A review by Allister Jenks @zkarj
Skylum Software have been churning out new versions of their products like there’s a finish line somewhere near. Hot on the heels of Aurora HDR 2019, and a year on from the release of Luminar 2018, Luminar 3 builds out the photo processing features with an initial release of the long awaited (and promised) digital asset manager (DAM). In short – it’s great, but with caveats for my needs. Read on to see what’s what.
I’ve been using Luminar 2018 for all my photo processing for a few months now, which in my world means close to a hundred photographs. In this short time I’ve been committed to Luminar, I’ve come to really enjoy the efficiency it allows me in processing, and the quality it is producing. I even experimented with a handful of shots, processing them first in Adobe Lightroom CC Classic (hereinafter Lightroom), and then in Luminar 2018. I definitely prefer the Luminar way, and the Luminar results. While I could probably achieve the same results in Lightroom, Luminar somehow coaxes me to see how far I can push a photo, and as a result I’m getting punchier results, that I’m really pleased with, with less effort.
The biggest weakness with Luminar 2018 was that I was still using Lightroom to manage my photo collection. While I could use Luminar as a plugin to Lightroom, I’ve never been a fan of the round-tripping approach, so I have been importing all of my photos into Lightroom, adding keywords, picking those I will process, and then exporting those – keywords embedded – to a folder. Then, one by one, I load these up in Luminar, process them, save the Luminar file (so I can return to tweak my edits if desired), export a “master” 16-bit TIFF file, and finally use a further piece of software to scale and watermark the masters to my normal standards for uploading to Flickr, my blog, and for adding to my iCloud Photos library. It has taken a bit of effort to come up with this process, but it works.
Luminar’s promise to add a DAM has been a focal point for me for a while now, not least because my Adobe Photographer’s Plan was coming up for renewal – as it turned out, 3 weeks prior to Luminar 3’s launch. So now Luminar 3 is here, how does it pan out for me? I have to say, not perfectly, but I *am* happy to ditch Adobe, finally.
Prior to the launch of Luminar 3, Skylum released a roadmap for the product. One of the key reasons for the roadmap is that some quite obvious DAM features are not present at launch. Principally for me, keywords. Skylum have performed a balancing act – releasing a viable, if incomplete, product sooner, while allaying disappointment over a sub-standard offering. I think they’ve made the right call, because even the initial release of the DAM is going to be all some people need and those people are going to be very happy. For people like me, there’s the aggressive roadmap to look forward to. Skylum CEO Alex Tsepko has stated that keywords are coming soon, and a Lightroom migration tool, and they’re targeting the first half of 2019. Good enough for me!
ASIDE: Here’s an interesting thing. Less than a week prior to my deadline for renewing Adobe for another year, I decided to give my Lightroom library a good clean up – make sure all metadata was written to file, remove all flags, check for any corruption, and ensure a full backup – and bite the bullet. I went to the Adobe web site and started the process to cancel my account. Imagine my surprise when up pops an offer for 3 months free extension to my account! Seeing Skylum’s entire published roadmap is 7 months, I’ve opted for the free extension so I’ll more likely have options going forward to ensure my data is liberated from Lightroom to Luminar’s benefit.
So, what does the new DAM offer on day one? Speed, for one thing. There’s really no such thing as an import process for your photos. You either tell Luminar about a new folder or just dump images in a folder it already knows about and your images are just *there*. The thumbnails aren’t perfect, but they appear *very* quickly. Luminar will manage whatever folders you want it to, no matter where they are. As long as your computer can see the folder, Luminar will work with it. It’ll even cope when it can no longer see the folder, so removable drives and network mounted folders are fine places to store your photos. You also don’t need to worry about using Luminar to move images around. You can move them using Finder and Luminar will figure it out. (This is something Lightroom does deal with, but not well nor on its own.)
But Luminar doesn’t stop at your (possibly random) collection of folders. There are two other ways to view your library. While the folders remain the physical structure of your managed images, you can create *albums* to implement a virtual structure. Albums are like virtual folders and you can put whichever photos you like in them, regardless of their physical location. A photo can be in as many albums as you like, too, or not in any album. It is a total free form (and hierarchical) way to organise your images without having to change any folder structures. Then again, if you don’t want albums, you needn’t use them at all.
The third way to view your library is by date in what Skylum calls Calendar Mode. Luminar automatically creates a virtual hierarchy of year, month, and day which operate as another hierarchy like the folder or album structures, but one that manages itself based on the EXIF/IPTC time stamps in the image files. In my case, I’m beginning to wonder what physical folder structure I will use, because I currently have date based folders and they would now seem… redundant. You’re not limited to seeing a single day’s photos in this view, either, as you can select a month or a year folder to see everything in that time period. The folder and album structures work this way, too – click on a higher level container and you will see the collected contents of it and all its sub-containers.
