Adobe have been top of the image manipulation game for a long time, and they make great software. But other companies make great image manipulation software too, and Macphun have made a number of Mac-specific apps in this space. Luminar is one of the most ambitious attempts we’ve yet seen to dethrone the Photoshop/Lightroom double act, so how did it do? Let’s take a look.
The best way to describe Luminar is as a cross between Lightroom and Photoshop. Like Photoshop, it opens images one at a time, and lets you apply several separate adjustment layers to correct them. But like Lightroom (and Camera Raw) the options provided for fixing images go way beyond what Photoshop’s adjustment layers allow.
Unlike either app, Luminar offers a range of thumbnail-based presets in a variety of categories, instantly adding a collection of adjustments. If you’re not sure how to start, this is a great kick forward while retaining full power and adjustability. The different panes in the UI can be shown or hidden as required, which is an elegant way to accommodate many different kinds of users.
If you’re looking for a dramatic change, the presets are a good place to start. Organised in to several categories, the extensive selection of presets are sorted into many categories: Basic, Outdoor, Portrait, Street, Travel, Dramatic — and you can make your own too. Clicking on the name of a group of presets changes the bottom pane in the interface to show thumbnails of each preset in that group, which is a great way to see what’s on offer.
Each preset adds a group of filters with pre-defined settings. Looking at just one preset as an example, the Marco Polo preset (in Travel, naturally) adds Contrast, Smart Tone, Clarity, Structure (for sharpening), a Vignette around the edges, and Image Radiance. It’s pleasant without being overpowering, and the fact that all these settings are exposed means you can tweak them to fit any particular photo, or add whatever other filters you want.
The filters cross traditional Photoshop boundaries between Smart Filters, Adjustment Layers, and go beyond what Lightroom offers too. Of course, there’s every old-hand’s favorite Curves, plus familiar tools like Highlights/Shadows, the oft-used Clarity, and many others worth exploring — 40 in all at time of writing. Helpfully, when you add a new filter, an explanation and a visual example are shown, so if you’ve never heard of the Orton Effect, Luminar is happy to show you. Besides the basic utility filters you’d expect to find (HSL, Exposure, Sharpening) there are more exotic options too (Channel Mixer, Split Toning, Microstructure, Dehaze, Smart Tone, Radiance, Foliage Enhancer, Cross Processing, Color Contrast) which are worth a deeper look.
Each filter has one or more sliders to control its effects, and adjustments happen in real time. One minor niggle: the histogram only updates after you release the mouse button. Not a deal breaker, but possibly an issue if you like to watch the histogram as you adjust rather than checking it afterwards.
Critically, Luminar borrows the most familiar of Photoshop’s correction tools: Layers. Conceptually, Filters in Luminar are somewhere between Adjustment Layers and Smart Filters in Photoshop. You can apply many Filters to a single layer, but that layer doesn’t actually contain image data — it sits above the image like an Adjustment Layer would. Each layer affect all layers below, and you can add a mask to a layer to restrict its effects.
The big advantage over Photoshop is that all these effects work the same way; you don’t need to worry that a Blur is a Filter while Curves is an Adjustment Layer as you would in Photoshop — they’re all the same. Another huge win is that you can use separate masks for separate effects, which in Photoshop is easy with Adjustment Layers and difficult with Smart Filters. Here, just create a single layer for each separate masked area, then add as many filters (or presets) as you need.
As you’d expect, you can turn an entire layer’s opacity up or down, and you can paint on masks to limit the application of that layer, and all its filters. Linear and circular gradients can also be used for masking, and they become part of the pixel-based mask once applied. Thankfully, many critical shortcuts like X will work as you’d expect them to. One change to note: layers above the one you’re currently working on will hide themselves temporarily, to better show what you’re doing.
A small selection of other tools allows for common operations like cropping and resizing, though (like Lightroom) it’s not going to replace Photoshop for heavy retouching projects. There’s cloning, but no healing, unfortunately. It’s possible to add additional image layers for basic compositing, and you can mask these layers as you’d expect.
A Denoise tool rounds out the options here, and it seems to do what you want: reduce noise while preserving detail.
The batch processing is welcome as a way to process large numbers of images, and the process starts by choosing (or creating) a preset. You start by loading images into the batch window, then choosing which ones you want to work with, then processing them. A preset of your choice is applied, then the image is saved in a format of your choice (JPEG/PNG/TIFF/Photoshop) at the size of your choice (including original) with a filename of your choice. This roughly approximates the output module of Lightroom, though with slightly reduced flexibility, and should be enough for most users.
Refreshingly, Macphun have created a great range of short informative tutorial videos to help users get the most out of Luminar. As a producer of online training content myself, I know how much work went into making these, and the sheer number of videos available ensure that nobody needs to be confused about how to use any part of the program. It’s really terrific to see a software creator providing help like this, especially with the obscure options on offer in Luminar.
Currently, Luminar works on its own, as an extension to Photos, or as a plug-in to Aperture or Lightroom. According to the Macphun site, it’ll also function as a photo library soon, and I’m very keen to see how that’s implemented. Right now, if you’re the kind of photographer who likes to correct each image carefully, Luminar is an excellent tool with many options, and you can easily send your photos to it from a dedicated photo management app.
Luminar is that rare piece of software that hits the sweet spot for many users. It’s got the power to do what you want now, plus the features you’re going to want once you learn about them. It’s easy for novices to get into, but it doesn’t limit what professionals can do either. If you like photography, Luminar provides a solid image processing toolkit that can make your images really sing. Recommended.
Price: £64 / $79
Pros: Price. Workflow. Capabilities. More development underway.
Cons: Masking brush has a size limit. Opening files can be slower than Photoshop. Photo management isn't included yet.
Iain Anderson is an editor, animator, designer, developer and Apple Certified Trainer based in Brisbane, Australia. He has taught privately and in tertiary institutions, and has freelanced for Microsoft and the Queensland Government. Comfortable with anything from Quartz Composer to Second Life and Final Cut Pro to Adobe Creative Suite, he has laid out books, booklets, brochures and business cards; retouched magazine covers and product packaging, shot and edited short films and animated for HD broadcast TV, film festivals and for the web.