Photo Editing Software: To Upgrade or Not

by Feb 9, 2021Photography Blog

Robin Whalley Landscape Photographer

Photo Editing Software: To Upgrade or Not

Most of what I publish on Lenscraft is tutorial based, helping photographers learn photo editing software. If you’ve looked around my website, you’ll find tutorials covering different software packages and plugins you might find useful. What you won’t find is very much discussion about the version of the software used, and there are a couple of good reasons for this:

  1. I try to write in a way that makes the software version largely irrelevant.
  2. Software companies are smart. They like to add new features without messing around with the existing system. This means what you already know continues to work, which is important for lots of reasons.

What I want to do in this article is share some observations about software that you might not realise. It may not sound like an exciting topic, but I think you will find it eye-opening. It might even save you some money.

Are you Updating Your Book?

Whenever there’s a new software release, I can guarantee I receive a flurry of emails asking the same question… “With the new release of (Photoshop, Lightroom, Affinity, Nik etc.) are you going to change your book to bring it up to date?” If I look at feedback on Amazon, I also see comments like “this book is now 12 months old and out of date”, or “the author used version 1.6 of the software and the latest release is 1.7. Why can’t he keep his book up to date?”

The unfortunate root cause of these questions and comments is how we are conditioned to think about software and upgrades. It keeps us spending on the latest software and books to learn lots of “new” features. We often believe that if we don’t have the latest version of the software that we are missing out when we aren’t.

What’s important is the result and how to achieve it. Just because there’s a new feature, it doesn’t mean the old way to achieve the finished result is no good. If this weren’t the case, the photography we created last year would need to be re-edited in this year’s latest software. Clearly that’s nonsense.

To explain why we might be thinking about editing software in this way it’s valuable to explore the industry a little.

The Dynamics of Software Development

Software development is a long and expensive process. I know because my business was managing large scale development projects for global companies. Even short, seemingly simple projects to “tweak” a system can run into millions and there are good reasons for this.

First, there are a lot of highly skilled (and highly paid) individuals designing and coding the changes. There’s also a lot of equally skilled people testing those changes. Developing and testing takes time. If you don’t do it properly or release software containing too many bugs, your reputation suffers and sales fall.

Unfortunately, software development gives rise to complexity from code and platform permutations. Never mind that an application can be millions of lines of software code, you also have the different operating systems to support. This means you can never remove all the bugs from your software; it would cost too much and take too long.

One possible way to control the problem of bugs is to not make largescale changes to your software. Instead, you add new features using a modular approach so that you are bolting on changes. This helps minimise change to the existing parts of the system. Now when you make a change all you need to test is the new feature and perform a limited test of the existing system (a regression test) to ensure you haven’t broken something.

But there also another benefit in this approach for the software user. By limiting the changes to the existing software, the user doesn’t need to relearn each new release. All they need is to learn about the new features.

As someone who publishes books and courses, this also makes my life easier as my books are valid for multiple releases. If this weren’t the case, I would need to publish a new book each time there was a new release of software and you would also need to relearn that software.

Rise of the Subscription Model

As you might gather after reading the above, software development is costly when done well. Importantly, if you are a software company and you want your product to be popular, it needs to be done well or it doesn’t sell. This all takes time and gives rise to a new problem of how to find the necessary investment for the next version?

Each new release needs to have a lot of investment made before it can go on sale to the public. You then see a large volume of sales which quickly tails off if you don’t continue to market the product well.

I suspect this was one of the drivers behind Adobe’s decision to move to a subscription model where you rent the software. It smooths out the income from the software rather than front loading. It also keeps paying the bills whilst you develop the next version. That’s certainly something investors like to see as well because it’s lower risk.

But what about me as the end user of the software. Why should I rent the software just because it solves someone else’s problem? This was the question Adobe had to answer if they wanted people to switch to the subscription model, and they solved it (to some degree) in a couple of ways:

  1. The rental cost of the software is lower per year than the cost of an upgrade. Do you remember the “good old days” when a new license for Lightroom was probably around £100 and Photoshop was £500? Now instead of paying £600 every 18 months for a new release I can pay £10 a month and have the latest version of both.
  2. The cost saving of the subscription model is real but only if you compare it to upgrade your software with each new release. To make the rental model appear even more appealing there was a move to more frequent releases. This also plays on our fear of missing out because we don’t have the latest feature.

Now I realise not everyone likes the subscription model and some people prefer a perpetual license. Despite this, there are enough people who take up a subscription to make it worthwhile for Adobe to continue. It also presents their competitors with a not inconsiderable challenge.

