As photographers, much of our time is divided between our camera equipment and our image editing software. And, if you're like me, you spend some time keeping an eye on the latest releases that will improve our editing speed and quality.
Skylum Software, which has given us Luminar, Aurora and many other best-selling applications, has come from virtually out of nowhere to be a major player and innovator in image editing software, and I wanted to know how Skylum came about, how it views its competition, and what the future of editing might offer, especially around developments in AI.
Tsepko joined Skylum in 2010 shortly the company got started in 2008. He's an avid photographer himself and has now built the Skylum team to 130 people. Originally called Macphun, the company catered to iOS photographers originally, then moved to pros and semi-pros using Macs for editing. In the beginning, MacPhun wrote some small applications for removing unwanted objects, noise reduction, and creating black and white images from color originals.
As MacPhun expanded, so did their ambitions. Now, the company, renamed Skylum in 2017, offers applications for Windows and Mac-based photographers and created Aurora for HDR imaging and Luminar, a raw editor with many similar features to Photoshop and Lightroom, the current champion applications for photographers.
CEO Alex Tsepko was on the road overseas when I caught up with him, and so our chat took place over Skype.
Going Against the Adobe Subscription Model
Alex Tsepko says they originally felt Skylum had to go an different direction.
We had a lot of advice telling us that people hate subscriptions, but what we discovered was that pricing was more important. We learned you can't win hearts just by not using a subscription model. It's a mixture of product and pricing, and what has really helped us of late is we have focused on the feedback we have been getting from users, and word of mouth has really helped us
Fully Competitive With Adobe Now?
Tsepko doesn't see things that way.:"We don't feel fighting against Adobe is a good marketing strategy. Actually, we feel that Apple is a competitor with its Photo application, and Google has a range of photo products as well. We look at photographers who have an array of different gear, cameras, tripods, other accessories, and as in that analogy, we feel we can complement, not necessarily replace these other products." He notes one of the reasons Luminar Flex was launched was specifically to let people stay in the Adobe system. "About 60% of our buyers are using our applications along with other editing tools."
As to the future, Tsepko gets philosophical, not seeing image editing in terms of the competition, but adding the features people want and need: "At the end of the day, we don't care if it's Adobe and Skylum or Skylum products alone. It's a matter of letting photographers be more creative. Meanwhile, our focus has evolved to adding more and more features that are not available in the Adobe ecosystem."
Thinking About the Controversial Library Module in Luminar
It didn't go over well with many photographers, who found it slow, intrusive, and offering no improvements over what Lightroom has. He adds: "One of the lessons we learned is we have to talk to many, many photographers. Many told us we must have a library to compete with Lightroom. Our goal was not to copy the Lightroom library, and we are still missing some features. On the other hand, many photographers did not want us to have a library." Lessons were learned, and Tsepko emphasizes that the focus is now more on sliders and tools that increase workflow efficiency. For those who don't need a library, there's Luminar Flex.
Aurora Catching on for HDR?
HDR has been big for years, but I sense it may have peaked with so many over-the-top images. Tsepko feels it has been successful: "People who actually use it, meaning they regularly use it, we estimate about a quarter of a million users...our software offers enough controls to make it as realistic or as over-the-top as a photographer likes. It's also extremely popular in real estate photography."
Luminar and Aurora Together
Tsepko isn't sure about that or if they need to be together: "We are looking at this, they may integrate by having Aurora operate as a plug-in in Luminar."
Separate App for Drone Editing
AirMagic was a bit of a surprise to see from Skylum. It seemed to me that tools like Luminar worked fine for editing drone photos. I'd used it myself with good results. Tsepko came at the problem from another direction: "We found from talking to our customers that many drone flyers are not wanting to do sophisticated editing, so a program like Luminar would be too complex. We wanted to offer automated features that offers color and detail enhancement."
AI in Photo Editing
AI does have a bit of a bad name for photographers who would rather they decide on how an image is to be edited. Tsepko agreed, saying: "AI does have some negative PR, and it got very trendy. Some image software promoted AI features that really weren't AI. We're very proud of our sky enhancer. We see it as letting photographers fix their skies without complicated masks." He notes that over time, the company will add more AI features.
Alex Tsepko says the company will be moving to offering Luminar as an iOS and Android app. For Skylum, that's returning to their roots, since mobile apps are where they started back in 2008. There will be some more mobile apps from Skylum and likely some integration between mobile and their Mac and PC apps.
Last week, Skylum had a big announcement on the upcoming Luminar 4. It will bring some new AI functions, including Sky Replacement that I think will excite photographers, especially landscape photographers.
The whole area of image editing is undergoing a transformation that seems to be moving increasingly faster as time goes by. As photographers, we all benefit from the innovation and competition.
Thanks to Alex Tsepko and the Skylum team for helping arrange the interview.