Why Do Photo Apps Keep Going With the Subscription Model?

Why Do Photo Apps Keep Going With the Subscription Model?

When Adobe changed its Creative Suite software to a subscription-based Creative Cloud a few years ago, there was much gnashing of teeth and consternation amongst the photo community. We were used to paying a one-time payment for software to use for many years, without being forced to upgrade. So why is it that photo apps get a pass for doing the same thing when it comes to subscription models?

I revisited some photo apps that used to be old standbys, and was surprised that one of them (The Baby Pics App) had switched from a pay-once to a subscription model. I also checked out Prisma to find that, sadly, it was still a subscription-only model if you want to get photos of any usable resolution. And then of course there’s the much bigger VSCO, which charges a subscription to access hundreds of extra filters, video editing, and advanced editing controls.

Each on its own doesn’t seem like much. Most subscription-based apps run between $14-70 per year, versus Adobe’s exorbitant $53 a month. That said, subscribing to just these three would then end up being close to an extra $100 per year, not to mention the many other apps out there that aren’t in this article. It’s like death by a thousand cuts. There are plenty of things photographers already have to shell out subscriptions for. Keeping track of every app that’s pulling money from the credit card each month is a terrifying prospect.

I’ve purchased a month or two subscription in the past when I’ve had the reason to, such as needing higher resolution out of Prisma for a printed project, but my natural inclination, and I imagine it’s a reaction many normal folks have when they see a subscription option, is to balk at the recurring cost. I’m much more likely to shell out money if I know I only have to pay for it once instead of watching it drain my credit card each month, even if the cost is a bit higher than a month of subscription. Think of it as buying the Blu-ray disc instead of going with Netflix. When Netflix pulled Battlestar Galactica from its catalog, no amount of subscription would bring it back, but my DVDs are still viewable anytime I want.

Please make it stop. Subscriptions for very limited photo apps just don't make sense.

This is a big reason I have a lot of respect for Serif’s business model with its Affinity line of creative tools. They are high quality tools at a fair, one-shot price and that alone helps me more enthusiastically recommend them to students and creatives I encounter who don’t necessarily need to buy into the hegemony of an Adobe subscription.

The other part of the subscription model is the philosophy behind the decision. For Adobe, you are getting full-fledged software for the price you are paying per month. In the case of Prisma, it’s blatant crippling that you have to remove with the subscription. The software can do everything you want except output at higher resolution (and maybe add a few filters). Paying for the privilege feels like an insult. Maybe sell some ads alongside it or offer the option of a one-time fee to avoid the annoying subscription? At least VSCO throws video editing and some advanced photo editing tools into the mix, but again that’s nothing that can’t be accomplished by other (free) software on your phone, such as iMovie or Snapseed. Is the feel-good “support the community” aspect of VSCO worth the subscription when Instagram offers much of the same experience for free?

So if you’re developing a killer photo app, here’s my plea: Please don’t make me buy a subscription. I’ll gladly pay a little more just to avoid that.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Wasim Ahmad is an assistant teaching professor teaching journalism at Quinnipiac University. He's worked at newspapers in Minnesota, Florida and upstate New York, and has previously taught multimedia journalism at Stony Brook University and Syracuse University. He's also worked as a technical specialist at Canon USA for Still/Cinema EOS cameras.

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Do you rent an apartment or own your home? Do you rent or lease a car or own one? Renting and owning have different advantages and disadvantages. For a software developer the more predictable income stream of renting enables them to keep investing their time to maintain and improve the product.

No one questions that a rentalware scheme is good for the developer. It is rarely good for the customer. If you're a business trying to smooth out demands on your cashflow, then rentalware might be an advantage. Renting software may also yield tax advantages. And, yes, rentalware does allow customers to begin using it without a big upfront cash outlay. But, for most people, owning is always smarter than leasing. Who here wants to rent a camera and lens for every job they do? And, no, I'm not talking about the occasional need for a specialty lens. I'm talking about gear you use day in and day out. Renting is a bad choice. It's personal finance 101.

They were losing money when they just sold the software because nobody would upgrade unless they actually came up with something new, or a major improvement. Most skipped a couple of years each time at least. Now I think their goal is to just fix one thing or improve one thing every year to look like they are doing something. "Hey it now runs faster!" is not a feature but a bug fix.

"renting enables them to keep investing their time to maintain and improve the product." Right and that's why Adobe has slowed down all innovation since they went to the subscription model. Every year we get little performance fixes (bug fixes) and one new or updated (bug fixes) tool. Wow. That's what we need, more companies getting paid to do nothing.

