Luminar AI verdict
Luminar AI is a radical departure from the ‘old’ Luminar. It strips back a lot of the old software’s tools and pushes its new AI tools very hard. It’s now less a traditional photo editor and more an instant ‘look’ generator. Frankly, there are many, many programs that do this better. However, Luminar AI’s sky and portrait tools absolutely steal the show, and it’s arguably worth getting Luminar AI for these alone, even if you ignore the rest.
+ Spectacular Sky AI and Augmented Sky tools
+ Really good AI portrait and body tools
+ Very reasonably priced
– Uninspiring templates
– Many ‘old’ Luminar features removed
What is Luminar AI?
Luminar AI is a photo editor that uses the power of artificial intelligence and machine learning to automate many photo editing tasks. It can even suggest templates (‘looks’) based on the contents of your images and has some pretty impressive sky replacement and portrait enhancement capabilities.
Luminar AI is officially the replacement for Luminar 4 but spears off in a whole new direction. It sheds a lot of the technical depth of control of Luminar 4, putting almost all its faith in machine learning AI to reach a new, larger audience that Skylum believes has no time for sliders and technicalities and just want spectacular results fast.
It does do basic image enhancements, but that’s not really its main purpose and they are typically added as part of an editing template. It also has basic but effective image browsing tools. It’s not a Lightroom rival, though, which may disappoint photographers who were following this software’s previous trajectory.
The header shoot of Pisa is mine, as is the one of the water tower at the end, but Skylum has been kind enough to supply sample images for reviewers, so I’ve used those elsewhere for variety and to help demonstrate the portrait AI features.
Templates and adjustments
Luminar AI users artificial intelligence in two main areas: 1) templates and adjustments, 2) AI effects. These sound like they are all part of the same thing, but in fact they operate differently.
When you open an image, Luminar AI will use artificial intelligence to work out what it’s a picture of and then suggest suitable templates to give it a particular look. These are split into categories – Luminar will suggest some categories in a swipeable carousel at the top of the sidebar.
You’re not stuck with the template categories Luminar suggests. You can see the full list of template categories by scrolling down the sidebar. You can also go to the Luminar marketplace to buy and download more, or subscribe to Luminar X membership. Clearly Skylum has monetisation plans beyond simple software sales.
Each template uses a selection of Luminar’s filters and adjustment tools, and AI is used here too in order to tweak these adjustments to match each image and its subject matter. Once you’ve applied a template, you can quite easily drill down into the adjustments and make manual changes, or even add new adjustments.
Luminar uses AI for many of the adjustments used in its templates, such as AI Structure, Atmosphere AI, Composition AI and more. Beyond these, though, are two sets of AI tools that are not part of the templates setup and are used manually for sky replacement and portrait enhancement.
The AI Sky Replacement tool (now called just ‘Sky AI’) is spectacularly good. Opinions might be divided about the ethics of replacing objects in photos, but this is not a new invention or a new argument. The fact is that Luminar’s AI Sky Replacement is exceptionally good at identifying skies, masking them in and blending in any one of the dozens of replacement skies bundled with the program. You can also use your own sky images.
There are fine tuning controls to help with blending and overall lighting, but they are quick and simple and you won’t always need them.
Other programs have attempted the same sort of sky replacement trick, but none come close to the effectiveness of Luminar AI, and Photoshop’s own alternative, updated the day I write this, is much better than it was at launch, but still not quite up to the level of Luminar’s Sky AI.
Luminar AI also has an Augmented Sky AI tool that can add objects to your skies, including everything from clouds, lighting and birds to planets and, er, space shuttles. This too is spectacularly good. Once you’ve added an object, you can move it around and change its size and Luminar handles the masking and blending seamlessly and perfectly.
AI portraits and bodies
Luminar AI has an even more advanced array of portrait and body enhancement tools. These again might prove controversial to some, and it’s true that the last thing the world needs is more artificial body expectations. Nevertheless, most people would rather look better than worse, and it has to be said that Luminar’s portrait and body enhancements are both sensitive and effective.
Luminar’s Face AI tool uses artificial intelligence to identify not just the subject’s face but individual features too. There’s no need to fiddle around with masking or manual marquees – it just works.
You can add face lighting, make faces slimmer, makes eyes wider, brighter or even a different color. You can make the lips redder, the teeth whiter and so on. There’s a separate and simpler Skin AI tool which can also target blemishes and remove some of the ‘shine’ from glossy skins and harsh lighting.
The Body AI filter can work brilliantly but it can trip up. Often it will be uncannily effective at taking a few pounds off your figure without leaving a trace, but now and again it might grab and distort a bit of background too and produce one of those celebrity Instagram fails that people love to pick up on and pick apart.
