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May 2022 Update (Latest Pros & Cons)


This Luminar Neo review will cover Skylum’s latest photo editing software which is available for Mac and Windows.

With its headline AI-powered tools and easy to use interface, Luminar Neo has been the year’s most eagerly anticipated release – but does it live up to its hype?

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There’s still a lot of confusion surrounding the feature overlap of Luminar Neo with Luminar AI, released only a year earlier.

With the latest version, Neo presents a solid set of features that helps it step ahead of its predecessor, but is still missing functionality to make it entirely redundant.

Aside from all its flashy AI features, will photographers genuinely find Luminar Neo a useful editing app, or is it destined to be a transient gimmick for the Instagram generation?

In this review, I answer all the most common questions to help you decide whether you should buy Luminar Neo in 2022.

All information is based on Luminar Neo v1.0.6 released on May 12, 2022.

What is Luminar Neo?

 

Pros

  • Affordable one-time price
  • Easy and fun to use
  • Effective one-click presets
  • Impressive AI tools
  • Excellent portrait enhancers
  • Fast RAW image imports
  • Promising layer-based workflow
  • Especially useful as a Lightroom Plugin
Cons

  • Slow to respond (initially)
  • Limited photo management features
  • Limited print and export options
  • Disappointing mobile app
  • Lack of processing indicator

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Luminar Neo is a powerful image editor for Mac and Windows, powered by AI technologies that can simplify complex photo editing tasks, making them fast and fun.

Headline AI features include the ‘god-like’ ability to relight a scene, replace the sky, remove powerlines and dust spots, and perform various jaw-dropping portrait enhancements in just a couple of mouse clicks.

The main attraction of Luminar Neo is the opportunity for a complete novice to carry out immensely complex photo editing tasks with a couple of clicks. It’s also useful for more experienced photographers who want to save time or experiment with their image editing.

In addition to this artificial intelligence wizardry, Luminar Neo provides a solid selection of core editing tools which rival other popular image editors.

Numerous Presets are supplied, (with more available to download/buy), which apply instant photo effects to images to alter their look – AI recognises the image and suggests suitable ‘For This Photo’ Presets to save time.

Luminar Neo pairs up with Luminar Share, a basic mobile app for iPhone and Android devices that allows you to wirelessly transfer your smartphone images to be edited in the desktop Neo software, or vice versa to be shared on your favourite social media network.

You can also install Neo as a plugin for Photoshop and Lightroom Classic, allowing it to load from within their respective interfaces.

This is handy if you want to keep using the DAM functionalities of your existing LRC catalogue, while taking advantage of the AI tools in Neo, for example.

Luminar Neo Review (Updated for May 2022)

Skylum released Luminar Neo in February 2022 with the intention of providing frequent updates.

This Luminar Neo review is based on the latest version 1.0.6, which was released on May 12, 2022, with Mask AI, Histogram and bug fixes.

1. Installation & Setup

After downloading and launching the Luminar Neo installer, you’re given the option to install Neo as a plugin for Photoshop and Lightroom Classic (if you’re already an Adobe user).

Strangely enough, you’re no longer able to install third-party plugins in Luminar Neo (such as Topaz Gigapixel, for enlargements) – something you were able to do with Luminar AI. Hopefully, we’ll see this in a future update.

The program takes up 2.84GB of space on my Mac’s hard drive, which seems average when compared to other photo editors.

When the installation is complete and you’ve created a Skylum account, you’re shown a QR code which installs the companion mobile app Luminar Share.

2. Importing & Browsing Images

Screen showing importing of images to Luminar neo

Getting images into Neo is simple and fast.

Getting photos into Luminar Neo is dead simple and a refreshing experience for anyone who’s ever tried using Lightroom for the first time.

Clicking the Add Photos button does exactly that – you choose a folder or selection of photos on your hard drive, click Add, and then everything suddenly appears in your Luminar catalogue.

Photos are added impressively quickly on my 2021 MacBook M1 (32GB RAM) – testing on my wife’s 2020 Macboom Air with 16GB of RAM was also similarly fast.

It’s important to note that photos aren’t really ‘imported’ into Luminar Neo – they are actually being ‘referenced’ in their original location, much like a file browser. This has certain distinct advantages and disadvantages.

The main caveat to this file browser experience is that the photos need to exist somewhere outside Neo, or they appear as ‘missing’.

This means that you’re unable to import images to Neo from your camera’s memory card unless: a) you’re willing to keep the card in the card reader until you’re finished with the images, or b) you transfer the images to your hard drive first, then add the photos to Neo from that new location.

Confused? Basically, when your photos are moved or deleted on your hard drive (external to Luminar Neo), the same thing happens within Neo.

