Skylum Doubles Down on AI Image Enhancement in Luminar 4 Photo Editor

Luminar 4 UI Example

We’ve written a lot about how much Adobe is now relying on the power of its Sensei AI platform, but in most cases Adobe is using it for tagging, selecting, and other tasks that help accelerate creative workflows, and not for pure image enhancement. Skylum, makers of the Luminar image editor and Aurora HDR processing tool, have in contrast gone all-in on AI-powered image enhancement. This is particularly clear in Luminar 4 ($89, available for pre-order via a special offer). I’ve been using a pre-release version for several weeks now, side by side with tools from Adobe and others, and can report that it provides an intriguing option for those looking to get results quickly without giving up the power of a full image editor.

Luminar Isn’t Photoshop or Lightroom, It’s Some of Each

The Library interface is clean and well-organized, but doesn't include cataloging functionalityLuminar fits in an interesting space somewhere between Photoshop and Lightroom. It has a non-destructive, slider-based, set of tools that work on a variety of image formats, like Lightroom. But it also has support for Layers, like Photoshop. However, you can’t go wild adding graphics and text to your image, or creating content from scratch as you can in Photoshop. And while it does have a Library module, it is not much more than a file browser with an option to create collections of images called Albums. So you can’t do all the powerful tagging and searching that you can on a Lightroom catalog (then again, you also don’t need to worry about maintaining one).

Once you’re used to adding folders to your Library, the folder system works pretty well. However, one thing that drove me nuts about the Library module is that there doesn’t seem to be any way to put basic information about each photo on its thumbnail in the Library. I get why a pretty view of your images is a lot of fun, but if you need to do serious work you often want to see the filename, date, or other key data while you are browsing. You can put information in a sidebar, but as far as I can tell it is only displayed once you click on an image.

AI Image Enhancement You Can Control

For those familiar with the nagging prompts provided by Google Photos suggesting semi-magical Automatic enhancement of your images, the concept of AI-driven image enhancement isn’t new. But features like Google’s are black boxes and very hit-or-miss about whether they will work for a specific image. Or indeed, whether Google’s computer’s creative vision for the image is the same as yours. Luminar 4 uses AI to provide the underlying framework to allow you to apply and customize a wide variety of types of enhancements, and even use contributed presets that it calls Looks.

The flagship enhancement is called, simply enough, “AI Image Enhancer.” Using it on a variety of images I found that it does an excellent job of making images more pleasing. Until now, I’ve found that DxO’s PhotoLab had the best-automated image process for 1-click image enhancement, but Luminar 4 definitely provides a competitive alternative. In addition to some hard-to-argue-with standard improvements, the AI Image Enhancer also tends to make colors richer and scenes warmer. That is a great starting point, but not for everyone or every image. It is easy to dial the effect back or click through some of the dozens of other Looks that are provided with Luminar 4.

Luminar 4's AI Image Enhancer did in a few seconds what would have taken me a few minutes in Photoshop

Luminar 4’s AI Image Enhancer did in a few seconds what would have taken me a few minutes in Photoshop.

Looks are organized into groups, including Essentials, Landscapes, Street, Portrait, Lifestyle, Dramatic, Aerial, User-defined, and downloaded. Flipping through them reminds me a bit of using an HDR program on a set of bracketed images. There is usually one that looks pretty good. But if it isn’t quite what you want, you can use the editing power of Luminar to tweak it to your heart’s content. You can change the slider settings on typical image adjustments, or even add additional layers, with many of the same capabilities as you’d find in Photoshop.

I found that the Autumn Colors preset did a nice job of warming up images taken under harsh light, like this one of elephants at a watering hole in southern Botswana

I found that the Autumn Colors preset did a nice job of warming up images taken under harsh light, like this one of elephants at a watering hole in southern Botswana.

In addition to a wide variety of typical image editing tools, there are also specific tools for AI Accent, AI Sky Enhancer, and AI Structure. Now, the buzzword AI is being applied to everything, so it’s not always clear in what way each of these tools uses carefully trained neural networks or other technologies that fall under the AI rubric. But, of course, it doesn’t really matter as long as the results are what you want. In my testing, I found the AI-powered filters did a surprisingly good job of creating more pleasing versions of the images I fed them. Like with many image enhancement tools, it’s easy to overuse them and create images that are gorgeous but give themselves away as being better-than-real, so moderation is called for.

AI Sky Replacement

One gripe common to anyone who photographs outdoors is that gorgeous skies often don’t show up when you want them to. Compositing an image taken from a specific place with another of the sky from the same place on a different day is something of a time-honored tradition (although of course, the result is no longer a true photograph.) In any case, the idea of automating the process is intriguing.

My original image from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon with a plain blue sky

A screenshot of my original image from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon with a plain blue sky

I was able to replace the solid blue sky of the image with one of the preset versions provided by Skylum

I was able to replace the solid blue sky of the image with one of the preset versions provided by Skylum.

Unfortunately, the first release of Luminar’s Sky Replacement only used their preset skies. In my mind that crosses the line from some type of photography to graphic art. I was pleased that they have now enabled the capability to use your own sky images. There is a bit of a trick to it though. It isn’t as simple as taking a second image of the same scene and letting Luminar do the heavy lifting. You need to deliberately shoot images composed of just the sky for the replacement to work (or crop an existing image to just the sky). That’s not the end of the world, but aiming up at the sky isn’t always automatic, and doesn’t always give you the perspective you want. So creating custom skies takes a little getting used to.

To use your own sky image you need to provide images that are entirely sky, not just images similar to your original that have a different sky. Here I've used a sky from a sunset over Lake Michigan

To use your own sky image you need to provide images that are entirely sky, not just images similar to your original that have a different sky. As an experiment, I used a sky from a sunset over Lake Michigan.

Is Luminar 4 the Image Editor for You?

My biggest gripe with Luminar 4 is that the company seems to have paused development of its cataloging system in favor of concentrating its efforts on image enhancement tools. So if you’re looking for something to replace Lightroom for cataloging your images, you’ll probably find the Library module of Luminar too limited. If you wind up keeping Lightroom as your cataloging system, but still want to take advantage of Luminar’s features, the company provides a plug-in for both Photoshop and Lightroom Classic, which is installed automatically when you install the main product.

Luminar 4 is available for pre-order prior to when it ships on Nov. 18 for $89 in a special offer that includes a variety of Look presets and a 1-year SmugMug membership.

[Image credit: David Cardinal]

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