There is also a Portrait Bokeh AI tool that can automatically mask out the background for blurring but keep your subject sharp. This works better than anything else out there but can still trip up with frizzy hair outlines, and you still don’t get the realistic fall-off of proper lens bokeh. It’s as good as any camera phone portrait filter and fine at a quick glance, but it’s not quite the same as using the right gear and shooting technique in the first place, and it may need a little extra masking work to get it just right.
Luminar AI is supposed to take all the fuss out of photo editing but that’s not always how it feels. For a start, on my machine (quad-core i5 iMac, 16GB RAM) it takes several seconds images fully on loading, especially RAW files. Rendering AI effects can also take a few seconds. It’s not just the time taken that’s the issue, but that it’s easy to think nothing has happened, or an effect has made no difference, when all you have to do is wait.
What’s particularly noticeable is that Luminar’s template AI does not work properly until it’s fully loaded and rendered an image. Until it’s done that, it will simply recommend the template group you used last time.
Obviously I can’t test Luminar AI on everyone else’s computers, but even though it’s equipped with a quad-core i5 processor, 16GB RAM and loading images off an SSD, Luminar is a real slowcoach on mine.
That aside, the process of choosing a template category, picking a template and browsing/adjusting its settings is no quicker or more intuitive than any other effects tool. It wouldn’t be so bad if the templates were worth it (more on this shortly). Perhaps the biggest issue is that you have to click on a template to see its effect. Every other effects tool of note out there – including the ‘old’ Luminar – will preview multiple effects with thumbnail images so that you can compare and choose them visually.
The AI sky and face tools are a different story. They are not part of the templates setup and they will typically be used manually. But here, Luminar’s AI works both simply and superbly. Here, Luminar AI really does deliver on its promise of making complex adjustments simple with the power of artificial intelligence.
The image catalog panel isn’t bad either, even though it’s pretty basic. Skylum has clearly turned away from making a Lightroom competitor, but the browsing, album and filter tools available here will be fine for Luminar’s likely users. You don’t get virtual copies to try out different templates, alas – that would actually be very useful – and there are no search tools, just folders, albums and shortcuts to a handful of things like Favorites and recently edited images.
Quality of results
The more I use Luminar AI, the more I feel it’s a program of two parts: the templates and the sky/portrait AI tools.
I confess I don’t like the templates much at all. To me they are mostly uninteresting or have adjustments too subtle to care about. If I wanted software to add a strong visual ‘look’, as I often do, there are numerous programs I would use ahead of this one, such as CameraBag Pro, DxO Nik Collection, Exposure X, ON1 Photo RAW, Lightroom, Capture One… all provide a much wider variety of much more interesting looks. Luminar may use AI to find suitable looks and adjustments, but in the face of their overall blandness (sorry, Skylum) it’s hard to see what useful difference that makes. They also have names that describe a mood rather than the tools used, so you’ll have to mentally match the names to the effects.
The sky and portrait AI tools are, however, spectacular. If Skylum ditched the templates and just featured these two sets of tools and some everyday adjustments for tidying up, it might seem like a stronger program.
In fact, my suggestion to Skylum would be to split out the AI sky/landscape tools as one product, the AI portrait tools as another and sell them individually or as a bundle.
Who is Luminar AI for?
Skylum is pitching Luminar AI at what it considered to be a far wider audience than regular photo editing tools. The emphasis on AI and automated templates makes Luminar AI look especially appealing – my guess – to influencers and content creators rather than traditional photographers.
I’m not so sure. The market may well be there, but I’m not sure this is the right product. I don’t think the templates are good enough, and this is desktop software aimed at an audience which I suspect is predominantly using mobile devices. It doesn’t support video, or cloud sync, so there are two more potential handicaps.
But as reality-bending plug-in for photographers, I think it’s a lot more interesting. The templates may not do anything you can’t do in a regular image editor – I don’t feel the AI tech adds much except some doubt about what the software is doing – but the sky AI and portrait AI tools are something special.
Luminar AI vs Luminar 4
Anyone who has been using Luminar from the very start will find Luminar AI a very different proposition to the last incarnation of the ‘old’ Luminar, Luminar 4. Skylum thinks it’s a step forward, but ‘old’ Luminar users may have a very different opinion.
Many tools have gone. Templates have replaced Looks and are (I would argue) less easy to use, layers are gone so that you can’t easily make composite images any more, and while the editing tools have been slimmed down, mostly for the best, there have been some casualties. Some things you might think are gone are still there but with a different name – LUTS can now be found in the Mood panel, for example.
With Luminar AI, Skylum has taken its software in a very different direction. Skylum may be right that there is a much larger audience out there which has no time for ‘old’ photo editing techniques and is ready for Luminar’s automated AI-driven approach. Whether Luminar AI does that job well enough is a moot point.
Others may like the templates and the AI enhancement tools they use; I don’t particularly, and I think there are much better programs for this.
Luminar AI’s strength, in my opinion, is not these automated templates and AI adjustments, but its AI sky and portrait tools. These are the standout features and the best things in the whole program. I would (and probably will) use these myself, but not the rest.
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