On the Increasing Number of Photography Subscriptions

On the Increasing Number of Photography Subscriptions

Around 2010, I upgraded computers and was very disappointed that I’d lost my CD of Photoshop. I was even more disappointed when I went to the store and remembered how expensive it was. Begrudgingly, I did re-purchase Photoshop.

If I could somehow transfer files from my old computer to my new computer, that would’ve been amazing. Which, if you think about it now, is really one of the great perks of digital sales and subscription models. There are no CDs, and your apps are connected to a single online location. I know getting a new phone every two years is almost a little treat for me when I get to audit what apps I want to download from my Google Playstore account.

The Problem With (so Many) Subscriptions

But then, the other side of this is the sheer amount of subscription services available. I remember when I first got Netflix. How amazing was that? Very! All those movies and shows in one place for one small price a month.

Cue a few more years, and all of a sudden, that jumped to having Netflix, Prime Video, Disney+, etc. I had to make a deliberate decision to only have one or two subscriptions at a time and rotate them so as to get the most out of them by binging the shows on a particular platform.

For photography work alone, I have a monthly subscription to Adobe, of which I use Photoshop and InDesign fairly regularly. I also occasionally use Premiere. I also have subscriptions to Dropbox for backups, Rounded for invoicing, Format for my website, and Milanote for moodboards.

It all adds up, so much so that around the new year, I cancel all my cards and get new ones from my bank. And then, when an email comes that a particular subscription couldn’t be charged, I am reminded to make the deliberate choice to either update the payment details or ask to have the subscription cancelled.

What prompted this article is Capture One's decision to inadvertently move to what is arguable a subscription-based model. I understand from a developer point of view that this yields greater revenue; if a consumer pays a certain amount regularly rather than when they want, then that means continued profits for the company. Nonetheless, it isn't always for me.

The System Is Working as Intended

I don’t know if I have a particular solution for consumers (or even developers). Maybe, the immediate consumer solution is to do as I do and be more aware of what you are purchasing and how. 

Or perhaps, that is the point: this subscription model, which was meant to offer an affordable means of access to the consumer, is no longer solely doing that. Instead, it is now a means for developers to have a sort of cash cow consumer that continually brings revenue.

The system is working as intended: not for the benefit of the consumer.

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32 Comments
Lewis Hirschberg's picture

I like many other photographers left Adobe Lightroom because we were lied to by Adobe who claimed that Lightroom would be a standalone product in perpetuity and then... boom it wasn't. Lightroom become a subscription model software platform. I'm not a professional photographer and don't need the latest and greatest improvement immediately. I found alternative photography software that I renew every other year. I save money and have more than enough software improvements for my needs.

Anthony Stephens's picture

Hmm, I never read that LR would be a standalone in perpetuity, I believe it said indefinitely (totally different meaning). However, it is a standalone product still. And if you look at the Photography plan, the price has been $9.99 for over 10 years - what else do you know has remained at the same price that long? People don't work for free and you can't expect prices to remain the same "in perpetuity". Cell phones, Internet, TV subscriptions have all gone up, but Adobe is the evil one for expanding their income opportunities. Heck Apple and Microsoft are trillion dollar companies and they didn't get there by keeping their prices the same for several years in a row.

Peter House's picture

I much prefer the subscription model. Much easier to test a software by committing for a month or two and seeing how it fits in the workflow. Much easier on my bottom line because I know exactly how much I'm spending every month, instead of random one time large sums paid when newer versions come out. Always being up to date with the latest versions means I don't have to worry about not having the latest features unless I pay full price for a newer version.

Its affordable and convenient. If I add up all my subscriptions I'm maybe at $200-300/month? Dirt cheap when compared to all other business costs. I pay $200/month just for the waste service at my studio.

Kirk Darling's picture

Eh, it goes both ways, like going from cEh, it goes both ways, like going from cable TV to streaming services.

For instance, I have the Adobe subscription for Photoshop and Lightroom, but I use DaVinci Resolve instead of Premier Pro.

Years ago, when Photoshop came on disk, I was rebuilding after a hard drive crash. Of course, I had no chance to deactivate my copy of Photoshop before the drive crashed, so I had to spend many hours late into a night convincing an Adobe rep to reactivate my copy of Adobe. Many hours.

Today, such a crash would be almost no problem. I can (and do) move Photoshop and Lightroom from computer to computer as I please, easy peasy, as long as it's activated on no more than two computers at a time.

And because Photoshop updates have always proven pretty useful to me, I'd have been updating it continually anyway...so the cost difference is nil.

Finally, my original reason for going to Photoshop hasn't changed: There is no question or problem I can have with Photoshop that I can't find the answer for online within 15 minutes.

It's a different story for video editors. The cost of Premier Pro is steep, and video is not a major task for me. It pays me to use the free version of Resolve. The whole situation is different.

Sure, there are numerous other small subscription applications that annoy me. Paying a subscription for a utility like Revo Uninstaller is stupid.

Mike Ditz's picture

I should've looked into doing what you did. I used to use Pr a lot but not so much anymore, I know it and I am still not fluent in Resolve. My Adobe sub was expiring, so I did get a better rate when I suggested to cancel it all :)
I use C1 v20 and will stick with that far a while longer.

