quicker and easier than the many other ways of getting the same effect.
The Orton Effect
Made popular by The Lord of the Rings films, the Orton effect blurs some areas of an image while keeping others in focus.
It took me a long time to see its appeal, but I’m now a fan of it and use at least some element of it fairly frequently in my landscape work.
Dodge and Burn
There are a million and one ways to dodge and burn in Photoshop, but none of them are as quick and easy as Luminar’s excellent Dodge and Burn tool.
All you have to do is paint over the area you want to dodge or burn, then adjust the amount. That’s it.
If you’re a fan of this old school technique and like a quick workflow, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better way to go about it.
While color grading with Look Up Tables (LUTs) isn’t a well-known technique, for those who like to use it, it’s hard to do without.
I’ve only been playing around with them since Luminar 2018 came out, and I have to say, I love the effects of some of the free LUTs being offered by them.
From what I’ve heard, you can even convert custom Lightroom presets into LUTs and load them into Luminar.
Luminar comes with countless “Looks” (i.e. presets) for one-click adjustments. It also allows you to download new ones, share looks, or create your own.
If you don’t like the distraction of presets in your view, you can toggle off the Luminar Looks filmstrip. (I find the Looks filmstrip distracting and for me it takes up too much space.)
For any photographer short of time who just needs a one-click solution for their dull RAW images, the Looks can be a really fun and helpful feature.
Color Cast Removal
Removing color casts may be as simple as adjusting the white balance and tone, but it’s not always so easy (at least if you’re not a pro retoucher).
This filter does a surprisingly good job of neutralizing whatever color cast you’re having a hard time getting rid of.
Of course, you can be more precise with advanced color correction (when white balance and curves don’t do the trick), but sometimes you can save tons of time with this tool and this tool alone.
I have to confess, I’ve often found myself jumping to Luminar just for this effect. It’s quick, it’s fast, and remarkably effective (most of the time).
This functionality has always been a core feature of Lightroom, allowing you to save considerable time by applying the same develop settings to multiple photos.
This is particularly helpful to those who should events, weddings, sports and other types of photography where a lot of images are shot in similar (lighting) conditions.
The versatile Batch Processing feature of Luminar contains many options that you can conveniently apply to a large set of images.
Luminar vs Lightroom
When looking at the shortcomings of Luminar, let’s be honest here – we’re really only comparing it to its biggest competitor… so let’s start the Luminar vs Lightroom showdown…
Luminar 3 has just about everything the average user needs – a library, fantastic editing tools, automatic lens corrections, easy single-slider solutions to issues that would normally take a fair amount of time to correct.
Pro users should also be pleased, as long as they’re able to live without some minor niggles (until the next update, at least).
There are still certain small areas for improvement, that any Lightroom user already heavily ingrained in a specific workflow may miss.
To begin with, there’s no metadata. I seriously rely on metadata as a way to organise and search for certain photos. Keywords are essential to certain photographers – would stock photographers be without keywords, for example.
[Editor’s Comment: I also know many Lightroom users, both profesional and amateur, who have never once keyworded a photo – myself included!]
Another issue with the Luminar library, (especially since I can’t search for images using metadata), is that the only that place image info appears is in the right-hand column – there’s no way to look at images in the library itself and know which ones they are.
In Lightroom the file name is in the filmstrip as well as (optionally) overlaid onto the image itself – something I find very useful.
In Lightroom, when you open an image via an external editor like Photoshop, you can perform the edits, then save the completed file in the same location as the pre-edited version. It’ll also appear adjacent to the pre-edit in the Lightroom film strip.
With Luminar on the other hand, when using third party plugins like Aurora HDR, the edited images don’t appear next to the image(s) that were exported – you have to manually choose where to put them, and that mean remembering the exact folder you took them from, which can be annoying.
On top of that, unless you save the file under a similar name as the one you exported it from, the resulting file appears nowhere near the original.
Another issue that’s been improved by this update but not removed, is that Luminar 3 takes a lot of processing power. I have a top-end iMac from last year and Luminar is still slower than Lightroom… which certainly isn’t a speed demon either.
