We Review Luminar Neo: Is It Worth Your Investment?

I was intrigued to try Luminar Neo from Skylum. I’ve installed and used most of the image-editing software on the market except this app. Is it an app worth investing in?

People shout online about Skylum’s Luminar Neo. Although I have used a wide variety of different software, and several programs are in my workflow, it is one I’ve not tried.  

Download and Installation of Luminar Neo

Download and installation were simple, taking about three minutes on my relatively speedy machine. The program works as a standalone and as a plugin for Lightroom and Photoshop and as a plugin or extension for other apps. I could also manually set it up to open as a DNG copy, including with denoising applied in DxO PhotoLab6, or as the original raw file, TIFF, PSD, and JPEG from ON1 Photo Raw.

On opening the program, the user interface is pleasingly simple to look at. A panel on the left has different options for browsing the catalog of images:

  • All Photos
  • Recently Added
  • Recently Edited
  • Favorites
  • Trash
  • On This Day

That final one is a fun feature, especially for those with family photos. There is also a Single Image Edits feature, which has the photos you processed from other apps and sent to Luminar Neo.

On the right is the basic camera metadata. In between is the grid of images or the selected photo that you can open or close with a double-click.

The traditional menu (File, Edit, etc.) is hidden behind the Luminar Neo logo in the top left corner. To the right of that are three buttons that take you to three modules: Catalog, Presets, and Edit.

Working With The Three Main Modules

Catalog: Navigating Your Images

The Catalog button brings up a grid view of the photos. Double-clicking on a photo zooms into the picture, and a second double-click returns it to the grid view. Like other cataloging software, you can create albums and add photos to Favorites.

A right-click brings up a menu with different options.

Presets: Single-Click Adjustments

The presets tab has eight collections of presets with around seven presets in each set. Working a little like actions in Photoshop, each preset creates a series of what are in effect adjustment layers.

Edit: More Control Over Adjusting Your Images

Edit creates individual adjustment layers. On the right-hand side of the Edit module are two tabs: Tools and Edits.

The Tools panel is split into groups:

  • Favorites
  • Extensions (downloadable functionality)
  • Essentials (the regular raw development tools you find in most programs)
  • Creative (various special effects)
  • Portrait
  • Professional, which includes white balance adjustments called Color Harmony, Clone Tool, Dodge and Burn, and tonally separated contrasts

The Edits panel is a history of the adjustments that have been carried out, displayed as a stack of layers. Clicking on an earlier tool adjustment deactivates the adjustments above. You can then readjust the selected layer, and then clicking higher up the stack reapplies the later adjustments.  

Edits can be saved as Presets by selecting an actions drop-down menu at the bottom of the screen.

On the top far right is an Extras button for installing extensions such as panorama stitching, an AI-based noise reduction called Noiseless, Supersharp that addresses poor focus, and others. There’s also a marketplace where you can buy user-made presets, plus you can download presets, skies, and other overlays. You have access to both those and educational material if you subscribe to X Membership Premium.

Putting Luminar Neo Through Its Paces

I want to say everything was great with Luminar Neo, but it wasn’t a smooth ride. It crashed when I first used it and tried to access the catalog, and it would not restart as a standalone program. To get it working again, I needed to uninstall, clean the registry using CCleaner, and reinstall it. I suspect the fault was partially my fault for trying to open the catalog before it had been built, although there was no indication that it was happening. After reinstallation, it fired up and has worked smoothly since.

Luminar Neo is a simple program to use, far easier than some of its competitors’ offerings. I found it a bit strange at first as its nomenclature is different from other programs. For example, layers is called Edits, and “Actions” isn’t quite what it means in Photoshop. It opens Revert to Original (reset in other programs) and Save as Preset. Some of the layout decisions seemed alien to me too, such as hiding the standard menu items being the Luminar Neo Logo, although that does keep the UI looking tidy.

The Catalog was as fast to navigate as other apps I use, and the program opened images from each of those without any hitches. However, I did find it lacking in some areas. Firstly, there was no facility to add star ratings of color tags to the images, and thus sort them in that way. Secondly, it also lacked keywords. Consequently, sorting images is limited to liking them, rejecting them, and adding them to albums. For a novice, whom I suspect the stand-alone app is aimed at, it may be enough. Most advanced photographers are likely to be using the catalogs of other programs to sort their images and use Luminar Neo solely as a plugin or extension, so that function would be redundant for many people anyway.

