AI Makes Edits Easy

©Stan Sholik

Professional photographers rarely scratch the surface of the deep toolset in Adobe Photoshop and often wish for more sophisticated tools in Adobe Lightroom. Most of the time we simply want an image editing program that is straightforward, intuitive, and easy to use but with the latest technological advancements so we can minimize our time in front of the computer. The latest release of Luminar Neo grants those wishes.

Luminar Neo is the newest imaging software from Ukraine-based Skylum. It’s born from Luminar AI, which was born from Luminar 1, the original Windows-based software from when the company changed its name from Macphun to Skylum. Luminar was the first software with outstanding sky replacement algorithms, and Skylum is at the leading edge of incorporating artificial intelligence algorithms into image editing software.

Neo has the cleanest and least intimidating interface of any imaging software I’ve used. It even lacks a traditional menu bar. A dropdown menu of the usual options (File, Edit, View, etc.) is hidden behind the Luminar Neo logo at the upper left of the interface.

©Stan Sholik
There are many portrait editing tools in Neo that can be applied without the need for any manual masking. The full set of AI portrait adjustments allow you to stay in one program for strong portrait retouching.
©Stan Sholik
In minutes I was able to retouch the original photo on a white background (above). Removing the background required some extra cleanup around the edges. Layered with a portrait background, there was room for improvement.

Neo consists of three modes: Catalog, Presets, and Edit, at the top center of the interface, along with Export and Extras icons. The Extras, also termed Extensions, are add-ons that incorporate some of the most advanced Skylum AI enhancements. These include HDR Merge, Noiseless AI, AI Background Removal, Upscale AI, Focus Stacking, Supersharp AI, and Magic Light AI. More on these later.

Use the Catalog mode to add photos (which must be on your computer). There’s no import option allowing you to transfer images from a camera card into a folder on a hard drive. Nor is there any way to keyword, add captions, enter IPTC information, or view detailed EXIF categories. However, you can set flags, delete, rotate, and perform other functions in the catalog by right-clicking on an image. Several options for viewing photos are also available. I added nearly 100,000 images from my photos drive in just a few minutes.

The Presets mode contains eight categories: Essentials, Mother Nature, Macro, Lifestyle, Landscape, Portrait, Cinematic, and Aerial. Each category includes subcategories. For example, Portrait is made up of Monochrome, Enhance, Easy Portraits, and Experimental. In turn, each subcategory contains a collection of presets. The Portrait > Essence Collection is made up of Still Frame, Marquee, Fashionista, Rembrandt, and Flawless presets. Rolling over a preset in any collection applies a preview to the image. Once a preset is applied, you can adjust the result in Edit mode.

©Stan Sholik
The background removal function is hidden in the Layer Properties AI>Masking panel. The initial pass is extremely good, but if it isn’t an adjustment brush is available.

You can skip the Presets mode entirely and jump to Edit. In the Edit mode you will find all the usual suspects, from exposure and color adjustments to cropping to layers. These all function very well, although you may need to search a little to find the location of a tool that you know must be there. As an example, the clone stamp is the very last entry at the bottom of the Professional category along with supercontrast, color harmony, and dodge and burn. The full list of tool categories includes Layer Properties, Crop, Favorites, Extensions, Essentials, Creative, Portrait, and Professional.

More interesting than the common enhancement tools are those unique to Neo and the ones that function in innovative ways, including Neo’s AI tools. Well hidden in the Masking menu of Layer Properties is the Background Removal AI tool. As with most implementations of background removal in imaging software, it isn’t always flawless. When it isn’t, Neo provides an intuitive Refinements brush to clean up the mask. The results with hair and other difficult areas are excellent.

The Crop AI tool includes a dropdown list of common crops and a one-click switch from horizontal to vertical ratios. Also available is the unique Composition AI function. With it, Neo analyzes the image and based on the crop ratio you select, it suggests a crop to a more impactful composition. While I was skeptical initially and later had some disagreements, I found the suggestions often to be interesting, intriguing, and valuable.

The Favorites category includes two AI tools, Enhance AI, and Sky AI. Enhance AI functions like the auto adjustment found in other programs, adjusting exposure, contrast, shadows, highlights, tone, saturation, and details based on images studied by the machine learning algorithms. It was useful as a starting point prior to making further subtle changes. But it is so good that in many cases, such as generating quick proofs, I would feel comfortable clicking it and moving on to the next image.