How about the areas where Luminar is actually better than Lightroom?
Well first off, the right-hand column in Luminar is infinitely adjustable to your workflow – a key feature that Lightroom doesn’t look like it’ll ever offer.
If you use different adjustments for your portrait shots than your landscapes, for example, you can create a custom workspace for each, and this can be a huge timesaver.
In addition, Luminar offers many more adjustment options than Lightroom, from the professional filters (channel mixer, LUTs, curves, split color warmth) all the way down to the intelligent filters that analyze and correct the image for you (smart tone, Accent AI, etc.).
Another feature where I prefer Luminar to Lightroom is how the presets work, and how they are much easier to adjust – when you select a preset, all of the settings are instantly loaded into the adjustment column on the right. You don’t have to guess as to what was done to the image, since it’s all sitting right there in front of your eyes – something that’s not always the case with Lr.
It’s also helpful to place a filter on a separate layer in order to have even more control over how it affects the final image.
As far as tools are concerned, Luminar’s Erase tool compares well to Lightroom’s healing brush, but the Clone and Stamp tools go a step beyond, especially because you can use different layers.
Finally, let’s talk about that elephant in the room, and the nail in the coffin of this debate: the cost of Luminar.
You can’t compare Luminar vs Lightroom without mentioning their stark price difference – Luminar is a much more affordable option than Lightroom. The one-time fee for Luminar is a steal for all that it offers.
Lightroom has been in the press a lot recently for its subscription offerings and pricing model.
Having done away with the last available standalone versions of Lightroom, photographers have been left high and dry, not wanting to pay Adobe every month for eternity, just for the luxury of using their software.
For those looking for an affordable alternative to Lightroom, Skylum’s full-featured, competitively priced Luminar software might just be the answer we have all been waiting for – check the latest price here.
Luminar Coupon Code
Skylum software has been kind enough to give Shotkit fans a $10 coupon code for a limited time Luminar discount :-)
Simply click here, select your Luminar package (the one that includes Aurora HDR is the best value), click on the words ‘Enter Promotional Code’, and enter the code SHOTKIT to apply the saving.
Luminar 3 Review | Final Words
All in all, aside from the odd Lightroom power users out there, I’m confident that you’ll find that Luminar 3 has everything you need.
It works for all experience levels, is super intuitive to use, easy to learn, and has everything from one-click solutions to advanced editing functions.
Best of all – there’s no subscription. It’s a one-time fee that that’s incredibly attractive, especially if you’re looking to escape the Abobe Creative Suite subscription model.
That’s why Skylum’s been pumping so hard to get Luminar 3 out there. They know that most of us abhor the subscription model Adobe is forcing us into and want to be the alternative to Lightroom.
If you’re truly ingrained in Lightroom, you may prefer to wait for the next Luminar updates before being able to make the full transition. Luckily there’s Luminar Flex in the meantime – a plugin for Lightroom that gives us all of Luminar’s editing capabilities without the library.
More good news is that if you buy Luminar, all the updates and Luminar Flex are included. That’s an amazing deal, as Luminar Flex is more than worth it if the image library doesn’t appeal to you.
One thing we can depend on, though, is that Skylum will keep the updates coming fast and hard. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are metadata and search options by mid-year – I’ll be sure to update this Luminar review whenever that hits.
On top of all this, there’s also a lot of support for Luminar out there, with free presets, free LUTs and plenty of Luminar tutorials.
Overall, Luminar lives up to much of its promise as a stand alone editor, especially for beginners, hobbyists, and even more advanced photographers who don’t rely on Photoshop for intensive image edits.
Luminar combines some of the best aspects of both programs, has just about everything needed for both quick and/or detailed edits, and has a degree of intuitive usability that’s hard to beat.
Disclaimer: All recommendations are impartial and based on user experience, with no bias to the products or the brand. The products in this post contain affiliate links which help support Shotkit.
Usnea Lebendig is a travel and landscape photographer who loves trekking in the wilderness, exploring other cultures, and using photography for social activism.