If, however, you delete an image from within Luminar Neo, it’s added to a ‘Luminar Trash’, with the original image remaining intact outside of Neo.

Software such as Lightroom, however, employs an actual image importing process which creates a duplicate version of the file within a separate catalogue, meaning any external changes won’t affect the catalogued image.

For many photographers, Luminar Neo’s file browser approach to file management will be a breath of fresh air – there’s close to zero wait time for photos to appear in the software, ready to be edited.

However, for professional photographers who need a direct way to get images off their SD card into editing software, Luminar Neo isn’t an appropriate choice.

It’s also worth noting that you can add photos from external hard drives or even network-attached storage (NAS), but as soon as you detach the devices, Neo will no longer be able to show them.

3. Photo Organisation

Various organisation options with in the software

Organisation options auto populate depending on your actions.

Ignoring the restrictions on importing from non-permanent devices/locations, you have to admire the simplicity of photo management in Luminar Neo.

On the left of the screen, the ‘Catalog’ module consists of 5 locations which auto-update based on your actions:

  • All Photos
  • Single Image Edits
  • Recently Added
  • Recently Edited
  • Trash

Hovering over each title reveals the number of images in each case, and ‘Recently Added’ and ‘Recently Edited’ offer drop downs which reveal the dates the actions were performed.

Under this, the ‘Folders’ level houses any folder from your hard drive that you add to Luminar Neo.

Finally, there are the ‘Albums’, which behave similarly to Lightroom Collections, allowing you to compile collections of various images that already exist in your Neo catalogue.

You can add multiple photos to an album or create a new one by selecting them all and right-clicking to reveal the options. Oddly, you can’t drag and drop the photos into the Albums panel to create new albums.

4. Catalog Interface

Right clicking in the software reveals various options

Right-clicking on photos reveals various options.

Luminar Neo Catalog’s single photo view shows a filmstrip below – right-clicking photos in the single view or within the film strip reveals various options:

  • Set Flag
  • Adjustments
  • Export
  • Share
  • Open In
  • Go To
  • Create Album
  • Move to Luminar Trash
  • Show in Finder

Aside from the self-explanatory, ‘Set Flag’ allows you to Favourite, Reject or Unmark, using the same shortcut keys as Lightroom, and ‘Adjustments’ allow you to Sync, Copy or Paste any image edits made across other photos.

‘Open In’ allows you to open the photo in various apps you may already own: Photoshop, Lightroom, Photos, Elements and Aurora HDR.

There’s also a heart icon to favourite, an ‘X’ to reject and an eye icon which shows a before (unedited) version of your image, although I still prefer the implementation of the Before/After tool in Luminar AI.

One slight annoyance is the frustratingly narrow side scroll bar, which only comes into partial view when you move your mouse’s scroll wheel.

5. Presets Interface

Example of Neo's artificial intelligence suggesting the correct photo preset to use.

The software intelligently recognises the photo contains a girl’s face and recommends portrait presets to suit.

Next to the ‘Catalog’ module is ‘Presets’ – clicking this reveals a selection of thumbnails with somewhat ambiguous titles, like ‘Experimental’ and ‘Influencer’.

These presets were the headline feature of Luminar AI (named ‘Templates’), promising to save hours of fiddling around with sliders to achieve the desired look.

The ‘For This Photo’ presets are your first taste of artificial intelligence coming to your rescue in Luminar Neo, predicting the one-click ‘look’ that would best complement your photo, based on its perceived contents.

In practice, if your photo contains a person, ‘For This Photo’ will show presets best suited for portrait photography. If the photo is of a landscape, the AI suggestion will be presets such as ‘Scenery’, ‘Sunsets’ or ‘Easy Landscapes.’

Clicking into each main preset category reveals various more associated presets, and so begins the testing process.

Clicking into The Presets reveals various other options

Clicking a preset title reveals other associated presets.

Rather than complicating the process of photo editing, the Luminar Neo Presets panel seems to have been designed to encourage experimentation – ‘Influencer’, ‘Cozy Den’ and ‘Winter Refuge’ mean nothing until they’re clicked.

Don’t like the effect? Simply click the arrow to return to the original, or click the heart icon to add it to your favourite presets.

Bizarrely, there’s no option to fine-tune the presets in Luminar Neo like there was in Luminar AI – you either apply the preset in its entirety…. or you don’t.

Being able to ‘back off’ the effects of a preset would be a welcome feature, so hopefully we see this added to Neo in a future update.

