Has Anything Really Changed in Software?

I guess I'm the sucker that keeps a lot of the digital photography software companies in business. In order to "stay current" in my recommendations, I have to keep looking at new versions of software products, and that requires a near endless tithing that's getting old. 

Let me just say up front that all the Adobe Disaster Scenarios that people worried about when they changed over to the Creative Cloud licensing program turned out to be Paranoid Dystopia. The price for the photography plan hasn't really changed. We get regular, useful updates that include excellent new features. You don't have to store your images in the cloud. And so on. 

As far as I'm concerned, Photoshop went from a product I had to buy a massive upgrade to every 18-24 months, to one that gets upgraded regularly, though not as massively in each iteration, because those happen more frequently now. I've looked at how much I was paying on average in the old Creative Suite version versus what I'm now paying on average per year with Creative Cloud. If anything, the Creative Cloud option seems to be a few dollars less expensive when averaged out over five year periods. 

Your mileage may vary, of course, as you might not have been updating every time like I was and you might be paying more for the cloud version depending upon where you live and what options you've selected. 

Still, my first conclusive statement to the headline's question is this: Photoshop is still iterating, still getting better, still the best tool overall, and, oh, it also comes with Bridge and Lightroom Classic and some cloud storage space, too. As long as things continue as they are with Creative Cloud, Adobe has me as a customer. Given my advancing age, that’s probably for life.

That's far less true of any other equivalent software product. 

Capture One's latest "re-pricing and revising" is a good example. Capture One would love to have the same customer base and loyalty as Adobe. Well, actually, not so much that as wanting the same predictable and profitable revenue stream. Once customers are bought into a SaaS (software as a service) subscription, you have a predictable revenue stream and can match development costs against that more easily. But it also makes it a little more difficult to do promotions to "juice the coffers" (because your subscribers will complain about not getting the same deal). 

That's put Capture One—and others, read on—in a tough spot. They've conditioned themselves on using a constant stream of marketing promotions, affiliate commission programs (dropped in 2022), attempts at segmenting (version for only one brand), and a raft of commercial presets to keep the money stream coming and fuel their "keep up with Adobe” aspirations. All while keeping their Axcel Fund owners happy. That's right, Capture One has a venture fund partner (Axcel V fund) that owns 56%. On Axcel's pages you'll find statements like "Our proven Accelerating Value Creation model..." and "sharpen the commercial focus.” You are the product. 

Axcel's actual customer is not you. It's corporate private investors, asset managers, pension funds, life insurers, banks, and financial institutions. I have little doubt that Capture One's ongoing changes to their business model is tweaking and tuning driven by Axcel. 

Is that a bad thing? It's difficult to tell, but something's a little amiss, methinks. 

For example, the current annual cost of the Adobe Creative Cloud Photography Plan is US$120 year. Capture One Pro's similar plan is US$179 year (substantially more if you pay month to month). We've had 15 major revisions of Capture One in its lifetime, even though the current version is numbered 23. Looking at the things added in each major version, I'd say that feature-wise Capture One is still in "catch up" mode to Photoshop/Lightroom, though getting closer recently. 

The problem I have is that I feel like Capture One is trying to get more money for less. Their iPad version, for instance, requires another US$4.99 month subscription. Capture One Pilot is a smart device tethering program that, yes, costs another US$14.99 (not a subscription, but what is the likelihood that it converts to a subscription at some point?). 

The latest customer-unfriendly thing Capture One has done—and this isn't their first time at the slap-the-user bar—is to make their perpetual license version (US$299, with "reduced price [33% off] every time you upgrade" [sic]) no longer receive feature upgrades (it used to get feature updates for one year). Disclaimer: as of today, the Capture One Web site still says that perpetual license users still get "minor software updates included." That will change on February 1, 2023. 

Nothing is different in Capture One's attempt to move to SaaS subscriptions than Adobe's. We're seeing the same negative feedback. That's to be expected. But again, my primary complaint is that I feel that Capture One is offering somewhat less for more money than Adobe now. I just don't see the value proposition, though obviously Axcel does ;~).

My best guess is that attempting to make the change from perpetual to SaaS is going to cost Capture One customers. I'm pretty sure they'll lose me, as it makes no sense to pay more for less. Disclaimer: I was almost convinced via extended one-on-one training with Capture One to make the change from Photoshop. Almost. There's much to like about their approach, particularly when it comes to color model. But in the end it was "too little for too much" for me. Your mileage may vary.