The Presets supplied with the program are okay, although some were not to my taste. There are also nowhere near as many as you find supplied in other programs. Nevertheless, keeping it simple is what will appeal to beginners, Moreover, experienced photographers will probably make their own presets as a starting point for edits. Like other programs, presets can be purchased.

One odd choice was the decision not to have the monochrome presets all available in one place.

There are limitations on how the layers work. For example, in most programs, if you had a stack of, say, five adjustments, and altered the settings of layer number 3, all the layers remain active. However, in Luminar Neo, those higher in the stack are deactivated. That is problematic as you then have to click on the top layer to see the overall effect. Furthermore, the program tells you that your raw photo develops the moment you apply a non-raw tool.

Layer Masking can be AI-driven and works reasonably well. It automatically detects what it thinks is in the picture and creates masks accordingly. It wasn’t always perfect at identifying subjects, or at finding edges. In the following image, the AI included the decaying pier as water and failed to identify all the water. Then, the pier made of granite blocks beyond it identified as flora, and did not mask that perfectly.

There is also an AI crop tool that sets the crop to what it thinks is the best composition and a button for automatic horizon leveling.  I could not get these to work well at all.

Nevertheless, with practice, I could get some pretty good results from most of the editing tools.

There was one bigger disappointment. That was the application of the A.I. noise reduction. I’ve taken some very high-ISO images and long exposures for testing noise reduction. The noiseless extension, which needed to be downloaded separately, left colored blotches over the photo. Other apps that have had AI-driven noise reduction for a few years cleaned up noise fabulously from the start. Strangely, before the AI noise reduction, there was only luminance noise visible.

I spoke to someone at Skylum about this issue and they told me that they are actively working on enhancing this technology.

The Denoise model was trained on a diverse dataset comprising both raw and non-raw images in various formats. We are committed to making it more user-friendly and effective.

What I Liked and What Could Be Improved

What I Liked

  • Relatively simple to use compared to other apps, it’s especially great for beginners.
  • Works well as a plugin and extension.
  • It has some unique and interesting effects.
  • Some of the new AI tools will be useful for some photographers, most of which I have not mentioned: including Portrait Background removal, Relight AI with its 3D detection, Mask AI, Remove Dust Spots tool, and Powerlines removal tool.
  • Some of the AI tools are good, such as the Relight tool that can differentiate between near and far objects in the frame.
  • Great results are possible.
  • The subscription price is reasonable.
  • A perpetual license is available.

What Could Be Improved

  • Automated results are too processed for my taste, although they can be turned down.
  • There are limits to the layer functionality.
  • I get the impression that the UI layout would be better if it were less simple. All photo editing software is complex and oversimplifying it becomes a barrier to usability.
  • The Tools, panel would benefit from a solo mode to minimise groups not in use.
  • A single click to delete layers instead of two.
  • Some of the AI functions need improving: the AI Crop Composition tool and Horizon Alignment make some strange choices, the AI Noise Reduction is poor, and the AI Masking is hit-and-miss.
  • The cost of a perpetual license is far higher than more advanced apps, especially if you add the X Membership Premium.

My Conclusion: Is It worth the Investment?

It may sound from what I have written above that I didn’t like this software. That would be an unfair conclusion because it is okay, especially considering you can get a two-year license for two computers for $149.  At the time of writing, the perpetual license was discounted to $299, albeit from an eye-watering $599.

It is possible to get some great results with the program and relatively easily, too. There are some great video tutorials online, including the following one which runs through the AI features.

However, written tutorials, which I prefer because of my poor hearing, are sparse. You can pay Skylum for their X Membership, which gives you access to their Educational video library and 120 LUTs or Presets per year, 120 replacement skies and overlays per year, and a 15% discount from the Luminar Marketplace. That costs $49 for the first year and $99 thereafter.

It has a lot of potential and I look forward to seeing the improvements to the software as it develops. Is it worth your investment? I think the answer to that is where you are with your editing skills and what other software you have already bought. Moreover, there is a lot more to it than I can cover in this article, so it may be worth trying the free trial to see if it delivers what you need. You can download it by clicking here.

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