I have been fascinated with the furor that has whipped up many photographers about the release of Adobe Lightroom CC and Lightroom Classic. As I noted previously, I totally get the idea that people are getting weary of ‘subscribing’ for software, even if that’s really what we have all been doing for years. My friend Jeff Carlson is doing a good job of talking about this issue, and today has an interesting piece called Math is Hard, or, A Quick Look at Lightroom Pricing. In it, Jeff talks about the cost of purchasing and upgrading a product like PhaseOne’s Capture One Pro vs. the costs of having an Adobe software subscription (in either Lightroom incarnation).
Jeff is spot-on in his analysis: if you are someone who is serious about your photography, and you want to remain current with the latest in features and performance, Adobe’s $120 per year for Lightroom (both versions) and Photoshop is a good deal. It is made better by the fact that Lightroom really is the best product for most photographers in the market, but if you don’t like Lightroom/Photoshop, or are upset about Adobe’s policies, there are many alternatives in the market for you to use.
Paying for software and keeping older hardware
With all that said—and I agree completely with Jeff’s assessment—I understand that there are other forces at work out there that feed this anger. The biggest, of course, is that many users don’t want to be paying constantly for software. The refrain goes like this:
- I buy software, and it should work (to some people, forever), and
- I upgrade when I choose to upgrade.
This is a legacy of the first generation of computers and software (from the 1980s to about 1999), where one bought a box of software, installed it on their computer, and that was that. There might be a bug-fix update here and there,1Pre-Internet, this was usually for a $25-or-so disk mailed to you, which understandably infuriated users. Once the Web took off, it made the process of updating software via a download much easier. but major releases were usually 18 months to two years (or more) apart, which helped spread out the cost of the software over a longer period of time.
Of course, software was generally more expensive back then,2At one point, Photoshop was priced at $1,000, and upgrades were $500. which meant that many users did not upgrade to every release—or, frankly, stole it—and some products had such radical changes from version to version that people would stick with an older one for comfort reasons.3In the ’90s, Microsoft Word was one of the biggest offenders of this. I was a member of the entrenched ‘Word 5.1’ user base for years.
Another factor in play is the computers; many people don’t upgrade their machines regularly, and those people tend to get left behind with updates that require more memory, faster processors, new graphics cards and so forth. I worked for a software company for a few years, and one of the big challenges we faced with upgrades was how much of the legacy user base, running Windows XP and an ancient graphics card, we could afford to lose with a major update. The trade-off was that, if we kept the code required to support those systems, the product would suffer because it couldn’t take advantages of newer technology found in a more modern operating system. As a small company, we had to do our best to take care of older customers, but many of them still wouldn’t upgrade when we released a new version. (See above: ‘paying constantly for software.’)
Photoshop Elements by example
Another Adobe product, Photoshop Elements, is a perfect example of the upgrade conundrum, at least from an old-world point of view.
For a while, I published a magazine called Photoshop Elements Techniques, and I was able to see up close the dynamics of a single product in the market. Adobe has released a new version of Elements every fall for the past decade or so; you could set your watch to it. Some years, Adobe would offer an ‘upgrade’ for $79 (for a $99 product), but the reality was anyone could get Elements for $79, if you waited or looked hard enough. What happened was this:
- A significant portion of the Elements community would upgrade every other year (some every two years);
- Some would only upgrade when they upgraded their computer;
- A small group would move to the new software immediately.
I would estimate, based on my magazine’s subscribers, that more than a third of existing users would upgrade every other year. They would amortize the cost of using Elements to approximately $40 to $50 per year, and that calculation was worth it to them. The second group, who didn’t want to purchase—or honestly, couldn’t justify the cost of—a new computer, would sit on the sideline, sometimes muttering about all the new features Elements had that they couldn’t use. The last group, those who bought the new version without hesitation, was sizable, but, at least in the context of our magazine audience, less than the ‘every other year’ contingent.
Adobe continues to release new versions of Elements, of which each year’s updates are relatively small in nature: a few new features (often taken from Photoshop, which makes Elements a very good alternative, IMHO), a slight interface change, and some automation for fun photo projects. It’s clear that Adobe balances how much effort that they put into developing Elements with the return they get on it (for which I have no insight beyond the fact that it must still remain profitable for them, or they wouldn’t continue to support it).4What I believe is that Adobe figured out how to make the economics of development fit within the ‘every other year’ upgrade cycle, even if strategically, Photoshop Elements is a ‘dead’ product. This very well could be the calculus for the future of Lightroom Classic.