If it was easy to develop photo editing software, everyone would do it, right? Competition is what promotes innovation.

All software has bugs. Bug fixes take time, just like enhancements do. Adding new camera profiles and updating software to work on new versions of operating systems takes time as well. Subscription-based software enables bug fixes to be pushed out more quickly (bug-free software does not exist).

Wow you should pay them double then for all their hard work.

Or not all...your choice.

In some cases, the developer of software or an app have to maintain it after the point of sale. That takes money.


For Adobe, you are paying for bloated overhead and shareholders, that only want to have continuous $$$ from you to them. They don't care about your art!!! Get a tool that works for you. If you don't pay the subscription, what happens to your work?

With Adobe when you discontinue a subscription that doesn't disable the software totally. You can still access your work, but you cannot edit it further. So, you don't lose any of your work.

I've switched to Affinity for my illustrator and photoshop replacments and Capture One for my lightroom replacement. learning the new software has been a pain but so was learning Adobe programs. The more I use the new programs the more efficient get with their use. I'm REALLY digging Capture One. No more lock ups after editing 8 photos like I was getting in lightroom and imo it seems to handle highlights, shadows, and colors better with my Nikon raw files. I can't even use my Fuji raws in lightroom because Capture one handles those so much better with out slow downs. So far the new software is working pretty well for me but I also have the time to learn the new software and make it work for my purposes. I'm just a hobbyist now lol so I guess other people don't really have the luxury of extra time to learn new software when working full time as a creative. I hope more people can find that time because there are several viable options out there people could use if they just had the time to learn it.

Have you considered purchasing the Affinity Photo Workbook? Looks like a structured way to learn the program and even create a self-paced lesson plan. It even includes project files so you can follow along.

I'm going that route with DaVinci Resolve. The training guides are comprehensive and I learn far more than with the occasional video tutorial found online.

I didn't say the software is bloated, it's the corporate structure that's bloated. For the current 9.99 deal, 20 gb of cloud storage My experiences with Adobe-software, good; customer service, crap. If it works for you, cool!

Recurring income is gold.
Having to frantically prospect for new customers is expensive.
Just as photographers love repeat clients, so too do publicly traded companies love to make their shareholders happy with a steady revenue stream.
This is also why wedding photographers have such a hard life. Almost no one (I had to phrase it that way because of trolls) is a monthly repeat wedding client, the photographer needs to be endlessly marketing for new clients. Expensive and time consuming.

Under the subscription plan, Photoshop is significantly cheaper for most people. $10 per month with free upgrades vs $700 for a perpetual license plus another $200 per upgrade. It attracts a wider audience because it's a much easier cost to swallow, and makes it worthwhile to just try it for a while, and that's why they're doing it.

Only if someone feels the need to upgrade regularly. Many people have never seen that need. Fluff upgrades just aren't wanted by many, much less needed.

$10/month gives you photshop, lightroom, 20Gb cloud storage, and a portfolio website. The cloud storage makes it convenient and easy to transition workflow between mobile and my desktop as well.

I don't understand why so many insist this is a bad deal when buying the software used to cost nearly $1000 and didn't provide all the benefits.

None of these alternatives people recommend would provide me what Adobe does, mobile is the future and Adobe has done a great job providing quality mobile apps to compliment the workflow.

Mobile is the future of what? Editing photos and videos? I doubt that. 20Gb of storage is fine if you want your raw files on the web for Adobes big hacking and a website, no thanks.

The Photoshop / Lightroom deal is the only good one but if you need a 3rd program, now you pay $52 a month. If they sold the software now I would buy it and own it and can't imagine any reason to ever upgrade again. (until they throw out new camera support to try and get you to upgrade). They should just sell the software outright like they used to and charge for upgrades if people want them. The rest of us can skip the bloatware. But then they would have to work for a living.

You had me until "mobile is the future". This isn't aimed at you but I am just sick of people telling me what the future is! Now, if someone can tell me tonight's winning Power Ball numbers, that would be okay.

The simple answer is that the rentalware model that has successfully metastasized in the software industry removes any pressure to innovate, particularly if a company has anything close to a monopoly. Who wouldn't want a lifetime annuity from every customer? People who argue that software needs to be "maintained" conveniently ignore the fact that the dollars from software upgrades also produce revenue that can be used for maintenance. The big difference is that the software upgrade model forces a company to justify the cost of the upgrade expenditure.

One additional downside of the rentalware model is that it allows companies to take income earned from, for example, Lightroom Classic, and redirect it into other projects that may hold no interest to the renter. It goes back to the same principle: with a perpetual license, a company is forced to invest dollars back into the product if it wants to earn additional revenue. With rentalware, Adobe can let Lightroom Classic stagnate while it redirects those rental dollars into animation software that holds no interest for the customers actually funding the project.

