Luminar Flex is the latest version of the ‘old’ Luminar, and a terrific standalone photo editor and plug-in. It doesn’t have the built-in digital asset management (DAM) of its Luminar 3 stablemate, but it integrates much better with an established workflow. If you don’t like the bundled Looks, you can always create your own or download more. In every other respect, Luminar Flex is powerful, innovative and very affordable. If you thought Skylum took a wrong turn with Luminar 3 with Libraries, with Luminar Flex it’s back on track.
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Luminar Flex is the new ‘plug-in’ version of Luminar, though it will also work as a standalone photo-editing program. The difference between Luminar Flex and Luminar 3 is that Flex is designed to work alongside other programs, whereas Luminar 3 is more of a closed all-in-one system.
Many photographers use different programs for different jobs, such as organising their photo library with Lightroom but applying image effects in plug-ins or external editors. That doesn’t suit the design of Luminar 3, which is the reason for Luminar Flex.
Luminar Flex is a lot like the original Luminar software. You can launch it as a standalone photo editing program or as a plug-in from within Lightroom, Photoshop and Elements – other programs will be able to use it as an external editor, which amounts to the same thing.
How Luminar Flex works
Luminar Flex offers a large selection of tools and effects, but not in a fixed system of panels and palettes like other programs. Instead, it uses a large number of Filters which can be applied individually or in combination. Each filter has its own adjustments – some simple, some sophisticated – and you can even use masking tools to restrict the filter effect to specific areas of the picture.
It doesn’t stop there. If you find yourself using the same set of filters again and again, you can combine them in a custom Workspace. Luminar Flex comes with a selection of preconfigured Workspaces for different genres of photography. You can use these or make your own.
But there’s an even quicker way to apply a very specific image ‘look’, and that’s with Luminar Looks (or presets, if you like). Each Look uses a specific combination of Filters and settings. You can adjust these in the main tools panel on the right, add or remove filters and create your own custom Looks very easily.
Luminar Flex comes with a wide selection of Looks in different categories and you can download more from the Skylum site. In fact, Flex users can download a free Flex Toolbox Looks Pack from the Flex Community site.
Luminar Flex isn’t just a tool for adding filters and effects – it goes a lot further than that. It can open and process RAW files via its RAW Develop filter, and this includes automatic and manual lens corrections, and transform tools for correcting converging verticals and other perspective problems. Luminar has a crop tool, noise reduction, and a retouching/erase option for removing sensor spots and unwanted objects in the scene.
Even more impressive is its support for layers. These are not just adjustment layers, for applying adjustments non-destructively, but image layers too, so you can combine images in multi-layer montages, with control over the layer opacity and blend mode (just like Photoshop) and with layer masks too. These include a manual masking brush, gradient and radial masks. The only limitation is that if you go back to edit a layer part way down the stack, the layers above are temporarily disabled while you work.
Luminar Flex may look like a quick-fix and special effects tool, but it’s actually a lot deeper than that. It’s a powerful photo-editing application in its own right, that’s just as useful for in-depth image enhancement and adjustments as it is for instant Looks.
It does seem odd that Skylum should first launch Luminar as a standalone photo-editor, then add in digital asset management (DAM) tools in Luminar 3, and THEN launch a separate Luminar Flex program that works like the ‘old’ Luminar. These are now being sold as two separate products. If you want both (realistically, you won’t), you have to pay for both.
But there is some sense behind this. On paper, Luminar 3 (or ‘Luminar with Libraries’) offers more than the old version, with in-built photo management and fully non-destructive photo editing. In fact, though, it takes the software in a very different direction. It’s fine for novices or casual users and experimenters who want just a single editing environment and don’t mind if it’s something of a closed system. That doesn’t suit photographers like me who prefer to manage and process RAW files in one program and use others for different kinds of effects.
So although Luminar Flex appears to do ‘less’ than Luminar 3, it’s actually much more useful to me and, I suspect, may other photographers who already have a workflow they like. Even if it looks like you’re getting less, what you’re getting is actually much more useful. I’d recommend Luminar 3 to new or non-technical users, but Luminar Flex to regular photographers. Luminar 3 still has some limitations, annoyances and constraints, whereas Luminar Flex doesn’t have any. It reminds me why I liked Luminar so much in the first place.
UPDATE: In Luminar 4, Flex has been re-integrated into the Luminar app and is no longer sold separately. See below.