Luminar 2018 Review: The Best Alternative to Lightroom?

As soon as Adobe brought out its subscription-based model, photographers were calling for a clear alternative to their post processing needs. For professional photographers, a monthly subscription is not necessarily a bad thing. It means constant updates and the latest software. However, for hobbyist photographers, or those just not wanting to make a long-standing commitment, paying Adobe each month is not an attractive prospect. That’s where Luminar 2018 comes in. Developed by Skylum (formerly Macphun), Luminar 2018 is a powerful piece of post-processing software that is available for a very reasonable one-off £64 fee.

I’ve been playing with Luminar 2018 for a while now, and I think that it is definitely something photographers should consider if they are looking to move out of the clutches of Adobe. In this review of Luminar, I’ll share my findings so far and how exactly it functions.

First Impressions

One of the biggest concerns when moving over to a new piece of software is being thrown into the unfamiliar. Luminar 2018 is not an Adobe product, obviously, and so it has a totally different user interface. Good post-processing skills come from years of toying with familiar software, developing and learning different techniques.

luminar 2018 review

Luckily, Luminar 2018 appears to have been designed to make the transition from Lightroom to Luminar as smooth as possible. The majority of keyboard shortcuts that I use on a day-to-day basis in Lightroom will work in Luminar. This immediately made Luminar feel much more familiar, rather than something that was totally alien to me.

Processing Interface

One of the most interesting things about the Luminar processing interface is that it can be totally adapted for different photographers. Lightroom’s Develop window sticks you with a certain number of different editing panels. However, Luminar allows you to select any of a large list of possible edit panels to customise your sidebar.

Luminar calls each panel a “filter,” and they also have preset sidebars you can apply. The “Professional” sidebar comes with everything you’d expect in the standard Lightroom Develop window, such as raw file adjustments, noise reduction, and split toning. But if you want a more simplistic sidebar, you could just apply a few of them.

luminar 2018 review processing sidebar
Luminar’s processing sidebar is completely customisable.

I think this is an exciting feature, I really do. It allows the software to become mouldable and fit the needs and requirements of individual photographers, rather than aiming for a “one size fits all” approach.

Processing in Action

When making edits, it takes a few seconds for the image to render the adjustment that’s made properly with a full resolution image. When I move a slider, it says “Image Processing…” until it loads the high-resolution image with the adjustment applied. I’ve contacted Luminar about this, and their development team said that they are working on making the response speed much better. Once that update is applied, things will be a lot more fluid.

luminar 2018 review

Having said that, it’s not a sluggish piece of software. You don’t click around and find yourself hanging there waiting for windows to swap or toolboxes to load.

I also noticed that when applying a highlight or shadow adjustment from the Raw Development panel, the change is applied as a blanket adjustment to the entire image. In Lightroom, a highlight adjustment will only adjust the highlights of the image. It seems that in Luminar this adjustment is more of a global thing. Here is a before and after slider showing the extremes of -100 highlights, and +100 highlights:

luminar 2018 review luminar 2018 review

To get around it, you need to add an Adjustment Layer and use the “Develop” filter to make your highlight and shadows adjustments. This way things will work as you would expect in Lightroom with more localised adjustments. It’s a small gripe, but a gripe none the less.

A FIX IS COMING: Luminar have told me that this issue with the RAW Develop filter is a bug, and they’re looking to release a fix in the coming weeks.

Presets

I’m not a massive fan of presets, to be honest. They’re a good way to get yourself to a starting point, but rarely are they the perfect fit to replace an entire editing workflow. However, Luminar comes packed with a number of presets built-in.

If presets are your thing, then you’ll be jumping for joy when I say that Luminar can read your Lightroom presets and import them into your library. That means you don’t lose any presets you’ve worked on, or bought, over the years of Lightroom use.

You can also create your own presets straight from the Luminar 2018 software, just make your adjustments and click “Save Filters Preset” in the bottom right corner. Then, with just one click, you can bring back all of your careful edits.

luminar 2018 review presets

I do, however, like the user interface of Luminar. It’s very easy to use once you get used to the layout, and it’s a very “attractive” piece of software. The presets are organised into nice folders, with their own thumbnails, for you to peruse – that’s something you don’t see in Lightroom. Whilst it’s not going to make a major difference to the final photo, it’s always a plus point to have a good user experience.

Cataloging

At the moment, Luminar is capable of single or batch photo editing. However, we are assured that in early 2018 Skylum will be releasing a free update to include a digital asset manager. This will mean you can develop Lightroom-style catalogs, holding your photos in one organised place. Luminar will even be able to read Lightroom catalog files themselves, meaning you can import your Lightroom workspace straight into Luminar.

Things to Be Aware Of

One of the things I’ve noticed, and it’s simply a trick you have to remember to get used to, is that you’re working in layers with Luminar. If you’re looking to access filters specifically for raw files (such as RAW develop), then you need to make sure you have the original raw layer highlighted. If you’re on an adjustment layer and try to add a RAW develop filter, you won’t be able to find it.

The same goes for any adjustments you are making. Ensure that you’re using the correct layer where you want to apply the adjustment. This is a great opportunity for everyone starting out with Luminar to ensure they are actually utilising the layers feature. It’s so helpful to be able to separate individual adjustments into their own layers, as it means you can remove and change any adjustment you make in any order. It’s a totally non-destructive process when done properly.

