Lightroom – subscribe or not?

For some time now I’ve been a happy user of Adobe Lightroom. I brought it back when Lightroom 4 was released, skipped version 5, then paid to upgrade to 6.

Since then, Adobe has discontinued the perpetually licensed version. The only way to legally obtain Lightroom is by paying £120-240 per-year for one of their Creative Cloud subscriptions.

Unfortunately the new subscription model is a rather poor fit for my needs.

I want to state upfront that I don’t object to subscription-based pricing models for software in general. It makes a lot of sense from a development point of view, as maintenance and support costs don’t go away once the product is shipped. But in my opinion Adobe has reached too far, and is trying to steer customers towards cloud solutions for reasons that don’t really align with their best interests.

Subscription models done right

For a good approach to subscriptions, I’d like to draw your attention to Jetbrains (makers of software development tools which I use). They switched to a subscription model in 2015, a little while after Adobe’s subscription-based Creative Cloud product launched.

The section titled “reasons for our move to subscriptions and concerns raised”, is worth a read, and makes a good case for subscriptions. The TL;DR version is that customers get new features sooner, and it’s easier to prioritise important under-the-hood improvements which wouldn’t typically make good marketing material, or bullet points on a “what’s new” feature list.

Despite this, the initial feedback was extremely negative. But to their credit, Jetbrains listened and improved the offer, by allowing customers to use the base version, that was shipping at the time the subscription was taken out, in perpetuity. And giving a discount for repeat subscriptions.

In my view this is fair, even if you don’t like subscription models. You pay one annual subscription, but you can continue to use the software as it was at the time of subscription if you no longer wish to pay for updates. The bet is that most customers will find the upgrades in the 12 months since the subscription worth the money they paid. I certainly do; the improvements are steady, and I’ve kept my subscription active since.

What’s wrong with Adobe’s Lightroom subscriptions?

A number of things actually, but it all boils down to value for money.

One is that unlike Jetbrains, you don’t get to use the base version in perpetuity. Once your subscription expires, Adobe disables import and editing. You can browse and export your previously edited files, but no more changes are possible.

Second is the lack of flexibility.

I am not a particularly frequent user. I use Lightroom to process my photos, but I’m not a professional photographer; I use Lightroom to process photos from trips away or any events such as weddings I attend.

It all adds up to 5 or 6 times a year, for a few hours at a time, and it’s not unusual for me to go 3-4 months without opening it. But Adobe doesn’t let you subscribe for a month here and there. Nope, you have to pay for a minimum of 12 every time.

It feels a bit like Adobe is taking all the benefits of the subscription model here, while giving little to the customer (in all fairness the 12-month term is true of Jetbrains as well, but it’s compensated for by being able to use the base version in perpetuity).

The Options

The relevant plans are the Photography plans. Everything else is way more expensive and includes things I don’t need, so let’s look at the 3 photography options (I’ll ignore monthly cost because they are all annual plans):

Adobe Creative Cloud plans
  • Photography Plan (20GB) – £119.76/yr
    • Lightroom
    • Lightroom Classic
    • Photoshop
    • 20GB of cloud storage
  • Photography Plan (1TB) – £239.64/yr
    • Lightroom
    • Lightroom Classic
    • Photoshop
    • 1TB of cloud storage
  • Lightroom Plan (20GB) – £119.76/yr
    • Lightroom
    • 1TB of cloud storage

Of these, the 20GB Photography Plan is the closest fit. The product I’m after is Lightroom Classic, and I have no need for cloud storage (I use a local NAS backed up to Blackblaze B2).

But let’s look at the individual items:

  1. Lightroom
    • This is not actually the same as the old standalone Lightroom; it’s a cut-down, simplified app/web version that I don’t want or need. It’s an online cloud-first solution, which stores your photos in the cloud, hence the need for storage. Being able to log in and edit your photos from anywhere is nice, but the problem for me is the lock-in; it’s much harder to move to a competing solution compared to offline tools that organise, store and edit files on your local computer.
  2. Lightroom Classic
    • This is what was previously known as just “Lightroom”. It’s the same offline desktop product we know and love, and as is what any professional or power-user would want to use.
  3. Photoshop
    • Possibly the cheapest way to get Photoshop… but I don’t need it.

The best fit for me is the Photography Plan (20GB) for £120/year.

My previous expenditure on Lightroom is £106.48 for an outright purchase of Lightroom 4 in 2013, and then £59.09 to upgrade to Lightroom 6 in 2015.

Considering I still use it today, that’s £165.57 over 6 years, so £27.60/year or £2.30/month.

If it was still possible to buy a standalone version, I would have done so by now, thus it’s probably fair to factor in another £60 upgrade, which brings it to £225.57 for 6 years. That’s £37.60 per year, or £3.13/month.

Whichever way you slice it, Adobe is asking me to spend at least three times more to use Lightroom than I have in the past.

A no-brainer for professionals

If I was a professional photographer that used Lightroom every day, I’d subscribe in a heartbeat. By way of comparison, Jetbrains’ IntelliJ is a tool I use every day. It also costs £119 for the first year, the same as the Photography Plan (the price drops for subsequent years though).

For a tool I use daily it’s a bargain, and if I was a full-time photographer it would be decent value, even if I never used Lightroom Cloud and its storage.

The problem is that, as an occasional user, the extras don’t justify the cost. I’m being asked to pay for two products I don’t want, and cloud storage I have no use for.

Au revoir Lightroom

If it wasn’t already apparent, I’m going to vote with my wallet and decline to upgrade to Creative Cloud. I’ll keep using Lightroom 6 for now, as my DSLR is even older and the raw files are supported, but it’s starting to show its age. I’m already getting notifications on my Mac saying it needs updating for future versions of MacOS.

So I’m in the market for an alternative. Has any ex-Lightroom user found an offline, non-cloud photo-editing and organisation tool that they’d recommend? Organisation by filesystem is a requirement, and compatibility with Lightroom’s side-car preset files would be a huge bonus!

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