Luminar 4 first look

by Nov 19, 2019

Luminar 4 just shipped, and I have been intrigued by it for a while, wondering whether it could replace Lightroom as my primary image processing system or not. With the software now released, I decided to take it for a serious test drive.

I ended up choosing two images to reprocess from scratch in Luminar, and then compare the results and image quality against those same images which I’ve previously processed in Lightroom Classic.

Before trying to process these images I did extensive research into Luminar: I watched their video Learning Luminar 4 in 5 minutes. I then fired up the app, added the images, and dove in. The images I show below are the result of about 2 hours of poking and experimenting.

The Executive Summary

Overall, I’m pretty impressed. The Luminar 4 Library module seems well thought out and fast and intuitive. I don’t know how it’ll scale to large catalogs, but I will define my initial reaction as “pretty happy”.

The processing module is pretty intuitive. The functions are broadly broken down into four groups: Essentials, Creative, Portrait and Professional. The functions inside Essentials (Light, Structure, Vignette, Details, etc.) and Portrait (skin enhancer, etc) seem fine, but I felt the differentiation between what was a creative tool and what was a professional tool rather arbitrary, and I worry the use of the word “professional” will inhibit some users from experimenting with them.

Notable: there is no “auto” button in Luminar. This means you will save a step hitting undo in your normal processing workflow.

Overall, though, the organization is fine. I had a few early mis-steps, but that is expected and I sorted them all out. Some of the tools work in ways I don’t remotely understand right now, but that’s part of the fun. The only place I got tripped up at first was the clone/heal tool, which operates more like photoshop (pick the source, then click on the flaw) than Lightroom (click on the flaw, wait for Lightroom to pick the wrong location for the fix, then move it).

The Good: I was able to fairly quickly figure out how to make an image look the way I wanted, more or less. The images below, the first one I’m showing is my third try at processing it, the second happend in one. Given the detailed instruction in their 5 minute video, I’ll say the learning curve for most work is pretty easy and people should pick up the program and be useful in it soon after they begin.

There are some aspects of Luminar 4 that I think are quite good. If you look at the second image below, to my eye Luminar’s foliage enhancer really adds wonderful detail to the trees and that blows away anything I can do in Lightroom.

Overall? I’m quite happy with the end results as I show below. I didn’t try to get them to “final ready to publish” stage, but they’re close enough for me to know I can build images I’m willing to share in Luminar 4. There are some caveats to that statement, though.

Flaws and Problems: while Luminar worked mostly as advertised and in general cooperated with what I was trying to do, I did run into some issues. I did have the app crash twice during processing, losing a bit of work when I restarted. I also found that any time I fired up clone/heal tools, or dodge and burn, the program ground to a halt and there were long delays before I saw changes represented on the screen. Both of those functions use layers, and so perhaps that’s an aspect of why this sludged out.

I’m willing to define those slowdowns and crashs as “inevitable in a V1.0 version” and cut them some slack, but the slowdowns are enough that I don’t feel I can use the product today in more than experimentation mode. I’m going to retry that when my 16″ Macbook arrives in a couple of weeks and see if it’s better with more memory and a faster processor — but my current iMac is a 2017 running on an SSD with 24 Gigs of Ram, and to be honest, I shouldn’t see this kind of sludginess in normal use on this computer.

Not tested or tried: there are aspects of the program I haven’t explored yet. I don’t know how well their Library will replace Lightroom, especially in how I use collections and smart collections, which I use extensively. I haven’t yet seen how they handle metadata and keywords, which I also use extensively and which I worry might be the big problem for me (I honestly don’t know yet). I havent looked into export and publishing, such as to Smugmug or Flickr.

Those may well make it impossible for me to switch, but I felt going in if the image quality and processing ease couldn’t cut it, those other details don’t matter. I’m happy enough with the results of a couple of hours in Luminar to push forward to explore those, V1.0 bugs above notwithstanding.

So my take after a couple of hours: Luminar did well enough to deserve a more in-depth test, probably 20-25 images, and to start seeing how it will work with my entire workflow including metadata and publishing. So it passed its “proof of concept” test with flying colors. Not perfect, but pretty good, and worth a bigger investment in time.

I’ll compare that with Capture One, which I know a lot of photographers love, but when I went and tried to do a similar test, I found the UI so painful I abandoned it and any thought of ever using the program.