We have other players that are effectively SaaS wannabes now: Luminar is attempting the US$119 annual subscription, but retains the US$249 perpetual license. Of course, that's almost never what you actually pay. As I write this, the Luminar Neo license is US$99 for a year and the perpetual license is US$149. Skylum (Luminar's maker) even seems to be confused themselves, because the US$99 subscription appears to include nothing extra while the US$149 perpetual license does. They're totally confused now in their marketing campaigns, plus they're a well-known affiliate commission provider and have multi-times-a-year sales. I have no idea how much you'll pay for Neo.

Of course, we've also had Luminar, Luminar 2018, Luminar 3, Luminar Flex, Luminar 4, and now Luminar Neo, which seems to indicate that they either don't know how to develop and name an on-going product, or that they are using naming confusion to trigger new sales of ostensibly similar products. Personally, I'm no longer impressed by Skylum's products. Both the products and their marketing of them seem gimmicky to me. Personally, I'd love to just have their Intensify plug-in back (no longer runs properly in some Photoshop/macOS installations). I tended to use that plug-in over the Nik Color Efex Pro one for some tonality changes.

On1 is another possibility. The basic On1 Photo RAW subscription is US$90 billed annually, or US$8 a month. The perpetual license is US$99 (often discounted), but doesn't include their plug-in suite. The plug-in suite is US$150 perpetual (often discounted). Then there's their 1TB cloud storage option, but they seem to have backed off of clearly explaining why you might want that (hint: mobile devices). At least their pricing strategy isn't "more than Adobe for less." (Clicking on the "Mobile" icon on their Web page at first didn't seem to do anything: that's because nothing changes in the above-the-fold view with certain browser window sizes; the additional information is below the fold and you have to scroll to it.)

I'm not overly impressed by the On1 Photo RAW program itself, though. It feels a little disorganized, has a great deal of UI clutter with no clear theme, their automatic masking tends to need lots of adjustments, and I don't like their hidden panel style. But the product works reasonably well these days. 

Meanwhile, their plug-in suite caters to those who love to browse through hundreds of presets. There's actually a couple that I like for specific things in the suite, which is enough to have me leave it installed in my Photoshop Filters menu. But it's not a great value. I don't get US$150 of value from it (I paid less through one of their many promotions).

Next up, we have DxO PhotoLab 6. It's a perpetual license program (US$219 currently, though discounts available from time to time). I must admit that I kind of like PhotoLab these days. It's approachable, deep in features yet broadly applies things automatically, and I find it very consistent across different camera models. That was their whole approach in the first place: figure out what the photo should be (sans vignetting and linear distortion, and apply a consistent color/tonal model) and just apply that. 

These days, DxO PhotoLab seems to get a major update about once a year, so keeping it current can be more expensive than an Adobe Photographer's Plan if you don't watch their promotion pricing carefully. 

Finally, we have the program that you should pay more attention to if you're really looking for value. That's Serif's Affinity Photo. Serif has Photoshop (Photo), Illustrator (Designer), and inDesign (Publisher) knockoffs that are extremely good, and only available through perpetual license. 

Photo has just gone from Photo to Photo 2 (as have the other Serif products). Regularly priced at US$70, there's an introductory discount of 40% off through January 25, 2023, and an "all products, all platforms" offer of US$99. That's Photo 2, Designer 2, and Publisher 2 on macOS, Windows, and iPadOS. Yikes. Take that Adobe. While Photo 2 still doesn't quite match the current Photoshop  CC 2023 in features, all the basic Photoshop capabilities are there, including compatibility with PSD files, layers, blend modes, focus merge, extensive masking, non-destructive editing, and more. 

So here's a suggestion: if you're worried about your Photoshop CC capabilities when your subscription ends, make sure you have a Photo 2 perpetual license ;~). While they've raised their prices a bit with their new versions, A Photoshop near equivalent for US$70 is still a bargain, right? Moreover, Serif hasn't been trolling their user base for constant upgrading. Photo lasted from 2015 until 2022, after all. 

So there you have it. Some basic thoughts on where we're at with photo editing tools at the moment. I'll update my software recommendations page early in 2023.

Update: edited for clarity of a few statements, plus added statement about Capture One affiliate program ending in 2022.

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