Defending the Perpetual License

With Adobe making regular releases of their software throughout the year, pressure started to build on their competitors for more frequent releases. Some of these launched their own version of the subscription model, but others continued to sell perpetual licenses where you purchase a license and continue to use that version of the software.

What’s important to realise is that Adobe’s switch to regular releases has altered the dynamics of the market. Customers are no longer prepared to wait 18-24 months for the next release of the software and the annual upgrade has become the norm.

You have probably noticed in recent years that all the main photo editors sold using the perpetual license model have an annual upgrade. This is great for the customer with new features released regularly but the downside for the software house is that it costs more each time you make a release. Because of this they might not be able to include as much change as they could with less frequent releases.

The Marketing Machine Takes Over

The problem companies selling perpetual licenses now have is that they need to make more frequent releases and they need these releases to entice new sales. At the same time, they can’t include too much new development (because of costs) but if they don’t achieve a good balance, existing customers might question the value in upgrading. Remember, to make the perpetual license model viable, as many existing customers as possible need to upgrade. That is, unless you can secure a regular stream of new customers.

To address these demands, it’s necessary to highlight and emphasise each new feature or development, even if the visible change is minimal. This is something that  marketing teams in many of these companies have done a great job with.

Now if I sound as though I’m being critical, I’m not. As an end user of many packages, I have benefited tremendously from these developments and faster product cycle. The only problem is how to keep up with the new developments.

How do you Keep Up?

I’ll now let you in on the secret of how I manage to learn so many different software packages. The simple answer is, it’s not as difficult as it appears. There is very little that’s truly new and most of the different software packages have the same features and tools. They just look a little different. The secret is to understand the concept of what the tools do by looking beyond the appearance of the interface.

Let’s take a simple example from a recent release of Lightroom. The new Adobe Colour Grading Tool which is on the left of this illustration.

Colour Grading tools in Adobe and Capture One

This was an unusual release for Adobe because they did something they don’t often do; they replaced an existing tool. Previously if you wanted to Color Grade you would use the Split Toning Tool. Color Grading is a modern, more popular term, where Split Toning feels connected to the darkroom. So Split Toning was dropped, and the new Color Grading Tool added. It probably also made sense to remove Split Toning or you would have two tools that essentially do the same thing.

This is a key point to realise. The two tools did the same thing except they look a little different. Now rather than being able to Color Grade either the Shadows and Highlights, you can Color Grade the Shadows, Midtones and Highlights. If you knew how to use the Split Toning tools you can apply that knowledge to the new Color Grading Tool to immediately achieve good results.

But there’s a second point to this example, which is the Color Balance Tool you see on the right. This tool also allows you to Color Grade the Shadows, Midtones and Highlights by adjusting their Hue, Saturation and Lightness. If you’re wondering where to find this tool, it’s in Capture One and has been around for some time. As I said, very little is truly new.

Coming Full Circle

All this brings us full circle to the question of am I updating my books, the answer to which is no. At least not until I need to. Most of the time the updates to software are not material to the content of my books. I share software editing techniques rather than teaching software features. If you want a book to explain all the features of a software package, then my books probably aren’t for you. You would be much better searching for a manual on Amazon.

But there is another reason why I don’t update my books frequently. Updates don’t provide the reader with much value. When I publish a book on Amazon, I’m only allowed to make corrections to document and justify each of these whilst providing the location in the book. If the changes are considered too significant, I must publish it as a new book. If you want the new version, you need to buy it again (ouch). I personally don’t like the thought of defending why you need to buy a new book for what I might consider to be relatively minor changes.

Ultimately, when I release a new version of a book, I want it to be of significant value to the reader.

What About Software Upgrades?

The final question is whether to upgrade your software or not.

If the software you’re using is on a subscription model, then upgrading is obviously the best thing to do. After all, you are paying for those updates for as long as you continue with your subscription. But do you really need the latest book to understand all the features; probably not. A little bit of research on the internet will probably tell you everything you need to know.

But what about if you’re on a perpetual license model?

To answer this question, you need to look at what’s new and ask yourself how valuable those features are to you. If you won’t gain a lot, consider skipping a version (unless you want to support the software company concerned). Remember, they do need to sell upgrades or bring in new customers otherwise there’s no new features. Even if you decide not to upgrade but still appreciate their software, you can help them by telling others about it. If they gain a new customer from your recommendation it will help them just as much, if not more.

And with that final thought you can find a list of the photo editing software I have or do use. If you feel there are other valuable packages I’ve missed, do let me know so that I can explore them.

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