Choosing a reliable and capable photo editor is one of the most important aspects of a digital photography workflow, and it’s important to get it right the first time. Most programs don’t play nice with each other’s organizational and editing systems, which usually makes switching software a fairly painful process.
So before you invest a lot of time sorting, tagging, and categorizing your images, you want to ensure that you’re working with the best software available.
Adobe Lightroom Classic CC is a bit of a cumbersome name, but it’s an excellent RAW photo editor complete with a solid set of organizational tools. Many users took issue with its sluggish handling and responsiveness, but recent updates have solved a lot of these procedural issues. It’s still not exactly a speed demon, but it’s a popular choice among casual and professional photographers. Lightroom Classic is available for Mac & Windows, and you can read my full review of it here.
Skylum’s Luminar editor used to be a Mac-only program, but the last couple of releases have also included a Windows version. An eager challenger for the crown of best RAW photo editor, Luminar has a solid series of RAW editing tools as well as a couple of unique AI-powered editing options. The latest release, Luminar 3, also includes basic organizational features for sorting your photo library. You can read my full review of Luminar here.
Note: Part of the reason that Lightroom Classic CC has such an awkward name is that Adobe released a revamped, cloud-based version of the program that has taken the simpler name. Lightroom Classic CC is a typical desktop-based app that is a much closer comparison to Luminar. You can read a more in-depth comparison between the two Lightrooms here.
Table of Contents
Professional photographers shoot huge numbers of photographs, and even with the best folder structure possible a photo library can quickly get out of control. As a result, most RAW photo editors now include some form of digital asset management (DAM) to enable you to quickly find the images you need, no matter how large your collection is.
Lightroom offers robust organizational tools in the Library module of the program, allowing you to set star ratings, pick/reject flags, color labels, and custom tags. You can also filter your entire library based on almost any characteristic available in the EXIF and IPTC metadata, as well as any of the ratings, flags, colors or tags you’ve established.
You can sort your images into Collections by hand, or automatically into Smart Collections using a set of customizable rules. For example, I have a Smart Collection for merged panoramas which automatically includes any image with a horizontal size longer than 6000px, but you can use just about any metadata feature to create them.
If you use a GPS module on your camera, you can also use the Map module to plot your photos all out on a world map, but I’m not sure if this really has much value beyond the initial novelty. For those of you who shoot a lot of portraits Lightroom can also filter based on facial recognition, although I can’t speak to how effective this is as I never shoot portraits.
Luminar’s library management tools are fairly rudimentary by comparison. You can apply star ratings, pick/rejected flags and color labels, but that’s about it. You can create custom Albums, but they have to be populated manually by dragging and dropping your images, which is a problem for large collections. There are some automatic albums such as ‘Recently Edited’ and ‘Recently Added’, but these are all hard-coded into Luminar and don’t offer any customization options.
During my testing, I found that Luminar’s thumbnail generation process could use a great deal of optimization, especially on the Windows version of the software. Occasionally while browsing my library it would simply lose track of where it was in the generation process, resulting in odd gaps in the thumbnail display. Lightroom can be slow when it comes to generating thumbnails, but it allows you to force the generation process for your entire library, while Luminar requires that you navigate through each folder to begin creating thumbnails.
Winner: Lightroom, by a country mile. To be fair to Luminar, Skylum has a number of updates planned to extend its functionality in this area, but as it exists now, it’s not even close to what Lightroom offers.
RAW Conversion & Camera Support
When working with RAW images, they must first be converted into RGB image data, and each program has its own particular method of handling this process. While your RAW image data doesn’t change no matter which program you use to process it, you don’t want to spend your time performing adjustments that a different conversion engine would handle automatically.
Of course, every camera manufacturer also has its own RAW formats, so it’s essential to make sure that the program you’re considering supports your camera. Both support a huge list of popular cameras, and both claim to provide regular updates expanding the range of supported cameras.
