(DISCLOSURE: I used to be President of Skylum US/China – my opinions here are my own, and not those of Skylum or its owners…)
BASICS AND SOME HISTORY
The software business is much harder than it looks. Developing photography software even harder still. But I am glad to say that with Luminar 4.1, I think Skylum has found a sweet spot between serving serious and casual photographers.
Let’s start with what should be obvious. Luminar 4.1 is not a Photoshop or Lightroom replacement. I say that from the standpoint that both Photoshop and Lightroom have been around for a long time, are very mature products, and have thousands of features. Both those products are aimed at serious, aspiring and professional photographers. Many of you reading this fall into that category. But some of you may also be just one tier below. You’re not going pro and you don’t care if you make money at your photography.
Maybe you don’t want to “rent” software form Adobe for the rest of your life. You don’t want to use a program that is so difficult to learn you have to spend lots of hours studying how to make it work. And maybe you just need something that will help you quickly catalog, sort, rate, enhance and share your images. In that case, Luminar 4.1 is (in my opinion) the best solution of its kind on the market.
I have used Photoshop from day one. I used Apple’s Aperture rather than Lightroom until Apple stopped supporting the program and then I reluctantly switched to Lightroom. I was on board with Adobe back when you just bought a box and the software was inside. For a company like Adobe, that was not a sustainable model, so they switched to a subscription based approach. Initially, I didn’t have a problem with the switch. I calculated what an average photographer would spend during the previous model’s upgrade structure and decided it was a wash to pay monthly (or yearly) for the use of the software. But those initial thoughts were premised on a couple of things. Adobe promised frequent, substantial, updates to the software and also promised to always make a paid version of each available, even if it were an older version. And again, initially, Adobe lived up to both promises. However, things have changed.
In my opinion, Adobe’s more recent updates don’t feel like much of an upgrade and they announced that they would no longer sell boxed versions (non-cloud) versions of Photoshop or Lightroom. Frankly, this disturbed me. Then, in May of 2019, Adobe started testing raising the monthly price for their photography plan from $10 to $20 a month. This is a game-changer. At this price, I felt compelled to get serious about finding alternatives.
My discovery of Luminar happened before I worked at Skylum (back then called MacPhun – I know, I know – and I count as one of my greatest achievements while President at Skylum getting them to change the name.) I always thought of Luminar as a nice plug-in; one of many I used in conjunction with Photoshop and Lightroom. When I started working at Skylum, I quickly realized that the company could in fact produce a catalog. So Skylum started building a catalog into its software with version 3.0. It was a good first effort, but fell short on the promised speed enhancements that we’d been told were possible. It was actually more like Adobe Bridge than Lightroom only way sexier, and way easier to use.
Skylum co-founder, Dyma Symtek is one of the most intelligent humans I have ever met and I know he’s constantly working on ways to make the software better. He managed to make it better, and then some with the release of Luminar 4.1. There are some improvements and bug fixes as well as a real speed bump. Some of the highlight features in 4.1 include:
NEW Atmospheric Haze for even more realism.
NEW Erase Tool Technology.
Improved performance and stability.
Improved Algorithm in Portrait Enhancer Tool.
Adjustments Amount Slider added.
Full support for Photoshop 2020.
Expanded User Manual.
Skylum’s decided to fully embrace the A.I. craze and has created some pretty cool tools. Luminar 4 brought the AI Powered Portrait Tool and the Skin Enhancement Tool and the Sky Replacement filter. Whether or not you like these tools or use them, well that is up to you. But the average consumer wants an easy-to-use product and nothing is easier than just letting the A.I. fix the photo; whether it’s the sky, the face, or just a general tweak of the entire image, Skylum’s A.I. implantation is anywhere from good to great, depending on the tool. And like I said, they are constantly working on improvement.
IN EVERY DAY USE
I am going to explain how I use Luminar 4.1. I am not saying you should do what I do, or that my way is the best way, just that it is the way I like it. Your mileage may vary.
First of all, for me, I will abandon my Adobe subscriptions when they expire this spring. I refuse to keep paying Adobe rent given the current software landscape. And yes I will be giving up some power features, but I am the kind of guy who would rather keep his finger on the shutter button in the field, as opposed to on the mouse button in my editing suite, so maybe I’ll get more field time and that is a good trade-off.
Since I was never a Lightroom power user, and primarily used it for cataloging, rating and sharing my images, I was able to switch to Luminar 4.1 to do all those same things. There are some features missing, like export presets (the company told me they are working on that) and for some of you, it just simply won’t be enough. But for me, it is – in spades. I use it as my only catalog software now. But it works for me because I think I’ve figured out a system that is not unlike how most people initially used Lightroom.