Ben Coyte's picture

Subscriptions are inevitable as products mature to a point where there is nothing meaningful to add to them, in the strictest sense of what a new feature is. The big benefit consumers were sold on about subscriptions, regular feature updates, will cease to be as they were sold. That was the carrot dangled to users who had previously bought software and maybe updated it each year if the vendor was lucky. The problem is that that generation of mature user will eventually see these regular updates don't offer meaningful new bells and whistles, simply bug fixes and support for new file formats.
A younger generation (of users not necessarily age) will see software subscription as a normal behaviour given they subscribe to many other things such a Netflix, Prime, Apple TV etc. They subscribe to be able to use a tool/service as it stands and are not being sold so much on regular new features.
The recent flurry of AI features could be the last gasp of useful updates, but also mark a sea change in how we interact with software. Noise reduction and tack sharpening represent useful features, but like curved TV screens that work for the one bloke sitting in the right spot and just about no one else, is sky replacement something everyone will benefit from? It does however highlight the big benefit of AI, which is to make existing features, things we already do, easier. It will democratise photo editing so that people with an artistic vision can achieve that without having to have 10 years of Photoshop under their belt. Creativity, good and bad will be the result.
So the subscription model eventually won't yield purely new features as we are used to seeing them because there won't be anything else we can do to a photo. The subscription will payoff a cloud, fix bugs and support new file types, but the vendor overheads will be minimal and if they maintain the cost of rent, they will be very happy with that.

Brian White's picture

I cancelled Adobe CC and they took a penalty amount for the remainder of the year because of the fine print in their service, shame on them for bad business practice, I'll never buy any of their products again and have swayed many since over to DXO Photolab ... It is great software, I think even better than Adobe with RAW conversion. I use DXO and Darktable now happily with amazing results.

Anthony Stephens's picture

It's YOUR responsibility to read the fine print! The point is, there are options and no one forces you to be loyal to any brand. Use what works for you and makes you happy.

Michael Dougherty's picture

Subscription penalties should not be in the fine print. Congress is looking at creating regulations that require software companies to put pertinent provisions with financial impact right up front with the price.

William Salopek's picture

I agree we should all be responsible for our actions, but fine print or no, there's no good reason for a company to behave like a greedy asshole. A customer should not HAVE to read "fine print" to protect themselves, the company should treat people right/fairly as a matter of the normal course of business, and because it's the RIGHT THING TO DO.

Anthony Stephens's picture

Well, in case you haven't noticed in the last 100 years, GREED is the American way. That said, if they would have just taken time to research Adobe's cancellation policy (https://www.adobe.com/legal/subscription-terms.html) it spells out everything. People always want to blame someone else for their mistakes.

Jaron Horst's picture

Subscriptions should be annual, have a loyalty benefit, and let the user keep the last copy when a subscription ends. JetBrains is a great example of a company that does this and is the only company I am happy having a subscription with! It gives them an annual income while encouraging them to continue development so that customers want to keep the subscription.

I've recently switched from Capture One to PhotoLab. It's not just because of their "screw you" to customers in December (that was the final straw) but because they aren't listening to me as a customer or developing. I had already passed on their 2023 version (almost did on 22 as well) due to the lack of meaningful upgrades and ever increasing upgrade cost. In comparison, PL is actively listening and improving (thus their amazing new DeepPrime Noise Reduction). Regardless, if I had to go subscription, Adobe would be the way to go as C1 just isn't worth the cost *for me*.

Warren Williams's picture

Older photographers like myself seem complain the most about subscription fees yet are also often still paying for ongoing film costs. It’s hilarious that they don’t see the irony. Every hobby has ongoing costs - gasoline, golf club membership - even birdwatchers have to get to the birds. It’s just a cost of doing business - not a cause of moral outrage.

Ed C's picture

By definition that is not irony or even a logical argument. The need to pay for the cost of physical goods is not even close to the same thing as being forced to pay for software "improvements" that one does not value.

Matt Nikkila's picture

Most if not all companies do still offer an option to purchase the software problem is you don’t get updates. I was at Pro Cam and they still had photoshop by itself. They don’t often advertise this but you have to call or look around. But I understand I use to use Boords.com but then they changed their pricing structure to cater more towards larger studios and can’t justify the expense. The one saving grace here is you could consider some additional free options. Invoicing = Google Sheets. Moodboards = Pinterest, Adobe Express formerly Spark, Photoshop contact sheets, Google Jamboard, Apples new Freeform. Websites = Google Sites, Wordpress. Point is SAAS is a pain but I work it into my cost to clients. Much like an equipment fee.

jim hughes's picture

C1 is now aimed at high volume pros - there was nothing for me in their last 2 updates, so I passed on them.

Affinity Photo does everything else I need; Adobe can kiss my tripod feet.

