Macphun Luminar 2018: Impressions and overview
Software is now an integral part of modern photography. Clicking the shutter button is only the first step in the image making process. Creative photographers will want to process that collected data using photography software before they will say the image is complete or ‘made’. Adobe is the number one photography software provider (at least in the prosumer/professional market) and as such, is the target of a lot of praise and criticism for the way its software performs and the company operates.
I have been using Adobe products for many years. I have the photography subscription which includes Photoshop CC and Lightroom (now called Lightroom Classic) and have been quite happy with them. My main complaint is that Lightroom has been a little slow but this seems to have been largely rectified in the latest version which is much snappier. I would love to try out Capture One, but this software does not the support the files from my medium format camera, so it is useless to me. I have also been using the Google Nik plug-in package for about 6 years and love its power and adaptability.
There has been controversy amongst photographers recently about Adobe moving to a subscription model. Many people dislike being locked in to a never ending monthly payment agreement to keep using a product. Many photographers (myself included) are in favour of this model as the monthly amounts are reasonable and you don’t need to shell out a massive wad of cash up front to get the software. It also means that you get continuous upgrades whenever they are available. Even so, the monthly amounts do add up over time and many amateur photographers may not be able to afford to keep paying the monthly amount or are just philosophically opposed to doing so.
Resistance to the subscription model may be helping other players in the market gain a foothold. They are offering independent software packages for outright purchase at very reasonable prices. Macphun is one of those players and they have now introduced the latest version of their photo editing package; Luminar 2018. The outright purchase cost of this package is about half the total yearly subscription cost for the Adobe photography subscription (though to be fair you do get more for your money with the subsription).
Macphun recently reached out to me to ask if I would be willing to work with them to review and promote their software. I prefer to maintain an independent voice, so I did not sign up as an affiliate partner, but I did agree to trial the software and do a written review. I’ve never done a software review before and my own photography is limited to a narrow genre (landscapes and nature) so I can’t fully assess the capabilities of the package or make firm recommendations for use, but I have put together some observations on how it fits with my own workflow and needs. To be clear I have tested the PC version of this software on Windows 10. There are some minor differences between the PC and MAC versions that you can find out about using the comparison tables on Macphuns website.
First Impressions & UI
Luminar 2018 is photo editing software that can work as stand-alone software or be installed to work as a plug-in for Photoshop or Lightroom. I tested it out in stand-alone mode and also as a Photoshop plug-in.
The interface is pleasingly straightforward. I very quickly figured out where everything was and what it did without having to refer to any kind of online tutorials. Macphun seem to have been able to create some capable software with a very intuitive and simple interface - unlike Photoshop which is an incredibly powerful and complex piece of software that has way more functionality than most photographers (myself included) will ever need or want.
I did notice a couple of small annoyances with the user interface. There are no ‘tooltips’ that pop up when you hover the curser over a button. This becomes less of an issue once you figure out what everything does of course but it does seem like a curios oversight. Another oddity I noticed was that the slide out menu for the filter list does not automatically dock once you have selected the required filter.
There is a filter called ‘Develop” that is intended for RAW development if you open a RAW file to edit. It provides lens and perspective corrections as well as basic adjustments. This seems to work fine except there is no built-in lens-correction profiles like there is with Lightroom and you will need to make these adjustments manually. Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw will recognize any one of hundreds of lenses (using information from the image metadata) and apply the correct profile.
After doing the RAW edits to an image then adding layers to create further edits using other filters you can export the file to an image format. Unfortunately when selecting the TIFF option there is no option to selected either 8 or 16 bit. It defaults to an 8 bit format. I ALWAYS work with 16bit TIFF’s since 8 bit TIFF’s often start banding in areas of subtle tonal gradations (mostly skies) once you start editing them. The file sizes are much larger but the results are clearly better in my experience. I guess one could argue that an 8 bit file may be okay for the final version that will have no further editing carried out but I would still rather eliminate that chance of image degradation from happening.
Unlike Lightroom (which uses a non-destructive, databased approach to applying edits) the RAW edits are not saved for future reference as there is no catalogue or image management system built into Luminar yet. The Luminar edits are non-destructive only in that they don't affect the original file, as one must export to a new file to complete the edit, but neither are the edits saved to a database file so they can be called up again later to make adjustments and export another image.
Presets & Filters
I am not really one to use presets. I edit each image individually to suit how I want it to look and the only presets I use in Lightroom are some user presets I have made which just do the basic adjustments I want on every image (lens correction for example). Luminar does sell the idea of presets fairly well and they are quite integral in the way the UI presents itself, but you don’t have to use them at all. It’s very easy to just apply whatever filters you want to work with.
Even better once you select a pre-set you get a list of all the filters that are included in that pre-set which you can of course go through and edit to mold the pre-set to something you like. You can of course combine your own set of filters into a custom preset for later use.
Even though I don’t use presets much, I was quite impressed with the number of presets Luminar includes and how good many of them are. Nearly all of them are completely irrelevant or undesirable for the landscape photography that I do mostly but I can see them being useful for those who want more creative or interpretive results. The few presets I found that worked quite well with landscape images were nice and being able to click between them to very quickly see a few different options helps with the decision making on how you want to edit the image.
