When Luminar was first announced I thought that it looked interesting, but I’ll be honest, I didn’t pay it that much attention. A little while before it was released the company that makes the software, Macphun, asked me if I’d like to take a look at it, and they sent me a beta copy to try. I was intrigued by what I saw. Initially I was mostly interested in it as an alternative RAW converter, but after using it for a while I see now that it’s so much more.
I have been trying to write this review for some time, but a few things have held me back. Apart from my busy workload coming up to Christmas, the developers kept releasing updates, which I would need to try out and evaluate again before putting my opinions down on paper. And my opinions have changed over the period since it was released too. I was initially using it one way, and now I find that the way I use the software is completely different. I’ve also discovered some bugs and downsides to the application, that weren’t apparent at first. I’ll get to that in time though. First let me try and describe the software for those who aren’t seen it before.
On the surface, Luminar is an image editor which can open RAW files. It doesn’t work like your traditional image editing application though. It works more like Camera Raw or the Develop module of Lightroom. That is just the beginning though. It is also somewhat like Color Efex pro from Google, in that you can add lots of filters to your image in addition to the basic exposure and detail controls.
You can also add layers to your stack of “filters”. Layers can either be a new “layer” of adjustments, or alternatively another image. Layers can have masks, as can individual filters, and you can control the opacity and overlay mode of an entire layer. This makes it relatively easy to build up complex effects, and everything remains non destructive and editable during this process. The addition of image layers is a useful and clever addition to the toolbox too. This makes it very useful if you want to do texture overlay type effects, or something similar. Images are saved in Luminar’s own format, which preserves the edits, making it possible to save your work non-destructively , or you can export out a processed image as a Tiff or Jpeg.
That’s basically what Luminar is all about. It’s also important to understand what Luminar is not. It’s not a full replacement for Lightroom. Well, not yet anyway. The software has no database or digital asset management capabilities. Initially you could only open one image at a time, but they’ve since added the capability to open multiple images at once using Sierra’s system level tab functions.
Oh, and one other thing that will be a major limitation for some users. It’s only available on the Mac.
How Luminar Works
There are several ways to get images into Luminar. You can use it as a standalone application, and you can open RAW or normal images (Tiff, Jpeg etc). The second way to get images into it is to use it as a plug-in for Lightroom, or an extension in Photos. You can also use it as a plug-in for Photoshop. When working with Luminar in Photoshop, you can even use it as a smart filter on a smart layer, making it possible to wok non-destructively with it in Photoshop. This range of options makes it a very useful and flexible tool, and it can be used in a variety of different ways. With one of the updates released since the initial version, you can now batch process images too.
When you open an image, you get the main window. Down the bottom is a thumbnail view of presets that you can apply. On the righthand side is the main set of adjustments. There are also some tools on the side of the window and a few more buttons across the top.
The adjustment controls on the side are where you will do most of your work. In Luminar’s terminology, adjustments are called ”Filters”. The default set of filters is similar to those you see in camera raw or Lightroom, and include exposure, contrast, white balance and so on. You have the option of selecting one of the available “workspaces” from the pop-up menu, which will basically load a preset set of adjustment filters in the stack of adjustments.
To add a filter you click on the plus button on the Filters panel, and this brings up a set of the filters that you can add to your image. There are a variety of these tools that you can add, from the typical exposure type adjustments to some more creative options, such as the Orton effect filter, or the Golden Hour filter. When you add a filter you will get an additional sub-panel in the filters stack and this contains the filter’s set of control sliders. You can also control the blend mode of the filter here (Overlay, soft light and so on). Right click on the Filters name bar and you get even more options, including the ability to add a mask to each filter, create a luminosity mask, or duplicate the filter. Once you add a mask, you can paint that mask on or off using either the gradient or the brush tool from the side bar set of tools.
Another thing that’s important to note is that all of this is non destructive. You can continue to edit previous filters anywhere in the stack, and you can re-order filters at any point.
Some of my favourite Filters
- Top and Bottom Lighting: A quick and simple way to do a neutral density grad effect
- Orton Effect: An easy to apply version of the popular (some would say overused - but hey, I like it) photoshop effect
- Dramatic: A sort of enhanced clarity type effect.
- Details Enhancer: A filter for bringing out details in an image. Gives you different sliders for the detail frequency. Think of it as clarity on steroids
Aside from adding filters, you can also add layers. The layer panel is over the filters panel, and from here you can add additional layers and control the opacity and blend mode of them.
A layer can be either an adjustment layer, an image layer. An adjustment layer is basically another blank set of filters that you can add on top of the existing ones. In fact, the base set of filters is basically the first layer, and you can fade these down by using the opacity control on the layers panel. When you add a new adjustments layer, you can add new filters and these will be added to the ones below, again, with opacity and blend mode control over the whole layer. You can also add masks to a layer in the same way that you can individual filters.
An image layer allows you to overlay an additional image on top of your existing image. This can be any image file, and the software allows you to blend layers by adding a mask, for example. It’s also useful if you want to overlay textures and so on.
Another type of layer that you can add, isn’t done through the Layer’s palette but rather it’s one of the tools on the side bar, and that is to use the noise reduction technology from Macphun’s noiseless software. This is Luminar way of handling noise reduction. While Noiseless gets good reviews, I’m not sure it’s the best approach to handling this essential feature in Luminar.
