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Review of Luminar AI

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Ever since it was released on Monday, I've been getting emails asking me for my opinion of the new Luminar AI program from Skylum.

I will add my own thoughts in a bit, but I suggest you start with a pair of external reviews, this one from Digital Camera World and this one from Digital Photo Mentor.

Both of these reviews echo my own experiences so far so I think they make a good jumping off point for the rest of my comments.

I've had some time to play with Luminar AI and I think it's great as a plugin for achieving certain special effects, but... that's all it's ever going to be for me – a filter or plugin for doing something like sky replacement or detail enhancement.

It's definitely not a substitute for Photoshop or Lightroom. More importantly, you should understand that Luminar AI is NOT an upgrade from Luminar 4, although it has many features from that program that you will recognize.

Luminar AI is actually something different entirely.

Skylum appears to be moving away from pro photographers and more toward the broader instagram/influencer/content creator market who just want an easy way to add sizzle to a photo without having to learn a lot about editing.

From the DCW review: "Skylum has taken a bold step. It is ending development of Luminar 4 and taking its core technologies in a new direction. That may disappoint a lot of Luminar fans hoping for an ever more sophisticated and advanced Lightroom or Photoshop alternative. It doesn’t look like that’s going to happen now."

...and then a bit later...

"Luminar AI does exactly what it sets out to do, though, by allowing novice photo editors to inject some magic into their images without the need for a lot of know how to time consuming manual editing. It is very easy to create ‘idealized’ reality with Luminar AI, which we suspect will be popular with content creators but perhaps controversial too."

Did you catch that last part about "idealized reality"? It was almost mentioned in passing, but I think they are referring to the fact that the built-in AI has a tendency to make all your images look the same if you rely on it too much. The algorithms can do some nice things to your photos, but there is no substitute for the creative eye.

Now that you've had an overview, let's dig a little deeper into the various features and functions of Luminar AI

The program has a series of automatic "templates" you can apply to process an image using "Artificial Intelligence" and these templates include a mixture of various processing parameters that are automatically configured using Luminar's various AI components for composition, accent, color, contrast, and more. The program will suggest various templates based on analyzing the image you give it. (This is something of a hit or miss process.)

I'm going to be honest here and say that I find these templates to be nearly useless for anything practical. There are only a few of them so far and the results they produce are rarely pleasing and often quite garish and over processed looking to my eyes.

Instead of relying on one of the templates to do everything automatically, I suggest users go in to each of the individual parameters and make more thoughtful adjustments there. The AI features will still be available, but for realistic results, you'll need a lighter touch than the automatic routines seem to exhibit thus far.

From the AI enhanced functions, I would say Accent AI, Structure AI, and Sky Enhancer AI are all useful adjustments when applied tastefully. The Body AI, Face AI, and Iris AI functions have more limited use but can be handy in certain retouch scenarios.

From the non-AI based adjustments, I would say that the Details, Landscape, Super Contrast, and Color Harmony are the most useful and unique functions. I particularly liked the "Golden Hour" and "Foliage Enhancer" sliders within the Landscape adjustment. Most of the other tweaks can be done just as easily in Lightroom or Photoshop or whatever your host program might be.

Then of course, you have special functions like Sky Replacement (now called Sky AI), Augmented Sky AI (which allows you to add suns, moons, and other celestial objects to your scene), and Atmosphere AI which allows you to add haze, mist, or fog to your image. Other effects include Glow, Film Grain, Mystical, Matte, Mood, Dramatic, and more. Each imparts a specific look and you'll want to try them out yourself to see what they really do to your images.

They really seem to be positioning this program as a "gee whiz" special effects "enhancement" app for users who are looking for an easy fix. Experienced photo editors will likely find themselves only using a smaller sub-set of these effects as needed. This is why I view Luminar AI as being more like a Filter or Plug-In I can use with Photoshop or Lightroom to add a special effect. It's never going to be my daily editing program for the bulk of my tasks if they keep going in the direction they are.

Some other things to consider:

1) Luminar AI cannot import catalogs from the previous versions. I don't really use them. So this isn't a deal breaker.

2) The Sky Replacement feature still doesn't do reflections as teased in their promotional videos. Maybe this feature will be added at a later date? Until then, you can keep using the technique I described in my article on Easy Sky Replacement with Reflections.

3) Luminar AI has no support for layers as of this release. This is disappointing as I though the layers function worked very well in Luminar 4 for stacking adjustments on top of each other. Given the new direction Skylum appears to be headed, I wonder if they will ever add layer support.

The novice editors and instagram content creators will love the simplified interface and ability to make gee-whiz special effects, but for the rest of us I think this is going to be a niche product.

I will use Luminar AI as a plug-in or special effects filter, but if this trend continues, I don't see it ever becoming a daily-use photo editor for myself and the majority of the photographers I work with.

Radial Swirl Technique (Free Photoshop Action!)

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Download the Photoshop Action here.