Luminar’s supported cameras list can be found here. Lightroom’s list of supported cameras is located here.
For most popular cameras, it’s possible to apply manufacturer-created profiles that govern RAW conversion. I use the Flat profile for my D7200 as it gives me a great deal of flexibility in terms of customizing tones throughout the image, but both Skylum and Adobe have their own ‘Standard’ profiles if you don’t use one of your manufacturer-defined options.
Luminar’s default has a tiny bit more contrast to it than the Adobe Standard profile, but for the most part, they are virtually indistinguishable. You’ll probably want to compare them directly yourself if this is essential to you, but it’s worth noting that Luminar offers the Adobe Standard profile as an option – although I’m not sure if this is only available because I have Adobe products installed.
RAW Development Tools
Note: I’m not going to do a detailed analysis of every single tool available in both programs. We don’t have space, for one thing, and it’s important to remember that Luminar is geared to a more casual audience while Lightroom wants to appeal to professional users. Many pros will already be turned off by more fundamental problems with Luminar, so digging into the ultra-fine detail of their editing features won’t serve much of a purpose yet.
For the most part, both programs have perfectly capable RAW adjustment tools. Exposure, white balance, highlights and shadows, color adjustments and tone curves all work similarly in both programs and produce excellent results.
Casual photographers will appreciate the “AI-powered” features of Luminar, the Accent AI filter and the AI Sky Enhancer. The Sky Enhancer is a helpful feature I haven’t seen in any other program, using machine learning to identify the areas of sky and increase contrast in that area alone without affecting the rest of the image (including vertical structures that would have to be masked out in Lightroom).
Professional photographers will demand the degree of fine detail and process control that Lightroom offers, although many fine art photographers would prefer a different program altogether and sneer at both. It really depends on what you demand from your software.
Perhaps the most serious distinctions come with the actual usage of the development tools. I haven’t managed to crash Lightroom more than a couple of times in the years that I’ve been using it, but I managed to crash Luminar several times in only a few days while applying basic edits. This might not matter too much to a casual home user, but if you’re working on a deadline, you simply can’t have your software crashing continually. The best tools in the world are worthless if you can’t use them.
Winner: Lightroom. Luminar may appeal to casual photographers due to its ease of use and automatic functions, but Lightroom offers far more control and reliability for the demanding professional.
Local Retouching Tools
Clone stamping/healing is probably the most important local editing feature, allowing you to quickly remove dust spots and other unwanted objects from your scene. Both programs handle this non-destructively, which means it’s possible to edit your image without destroying or replacing any of the underlying image data.
Lightroom uses a point-based system for applying cloning and healing, which can be a bit limiting when it comes to fine-tuning your cloned areas. Points can be dragged and dropped if you want to change the clone source area, but if you want to adjust the size or shape of the area you have to start again. Lightroom features a handy spot removal mode which temporarily applies a filter overlay to your source image, making it extremely easy to spot any slight dust spots that might interfere with your image.
Luminar handles cloning and healing in a separate window and applies all your adjustments as a single edit. This has the unfortunate consequence of making it virtually impossible to go back and tweak your adjustments during the cloning stage, and the Undo command doesn’t apply to individual brushstrokes but rather the entire clone and stamp process.
Of course, if you’re doing heavy retouching of your image, you should really be working in a dedicated editor like Photoshop. By using a program that specializes in layer-based pixel editing, it’s possible to get the best of performance and non-destructive editing on a large scale.
Lightroom offers a number of additional features beyond basic RAW image editing, even though it doesn’t really need the help to win this competition. You can merge HDR photos, merge panoramas, and even merge HDR panoramas, while Luminar doesn’t offer any of these features. They don’t create results that are as precise as you can get with a program dedicated to these processes, but they’re still quite good if you want to incorporate them into your workflow occasionally.