J Shetley's picture

I understand that consumers are annoyed at having to pay a subscription fee to use these amazing applications. Adobe has over 22,000 employees working on maintaining these applications for all the different computers and operating systems that seem to update every few months or new cameras that seem to explode every year. They are also working to prepare new features like automatic masking tools that are truly fantastic, a plethora of neural filters and so on. It used to cost $600+ to buy Photoshop and they were barely able to make it because people were buying bootleg copies from China for $30. The level of theft was so severe they almost went out of business. They had to find a way to keep a stable revenue stream to keep those 22,000+ people employed. I know we don’t like it - but they must have a stable revenue stream to stay in business. Companies don’t stay in business if they don’t make money. And we want more than just the status quo - we want all those impressive new features and we want them to keep developing more and better products for us. This is what it takes. I am fine with paying $10/month to get all the things that the photography plan provides. That’s literally 2 lattes a month.

Michael Dougherty's picture

I also think $10 per month is reasonable but I would like to point out that the latest versions of CC will not work on Windows 7 computers. I had a working earlier version of CC on WIN 7 which I didn't update to the WIN 10 version, and Adobe went into my computer and disabled it. I have no clue how this is legal. I have a computer for WIN 10 programs and another computer for WIN 7 programs. I now use CS2 of the WIN 7 computer but lacks many of the features of the more recent versions.

William Salopek's picture

Please, Adobe made over $15 billion AFTER paying all those employees (and all the rest of their expenses) last year. I don't think putting Adobe into the "poor us we need/deserve money" category is appropriate. Profit is of course OK and it's the world we live in, but at some point, it goes over the top and really does just start to piss people off.

J Shetley's picture

I am not a financial expert but the way I read the financials on their website it looked like they had about $15B in Revenue .... not Profit. That's a big difference. Not sure how much profit after they paid all those employees. If you have different info please provide a link. I am interested to see that.

f 6's picture

Some people expect a guy to sit an office all day at Adobe HQ and hammer out tons of code for free. How many photographers want to sit an office all day? I'm guessing 0.

William Salopek's picture

For free? They made $15 billion in profit last year.

Malcolm Wright's picture

Why subscribe to a 'Jack of all trades' solution when the camera manufacturer's own software is the Master of their own format?

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Have you tried doing a full edit on one? They may be the master of their own format, but, they are not the master of editing.

Malcolm Wright's picture

Take a look at Ivor Rackham's article 'How well does image quality stand up in Lightroom using different cameras?' Then hope that the third party software you've chosen doesn’t lead you to develop G.A.S.
Perhaps OEM software should be part of everyones workflow?
At least it's a good starting point and costs you nothing.
Then again if the camera manufacturer's own software isn't up to the job, move on to another manufacturer, after all the system is likely to cost you many thousands.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

--- "Perhaps OEM software should be part of everyones workflow?"

They are like 10+ years behind in their software development. They are limited and slow. Probably because that's not where their focus is…and, it shows.

--- "At least it's a good starting point and costs you nothing."

Not necessarily:

--1. For many, time is money.

--2. At the end of the day, you'll need a proper editing software anyway.

--- "Then again if the camera manufacturer's own software isn't up to the job, move on to another manufacturer,"

Lol. Yeah, that makes perfect financial and trouble free sense. Let the camera manufacturer's dictate your images. /s

Brent Rivers's picture

SAAS business models have allowed companies to compete more easily without the rampant theft that plagued Adobe. And its a no brainer for the end user opening up the door to non pros. I would love a more tiered pricing approach from Adobe as i only really use 3 tools, but pay for the full suite.

William Salopek's picture

Yes, tiered pricing. I use probably less than 10% of the full suite (and am also an amateur, not a pro), yet am paying for it all and at the same price as those who make a living off of it. It's the same as cable TV companies - when oh when will we be able to pay FOR WHAT WE USE. On the face of it, that's the only really fair pricing strategy.

Victor Boudolf's picture

If you don't like the price, switch to Gimp, DarkTable, or RAWTherapee.

Darktable itself has 100s of people volunteering to keep software up-to-date. You can view the work right here: https://github.com/darktable-org/darktable/pulls?q=is%3Apr+is%3Aclosed

If each of those 7000 some-odd "pull requests", at an average of 3 person-days to complete, adds up to about 84 person-years worth of development work done for you for free. Not to mention that other volunteers have to review, approve, and test each "pull request".

You yourself can offer try things out, test, teach other people how to use it, or even help write code that creates competition for the dozen or so for-profit companies out there providing the same things. The more people use these tools the more interest there will be in maintaining them.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

I've tried darktable, and, its learning curve is very very very steep. Just when I thought going from LR to C1 back in 2014 was steep, man, darktable is multiples more difficult. It doesn't help that their default interface theme and fonts are hard to read. I'm aware you can customize in the settings.

Even as trivial as move to next/prev image in their darkroom (develop) module. The left/right arrow keys don't navigate. You have to press the spacebar = next; backspace = previous. Even something like, I had to Google. smh.

IMO, darktable is for those that enjoy nerding out editing with the 50 gazillion adjustments.

Victor Boudolf's picture

It's less steep of a learning curve than the autofocus on my Nikon Z.

If you want easy learning curve, Apple Photos is fantastic and free. :-)