I participate in some wonderful digital art and photography forums where people share the creations they have made in-camera and in post-production. These groups are a constant source of inspiration to me and earlier this year I came across some gorgeous images that caught my eye. They looked like thin filaments or ribbons of semi transparent color, all swirled together beautifully in a circular mandala. There was something about the pattern, shape, and quality of the colored light in these images that I found enchanting. Of course that meant I had to know how the technique was accomplished! 

Fortunately for me, one of the first images I saw belonged to a former student and fellow member of my local camera club named Marcy Pivin. She had learned the technique from somebody else and was more than happy to pass the steps along to me.

I had a great time trying out the process on various images to see which ones generated the best results and which ones came closest to capturing the particular quality of color and light that had attracted me in the first place. I fell down a rabbit hole for quite a few hours that afternoon and the result was a Photoshop Action I created to automate the entire process. (Free download via the link below!)

Here'a a breakdown of the steps that go into the process and some instructions on how use the Action. You can apply the process manually using the steps outlined below, or you can run the Photoshop Action that is provided at the end of the article.

Begin by choosing an image for this process. I've found that source images containing small areas of color throughout the frame tend to produce the most pleasing results. Note that this is a personal choice and you may find yourself attracted to images quite different from the ones I like. Experiment with different sources and see which ones you like the best.

1) The first step is to apply a Mezzotint filter to your source image. (Setting: Medium Lines) - This has the effect of scattering your source material horizontally and making the colors more saturated and intense.

2) The next step is to apply a Radial Blur filter. (Centered, Method: Zoom, Quality: Best) This will scatter your pixels in radial lines out from a center point. The more intense colors from the first step will be muted a bit by the process. (This is a good thing!)

3) You have some creative options at this point. This technique calls for the Radial Blur filter to be applied anywhere from one to five times before you move on to the next step. How many times you apply it will be completely a matter of taste. You'll probably need to experiment a bit to find out what you like best. For most images, I apply this Radial Blur filter twice, but I've done as few as one and as many as five. 

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The action I built will pause after two applications of the Radial Blur and present you with a dialog box allowing you to either run more Radial Blurs, or proceed with the rest of the technique.

If you wish to apply the Radial Blur again, you can simply hit CTRL-CMD-F (Mac) or CTRL-ALT-F (Windows) on the keyboard to run the last filter again. Once you are happy with the results, you can resume playing the action and it will finish out the process for you.

4) The next step in the technique is to duplicate the Background layer which results in two identical copies stacked on top of each other. 

5) The bottom layer is selected and has a Twirl filter applied to it with a rotational angle of 80. This takes the radial lines produced by the first few steps and twirls them around a central point.

6) The top layer is selected and has a Twirl filter applied to it with a rotational angle of -80. This takes the radial lines produced by the first few steps and twirls them in the opposite direction around that same central point.

7) Finally, change the Blending Mode of the top layer to "Lighten" so that the lightest pixels from each layer will show through. This creates the beauiful mandala effect when the two layers are blended.

Optional: When you've finished with the basic technique, you might also want to play around a bit with the resulting layers and how they are blended with each other. There is a second action I have included with the set that will take the results of the first action and flattern them into one layer, duiplcate and flip that layer 180 degrees and change it's Blend Mode to "Lighten". This optional after-effect creates yet another variation that I frequently found appealing. The last few images in the gallery were made using this extra step.

Download the Photoshop Action here.

To install the Action: Download file from the link above. Unzip the download. Open Photoshop, go to the menu in the Actions palette and choose "Load Actions...". Browse to where you have unzipped the action and choose the unzipped file. It should appear in the Actions palette as a folder labeled Radial Swirl.

To run the Action: Open a source image. Select the action "2X Radial Swirl" from the Radial Swirl folder in the Actions palette. Click the play button.

Easy Sky & Reflection Replacement (Free Video)

Beforeafter2Click here to get your free video.

In this tutorial, I'm going to show you an easy shortcut for Sky Replacement with Reflections Using Luminar 4

And best of all, there’s NO HAND-MASKING REQUIRED!

One of the coolest features in Skylum’s Luminar 4 program is the ability to do something they call “AI Sky Replacement” which simplifies the process of swapping out a boring or poorly exposed sky for a more interesting or better exposed one.

Using an artificial intelligence algorithm, Luminar 4 can completely and believably replace the sky in your image without you ever having to use selections, masking, or layers. It’s all fairly automatic.

And that’s the genius of this feature. It finds and masks off the sky areas automatically so you don’t have to spend hours in Photoshop with a brush and a magnifier painstakingly selecting the sky areas by hand and praying that you didn’t accidentally color outside the lines resulting in halos at the edges of your selections and a poorly blended replacement sky. As Skylum says in their advertising: “Results in seconds without manual editing!”

I’ll admit I was skeptical when the feature was first introduced. But I have to say after using it for some time now, I am more than a little impressed with how well it works on the majority of images that call for sky replacement.

