Luminar 3 is a non-destructive RAW editor that provides an excellent range of tools for developing your images. The RAW conversion engine provides a good starting point for your images, and most edits feel snappy and responsive. A completely customizable workflow can dramatically simplify your editing process, so you can focus on exactly what your images need to look their best.
After my testing, I have to conclude that the Windows version of Luminar needs additional optimization and stability improvements. I ran into several bugs within the first few hours of testing, although I never experienced any crashes when using the Mac version. The Mac version feels responsive and perfectly ready for general use, but the speed issues in the current Windows version make it frustrating to work with. Fortunately, this should be fixable with minor updates, but Windows users may want to wait until they are released.
Skylum has announced a year-long roadmap of updates they plan for both versions of the software, but this strikes me as a bit strange. It’s the sort of thing you usually see describing upcoming features for subscription-based software, and it’s a bit inconvenient for basic, essential features of a single-purchase program. If they want to include essential organization features like metadata search or a Lightroom migration tool in version 3, they should be available at the time of purchase, rather than making customers wait up to a year.
- Simple and customizable workflow
- Useful editing tools
- Edits are quick and responsive
- Priced fairly competitively at a one-time purchase
- Windows version still has a few bugs
- Windows version needs more optimization
- Organization tools need improvement
- Clone stamping is tedious
Why You Should Trust Me
Hi, my name is Thomas Boldt, and I’ve been working with digital photographs for well over a decade. Whether it’s for a client project or for my own personal photography practice, it’s essential to have the best available editing software at my fingertips. I thoroughly test all the editing programs I review, so you can skip the whole testing process and focus on what matters most to you: producing great photographs!
Luminar 3 for Windows vs. Luminar 3 for Mac
Luminar 3 is available for both Windows and Mac operating systems, and in the initial release, there were some differences in the functionality of the software. After a couple of small updates, they are essentially the same piece of software now, although the Mac version does allow the setting of basic preferences surrounding cache size, catalog location and backups. There are slight differences in the context menus when right-clicking/option-clicking throughout the program, although these are relatively minor. The two development teams seem to be a bit out of sync, and the Mac version seems to have received a bit more attention to detail and polish.
I found the Mac version of the software to be more stable and better optimized, as I actually managed to crash the Windows version by being impatient during the initial photo import process. I also crashed it again by experimenting with applying different Looks (their name for presets) too quickly.
Luminar 3: A Detailed Review
Organizing Your Library
One of the most interesting additions to this version of Luminar is the Library feature for organizing your photos. This was a major gap in Luminar’s features in previous releases, so it’s great to see Skylum following up on user demand.
Luminar uses a catalog system similar to Lightroom where all your images stay in their current folders on your drive, and a separate catalog file indexes all your flags, ratings and adjustments. You can color-code your images, give them star ratings, and use simple flags for approving or rejecting images.
When you’re in single image preview mode, a filmstrip of the current folder is displayed on the left, making full use of widescreen monitor ratios. The size of the filmstrip can’t be adjusted, although it can be hidden, along with the Looks panel at the bottom.
Unfortunately, the fact that this is Luminar’s first attempt at a photo organizer really shows. Switching between single image and folder view can be oddly slow, even on my overpowered beast of a PC. But even if I was using a potato as a CPU, nothing should be causing the stuttering mouse cursor lag I saw while switching between views and images. Fortunately, the Mac version of Luminar seems largely free of these delays.
If you’ve been using another library management tool for flags and ratings, none of those settings will be imported along with your photos. IPTC metadata isn’t supported yet, and there is no way to add custom tags to your images. There is also no option to save your adjustments to a separate sidecar file for transferring to another computer.
The only method of sorting images is through the Albums feature, and each Album has to be created by hand. Ideally, it would be possible to create albums automatically based on shared characteristics, such as ‘All 18mm Images’ or ‘All Images Captured July 14 2018′, but for now, you’ll have to stick to dragging and dropping manually.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect is the delays in generating thumbnails. The process could use a lot of optimization, as it’s fairly slow and there’s very little user control over it. Thumbnails aren’t generated until you actually browse to a specific folder, and if you have a complex folder structure this can be rather annoying when you first load your photo collection. There is no way to force the program to generate thumbnails or high-resolution previews, which led to a number of delays and hangs while Luminar chugged away in the background. This may not be so noticeable if you start your collection from scratch, but most photographers will want to bring their existing collections to the program.