Image 1: Sunset on Morro Rock

The first image I tried to process is an old favorite of mine, a sunset shot of Morro Rock. I chose it because, to be blunt about it, it is an absolute terror to process and make look good. When I first shot this image back in 2011, processing it involved something like 5+ hours of Photoshop just to make it usable. Processing tools have advanced so that now I can process it in Lightroom and get good results, but it’s still a challenge to get an image I’m happy with.

The first image is my current Lightroom version, followed by my Luminar test rendering. My comparison: I think that the rendering of the sky is perhaps better than Lightroom with some exceptions, and I prefer the look of the rock overall, although I don’t believe I really have it “right” yet in terms of color and exposure. Still more tweaking to do there.

That said, I’m less happy with how Luminar handled the blown out sun and the area around it, but I bet some of that is my lack of expertise in the program. The fox banks hogging the ground beyond the rock I’m not thrilled with, either. These are things I’d whack at with a radial filter in Lightroom, and I’m not sure right now how best to replace that functionality. I’m sure it involves layers and masks (aka Photoshop model of processing) but I didn’t try that tonight.

Still, I think the image is good, and with some further refinement could be usable, and is already well beyond what I was able to do with it back in 2011. And if I can get Luminar bow to my will with this image and be happy with it, Luminar can probably handle anything I throw at it.

By the way, I tried using the “replace sky AI” module on this just to see what would happen, and the image won. Luminar figured out about 80% of the sky okay, but it could not successfully swap out this sky. I am not in any way calling this a flaw in Luminar, more a recognition that it’s power is not infinite, and the challenges in this image are.

morro bay harbor at sunset, California

morro bay harbor at sunset, California

Image 2: Yosemite Chapel

There are three images shown for this second image, which is a fairly standard shot of the Yosemite Chapel. I picked this because there is lots of foliage and no sky, and because it’s the complete opposite of the first image — it’s a pretty routine processing shot for the most part.

The reason there are three images here is simple: when I first compared the Luminar image to my Lightroom version, the difference was stunning. That said, it’s an image I haven’t touched in almost 4 years, and was not processed using current Lightroom tools, so I went and reprocessed it in Lightroom as well.

The first image was my old Lightroom image. The second is my updated version of that image. And the third is the Luminar version of the image.

Even with the reprocessing, I think the Luminar image is superior in almost any way (other than, perhaps, being a bit over-warmed, even though, if you compare the shingles, they’re fairly neutral in both. I think that’s the foliage enhancer at work, and I will want to make the Luminar version a bit cooler when I revisit it). I think the detail and quality of the tree rendering in Luminar is a no-brainer improvement over lightroom. If you look at the shingles on the roofs, there’s a clear improvement to the level of detail and sharpness of the edges in there. There’s more detail in the rock in the upper right, although again I think it’s a bit warm. It’s hard to find something about the new Lightroom version I can say is better.

This image, which I’m not asking Luminar to do the impossible with, but merely the decently hard, seems to show some really impressive work by Skylum and an image quality that’s hard to criticize at all. Very impressive.

Yosemite Chapel, Yosemite National Park

Yosemite Chapel, Yosemite National Park

Yosemite Chapel, Yosemite National Park

Next Steps for me

So, what next? I’m going to likely do nothing until my Macbook Pro arrives and I move in, and then I’ll do head to head on another few images using that processor. I’m going to see if Skylum issues a release in the meantime and if it deals with the crashes and performance issue I found. I’ll probably start exploring how to do metadata and keywords in the thing, and maybe start exploring image organization.

And maybe in a month, I’ll do an update with what I’ve found, but as good as this first release is, I expect we’ll see some fixes come out and it’ll be more stable soon, and I can be a bit patient for that.

Should you look into Luminar 4

My take: unless you’re absolutely happy with Lightroom and Adobe products, taking Luminar out for a test drive is a smart option and I suggest it to most of you. That said, it’s early in Luminar 4’s life and there are some rough edges, but nothing I think is a dead stop problem. But if you’ve wondered if there is life after Adobe, the answer here is “very possibly, but not proven”.

If you do try out Luminar, I’d love to hear your thoughts and see some posted samples with comparisons to your other processing systems. Please pass them along if you do, and perhaps I’ll compile and share what I find to the group mind.