The AI routine does a fantastic job of automatically masking the sky portions and allowing you to fill them with one of the built-in replacement skies that come with the program or even one of your own sky photos.

The key to successful sky replacement is making sure that it looks realistic, natural, and true to the original scene in terms of exposure, color, and detail. Differences in exposure and white balance between the original image and the new sky will make the composite image look fake to your viewers even if they can’t explain exactly why.

Fortunately, Luminar comes with some clever adjustments you can make in the Sky Replacement tool that give you the ability to modify the position, exposure, color temperature, and blur amount of the replaced sky so it blends in naturally with the existing image. There’s even a slider to “re-light” the original scene so it’s more harmonious with the replacement sky. Using these kinds of adjustments, I am able to more successfully match my new sky with my original scene in almost every case.

Which brings me to the reason for this little video…

One of my photography students recently asked me if Luminar can do sky replacement on a photo that has reflections in it (like on the surface of a lake or other body of water) and make it so that the reflections match the replaced sky and still look natural.

And I thought to myself “You know…that’s a darn good question!”

Because if you are going to convincingly replace a sky, you need to do it everywhere the sky appears in your image – including reflections.

A quick search on YouTube netted me a dozen or more tutorial videos from various authors and educators explaining how to accomplish this sort of thing in Luminar.

Every one of these tutorials suggested a nearly identical technique for solving the problem of matching the reflections to the replaced sky.

Unfortunately, every one of their solutions had a significant drawback to it which I will explain momentarily.

First, they all tell you to use Luminar to replace the sky as you normally would, but they also caution you that for their reflection technique to work, you can’t use one of the built-in skies. You have to use one of your own skies because you’ll need access to that sky file again for making the reflection later on. And it’s not easy to get at the ones that are built into the program.

Second, after using Luminar’s AI Sky Replacement, they have you create a new image layer on top of your base layer and to load it up with the same sky you had used before. This new image layer then gets flipped over vertically and positioned to be used as the reflection in your image.

Finally, (and here’s where they lose me completely)
In the last step of every one of these tutorials, they instruct you to use the layer masking brush on the reflection image layer to hand-mask the reflected sky into the lower half of the scene. Yep, you heard me right. They all want you to hand-paint the mask for the reflection.

And in every one of these videos you can watch the person doing the demo struggle to paint that mask evenly. They have to work hard to avoid leaving halos at the edges of their hand masked reflections. They are always painting and erasing and painting and erasing to get it just right. They frequently fast-forward over that tedious part of the process in their tutorials and skip to the reveal at the end where they show off their replacement sky with matching reflection.

Now the first thing I thought when I watched these videos is that the entire purpose of using a program like Luminar to replace a sky is to take advantage of that amazing AI Sky Replacement tool to do all of that difficult masking work for you. Why on earth would you want to manually mask-in by hand all that stuff for the reflection? You may as well do that in Photoshop if you are going to do it by hand.

So it seemed to me that all of these solutions were:
   a) way more work than most folks probably want to do, and 
   b) a complete waste of Luminar’s great AI Sky Replacement tool.

After scratching my head over this little problem for a few minutes and wondering why it had to be so hard, I came up with what I thought might be a relatively quick and simple solution. In fact it was so simple, I doubted myself at first. I wondered if there was something I was overlooking.

Surely, there’s some way we can make the AI Sky Replacement algorithm automatically find and mask the reflected area as well? I mean…There’s got to be a better way, right?!

And sure enough, after a couple of experiments, I managed to figure out a simple repeatable method to do exactly that without any sort of hand-masking. And best of all you can use either the built in skies that come with Luminar or you can use your own skies.

And when you see how the trick is done, you won’t believe how easy it is to do. It’s almost embarrassing how simple the solution to the problem actually is.

UPDATE 2020-10-15:

Sklyum has just announced they will be adding a reflection feature to the new version of AI Sky Replacement coming in the next version of Luminar!

UPDATE 2020-10-20:

The latest release of Adobe's flagship program Photoshop includes a Sky Replacementfeature driven by their "Sensei" AI system. This is no doubt, a response to a similar feature that Skylum includes with their editor Lunimar. Here's my initial reaction to their offering.

I'm going to cut right to the chase and tell you that in my initial tests, Luminar is noticeably better than Photoshop.

It does a better job masking and retaining fine details. And it offers more useful tweaks for adjusting the replacement sky and how it interacts with your existing image.

Right out of the box, with no adjustments, Luminar produces more natural results. In many cases no adjustments are necessary at all.

With Photoshop, I was only able to get decent results by adjusting the parameters a fair bit after choosing a replacement sky.

Skylum has a head start on this tool and have updated and improved their implementation over the last 18 months. Adobe is new to the game, so we will have to watch and see if they can improve their algorithm. Remember that "Select and Mask" wasn't so great at first and now it's phenomenal. I will try to be patient as they work on their version of Sky Replacement.

For now, I'm sticking with Luminar for that particular task

Click here to get your free tutorial video.

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