Luminar AI, hands on: Quick and easy AI-powered photo editing

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Modern photographic software uses a lot of machine-learning tools. Adobe's Lightroom, for example, offers various options for analysing images and then getting the best out of them. It's an attractive approach, simplifying what could be a complex set of steps, tweaking every setting to get an image that's just right. 

Skylum's Luminar AI is a newer alternative to the usual suspects, offering a powerful set of editing tools with a mix of manual and AI features, as well as AI-curated templates that can quickly apply selected transforms to a picture. It's not only a standalone (macOS and Windows) tool: Luminar AI can also be installed as a plug-in to both Photoshop and Lightroom, giving you the best of both worlds.  

I've been exploring the latest build of Luminar AI, using it with a mix of older photographs and more recent images.

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Like most photographic tools, Luminar AI uses a lightbox metaphor, helping you view catalogued image folders as a set of filmstrips. 

Image: Simon Bisson / ZDNet

Getting started 

Installation is easy enough, with a fairly hefty download. The app has a clean, open look to it, with a dark background that allows you to focus on your images. I'd recommend using it full-screen on as large a display as possible to get the most from your pictures. Once installed, the app offers a relatively simple workflow that guides you through four steps: working with a catalog, applying templates, using the edit tools, and exporting your processed images. It will work with most image formats, including raw images. 

Building a catalog is a matter of locating image folders and then scanning for pictures. Images are displayed in a thumbnail grid. When you select an image, you're presented with a set of curated templates in the editing pane. Luminar AI's image analysis tools select appropriate groups of templates for an image, from which you can chose one to apply. Templates wrap a set of editing actions, designed to give a specific set of effects. Once you've applied a template you can export the edited image, or delve into Luminar AI's editing tools to make your own changes. You can also skip applying templates and go straight to the editor. 

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Templates bundle up a series of image-editing actions, and are selected automatically by image analysis. 

Image: Simon Bisson / ZDNet  
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The edit tools mix AI and conventional editing. Here I've swapped out a stormy grey sky for blue (automatically adding reflections in the water) and adjusted the picture's composition. 

Image: Simon Bisson / ZDNet

Editing photographs 

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The SkyAI tools let you quickly swap out a sky for one from a library of different sets of clouds and sunlight. 

Image: Simon Bisson / ZDNet  

If you've used any other photo-processing application, you'll find the edit tools familiar. They're accessed from a tool pane on the right of the screen, grouped into sections. Essentials are your standard editing tools, while Creative groups tools that can be used to enhance landscapes and other photos. A separate section offers Portrait tools for enhancing and tidying up faces and bodies, while the Professional tools offer fine adjustments along with camera-specific edits to adjust for any lens distortions or sensor issues. 

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One of the more interesting features in the Creative group is SkyAI. This uses image recognition to automatically mask out objects and apply one of a library of different sky backgrounds. It's surprisingly effective, taking out existing sky backgrounds and dropping in something much more attractive. In one case I started with a picture of a helicopter against a flat grey sky, applied new lighting effects to the helicopter and then used SkyAI to put it against a vivid sunset. 

The result was much better than anything I've been able to achieve with Photoshop, and I didn't have to spend ages applying masks or layers. Instead, all I had to do was chose an option, click a button, and wait a minute or so for the program to finish. Unfortunately, SkyAI doesn't adjust for perspective, so the cloudscape behind the helicopter seemed a little off. It was improved by using a higher-altitude set of clouds, but you do need to be careful what sky source you choose. 

As an experiment I loaded up a 2007 photograph of Mary and myself taken by a friend in a park in Cincinnati, as a thunderstorm approached. How I edited it is a good example of how to use Luminar AI to improve a poor photograph. 

The lighting was poor, and the friend who was holding the camera wasn't used to it, so the picture wasn't particularly well-framed. I first applied a template to clean up the image, before using the AI-powered face tools to improve lighting. Then I used the Sky feature to swap out the dark grey storm clouds, replacing them with a blue sky and some fluffy clouds. We were standing by a small lake, so it was pleasant to see those same cloud reflected in the lake without affecting the ripples -- or the ducks. Finally, I used the Composition tool to reframe the picture and change the angle of the horizon. 

Both tests worked well and resulted in pleasing pictures, taking casual photographs and making significant improvements. If you're using the SkyAI tool, you're best working with a conventional snapshot or a landscape, as it works best with a standard perspective. 

Templates and workflow integration 

The bunded templates are a useful set of starters, as they wrap up several transforms in a single action. I took one set of wildlife-focused templates and applied them to a recent zoom photograph of a feral parrot. Using the template and some of the AI-based Structure tools I was able to produce a more detailed image that that showed the fine detail of the bird's feathers as well as reflections in its eye. Considering that the picture was taken using a zoom lens at 15 metres or so, this was a significant improvement. 

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Zoom into a processed image and you can see the structure and detail that Luminar AI adds to a picture: shown here are the feathers and eye reflections in a parakeet on the far side of a garden. 

Image: Simon Bisson / ZDNet  

I also tried out Luminar AI's integration with Adobe's Lightroom. You can install it as a plugin for both Lightroom and Photoshop, and can jump straight from an edit session in one to Luminar AI, working with a copy of your image, taking advantage of its tools, before opening the edited version for additional edits in the original application. This isn't like working with an integrated plugin: rather, it's making two tools part of an image editing workflow. 

I was surprised to find that Luminar didn't pick up the Nvidia GPU on either of my test machines. Instead, it defaulted to using the integrated Intel graphics. It's a pity that it didn't detect the more capable hardware, instead using a lot of CPU and memory to process images. Testing on another workstation with an Nvidia Quadro showed that it was hardly using the GPU at all. That wasn't too painful on machines that had either a Core i7 or a Xeon-E CPU with 32GB of RAM, but it's something you'll need to think about when looking for a photo-editing machine. The Luminar team has said it will be moving to use more processing to GPU, which would make sense for AI-based image processing. We'll look forward to seeing the results. 

Microsoft's upcoming support for OpenCL to Direct Compute mappings may speed this process up, as it will remove the need for GPU-specific drivers. It's a change that should allow companies like Skylum to use one set of common APIs for Windows and macOS versions. 

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One thing to note: Luminar AI does not play well with OneDrive cloud files-on-demand. Installing it on a machine that already had a pointer to my photo import folders set up on another machine with the same Microsoft account caused it to crash every time it was started, until I made sure the Luminar AI catalogue files were downloaded on the second machine. In the end, though, it was easier to create a new catalogue for the new machine once I was able to start the program. 

Overall, I'm impressed with Luminar AI. It's a useful addition my image editing suite, with plenty of quick edit options that would take a lot of effort in another tool. The library of templates simplifies getting started, and its machine learning-powered features are surprisingly powerful. It'll be interesting to see how Skylum evolves Luminar AI in future releases, but for now it's well worth a look. Beginners will find it a quick and powerful alternative to the simple editing tools bundled with most computers, while more experienced users will be able to improve older images and start the editing journey for their latest pictures.

A Luminar AI licence for two computers costs £79, while Luminar X membership, which delivers a monthly bundle of creative assets, courses, templates and sky textures, costs £45 a year.

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