The Lightroom / Photoshop Crossover

Luminar sits in a fairly unique position, in my opinion. With the promised cataloging feature imminent, it is a clear Lightroom alternative. However, it also has many features you would expect from Photoshop that are absent in Lightroom. This is likely because Luminar is Skylum’s main piece of editing software, whereas Adobe don’t want Lightroom to tread on the toes of Photoshop too much.

Luckily, Luminar doesn’t have this loyalty to worry about. Therefore, handy things like adjustment layers are present within Luminar. This means you can take your adjustments into separate layers. For example, you might want to make exposure adjustments on one layer, and colour adjustments on another. You can then toggle them on and off separately, just like you would when using layers in Photoshop.

Layers are an extremely powerful tool, and it’s fantastic to see them within Luminar.

In Conclusion

Luminar 2018 has exploded onto the scene with a lot of anticipation from photographers around the world who are looking to escape the clutches of Adobe’s monthly subscription program. I think Luminar is an excellent solution for those who are looking for an alternative, and it will be even more so when they release the cataloging update.

If you’re reading this and you’re looking for some new software then I say take the plunge and go for it. For a one-off payment of £64, you really can’t go wrong. You’re getting a powerful editing software that encompasses elements from both Photoshop and Lightroom into one great post processing asset.

You can download Luminar 2018 for Windows or Mac computers on the Luminar website. Use code NATURETTL at checkout for £9 off your purchase.

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Luminar 2018
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Will Nicholls is the founder of Nature TTL and a professional wildlife photographer and film-maker from England. Having been photographing since the age of 12, Will's images have won a string of awards, including the title of "Young British Wildlife Photographer of the Year" in 2009 from the British Wildlife Photography Awards. Will is also the author of the book On the Trail of Red Squirrels.

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  • Matthew Burn

    Thanks Will, how does this software stack up for relatively new photographers?
    I’ve just got to post processing and have been using PS Elements 15, so what are your thoughts on progressing?
    Should I get more proficient with Elements or switch early to more comprehensive software, with the view to becoming familiar with it?

    • Definitely something that’s fairly easy to get used to I’d say. It’s not a complex software and the user interface is great. I think an early switch is better as you’ll have more experience behind you in the long run.

      • Matthew Burn

        Thanks Will, biggest problem I have with Elements 15 is that it not intuitive and seems pretty slow; I think I’ll give this a go, see how I get on.

  • Frank Etchells

    Sorry Will but I’ve got to jump in here…

    For those thinking of this software I’d highly *recommend* you spend some time and go join the Skylum Support Group page over on Facebook… Read through the postings there…

    I’ve got to be honest (as a “Windows” user of it) and sadly disagree with you Will. It ‘seems’ *fairly* good for Mac (depending on the machine you have!) but there’s been plenty of ‘friction’ regards the Windows version – even with a few hot fix updates… It’s *got potential* but not at the moment… plenty of disgruntled users over on the support page for a few different reasons.

    Plenty of Vids on YouTube give very good and ‘ease of use’ viewing – definite **potential** but not yet.

    I did the Windows BETA version just before the release on Nov. 16th @ £44 – sadly I went for a refund just before Dec. 16th. There are still ‘teething troubles’ with it.

    • Thanks Frank – can’t say I’ve experienced any major issues myself, but I am using it on a Mac. I find that support forums always highlight problems for specific cases because that’s what they are used for, after all.

      No doubt there are some issues though. I know they just released an update that addressed some, and I’m told by Luminar that more fixes are coming after I reported my initial findings to them.

      Will be interesting to see how things progress!

      • Frank Etchells

        Hi Will. Thanks for replying. If it was a ‘forum’ then I think things would progress more helpfully as you’d be able to locate issues under different areas. However… the ‘support’ is via a Facebook page and we all know – or should I feel – how posts and ‘threads’ get lost in ‘Groups’ – they don’t in a properly ‘managed’ Forum 🙂

        If you’re not in their FB Support group (they have two groups: Photography and Support) then I’d recommend you visit/join and see how things are progressing – and how it was ‘early days’. It’s not just me I assure you 😉

        Q. How did you find using the ‘eraser’ tool in the Mac? It was horrendous in the Windows version – made the removed area darker/harder edged than the area it took the replacement pixels from 🙁

        I *still* feel it has the potential to be a great piece of software… and has an ‘ease of use’ once things slot in to place. MANY raved about the Sun Rays filter but the Fog filter was a great little filter to use… I’m still in their corner even if not now using the software and it not sounding as though I am… I *want* them to succeed but they’ve got a ways to go yet sadly.

  • johngunkler

    Thanks for the thoughtful article. One or two things that aren’t clear to me:
    1. What happens to the LR catalog? Can it be imported (in any sense) into Luminar? Will my Develop edits be there? Will they be reversible?
    2. Do I retain all the Keywording for individual photos? What about my Keyword tree?
    Thanks in advance for the clarifications.

    John

    • Hi John. Here are some answers for you:

      1- The Lightroom catalog file will be able to be read by Luminar 2018. The catalog update is not out yet (it’s coming soon as a free update).

      2- Your keywords should be retained as they are stored in metadata files, just like your adjustments.

      Best wishes,
      Will

      • johngunkler

        Thanks so much, Will. I always appreciate your information. Very helpful.

        John

        • Also, your changes will be retained in the metadata too.

  • Robin Orrow

    For me the one big difference between Luminar and Lightroom is Luminar claims to be a non destructive raw editor but in reality any adjustments you make need to be saved when you exit the program resulting in a large Tiff or JPG file being saved alongside the raw and with a large library that creates quite a demand on hard disc space rather than producing a small sidecar file.