Overall, the library section of Luminar 3 could use a lot of work, but it still provides a basic set of tools for browsing, sorting and flagging your photo collection. I found that the display and thumbnail optimization issues were much more obvious in the Windows version, but they were still present to some degree in the Mac version.
Skylum has already released one free update for version 3, and more free updates are planned for the future. They intend to continue to refine the Library to address many of the issues I ran into when using it, but you might want to wait until their update roadmap is completed (or at least more matured). You can follow along with their proposed update schedule here.
tldr version: If you shoot a lot of images regularly, then Luminar is not yet ready to replace your existing library management solution. For more casual photographers, the basic organizational tools should be enough to keep track of your photos, especially as Skylum continues to update and Luminar matures.
Working With Images
In contrast to the Library section, the core RAW editing features of Luminar are great. The entire editing process is non-destructive and features all of the tools you would expect to find in a great RAW editor, as well as a couple of unique AI-powered tools, Accent AI Filter and AI Sky Enhancer.
Luminar’s editing tools are called Filters, which are then grouped into sets they call workspaces. These are really just groupings of tools that the developers think will work best for different types of photography. The default workspace is called Quick and Awesome, but there are workspaces for Professional, Landscape, Portrait and so on. You can create your own workspace from scratch or customize existing workspaces with your choice of filters.
Since my editing background started with Photoshop, to me the word ‘Filter’ refers to a type of tool most commonly used by beginners in their first few attempts at image editing. Automatically turning your image into a watercolor painting is fun, but there’s no skill involved at all, and it has become a sort of visual joke. So if you share a similar Photoshop-based background, forget your preconceptions and redefine the terms for Luminar. The more I think about it, though, the more it makes sense. Since all your edits are applied non-destructively, they really are acting like a filter overtop of the source image, as the original image doesn’t actually change.
No matter what you call them, Luminar’s filter adjustments are excellent. Once you find the perfect combination of settings, you can save them as a ‘Look’, Luminar’s name for a preset. Looks can be quickly applied to any of your images using the Looks panel, but they can also be applied to a range of images during batch processing.
The only tool that I found frustrating to use was Clone & Stamp. The tool is loaded in a separate workspace and takes a surprisingly long time to load on both versions of the software. While you’re actually editing it’s fairly responsive, but all your clone and stamp strokes are applied as a single action. If you make a mistake or want to reclone a specific section, the Undo command takes you back to the main editing window and you have to start the process all over again from the beginning.
What About the AI Tools?
Artificial intelligence has become a hugely popular phrase in the software world lately. Every developer is promising huge changes in the way their software works due to some “AI-powered” feature, usually without any more explanation of how AI is used. (It’s become such a popular buzzword that a recent survey of all the “AI” tech startups in Europe found that only 40% actually used AI in any way.) Skylum doesn’t specify how exactly AI is used in their automatic editing features, but my guess is that it’s using some type of machine learning process to identify which areas of a photo could benefit from specific edits.
Regardless of how it’s done, the automatic adjustments do a decent job of adding local contrast and boosting saturation in most situations, especially landscapes and other wide scenes. Sometimes the saturation boost is a bit too much for my taste, but each photographer has their own idea of how much is too much.
Some photos simply demand a bit more attention to detail, especially when cropped in tightly on a high-contrast subject. In this shot of a gull fishing for small fry, the highlights are clearly overblown but the Accent filter doesn’t correct them. Instead, there’s an odd darkened halo around the gull and no recovery of detail from the highlights.
Serious photographers will only want to use automatic adjustments as a starting point for their edit workflow, but it can provide a good quick baseline to work from. If you’re a wedding or event photographer who takes hundreds or thousands of images per event, it’s a good way of boosting all your photos quickly before selecting key images for more in-depth attention.
Interestingly, the AI Sky Enhancer tool is only available in images where a sky is detected. If you try to apply it to an image without a sky, the slider is simply greyed out and unavailable.
Many of the photo editors that want to challenge Adobe have focused on the Lightroom style of non-destructive RAW edits, but neglected the power of layer-based editing found in Photoshop and similar programs. Luminar tries to address that, but the uses of the feature are fairly limited. It’s possible to create separate adjustment layers, allowing you to apply your filters to specific areas of the image in a process usually known as masking. All your filters already come with their own editable masks, but applying them on an adjustment layer also gives you the ability to control the order they’re applied, and to apply blending modes.
