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Photo Editing on a Budget - Luminar 2018 Windows

Photo Editing on a Budget - Luminar 2018 Windows

Luminar 2018 from Skylum is a new photo editor offering big promises. Although many will argue that at the moment at least. it doesn't really compete favourably with Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop, others, myself included, have been getting into the software and using it to good effect.

Now, before I go on let me get a couple of key pieces of information out of the way. Today, Luminar costs just £64 to buy outright and this does include a number of useful extras. Luminar 2018 is also available for Mac where it has a slightly longer presence in the market place. For this reason, some key features available on the Mac version are not currently available on the Windows version. Originally preferring to use Facebook as a support mechanism, Skylum have now moved support to their website with forums split into Mac and Windows usage. This is because some of the issues experienced by users don't necessarily overlap. After a fairly rocky start for the Windows version its capabilities have improved dramatically in recent months.

Given my introduction, is Luminar worth the cost? Personally yes, especially if you are looking for an intuitive photo editor that will grow as you do. Will it suit everyone? Not necessarily today. Undoubtadly some Adobe users will take some shifting although the recent move to a subscription model has resulted in a lot of dissatisfaction with the direction Adobe has chosen to take. Not everyone want to spend £10+ each  month on their editing software irrespective of how good it is. With Luminar, and other products of a similar type including ON1 Photo Raw and DxO PhotoLab, the "buy it now" approach means that it's simply a one off hit. Minor upgrades are provided free and you only really need to pay the upgrade cost as and when you feel you need it. At the moment, all Luminar 2018 Windows upgrades are maintenance upgrades so are free, primarily because of some glaring ommissions from the software on release. The next major maintenance upgrade is at the end of this month (April 2018) when some significant improvements are expected. In the meantime, Luminar is a very useable and capable editor in the right hands and I tend to hear less and less negative issues as users become more proficient. We'll cover more of the pros and cons as we move forward with this review.

Luminar 2018 Windows version

So, let's take a first look at the Luminar interface. As shown in the above image, this consists of 3 panels, the central panel housing the image you are working on, the lower panel contains a number of presets in one of the many catagories you can select from, and the final panel on the right contains some information on the image e.g. focal length, aperture and ISO plus a histogram. Also in the right hand panel are a list of filters that can be individually selected and grouped plus a workspace where you can stack and layer filters to create your final image. Above the central image are some additional controls such as zoom, image comparison preview, undo, history and some basic editing tools which currently include Crop, Clone & Stamp and Erase. The main menu top left provides the ability to open, save and export your image. Export allows you to choose variants such as TIFF, PNG or JPG. There is currently no ability to export to applications such as Facebook but this might come in future.

While it is possible to load images in JPEG format in Luminar you are most likely to load RAW files such as CR2, RW2 or NEF depending on the cameras you own. I have cameras from Canon, Panasonic and Nikon so all three RAW formats are handy for me. Working with RAW format means that you have access to a lot more information to work with than JPEG so is a better place to start working with your images. This is demonstrated by the fact that if you open a JPEG one of the key development tools, RAW Develop, is not available to you. At the moment this is perhaps not hugely detrimental but as time goes on we do expect this filter to be greatly improved with the inclusion of automatic lens / camera corrections and some intelligent manipulation of parameters such as exposure, contrast, highlights, midtones and shadows. There is also a transform feature which is designed to improve horizontals and verticles. At the moment it is necessary to manually adjust these parameters but we all hope to see big improvement to RAW Develop in the late April release due soon.

With regards a start point for your edits, many people will jump straight in and begin to apply filters manually that they have good experience with. While this is for some as quick as any other approach, new users often prefer to choose from the many presets available to them. Presets, for those not familiar with the term, are basically a group of filters which work together to produce a particular look. For example, some presets convert colour to B&W, some soften the image, some harden the image, some enhance colours and some desaturate. There are already some 100 different presets to choose from and more become available almost weekly thanks to the development team at Skylum, and to a highly competent team of 3rd party developers and Skylum Ambassaders.

