Skylum Luminar Neo verdict
Luminar Neo uses Skylum’s latest AI tech across its wide range of tools to automatically enhance your images or to make it easier for you to enhance them yourself. The results can be spectacular, variable or, occasionally, somewhat pointless, but there’s no denying its ability to transform regular photos into more dramatic, more spectacular and more ‘idealized’ versions of reality. But its constant updates and increasingly complex bundles, extensions and paid add-ons don’t inspire a lot of long-term confidence.
Sky AI and Portrait AI are brilliant
Interesting Mask AI feature
Cataloguing, presets and editing
Clumsy tool re-editing process
Add-ons could quickly get expensive
I’ve held off reviewing Luminar for quite a while because it’s been through so many incarnations, so many versions and been flooded with so many new and promised updates that it’s never felt quite finished. But now is probably as good a time as any. I’m reviewing Luminar Neo Update 2, version 1.2.1 (12358), which is the latest version at the time of writing.
When Luminar first hit the scene, I was a supporter. Here was a new, innovative and exiting program that was genuinely different. Since then it’s gone through in increasingly complicated series of changes, names and relaunches that have at times been hard to follow.
Luminar Neo is Skylum’s latest imagining of its AI-powered photo editing technology. It’s more advanced than the previous version, Luminar AI, which remains on sale but was an oddly cut down version of the one before, Luminar 4. Luminar Neo restores may of the features lost when Luminar 4 moved to Luminar AI and adds a swathe of new AI tricks of its own.
Also new is Skylum’s range of bundles, single licence and subscription deals, plus a range of separate paid for Extensions, including HDR Merge, out already, Noiseless AI, out very soon, and five more as yet unspecified extensions by the end of 2022.
If you go for all these extras, the Luminar AI’s cost of ownership will quickly escalate. And that doesn’t include the template packs, sky packs and other downloadable extras on the Skylum site. Luminar is no longer just a photo editor – it’s looking more and more like a monetization platform for affiliate influencers, photographers selling their own templates and assets, and Skylum’s own Extensions platform. Hmm.
Putting all that aside, though, I’m just going to review Luminar AI as it stands and see what it does and how well it does it.
Skylum Luminar NEO features
Luminar Neo can both catalog your photos and edit them. It also offers a range of presets (or ‘looks’, or ‘templates’ – the terminology varies). The idea is that you can exercise as little or as much control as you like. If you don’t want to get drawn into complex technical adjustments you can let Luminar’s AI do everything for you, right down to analysing your subject matter and offering a selection of suitable ‘presets’.
Even if you do choose a preset, you can still go in and change the settings for the different tools used to create it. Many of these are themselves AI-based, so there may not be much technical editing work to be done, except perhaps to push a slider or two to change the strength or type of an effect.
If you want to get deeper into the editing process, Luminar Neo can oblige. You don’t have to use presets at all, but choose tools individually according to the ones you think you need. You can use them individually or in combination.
A handful of Luminar Neo features deserve special mention. The Sky AI tool was one of Skylum’s first AI features, and its ability to mask and replace skies automatically remains uncanny, even now.
Luminar Neo’s Portrait AI and Body AI tools are equally spectacular for their ability to automatically identify and mask features for adjustment. You may not approve of software face and body enhancements (I’m not sure I do) but I’ve not seen it done better, or more subtly (even respectfully) than this. There’s also a background removal tool and Portrait Bokeh tool too.
Luminar Neo does now support image layers (Luminar AI didn’t), though it’s no Photoshop, and the new Mask AI feature does a pretty good job of analysing images for recognisable subjects and then offering one-click masking for each.
The software also offers to remove sensor dust spots automatically, clean powerlines from landscapes and city scenes and add fog, mist and sun rays to outdoor shots. This, combined with Luminar’s sky replacement, does push it more towards ‘reality augmentation’ than simple photo editing.
Interface and usability
Luminar Neo has a pretty simple three-panel workflow. The Catalog panel is where you browse and organize your photos, and while it’s effective enough in its own way, it’s no Lightroom. This aspect of the program has hardly advanced at all. It offers a simple folder-based browsing system but with the added convenience of Albums if you need them.
The Catalog’s metadata support is almost non-existent, though. You can set ‘flags’, and sort images by filename, capture data and edit date, but that’s it. The Catalog is just there to do a basic job effectively.
