Luminar Neo Review
I have been using Luminar in my workflow for a few years now. I always found the program to have specific uses in my photography workflow, in earlier versions I liked the color adjustments a bit better than Lightroom, and in later versions I liked the Accent AI for the vibrance it added to an image when used in subtle amounts. The Luminar series of programs all have the downside of being too easy to overdo edits and make photos look fake. Last year, when Luminar Neo was announced, I jumped on board early, and early adopters have had access to the release candidate version of the program for a few weeks now. The final version has finally dropped, so what is my impression compared to earlier versions of Luminar?
I worked in software development for a lot of years, and I totally get the process. In the case of Luminar Neo, the initial final build of the program has a few bugs, which is to be expected, but the feature set and revamped user interface are a big departure from previous versions, and worse, some of the features do not work quite as promised. Before we continue into the review, let me say that I paid for the program, and I am not an affiliate. My opinions are based on the initial 1.0 release of the software, not on the pre-release versions I had access to.
Early versions of Neo ran pretty sluggish on my test machines, and the initial release of the software is also sluggish. I’m running an M1 mac with a ton of RAM, and most AI features like remove phone lines took an agonizingly long time to process a RAW image from a Canon 5D Mk IV. My other test machine is an Alienware Aurora 14 with an i9 and 32GB RAM. The GPU is an Nvidia 3090, it runs Windows 11. Luminar Neo was painfully slow, on the same tasks on both platforms, so if you have a slower machine, you will feel the tie hit while Luminar Neo calculates AI adjustments. If the program is not optimized for the M1, I get it, but it should have been running well on my Windows machine. Let’s talk about some of the new features and perhaps more importantly, what’s missing from the program in this initial release. It should be noted that I saw these issues in the program when used as a plugin in photoshop, and Lightroom as well as the standalone version of Neo.
For Luminar Neo, the developer, Skylum opted to make a sweeping change to the UI in an apparent effort to solve a problem that wasn’t there. In previous versions of Luminar, the UI was like Lightroom in that users made changes to sliders like exposure contrast and the like and continued from the top of the list to the bottom as they make adjustments to an image. As the user applies edits to an image from the develop module through sharpening and other edits, they are required to open a panel, make changes, then open the next panel. The big disconnect happens when the user has made their adjustments to an image, then decides to return to a previous adjustment to find all the sliders reset. This is super jarring, and the “users will get used to it” mentality doesn’t work for me here. A common example would be, the user opening the develop module and adjusting exposure and contrast, then make other adjustments, and realize that the image could use more exposure. When the user returns to the develop module, the sliders are rest because the adjustments have been moved to the edits panel, and if users wish to add more exposure without adding more “layers” or instances of that adjustment, they have to go to the edits panel. I would expect those adjustments to still be available to me at any time during my edit in the same module because that is where I made the adjustment – like in every other program. The functionality is that every time the user opens the same panel the changes are added to the stack of adjustments in the edits panel rather than remaining as they were adjusted in the initial edit. This feels like they may have had a phone or tablet UI person designing this UI experience – which is a big disconnect for PC users.
The other odd thing are the presets, if the user selects a preset, the user cannot make changes to that preset other than the level of strength (opacity) the preset is applied to the image. In previous versions of the program, users could select a preset, then tune it to their liking. As an example, if you chose a preset that had a texture or vibrance level you didn’t like, it was easily adjusted, but on the Neo version of Luminar, users are stuck with the presets as they are. As of this writing, the user cannot create new presets, which I hope is a functionality that is just missing and coming soon. This means that if you take a series of images taken in the same light and want to apply the same adjustments, you have to recreate those each time. There is also no feature to copy adjustments from one image to another in the catalog pane – which I would hope is also coming soon.
One big feature Skylum promised for Luminar Neo is relight AI. We saw early demonstrations of the feature deftly relighting landscape images from daylight to evening etc. The early versions used AI to increase shadows in certain areas of an image and make it feel like it was a different time of day. In this release of the software, the feature feels like a linear gradient, limited to lighting near and far portions of your image. The feature works great on most portraits, allowing you to select and adjust the lighting level on the subject and the background separately – though it does add quite a bit in the way of halos and has a soft mask on the subject. I am very disappointed that it doesn’t work well on landscape images. I feel like the same functionality could be recreated in a few minutes using photoshop with better results in masking and subject selection. The relight AI feature often leaves harsh dark masking on the edges of objects partway through your image. I went back and looked at prerelease versions of the program and the relight feature seemed to have a much more realistic effect on landscape images. As of this writing, users can adjust the warmth and depth of the produced gradient but have no control over the adjustment of the mask. This feature is certainly hit and miss when editing.
This feature of Luminar AI has been replaced with the layers feature. Layers in Neo are not what you would think of – like in photoshop, but rather more of an overlay feature for textures and items like augmented sky in previous versions. I never used the augmented sky stuff as I felt it was a cheesy way to edit photos – my personal opinion. So if you are looking for layers that have traditional functionality like in photoshop, this isn’t it.
Should you switch?
If you are a Lightroom user, looking to get out of the monthly subscription payments and hoping that Luminar would do that for you, there are quite a few features missing in this initial release. The Catalog module has no color tags, and as mentioned above, no copy/paste settings to new photo option. The absence of star ratings combined with these other omissions make the catalog useless. As mentioned earlier, the user cannot save their own presets and there is no undo/redo implemented as of this writing.
If you are moving from a previous version of Luminar, Neo will not allow you to import or update your catalog or presets to use in Neo at this time.
Every program has bugs, it is inevitable. And we as users assume they will be fixed in due time. Currently, Neo often has issues rendering thumbnails of images in the Catalog, and during editing of photos, odd banding will often appear in the sky of your image. This seems to be related to the order of the edits stack. In my testing on the windows version, the program would often crash when applying an edit to an image. I would go through the process of completing the edit, then hit apply and the program would crash and the progress on the edit would be lost. The Mac version did seem a bit more stable on apply, but I did see a few crashes during my testing of this initial release.
During the edit process, adjustments made would often disappear completely from the edit stack, leaving the user with the image adjusted (say exposure or contrast) and no way to change it further. A restart or cancel of the edit was the only way to get back to work.
Would I buy?
I have been using Luminar for a long time now, and I have to say I am disappointed with the Neo release. I know that the team are working on the program, but as of this release, I cannot recommend Luminar Neo based on its current state of development. Overall, the program feels like it was rushed out, and needed a few more months of development. The UI changes aside, this feels like an incomplete product compared to any of the previous releases of Luminar.
Before you go…
I’m happy to amend this review once we get a new release, and if you have any questions about this review or the issues I experienced, please feel free to drop me a message here or on my social media links below. I love to hear from my readers, follow me and I will happily follow you back.
My Photography: www.tahquechi.com