Presets from the Travel Catagory with Dull No More selected

In the image above I have applied the preset Dull No More from the Travel Category. This automatically lifts various parameters such as clarity, structure and tone whilst removing any colour cast on the image due to the lighting and conditions on the day. In addition, I rotated the image so that the horizon, in this case seashore, was horizontal and I also applied some highlights to her hair using Dodge & Burn, one of my favourite editing tools. Finally, I applied the Accent Ai-Filter to lift brightness and slightly enhance the colour. For an image such as this one, over saturation would be disasterous so I have taken great care to try to maintain hue, saturation and luminosity and I think that the final result is a simple yet effective representation of what I saw and recorded on that day.

Another nice although not unique feature of Luminar are LUTs. LUTs or Look Up Tables as they are more correctly known, allow you to apply a new look to your photo in seconds. A LUT is essentially a digital file that transforms and exports the color and tone of your image in your source file to a new destination state.  For example, you can use a LUT to convert a modern digital photo to the color and tone of an older film stock.  Or perhaps to convert between a color image to an aged black and white treatment. So, a LUT essentially transforms tone and color based upon settings chosen by the creator of the LUT. Using a LUT is essentially the same as using a preset, you simply load your photo, ideally in a flat RAW format, and apply your desired LUT. This results in an immediate change to your photo. As an example, in the image below I have applied a LUT to the image of the guy playing with the click balls in the top image.

RAW image from Panasonic GX-80 converted using LUT Candelight from Skylum. No other processing applied

If you compare this image to the one at the top of this article you can see that there have been some significant changes in colour and tone. This is a one-click modification. I haven't applied any additional filters to the image. The use of LUTs and Presets allows practically anyone to create stunning, creative images in minutes rather than hours. And by applying additional filters, you can take your image anywhere you want.

With all of this creative capability, is Luminar 2018 the perfect low cost alternative to Photoshop? Well, there are some issues at present with the basic functionalty which will have you pulling your hair out. For example, basic functions such as Clone & Stamp and Erase don't yet function perfectly. There are issues with both. That's not to say that they don't work, just that they don't work 100% of the time.For the most part, yes, if the edit is relatively simple such as removing blemishes from a photo, for example a tiny bird in the background, or even blemishes on the camers sensor that have made it on to the photo, yes, it works really well. However, try to remove something more sizeable and it is likely that you will hit a problem. In an earlier article I showed how to remove a power line from a photo and I did this using Luminar so perhaps take a look there for more information. Clone & Stamp is equally hit and miss. What does work well are the cropping and rotate functions. These work as expected. Another area for compromise is the aplication of backgrounds. If you have green screened your subject in a studio then fine, using a luminosity mask will produce pretty much flawless results but for anything else, let's say a complex landscape with trees or non solid edges where you'd like to replace the sky, you are going to need your wits about you. It is possible to achieve a good result with patience but products such as Photoshop and ON1 Photo Raw are more advanced in this area. While Luminar 2018 does struggle in some basic areas, I haven't found this to be insurmountable. 

With regards general usage, Luminar 2018 is very easy to get to grips with. Since the last maintenance release the developers have added Layers which are extremely useful for grouping filters, especially where the global strength of the filters applied are the same or very similar. I tend to seperate groups of filters just to make it easy to go back and edit something. You can turn off the effects of each layer to help you understand whether what you done is an improvement or detrimental to your image. Another useful feature is the ability to add a second image layer and the ability to add textures. When combined with a luminosity mask, this makes it reasonably easy to change the background, albeit with the concerns outlined in previous paragraphs. Nonetheless, it does allow you to create some stunning images such as the one shown below. This image, taken during a recent photo shoot at Paignton Photography Club, was first processed using PortraitPro 17 Studio, which is an excellent application when working on faces, and then taken into Luminar for final processing where the background image and various other filters were applied. 

Model Lianne taken during a recent night at PPC.

I hope that the information provided above interests you enough to give Luminar 2018 a try. For those that wish to do so, there is a free to try version of Luminar 2018 at https://skylum.com/blog/preorder-luminar-2018-today - just choose the TRY option. If you have any questions about Luminar 2018, bearing on mind I am only using the Windows version, don't hesitate to get in contact.

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