Sky replacement has always been a strong feature of Luminar software. Sky AI is Luminar’s best implementation to date, and it’s one of the best in any imaging software. Just open an image with a boring sky, select Sky AI, choose from one of the built-in sky options, and the original sky is replaced (opposite page). The results were universally excellent without haloing, fringing, or missed areas that occur with other programs. Neo provides mask refinement tools to improve results if needed. You can adjust the sky orientation, relight the scene to better match the sky, add a reflection onto water and, my favorite, adjust the blur of the clouds in the replacement sky to add the illusion of depth.

©Stan Sholik
The sky replacement was automatic and took only a few seconds in Neo.

If you purchased the Pro version of Neo or the Extensions Pack, the Extensions category in the Edit mode contains Noiseless AI, Supersharp AI, and Magic Light AI. These tools produce amazing results, with each containing a variety of adjustment sliders and masking abilities. While sharpening and noise reduction tools are found elsewhere without installing these extensions, the AI versions offer options and automation that take guesswork out of the functions.

Three other Extensions—HDR Merge, Focus Stacking, and Upscale—are available in the Catalog mode. As a past user of Skylum’s Aurora HDR software, I was happy to see HDR available as an extension in Neo. All three are straightforward, tinker-free solutions to their named functions. HDR Merge produces a realistic result to my liking. If you are looking for HDR grunge, you must look elsewhere. And once these subprograms complete their actions, you have the full complement of Neo presets and adjustments available for further enhancements.

While the Essentials category contains all of the standard editing tools, there is at least one hidden gem. In the Erase tool is a tab labeled Remove Powerlines. If you have ever passed over an otherwise great image because you don’t want to deal with removing powerlines, this tool is for you. With a single click (and a waiting period), power lines disappear. It’s amazing to see the result. You can remove any tiny remnants with the brush in Erase or the clone tool in the Professional category.

The Creative category contains two tools especially worthy of note: Relight AI and Atmosphere AI. Relight AI analyzes a photo and allows you to adjust the brightness of the foreground or the background independently. There’s also a slide to adjust the depth of the foreground-to-background transition. Atmosphere allows you to add a layer of fog, layered fog, mist, or haze to the photo. Both tools include Mask AI, which offers fairly precise masking of selected areas with a single click, and other masking tools that overlay and interact with the AI mask for ultra-precise results.

©Stan Sholik
Once I created an HDR image, I added a number of enhancements, including sun rays.
©Stan Sholik
Neo provides non-destructive corrections throughout the editing process.
©Stan Sholik
Edits are collected in an Edits panel that remains with the image and can be accessed and changed any time. Here’s the final image.
©Stan Sholik
Remove Powerlines AI will save you an enormous amount of time. The original image needed a lot of the Essential tool corrections before Neo removed the power lines in under a minute. I also replaced the sky with one more interesting.

Other hidden gems are abundant in Neo, but the collection of AI tools in the Portrait category are among the most interesting. The AI tools in Portrait are Portrait Bokeh AI, Face AI, Skin AI, and Body AI. Portrait Bokeh AI lets you automatically control multiple aspects of the background without affecting the subject or manually creating a mask.

Once Neo has analyzed the portrait image, you apply the face, skin, and body enhancements by moving sliders. It is possible to adjust the masks that allow the automatic corrections, but I never found the need for this. Portrait retouching has never been simpler within an image enhancement program that also provides all of the other tools needed to create professional results.


Neo is a new and evolving product, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of the features it contains. Further extensions are promised in the future, and I’m hoping one will allow the creation of panoramas. At present there is no way to flatten layers; there is no undo for the Close or Erase tools (they must be closed and reopened if you make a mistake); and the organizational tools (keywording, captioning, star grading, IPTC tags, etc.) could use a lot of attention. As it stands, Luminar Neo is awesome as a standalone program for advanced amateurs, and professionals can access the technically advanced AI tools by using Neo as a Lightroom and Photoshop plug-in.

Since I have the Pro version ($119/year), seven Extensions (Extras) are included, as is the ability to install Neo on two systems: Mac, Windows, or one each. There is also a more limited Explore version ($99/year) or a Lifetime edition with limitations ($149). Find more information and a free trial of Luminar Neo available at Skylum. 

Stan Sholik is a writer and photographer in San Clemente, California.

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