To get into the ring with Adobe Photoshop's isn't enough. Contenders must challenge with all-around performance.
Fstoppers did a product review of the beta version of Luminar 4 and were blown away by its AI capabilities for use in portraits and sky replacement. While I don't care so much about the sky replacement tool, I admit it was pretty impressive watching Lee easily replace skies in a couple difficult examples.
What piqued my interest was how Luminar 4 would treat skin retouching. As of now, I make use of three programs for this, depending on the situation. I think it might be informative for me to discuss this first before I get into my first impressions of Luminar 4.
Photoshop CC 2020
Photoshop is my go-to post processing program for everything. I've tried all its major competitors but I've never been completely swept away by any of them: not even close.
For skin retouching, I'll usually start out with either an 8 or 16-bit frequency separation session, depending on whether or not it's client work. This is where I'll tackle blemishes and texture/color issues. Photoshop does a great job here, making available the standard accompanying tools for this kind of work - the Spot Healing Brush and Healing Brush tools. There are other possibilities here too depending on the problems, and I also find myself making fair use of the Color Sampler and Brush tools for skin, along with dodging and burning using Curves adjustment layers. Depending on complexities, there are a host of other tools at my disposal, which is why Photoshop is always the first stop in my workflow.
If I want to further enhance a portrait, I consider Portrait Pro a very helpful shortcut as opposed to doing these things in Photoshop. Here are the primary panels I make use of.
- Skin Smoothing - Skin Lighting & Coloring - Eye
More on these tools later when I make comparisons between it and Luminar 4.
NIK Software Suite
I use these tools much less frequently these days (except for black and white conversions on Silver Efex Pro) and usually only refer to it for noise reduction.
But when my Photoshop skills weren't as developed, I made use of the Dynamic Skin Softener tool found in Color Efex Pro 4 to smooth out the skin. When I do make use of this tool now it's more of a hail Mary attempt at saving an image from the trash can. I mention this tool here because it's closer to how I see phone filters attempting to sort out skin, with one fell swoop, quality be damned.
If you're in a hurry or don't know how to smooth skin properly in Photoshop - or have any plugins to do a fairly decent job - then this free software (there's the paid version too) may be just what you're looking for.
The problems I have with Luminar 4
The number one complaint I have is that Luminar 4 severely lacks local adjustment tools. When you're used to using a program like Portrait Pro by Anthropics, the stark differences between the two in the way of options are hard to overlook.
You'll see the three panels I primarily use in the above image. Each is a drop-down menu of several options. It's worth noting that there are far more options for each feature of the face on Portrait Pro than on Luminar.
There is a presets menu to the right of Controls which is also rich with options. I typically avoid presets, but they do make for handy starting points if you're new to retouching.
Additionally to the fewer options, the range of each tool isn't necessarily the best that AI can bring to the table. Portrait Pro also uses AI technology as a core driver. Running the two side by side will demonstrate that in most instances Portrait Pro is going to give you many more options and ranges within each tool. But I will note that the eyebrow feature in Luminar 4 is actually pretty good, while other standalone AI tools like Light (AI Enhance) do very little for your image and resemble a gimmicky smartphone filter rather than a serious pro tool.
In fact, the entire tool set under the Portrait tab in Luminar 4 numbers a lousy 12 with the option underneath to edit as a mask. Compare that to any tab in Portrait Pro, where each tab in itself may contain anywhere from 8 to 20 or more options to make local adjustments to the face and skin.
Going up against Photoshop
Luminar 4 falls too short of the mark when compared to the offerings of Photoshop and other plugins like Portrait Pro. Despite having some handy shortcuts, there's nothing really exciting in its AI arsenal which is ultimately a must-have for portrait enhancing and for retouchers.
Even photographers who are looking for a Photoshop and Lightroom alternative would be better served by existing post processing programs like Affinity or Capture One. While I don't consider them superior to Photoshop, they do at least offer affordable, non-subscription pricing which handle most things a photographer would need in a post-processing program.
What's more, Luminar 4 isn't exactly cheap. If you don't find a discount code, it's coming in at $89 and upgrades to existing versions is $49.
Portrait Pro is $45 with upgrades amounting to about a $10 discount.
You can download trial versions of both Luminar 4 and Portrait Pro in the links below.
Who is Luminar 4 for?
My recommendation is for landscape photographers or those who make use of sky replacement as part of a standard workflow. I don't see any other reason to purchase Luminar 4 in its current state.
I'm not going to take a jab at the practice of sky replacement because it's fairly common and I believe the practice has merit in the fine art arena. I rarely use this feature and when I do, I have an option in Portrait Pro. It's not as good as Luminar 4 I believe, judging by the demonstrations I've seen. But I can make it work.
Despite me giving Luminar 4 a pass, I do hope they continue to innovate and improve their future releases. All existing post processing programs, including Photoshop and Portrait Pro, are only just beginning to harness the powers of AI. Healthy competition is going to drive the process forward and benefit photographers in every genre and style of shooting.