6. Edit Interface

The ‘Edit’ module houses all the manual and automated editing tools of Luminar Neo. In its ‘Tools’ panel, you’ve got the following:

Essentials

  • Develop
  • Enhance AI
  • Erase
  • Structure AI
  • Color
  • Black & White
  • Details
  • Denoise
  • Landscape
  • Vignette

Creative

  • Relight AI
  • Sky AI
  • Atmosphere AI
  • Sunrays
  • Dramatic
  • Mood
  • Tonight
  • Matte
  • Mystical
  • Glow
  • Film Grain

Portrait

  • Portrait Bokeh AI
  • Face AI
  • Skin AI
  • Body AI
  • High Key

Professional

  • Supercontrast
  • Color Harmony

When clicked, each of the tools reveals multiple sliders and sub-menus.

Anything with a slider invites you to experiment, with the partially hidden sub-menus containing options for when you’re more comfortable with the basic functionality of each tool.

Those coming from more professional-photographer-orientated photo editing software may poopoo the somewhat hodgepodge organisation of the tools, but if you’re new to photo editing, the layout is user-friendly and quickly becomes familiar,

Anything with ‘AI’ after its name denotes something with a very special party trick – more on those later.

Next to ‘Tools’ is the ‘Edits’ panel, which is kind of like Lightroom’s History tool, keeping track of each edit you’ve made to the image.

You’re also presented with another eye icon for a before/after, a revert arrow to undo each specific edit, and a pen icon, which allows you to make local adjustments like creating masks to add/remove effects.

One thing I found rather confusing was the fact that any preset you apply to your image will be shown in the ‘Edits’ panel, broken up as individual steps of the edit.

e.g. the ‘Nighthawks’ black and white Preset applies ‘Black & White’, ‘Details’, ‘Enhance AI’, ‘Structure AI’, ‘Face AI’, ‘Denoise and Develop’ – I assume this may change slightly depending on the contents of the photo.

Screen showing various edits applied automatically when choosing preset.

Presets can be viewed in the Edits panel as individual edits.

While this allows for some granular control over the preset, it’s difficult to tell what differences the individual edits actually made to your image – choosing to control each one feels like a stab in the dark.

You’ll also find ‘Layers’ on the left of the ‘Edit’ module – clicking the + icon reveals a selection of overlays which you can add to your image to produce various effects: ‘Flares’, ‘Light Leaks’, ‘Sparklers’ and ‘Stardust Bokeh’.

You can also load any image from your hard drive to use as a layer for a double exposure effect. Any layer’s opacity and blending mode can be altered to achieve your desired look.

Those hoping for a true layer-based editing experience akin to Photoshop or ON1 Photo RAW will be disappointed, but if all you want is a simple way to experiment with your photos, Neo comes up with the goods.

7. Standard Editing Tools

Using the basic develop editing tools in the software.

Clicking tools reveals various options for full manual control over editing.

For photographers who like to take a manual approach to their photo editing, the Develop panel is where it all starts – ‘Exposure’, ‘Highlights’ and ‘Shadows’ are familiar, while ‘Smart Contrast’ is unique to Luminar, controlling both highlights and shadows in tandem to give your image a nice boost.

Under that, ‘Blacks & Whites’, ‘Curves’, ‘Sharpness’, ‘Noise Reduction’ and ‘Transform’ are self-explanatory, while ‘Color’ refers to temperature and white balance, and ‘Optics’ fixes lens distortion and vignetting.

(According to a Skylum rep who talked to PCMag, Luminar Neo includes a database of lens and camera profiles that are used behind the scenes for these various optical corrections. For anything that doesn’t exist in the database, it uses general algorithms.)

Under the ‘Develop’ panel, there’s a mixture of AI-powered tools and more familiar standard ones such as ‘Vignette’ and ‘Details’.

Confusingly, ‘Color’ exists here too but deals with ‘Saturation’, ‘Vibrance’ and the removal of colour casts.

‘Erase’ contains two of Luminar Neo’s latest tools within its drop-down: ‘Remove Powerlines’ and ‘Remove Dust Spots’, both of which work similar to Photoshop’s content-aware spot healing tool, albeit but with no additional clicks.

Also of note is the ‘Landscape’ tool, which allows you to dehaze a photo, add the illusion of a photo taken at golden hour and even enhance the foliage in a scene.

The explanatory labelling of tools is Skylum attempt to make the photo editing process more accessible to the average person. While in Lightroom, you’d need to twiddle with colour temperature, clarity and various other tools to get a golden hour effect, in Luminar Neo, you can get the same result in a single click.

The ‘Creative’ panel houses tools that you really need to experiment with to understand their effect, despite explanatory names such as ‘Dramatic’, ‘Mood’ and ‘Mystical’.

My favourite is the ‘Sunrays’ tool, which still blows my mind despite being several years old. The ability to place a realistic sun in your image, and have the sun’s rays wrap around or poke through objects as if the entire scene were three dimensional is simply incredible.

forest with trees in foregroundsun rays streaming through trees in forest