You can also add additional image layers, but this is restricted to superimposing a second image overtop of your main working image. This is useful if you want to add in a watermark, but otherwise, the tools for integrating external image data are a bit too basic to make convincing composites.
Luminar offers basic batch processing, allowing you to apply a single set of edits to multiple files all at once and export them all using the same saving options. Using the ‘Luminar Looks’ preset system we mentioned earlier, you can apply a universal set of adjustments to an unlimited number of photos, and then save the resulting output in a range of image formats as well as Photoshop and PDF files.
Oddly, batch processing hasn’t been integrated into the library, and the only way to select photos for batching is to add them manually using a typical ‘Open File’ dialog box. This seems like a real missed opportunity, as selecting 10 photos in your library and then being able to add them to a batch would save a huge amount of time. Fortunately, it is possible to use the Sync Adjustments feature to apply the same adjustments across a set of selected images in the Library view.
Luminar 3 Alternatives
Affinity Photo (Mac & Windows, $49.99, one-time purchase)
A slightly more affordable and mature RAW photo editor, Affinity Photo’s toolset is a bit more expansive than Luminar’s. The RAW processing is arguably not quite as good, but Affinity also includes some additional editing tools such as Liquify and better handling of layer-based editing. Read the full review of Affinity Photo here. We also published a detailed comparison review of the two programs, see Luminar vs Affinity Photo for more.
Adobe Photoshop Elements (Mac & Windows, $99.99, one-time purchase)
If you want the power of Photoshop but you’re not sure you need the full professional version, Photoshop Elements might be the right fit for you. It features a lot of guided instruction for new users, but once you get comfortable you can dig into the Expert modes for more power. RAW handling is not as refined as Luminar, but organization tools and output options are much more advanced. Read the full review of Photoshop Elements here.
Adobe Lightroom (Mac & Windows, $9.99/mo, subscription-only bundled with Photoshop)
Lightroom is currently one of the most popular RAW photo editors and organizers, with good reason. It has a robust set of tools for RAW development and localized editing, and it has excellent organization tools for handling large photo collections. Read our full review of Lightroom here or this comparison review Luminar vs Lightroom for more.
Adobe Photoshop CC (Mac & Windows, $9.99/mo, subscription-only bundled with Lightroom)
Photoshop CC is the king of the photo editing world, but its unbelievably huge toolset is quite intimidating for new users. The learning curve is incredibly steep, but nothing is as powerful or as well-optimized as Photoshop. If you want to turn your digital photos into digital art with layer-based editing and powerful pixel-based editing tools, this is the answer. Read the full review of Photoshop CC here.
Reasons Behind the Ratings
Luminar’s RAW editing tools are excellent, and easily the equal of any other RAW editing software that I’ve used. Unfortunately, the new Library feature is extremely limited in terms of organizational tools, and layer-based editing and clone stamping are too limited to be of much use.
Luminar is priced fairly competitively at a one-time purchase price of $70 (or $60 with this coupon code: SOFTWAREHOW), and there is a whole roadmap of free updates that will be available in the coming year. However, there are cheaper editors with similar toolsets, and if you don’t mind subscription fees (e.g. if you’re writing off the cost for your business) then the competition is even more serious.
Ease of Use: 4/5
Core editing functionality is very user-friendly. The interface is well-designed for the most part, but some additional customization options in terms of layout would be nice, and the entire program could be optimized a great deal when it comes to thumbnail generation. The Mac version of the software feels much more responsive than the Windows version.
Luminar has a great introduction process for first-time users, and there is a lot of material available on the Skylum website. There are also third-party tutorials and learning resources available, and this is likely to expand as Skylum keeps developing the Luminar brand.
The Final Word
Luminar is a great RAW editor that allows you to escape the subscription lock-in found in many other popular editing programs. Casual photographers will love the easy and powerful editing process, but some professional users will be hindered by slow library browsing speeds and missing organization tools.
Windows users may want to wait until their version of Luminar gets updated a bit more for speed and stability, although both versions of the software are still lacking some of the more serious organizational features that will really make Luminar a contender.