The Presets panel sounds a great place to get some inspiration for your photo treatments, especially with the promise of AI-powered preset selections. Once your photo has been loaded for a few sections, you’ll be recommended three preset categories based on that image, with a full list of categories below.
To me, the suggested categories seem pretty random and the presets within each just seem like rolling the dice with different color renderings. Luminar Neo’s presets don’t compete with those in the Nik Collection, ON1 Photo RAW or Exposure X7, partly because the imagination isn’t there and partly because the Luminar Neo tools, for all their AI smarts, don’t offer the same scope.
Oh, and wait, I have another beef here. Luminar Neo does not preview presets on your image. Instead, it sticks to idealised thumbnail shots, and you won’t find out how they will look until you click to apply and wait a few seconds. This is not the only Luminar quirk that leaves you feeling as if you’ve been thrust back into the Stone Age of photo editing.
The Edit panel won’t hold too many surprises for existing Luminar users, with the tools arranged into categories and each one in its own expanding panel. They are mostly easy to grasp, though I still don’t understand why some have both ‘Amount’ and ‘Boost’ sliders.
And here is another unwelcome surprise. Luminar Neo ‘stacks’ its edits in a linear fashion, and while you won’t notice this while you’re adding them, if you want to edit them later you’ll need to swap to the ‘Edits’ tab – where you’ll discover that editing a tool’s settings means disabling the effects ‘above’ so you won’t see the full cumulative effect until you’ve finished. That is a seriously dated way of working which has presumably been chosen to reduce the rendering times.
Most tools have masking controls too, so there’s lots of scope here for some pretty deep editing processes and image manipulations. Also, if you did apply a preset, its adjustments are now carried through into the Edit panel. We take this for granted in other programs, but it hasn’t always been this way in Luminar Neo.
Quality of results
There are tools and features in Luminar Neo that are really good. The Sky AI tool remains completely addictive for otherwise dull outdoor landscapes, The Portrait AI tools are very good for those who like to use them and I’m also impressed by the AI masking – though don’t think it’s as good as or more useful than the AI sky and subject masking in Lightroom. Also ON1 Software has its own Super Select AI masking on its way, so we’ll see how that works out. The Enhance tool, which used to be called Accent AI, is very simple but at the same time very good too, restoring tonal balance and detail to images with a simple slider rather than a host of complicated edits and local adjustments.
Other features are less impressive. The Relight AI tool really just gives you a bit of near vs far brightness control, it’s hard to see how the Structure tool needs AI at all, and neither the fog/mist nor the Sun Ray tools are especially convincing, except as a rather obvious dramatic re-interpretation of a scene, maybe.
The Mood tool lets you apply LUTs (why couldn’t it just be called the LUT tool?), but other programs can do this too, and while the AI spot and power line removal tools are effective, they simply cut down on a bit of cloning work – a regular clone stamp tool is on the Luminar Neo roadmap, but not here yet.
Add in the somewhat lackluster presets catalog, and you’ve got a program with flashes of brilliance but also a whole lot of AI hype and averageness. The AI features can deliver spectacular results more easily than other programs, but not always, and the underlying catalog and manual editing tools are basic at best. Luminar Neo certainly puts on a good show, but there’s not a whole lot underneath.
Skylum Luminar Neo verdict
I have two sets of reservations about Luminar Neo. The first is the software itself, which I find brilliant in some areas but overhyped in others. It sets out to make photo editing easy, but only by overlaying its own kind of complexity around AI tools which are not always obvious, presets which aren’t all that great and a language and a workflow all its own.
I’ve used a lot of image editors and I can find my way around Luminar Neo well enough – I just don’t find it particularly intuitive or rewarding.
My other issue is that I have no confidence at all that the ‘Luminar’ we’re looking at now will be the same as next year’s. It’s changed too much and too often in the past for me to want to spend countless hours learning (and writing about) features that might change tomorrow.
I might still recommended Luminar Neo a clever and good-value photo editor for influencers and photographers who want to ‘augment’ an often boring reality for a single one-off license fee, but I would not personally be tempted by the multiple subscription plans, content bundles, Extensions and third-party preset packs following in its wake.
- Luminar AI review
- Luminar 4 review
- ON1 Photo RAW 2022 review
- Exposure X7 review
- DxO Nik Collection 5 review
Buy Luminar Neo
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