The Elements model is clearly not one that is sustainable long-term, especially for a large software company that wishes to remain profitable and growing. This is the big reason that Adobe moved to the CC model, with its subscription plans and ongoing, regular updates. And, if you are a business that has standardized on Adobe’s Creative Cloud suite, you can do the math to see whether it is worth it to you or not; it is an easy calculation in most cases.5Here at Complete Digital Photography, I have a subscription to the full suite, since I require access to a good portion of Adobe’s apps and services to produce books, the website and more. It is worth it to me as a business. But again, there are alternatives.
Circling back to the price
One refrain that I am hearing from folks who are intrigued with Adobe’s new stuff is this: if you do wish to move forward with the new plan, it’s going to ultimately cost you twice per month (or more) than you were paying before,6$20 per month, although existing Photography plan users get it for $15 per month for the first year and that’s only for 1TB of cloud storage. If you’re shooting with a Nikon D850 or a Sony A7RII, that terabyte will fill up fast, and if you want more space, it will cost you an additional $10 per terabyte per month, which adds up considerably. Again, if you’re a professional, you can do the math to see if it works for you, but I can’t imagine many amateur photographers will want to pay $30-$40-$50 more per month to store their images in the cloud; before the CC announcement, $10 had seemed to be a somewhat magical price point for convenience and access to new features.
These are all valid concerns, and I do not want to come across as an apologist for Adobe. The anger and the frustration that I’m hearing is real, and the confusion seeded by Adobe with the Lightroom announcements hasn’t helped help things. Yet, with all that said, I do think that Adobe has done some things that are correct in their intent, and worth noting here:
- Adobe has laid out, for all of us to see quite clearly, their idea of the future of photography. You might not agree with it, but the fact remains that you can look at it, play with it, and decide whether or not it’s for you.
- If you have been a Lightroom CC subscriber, and you decide at some point that Adobe’s worldview isn’t for you, they have given you a graceful exit plan. You have a product that will continue to work—albeit without pixel-editing capabilities—after you have stopped subscribing. This, to me, speaks well of transparency and intent.
- Lightroom Classic is a solid, good product that works today, as does Lightroom 6, and they will both continue to work for quite some time. I keep saying this to people, and I will continue to do so.7If you’re really upset with Adobe because of what they plan to do sometime in the future, then you are upset about something else, and should look for an alternative now. Why get so worked up about it?
Long term, Lightroom CC really is a mobile-centric approach, which we all know is where the future of computing is headed. Computer sales have generally declined as mobile device sales have taken off. The computers of old are being upgraded even less frequently than they were before. That’s good news for Lightroom Classic customers (and Lightroom 6 folks) who like their product; those versions should work for years, barring an unfortunate major OS update (which is always questionable with older hardware).
And, if you are centered in the mobile world, Lightroom CC makes a lot of sense. One of the announcements that many people glossed over—Adobe included—was the $5/month Lightroom CC for Mobile plan. If you don’t have a computer, or are shooting primarily with your phone, you get 100GB of storage and access to the apps for iOS or Android (and the web version). For a serious iPhone or Google Pixel photographer, that’s a great deal.
In the end, it does come down to the math, and, as Jeff very clearly notes, Adobe’s plan is competitive with other companies making photo apps in the market. Whether the math works for you is a different story, but it’s very clear.
- 1Pre-Internet, this was usually for a $25-or-so disk mailed to you, which understandably infuriated users. Once the Web took off, it made the process of updating software via a download much easier.
- 2At one point, Photoshop was priced at $1,000, and upgrades were $500.
- 3In the ’90s, Microsoft Word was one of the biggest offenders of this. I was a member of the entrenched ‘Word 5.1’ user base for years.
- 4What I believe is that Adobe figured out how to make the economics of development fit within the ‘every other year’ upgrade cycle, even if strategically, Photoshop Elements is a ‘dead’ product. This very well could be the calculus for the future of Lightroom Classic.
- 5Here at Complete Digital Photography, I have a subscription to the full suite, since I require access to a good portion of Adobe’s apps and services to produce books, the website and more. It is worth it to me as a business.
- 6$20 per month, although existing Photography plan users get it for $15 per month for the first year
- 7If you’re really upset with Adobe because of what they plan to do sometime in the future, then you are upset about something else, and should look for an alternative now. Why get so worked up about it?