But wait… there’s more! In addition to the managed hierarchies, Luminar 3 can also perform “Quick Edits.” These are individual files — from anywhere on your disks — that sit only inside the Quick Edits section of the Library navigator. I personally don’t see a use for myself, but I guess if you have an image in some folder structure that you don’t want Luminar to include in your Library, then this is how you’d do it. I *can* see why you’d want to use Luminar to spruce up any photo.
All of the date-based, album, and folder hierarchies (and Quick Edits) sit together in what Luminar calls a library. Technically, the library is a database of every aspect of your library *except* the original image files. Which folders are included, the album memberships, and your edits and edit history are all in this database, which itself is a folder structure that can live anywhere you want it to. But you needn’t make do with just one. While Luminar can only have one library open at a time, you can have as many libraries as you want and store them anywhere. At this stage there are no tools to move content between libraries which does somewhat limit how you might use this capability (for instance, a travel library could be useful if you could later merge it into a master library). I reached out to Skylum on this matter and they confirmed they have plans to add this capability, though no timeframe is set currently.
So, what other features does the DAM come with on day one? Quite a few. There’s a pick/reject system, a five star rating system, six colour labels, and some lightning fast filtering and sorting that uses these and other attributes. (I particularly like being able to filter to only edited images.) The picking, rating, and colour labelling are all possible with your mouse or handy keyboard shortcuts. One nice touch is that these shortcuts work whether you have one or many photos selected in Library view, or with a single photo open in Edit or Info mode. I should briefly mention that Info mode currently shows only the basic EXIF information for the open image — camera model, lens, aperture, shutter speed, etc. This is where the future EXIF/IPTC functionality will live.
Another new feature is the ability to sync adjustments across images. This is not something I will use often, but if you have series of shots taken in the same context it could be a big time saver, as it is super simple to use. One thing I think isn’t quite right with this is that it also syncs the crop of the source photo. It is worth noting that if you dial in, say, 50% on the AI Sky Enhancer filter, then sync the adjustment to other photos, each of the target photos will be treated anew by the AI, so photos with no detectable sky will be left alone and blue and grey skies will be treated accordingly, for instance. In other words, you’re syncing slider positions, not the final effects.
The rest of the edit the functionality of Luminar 3 is essentially the same as the 2018 version, except a significant effort has been spent on performance. On my resource constrained 2016 model 13” MacBook Pro, if I give Luminar a fair go at those resources, I find the editing experience quite acceptable. It could certainly be faster, but it doesn’t get in my way. After approximately 5-7 seconds to load up a 24 megapixel, 14-bit RAW file, most adjustments are visible within a second or so of moving the slider. That’s on par with Lightroom on the same computer.
The only significant downside for me, when compared to Lightroom, is that lack of keyword management. I know it’s coming, soon, but it is an unknown quantity to me. I can only hope it appears before I have to really pull the plug on Lightroom. I have trouble believing the people who have built what’s there today could do a bad job with keywords, so it’s really a matter of whether it will be as efficient as Lightroom’s system. I’ve made my needs known to the Skylum team, so here’s hoping. If necessary, I’m enough of a nerd that I have an exported file of my Lightroom keyword hierarchy stored away, and a copy of ExifTool installed. With a bit of work, I reckon I could get something going that uses the hierarchy as Lightroom does.
Keyword management aside, I am confident that adopting Luminar 3 will provide an overall efficiency gain *and* produce better results for me. While I have nothing against Lightroom technically, I do have something against committing to a yearly cost (even though it is paid monthly) that also covers another product I no longer use (Photoshop, which I replaced with Affinity Photo). That cost is about double what I paid for Luminar, so even supposing I paid full price for an upgrade each year, I’d still be well ahead. In fact, having paid for Luminar 2018, Skylum are giving me everything I have described above — including the announced upcoming features — for no additional cost. I’ll also not be crying about getting rid of the Adobe management software which mostly just annoys me with update messages and wastes my CPU and memory resources. Luminar follows a standard license model where you enter a code to enable the software beyond a trial period and then you just use it with no impediment forever more.
As mentioned above, I paid for Luminar 2018 out of my own pocket. However Skylum did allow me to participate in the Luminar 3 beta program which has enabled me to write and polish this review for publication at the launch. I also owe thanks to Simon at Essential Apple for making that participation happen.