Lightroom also offers tethered shooting functionality, which allows you to connect your computer to your camera and use Lightroom to control the actual shooting process. This feature is still relatively new in Lightroom, but it’s not available in any form in Luminar.
This category feels a bit unfair to Luminar due to the extensive headstart that Lightroom has, but it can’t be avoided. Luminar does have a theoretical advantage in one area, but it’s actually a bit more of a frustration than anything else: layer-based editing. In theory, this should make it possible to create digital composites and artwork, but in actual practice, the process is too laggy and poorly designed to be of much use.
Somewhat surprisingly, Luminar works with a number of Photoshop plugins that extend functionality, but the cheapest way to get Lightroom is in a bundle with Photoshop, so that advantage is essentially negated.
High-resolution images can be time-consuming to process, although a lot of this will depend on the computer you use for editing. Regardless, tasks such as generating thumbnails and applying basic edits should be completed fairly quickly on any modern computer.
Lightroom was often called out for being frustratingly slow in its early releases, but these problems have largely been overcome in recent years thanks to aggressive optimization updates from Adobe. Support for GPU acceleration has also made a big difference, depending on the exact model of discrete card that you have in your machine.
Luminar struggles quite a bit on some basic tasks such as thumbnail generation, zooming to 100%, and even when switching between the Library and Edit sections of the program (which can take upwards of 5 seconds). From what I have been able to learn, Luminar doesn’t actually make use of any discrete GPUs you may have installed, which would provide a huge performance boost.
I also managed to crash Luminar several times while performing basic, routine edits, which is pretty disappointing. I did note during my Luminar testing that the Mac version seemed to be much more stable and responsive than the Windows version, despite the fact that my PC specs far exceed that of my Mac. Some users have speculated that forcing Luminar to use your computer’s integrated GPU instead of a discrete GPU would produce performance benefits, but I wasn’t able to replicate this success.
Winner: Lightroom – at least for now. Lightroom used to be quite slow before Adobe focused on performance updates, so some optimization and the addition of GPU support would level the playing field for Luminar, but it’s just not ready for primetime yet.
Pricing & Value
The primary difference between Luminar and Lightroom in the area of pricing is the purchasing model. Luminar is available as a one-time purchase, while Lightroom is only available with a Creative Cloud monthly subscription. If you stop paying the subscription, your access to Lightroom will be cut off.
Luminar’s one-time purchase price is a very reasonable $69 USD, while the cheapest subscription for Lightroom costs $9.99 USD per month. But that subscription plan also bundles in the full version of Adobe Photoshop, which is the best professional-level pixel-based editor available today.
Winner: Personal choice. Lightroom wins for me because I use Adobe software in my graphic design & photography practice, so the entire cost of the Creative Cloud suite counts as a business expense and the subscription model doesn’t bother me. If you’re a casual home user who doesn’t want to be tied into a subscription, then you may prefer to just make the one-time purchase of Luminar.
The Final Verdict
As you’ve probably already gathered from reading this review, Lightroom is the winner of this comparison by a very wide margin. Luminar has a great deal of potential, but it’s just not as mature a program as Lightroom is, and the regular crashes and lack of responsiveness throw it right out of contention for serious users.
To be fair to Luminar, Skylum has mapped out a year’s worth of free updates that will address some of the bigger issues with its organization tools, but that still won’t be enough for it to catch up with the features offered by Lightroom. I certainly hope they’ll also be improving the stability and responsiveness, but they haven’t specifically mentioned those issues in their update roadmap.
Of course, if you’re completely dead-set against the subscription model that Adobe now forces on its customers, then Luminar might be a better choice, but there are a number of other RAW editors available as one-time purchases that you should consider before making your final decision.
Could you recommend a photo editing program that would be more on the creative side. I primarily use the photo editing on my iMac. I use the program to manipulate photos that are
turned into paintings. At this point I feel that I’ve reached the limits of my photo editing capabilities. Are there some programs that I should look at that could be of use to me?