Here’s what I do…I create a different Luminar 4.1 catalog for every job/shoot.
This is key. It means the database never gets too large to manage and speed and performance are excellent. For example, I just came back from a week in the Rio Grande Valley of southern Texas. All the images I made during that trip reside in a Luminar 4.1 catalog I call “RGV_January_2020.” I recognize RGV as Rio Grande Valley, and the rest of the catalog’s name is obviously the month and year I was there. If I had made separate trips during the same month, I would simply designate the catalog January1 and January2.
I keep this catalog on two SanDisk 2TB Extreme Portable USB 3.1 Type-C External SSD drives. They are super fast and very small. They are easy to pack and ship and take out into the field. One is a backup and the other, the main image source files. When I return from the field I upload all the keepers to the cloud and I backup everything on to a 10 TB drive attached to my main editing computer. While it’s more of an expense than most of you will want to take on, I simply use the SanDisk 2TB Extreme drives until they fill up. Then I label them and separate them. The backups go into my safety deposit box and the main source files stay on a drive that is accessible in my studio. I then just buy two more of these drives and start the process over.
Before you flip out you should know that I don’t shoot nearly as many exposures as most photographers. I am very selective and for an entire week may make 1000 pictures. I can put several catalogs on each of the SSD drives. In other words I don’t have to buy new SSD drives every week.
When I bring the images into Luminar 4.1, I immediately star rate any obvious keepers and mark as REJECT any that are blurry, improperly exposed, clipping a wing, etc. Once I have my selects, I use some presets that I made using Luminar and these bring my images 80-100% of the way to publication quality. Some images need more noise reduction than Luminar can handle so for that, I use Topaz DeNoise AI. Some need a painterly background and for that I use either Corel Painter or Topaz Impression II or both. The vast majority are ready for publication with nothing but the fixes I do in Luminar 4.1.
If I need Photoshop-like fixes that I cannot comfortably or quickly do in Luminar 4.1, then I use Adobe Photoshop Elements. It has most of the features you would want from Photoshop, but you can buy it and own it. It’s not part of the Creative Cloud platform. Likewise, for video I use Adobe Premiere Elements. Unfortunately, Adobe doesn’t offer a Lightroom Elements. But I frankly prefer the easy interface in Luminar 4.1 and like I said earlier, on my Mac, the images load nearly instantly.
My experience thus far has been excellent. But then again, I use a Mac.
THE WINDOWS PROBLEM
Let’s get one thing clear…if you are a Windows user, your Luminar experience will probably be different from mine as a Mac user. I personally know how hard the Skylum team has worked to get the Windows version of Luminar to full parity with the Mac version. If you ask the existing company executives, they may even say that they have succeeded. From what I read on the forums, that is not true. But it isn’t for lack of trying. It’s just simply much, much, much harder to program for Windows. For whatever reason, the Mac version is just more stable and faster. So if you use a Windows machine, your best bet is to make sure you have a fast, newer, beefed up computer with plenty of RAM. In that case, you might enjoy Luminar. If you have a less powerful or older, Windows machine, you should absolutely try Luminar before you buy it to make sure it delivers the kind of performance you require.
Luminar 4.1 (not 4.0) is a worthy upgrade, assuming you are the right audience. If you need precise, professional, control over your images for press publication, or if you need access to the many Actions, Scripts, Plug-ins and Filters that work with Adobe products, you’re not the target for Luminar 4.1 (with one exception – which I will get to in a minute.)
The product is perpetually on sale, so never pay full price for it. At the time of this writing it was available from various Skylum affiliates for $89. That’s a one-time buy-out and you own the software for life. No forced updates or upgrades to buy. If you like it today, you can use it forever without paying for an upgrade, although the company does routinely update its software incrementally and does so for free. It’s the UPGRADES they charge for and even those are very reasonably priced.
I have two fast Macs and Luminar 4.1 runs like a well-oiled machine on both. It’s fast, responsive and quite effective and powerful if you take the time to learn its nuances. And learning Luminar 4.1 is about 25 times easier than learning Photoshop and / or Lightroom.
Even if you decide that you are a hardcore Photoshop/Lightroom person, I would say that there is a place for Luminar 4.1 in your post-processing workflow from the standpoint of its ability to run as a plug-in for Photoshop or Lightroom. There are several filters in Luminar that I couldn’t live without and they are easily worth the price of the software, especially since you don’t have to upgrade if those filters are all you are looking for. The company makes additional filter packs, presets known as LOOKS that you can buy – or in some cases download for free, and you can make your own LOOKs if you prefer.
For $89 I cannot think of a single piece of photo software that trumps Luminar 4.1. Highly recommended – for Mac users. Windows users should try the software out to make sure it will install and run well on their machines.
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