For a start, it’s applied on top as an additional layer. There’s is also very little control over it, and you’re limited to the pre-built set of preset options. You can’t for example just do some colour noise reduction without affecting luminance noise as well. Also, because it sits as a layer on top of the stack, it means that the noise reduction is done last, rather than first as it is in most other raw converters. (Although you could theoretically apply a noiseless layer and then add an additional adjustment layer on top - but I haven’t tried this.) There’s no way to do Raw level noise reduction with Luminar, which is a big let down, as it impacts the quality of the raw conversion.
The noiseless function is slow too. It has to process and it can take quite a while depending on your image, whereas the noise reduction in most other software is virtually real-time.
Luminar also makes a big deal of using presets, and a significant portion of the interface is given over to them. Presets behave much like they do in other applications. When you save a preset, you are basically saving the stack of filters you have currently applied. It only works on a single layer though. You can’t save multiple layers, which is a shame.
When you select a preset from the presets panel across the bottom of the interface, you also get a slider to control the opacity. Adjusting this slider actually controls the opacity of the layer to which you’re applying the preset. By applying different presets to different layers, you can, in effect blend presets together.
The down side of this is that when you apply a preset to a layer, it will over-write whatever is currently in that layer. It will delete whatever filters and settings that you currently have applied and replace it with it’s current settings. This means that there’s no way to create presets that just do specific things, such as add contrast, or a specific tone curve and so on.
If you were to create a preset with just a curve in it for example, and you apply that preset to an image which already had filters set up, it would overwrite everything in the layer, and just leave you with the curves. You could of course, create a second layer first, and apply the curves to that layer, but it gets messy, and it wouldn’t be immediate obvious to some people. It’s a limitation and it’s something I hope they look at. A simple solution would be to be given an option when you apply a preset to either replace or add the preset to the current filter stack.
Saving and Exporting
The way you get your image back out of Luminar depends on how you got into the software int he first place. If you are using the software as a standalone application, you will need to export the image out in a standard file format to use it elsewhere. If you had been using it as a plug-in there will be an “apply” button at the top of the window, which you can use to export it back to the host software.
One of the key selling points of Luminar is that you can use it as a Raw converter. I was particularly keen to investigate how well it works, especially for Fuji X-Trans files. Luminar is using the Apple Core Image Raw engine for its file support but a company representative tells me that their raw engine is a combination of that and their own technologies.
Initially I was very impressed, especially with the quality of the X-Trans conversions. However, something happened after the beta version. During the release cycle, the quality of X-Trans files dropped significantly. Images became flatter and more importantly started to show zipper like artifacts on diagonal lines that weren’t there in the beta version.
I contacted the company about this and they were unaware of the problem, but they seem to think it’s probably a bug. Hopefully it will be addressed by the next release.
The tonality of raw images is pretty bad too. It’s as if there is no tone curve being applied, and the result is that when you first open an image, it is flat with weird looking metallic highlights. This isn’t just on Fuji files too, but all files. I tired some images from my old D700 and they looked awful. You can fix it easily enough, by adding a curve and tweaking some of the settings, but this is basic stuff, and they need to work on it to get this right.
Another issue with the raw conversion is that it’s lacking some important key features. In particular there appears to be no lens correction, only limited chromatic aberration correction, and no Raw level noise reduction. While some of these features are slated to be added at some point in the future, the noise reduction in particular needs to be re-worked as the approach to bolt on Noiseless doesn’t work well for Raw conversions. There needs to be some raw level noise reduction and there needs to be control over it.
The fundamental goal of a raw development application should be to produce the best possible raw conversion form any given file, and at the moment, it feels as if this part of the functionality has been given the least amount of thought in Luminar. I’m sure it will improve in time, but they really need to work on this.
Personal Experience and Observations
I’ve been using Luminar for about two months now, and I have come to really like it. I am using it primarily as a plug-in though. I almost never use it for Raw conversion because of the issues mentioned above. While the Raw side of the software may be how Macphun have chosen to promote the application, it’s not the best part of it. The editing side is actually really creative and fun to use, and when using it in conjunction with Photoshop, it is really powerful and you can do a lot with it.
One of the things that I find particularly good about it is that it woks internally in 32bit, like Aperture used to. This means that the fidelity of your image holds up really well when you add lots and lots of layers and effects. It also means that you can add a filter that may push the whites of the image out of visible range, but they still seem to be recoverable by adding an additional filter to bring them back. They don’t get clipped like they would in some other applications.
Since I’ve started using it I am using it almost exclusively now instead of Nik/Google’s Colour Efex Pro 4 which was my favourite plug-in before this. Luminar does most of the functions of that software, but adds a lot more and gives you ways to control it with masks and layers.
Luminar is really interesting application with a lot of promise. As an image editing plug-in for Lightroom and Photoshop (and Photos) it shows a lot of potential. Unfortunately, at the moment, its raw engine is not really good enough to recommend it as a stand alone raw editing application. The company has been fairly aggressive with its development schedule, so hopefully some of its shortcomings in that area will be addressed in the near future. For now though, if you’re using it in conjunction with other software it has a lot to offer and is a lot of fun to use.
Ethics note: I have signed up as part of the Macphun Affiliate programme, and so, links to the software are part of that. They are not traditional advertisers on the site, and it was entirely voluntary on my part. I do get a small kickback if you buy the software through the above link though, just so you know. This has in no way influenced this review. I have done my best to be as honest and objective as possible.
Update: Since I wrote this, a new version has been released which goes part way towards fixing some of the issues with X-Trans raw files. The new release seems to address the zipper like artefacts. I will do some more testing and follow up with a future post.