We are all fortunate that companies like Affinity exist to provide viable alternatives within the Windows and Mac communities, and that there is enough competition within the app community that viable alternatives are usually (though not always) available.

Company can redirect profits and invest how it wants whether you rent or pay up front. Whether you buy lightroom or rent lightroom Adobe has no obligation to invest the revenue into updating or improving lightroom.

Lol, it's probably a good thing you're not Adobe's spokesperson. Can you just imagine if they were to say that out publicly.

The problem with Adobe’s subscription, they don’t keep older versions indefinitely. If you cannot afford to upgrade your computer, say every four years you will at some point need to update Adobe’s software to a more recent version which could run into performance issues on your computer. It’s this need to be continually updating software/hardware every 4-5 years that’s a reall pain.

Are you sure? I don't think you are forced to upgrade to newer versions but, honestly, that's kinda the point. If you can't afford to upgrade your computer, as necessary, you're probably not heavily invested in photography and one of the cheaper programs would serve you well. From what I hear, Adobe's own Photoshop Elements is pretty good.

It sounds nice when it's called "a subscription model". Let's switch to "requires continuing payments".

That's a good idea. No more Real Estate Tax: continuing permission to live in the community payment; employers don't need to pay salaries: continuing cost of labor payment; et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Let's call it The Adobe Tax

CaptureOne Pro offers the option of subscribing or purchasing the software. That seems like the customer-friendly way to go. I would like to see other companies make that work.

A couple of years ago I purchased a copy Lightroom 6. I own it outright. If I ever decided to subscribe to Adobe Cloud, I would no longer own the software I had paid for. Lightroom 6 is not compatible with the latest cameras and lenses, but I cannot upgrade, because that would mean subscribing to Adobe Cloud and losing something I had bought and paid for. To make matters worse, I cannot upgrade the OS on my Mac to Catalina, because my copy of Lightroom would no longer work. I can neither upgrade my copy of Lightroom, nor my computer. I would be very happy to pay Adobe for an upgrade of my software, but they don't give me that option. I'm an amateur photographer. I only edit photos occasionally. I can't justify paying Adobe $10 a month for ever and ever for something I will never own. Why do photo apps keep going with the subscription model? The answer is to make as much profit as possible. My response as a customer is to only spend my money on standalone apps.

I guess if you had a Windows PC you would be able to upgrade your computer and still be able to run older versions of Adobe tools?

Well don't forget that Adobe said you could be sued for using older versions blaming it on dolby or some nonsense. So pay up.

I don't understand the argument. If photography is your business, then $10 a month is a least of your worry and expenses. If you are hobbyist like myself you may or may not need powerful software and may chose something like Elements instead.Or like me you may chose to spend money for Adobe subscription plus all the Topaz software bundles plus all the Anthropics software and just enjoy playing with it. Everybody has different budget but if you are professional and make money doing photography, subscription not going to kill you. I'm paying for subscription for Microsoft Office and Norton for my business and don't think twice because cost of subs is lost in a noise.

"If photography is your business" I agree.

Lightroom 5.7.1 works great for me as a hobbyist. So from say from this time in 2014 I would have to pay $720 for a product I originally paid less than $100. Now that I shoot CR3 file I either have to convert to DNG or TIFF before post processing (and lens correction isn't available)

I did get Luminosity just before they went from 2008 to 3...at least I got a free upgrade. Now that 4 has been out for a while? I can't justify paying out more at this time since L3 now does CR3 files.

It's the Invisible Hand of Economics at work here. As long as there are customers who are willing to pay for rentalware, then developers will go with the flow. If a developer creates a product superior to Adobe's, but gambles and makes it a one-time payment product, it will still depend on pricing and how many people will actually buy that to know if they can disrupt the market or not.

I am not a professional photographer. I am only a hobbyist, and I only use Snapseed and Lightroom Mobile (free version) to post process my photos.

Some things are free, but very few. Your privacy and personal information is used and abused by both of these apps. Most apps really. Ask Adobe if they read your clipboard on launch and what they do with that data, and who they sell it to. You probably would not be able to find anyone at Adobe who will even talk to you.

Now lets all get tougher and sing the Adobe theme song:

Row, row, row your bloatware
Gently down the workflow stream,
Merrily merrily, merrily, merrily
Life is but a bloatware dream.

Feeling better now? Sure - I knew you would.


If available, the price of a perpetual license for your favorites would stun you.