Several years ago, an executive at Skylum (the makers of Luminar editing software) told me the company was aggressively hiring hotshot machine-learning programmers as part of a push to infuse Luminar with AI features. It was my first glimpse at the importance of using AI to stand apart from other photo editing apps. Now, Skylum has just released Luminar Neo, the newest incarnation of its AI-based editor.

One of the new features I’ve most wanted to explore is “Relight AI,” which is emblematic of what AI technologies can do for photo editing. Imagine being able to adjust the lighting in a scene based on the items the software identifies, adding light to foreground objects, and controlling the depth of the adjustment as if the image were rendered in 3D.

To be upfront, I’m focusing just on the Relight AI feature, not reviewing Luminar Neo as a whole. The app has only recently been released and, in my experience so far, still has rough edges and is missing some basic features.

Why ‘Relight?’

A lot of photo editing we do is relighting, from adjusting an image’s overall exposure to dodging and burning specific areas to make them more or less prominent. 

But one of the core features of AI-based tools is the ability to analyze a photo and determine what’s depicted in it. When the software knows what’s in an image, it can act on that knowledge.

If a person is detected in the foreground, but they’re in the shadows, you may want to increase the exposure on them to make it look as if a strobe or reflector illuminated them. Usually, we do that with selective painting, circular or linear gradients, or making complex selections. Those methods are often time-consuming, or the effects are too general.

For example, the following photo is not only underexposed, but the tones between the foreground and background are pretty similar; we want more light on the subjects in the foreground and to create separation from the active background.

Photo editing platform Luminar Neo's new "Relight AI" feature
The exposure and depth of field are not great here. Jeff Carlson

So I can start with the obvious: make the people brighter. One option in many apps is to paint an exposure adjustment onto them. In Luminar Neo, the way to do that is to use the “Develop” tool to increase the Exposure value, then use the “Mask” feature to make the edit apply only to the subjects.

Photo editing platform Luminar Neo's new "Relight AI" feature
I’ve painted a mask in a few seconds. To do it right would take several minutes of work. Jeff Carlson
Photo editing platform Luminar Neo's new "Relight AI" feature
Unwanted halos are easy to create when making masks. Jeff Carlson

Another option would be to apply a linear gradient that brightens the bottom half of the image and blends into the top portion, but then the ground at the left side of the frame, which is clearly farther behind the family, would be brighter too.

Ideally, you want to be the art director who asks for the foreground to be brighter and lets the software figure it out.

How Relight AI Works

The Relight AI tool lets you control the brightness of areas near the camera and areas away from the camera, it also lets you extend the depth of the effect. In our example, increasing the “Brightness Near” slider does indeed light up the family and the railing, and even adjusts the background a little, to smooth the transition between what Luminar Neo has determined to be the foreground and background.

Photo editing platform Luminar Neo's new "Relight AI" feature
The image with only “Brightness Near” applied in Relight AI. Jeff Carlson

The photo is already much closer to what I intended, and I’ve moved a single slider. I can also lower the “Brightness Far” slider to make the entire background recede. The “Depth” control balances the other two values (I’ll get back to Depth shortly).

Photo editing platform Luminar Neo's new "Relight AI" feature
The background is now darker, creating more separation from the foreground elements. Jeff Carlson

Depending on how the effect applies, the “Dehalo” control under Advanced Settings can smooth the transition around the foreground elements, such as the people’s hair. You can also make the near and far areas warmer or cooler using the “Warmth” sliders.

What about photos without people?

OK, photos with people are important, but also low-hanging fruit for AI. Humans get special treatment because often a person detected in the foreground is going to be the subject of the photo. What if an image doesn’t include a person?

In this next example, I want to keep the color in the sky and the silhouettes of the building but brighten the foreground. I’m going to ratchet Brightness Near all the way to 100 to exaggerate the effect so we can get an idea of where Luminar is identifying objects.

Photo editing platform Luminar Neo's new "Relight AI" feature
The original image is too dark. Jeff Carlson
Photo editing platform Luminar Neo's new "Relight AI" feature
Increasing “Brightness Near” reveals what Luminar thinks are foreground subjects. Jeff Carlson

We can see that the plants in the immediate foreground are lit up, as well as the main building. Luminar protected the sky in the background to the left of the building and didn’t touch the more distant building on the right. So Relight AI is clearly detecting prominent shapes.

Photo editing platform Luminar Neo's new "Relight AI" feature
Decreasing the “Depth” value illuminates just the bushes in the foreground. Jeff Carlson
Photo editing platform Luminar Neo's new "Relight AI" feature
Relight AI is adjusting brightness based on the shapes it has detected. Taken to the extreme, it’s also introduced a halo around the nearest building. Jeff Carlson

When I reduce the Depth value, the nearest bushes are still illuminated but the buildings remain in shadow. Cranking up the Depth amount adds an unnatural halo to the main building—but the side building still holds up well.

So, overall Relight AI isn’t bad. In these two images it’s achieved its main goals: let me adjust near and far brightness quickly and easily.

Where It Struggles

This is where I hold up a large disclaimer that applies to all photos edited using AI tools: the quality of the effect depends a lot on the images themselves and what the software can detect in them.

In this photo of trees, the software doesn’t really know what it’s looking at. The bushes and groups of trees at the right and left are at about the same distance from the camera, and then the rest of the trees recede into the distance. My expectation would be that those side and foreground trees would be illuminated, and the forest would get darker the deeper it moves away from the lens.

Photo editing platform Luminar Neo's new "Relight AI" feature
This group of trees doesn’t have a typical depth perspective. Jeff Carlson

When I make dramatic changes to the near and far brightness controls, however, Relight AI falls back to gradients from top to bottom, since in many photos, the foreground is at the bottom and the background is in the middle and top areas. It looks like the prominent trees on the right and left have been partially recognized, since they don’t go as dark as the rest, but still, the effect doesn’t work here.

Photo editing platform Luminar Neo's new "Relight AI" feature
When in doubt, Relight AI applies a gradient to simulate foreground and background lighting. Jeff Carlson

Other limitations

Occasionally, with people, the tool will apply the Brightness Near value to them and stick with it, even when you adjust the Depth setting. For example, in this photo of a person in a sunflower field, darkening the background and illuminating the foreground balances the image better, picking up the leaves and sunflowers that are closest to the camera.

Photo editing platform Luminar Neo's new "Relight AI" feature
The original image. Jeff Carlson
Photo editing platform Luminar Neo's new "Relight AI" feature
With no other edits made, Relight AI improves the lighting of the subject and knocks down the brightness of the background. Jeff Carlson

When I set Depth to a low value to make the light appear very close to the camera, the flower on the left—the nearest object—gets dark, but the person’s lighting remains the same. The tool is making the assumption that a person is going to be the primary subject, regardless of the perceived depth in the image.

Photo editing platform Luminar Neo's new "Relight AI" feature
The lighting on the person is consistent even when Depth is set to almost zero. Jeff Carlson

One more limitation with the tool is the inability to adjust the mask that the AI creates. You can edit a mask of the tool’s overall effect, much as we did when painting manually earlier, but that affects only wherein the image the tool’s processing will be visible. You can’t go in and help the AI identify which areas are at which depths. (This also ties into the argument I made in a previous column about not knowing what an AI tool is going to detect.)

Getting Lit in the Future

Luminar Neo’s Relight AI feature is audacious, and when it works well it can produce good results with very little effort—that’s the point. Computational photography will continue to advance and object recognition will certainly improve in the future.

And it’s also important to realize that this is just one tool. A realistic workflow would involve using features like this and then augmenting them as needed with other tools, like dodging and burning, to get the result you’re looking for.