The software has the ability to add layers with multiple filters added to each layer and global opacity for each layer. Each filter can be applied in a selective way with a brush and each filter and each pre-set (or filter group) and layer has a global opacity function which is a great idea as it enables the fine tuning of various edits very quickly. By combining selected filters with a bunch of layers you have a lot of control on the effects the filters have on the image.
When used as a Photoshop plug-in, the ‘export’ button in the top right-hand corner becomes an ‘apply’ button. When pressed, this button closes Luminar and applies the changes to the original image. In other words, the changes are ‘baked in’ and the original image is not kept untouched on a background layer.
My usual method for editing an image is to export the RAW from Lightroom as a 16 bit TIFF then convert it for smart filters (“filter” – “convert for smart filters”). This ensures that when I use a NIK filter (or a photoshop adjustment layer), the changes are only applied to a smart layer not the original image. These smart layers can have their opacity adjusted or they can be re-opened for further fine tuning or deleted entirely.
When I tried this method using Luminar the smart layer was created okay and I was able to edit the image in Luminar. However, when I clicked apply, the resulting image that was visible in the Photoshop tab was just the checkered grey overlay that indicates a transparent background. I could re-open the luminar layer, but any previous adjustments were lost. When I deleted the Luminar smart layer or made it invisible the underlying original image on Layer 0 is still visible. If the image is flattened, I end up with a simple white canvas. There is clearly some incompatibility with Photoshop smart layers going on here which is disappointing.
Stability & Speed
Within 10 minutes of first using the software it crashed while using it in stand-alone mode. Happily, this seems to have been a one-off as it has been stable since then.
Editing my medium format TIFF files (which start at around 300mb in size) while using Luminar as a Photoshop plug-in, is painfully slow - much slower than using the Nik plug-ins. Zooming is very slow. Oddly, it zooms into 100% momentarily whenever the ‘+’ or ‘-‘ button is clicked or the image is panned. Combined with the processing lag, this makes editing tedious. I tested smaller files and the behaviour was the same but proportionally quicker.
The identical image when opened in stand-alone Luminar works fine. Zooming and panning is quick and processing time is quick. I was left wondering why would I even use Luminar as a plug-in? There seems to be no advantage to doing so.
One of the more interesting things I discovered was that I found it difficult to replicate images that I had previously edited using my usual method. I am by no means a Photoshop wizard so I rely on my NIK filters that I have worked with for about 6 years to get me the results I want and I have gotten used to the constraints they have and the look I can achieve with them
It seems the constraints of any software has a direct impact on the final look. I got some very nice results on some of the trial images I edited but when I compared them to the images I had edited previously, they were often (but not always) noticeably different. Neither image was necessarily 'incorrectly' processed they are just different. The following series demonstrate this. I much prefer the first one which was my original version, developed with Lightroom and Google Nik Viveza as it is more natural and more closely reflects what I remember the scene looked like. The other results are markedly different. I could probably have gotten them to match more closely but I think it shows the different results that you can end up with if you have a fast processing style and you take the path of least resistance with the software you are using.
Luminar does not include any sort of data-based image management system so it can’t be a direct replacement for Lightroom but Macphun are saying that sometime in 2018 they will be introducing this feature. When that happens a more direct comparison between Lightroom and Luminar will be able to be made and people may be able to decide to stop using Lightroom.
There is a lot to be said for having software with built-in image management. This is one of the most powerful aspects of Lightroom as you can round trip images from the RAW conversion out to Photoshop for edits then back into Lightroom with all the keywords and ratings that go along with it. It’s also perfectly possible to never use Photoshop at all and just do all edits in Lightroom which is perfectly doable for users who have a very simple post-processing methods or requirements.
I would suggest that if Macphun implemented some kind of Lightroom Catalogue import feature that was able to retain all the key-wording, metadata, flagging, rating and collections that users already have in place it would make it a much more attractive proposition for people to go through the painful process of changing over. Not being a software engineer I don’t even know if this is possible but I’m sure if it is, Macphun should be considering it.
I think the most positive thing to say about this software is that it is the foundation of what will one day be a capable image editing and management software. Once image management is built in it may well become a one-stop solution for image processing for many photographers. In its current form it works well for processing images as a stand-alone package but it is slow when used as a plug-in and the lack of 16bit TIFF export is unfortunate. I will never use 8 bit TIFF’s for my master files because of the loss of tonal gradations in skies that often results.
Not being able to use the Luminar adjustment layers as smart objects that allow me to open them up and refine the edits is a deal-killer for me. I frequently go back to a previously edited image, re-open the NIK adjustment layers and make new tweaks with fresh eyes. Without this ability the changes are ‘baked in’ and the only way to make changes is to re-process the image from scratch which to me is unacceptable given my time-poor and quick-fire approach to image processing. Given the lack of this feature and how slow it works as a plug-in, I can't really see any advantage to doing so. Just stick with the stand-alone version.
It's important to concede that there are as many post-processing methods as there are photographers and the limitations that I bumped up against with this software may be completely irrelevant to another photographer. I will follow the progress of this software with interest - particularly once the image management upgrade becomes available in 2018 but at the present time it will not find a place in my regular workflow.