The Rise and Fall of Image Editor Prices

The big Image Editing news of March 6, 2012 was that Lightroom 4 had been released; and that the price for v4 was now half the previous price. This is not an isolated incident, and is cause to review the trends of image editing software pricing in general, to provide a background for this news.

The Long and Hallowed History of Photoshop

Once upon a time, in a land with far fewer electronic gadgets, a copy of Photoshop used to come free with the purchase of most scanners. There are two shocking ideas in that sentence: first, that we used to buy scanners… not just one, but a new one with higher resolution, better bit depth, and perhaps larger format, every year to two. But more to the point of this article: that scanner, which may have cost less than a retail copy of Photoshop goes for today, included Photoshop for free. Now, this was not your current, steroidal, supercharged version of Photoshop. Current users would be quite surprised to see how limited the functionality of the earliest versions were. But it was a necessary tool, at a time when there were few others, and you needed it to work with the images your scanner produced. In fact your scanner driver might well have been a Photoshop Plug-in, leaving you no choice but to have a copy to run the scanner. And some current Photoshop users are still purchasing upgrades to each new version of Photoshop based on one of these early “free with a scanner” versions. This points out a need for Adobe to have a reasonable revenue stream from the upgrade prices, or these long-time users would be a drag on Adobe’s resources.

More recently, Photoshop has been the application that proved you were a “real” photographer. Activation schemes assure that you aren’t running a pirate copy for free, and the pricing guarantees you are serious to own a copy. And many copies of Photoshop are now part of even pricier CS# bundles including other high-powered, high priced professional graphics applications from Adobe, with four digit price tags. Not a bad position for a software company to be in; leading Adobe to be listed as the best company in California to work for, several years running. And also leading to the fact that Adobe had never had a large-scale round of employee layoffs… until the recent recession.

The recession lined up with other factors that affected Adobe’s ability to continue its role as seller of top-priced graphics software and bundles. Not only did companies who had previously automatically updated to the latest Adobe products decide it might be the year to skip a version (which in turn, affected Adobe’s upgrade terms, tightening the upgrade path in some instances to only those who indeed did purchase every version), but other factors in the larger universe of image editing applications played a part as well.

Enter Lightroom… and Aperture

It all started with Lightroom; or with Aperture, depending on how you look at it. Both Apple and Adobe began work on new applications to mange the photographic workflow, covering image organization, rating, selection, slide shows, exports to needed formats, even printing. But the killer feature was import of RAW images, and the global edits that could be applied to the images at this level. Previously every image was opened in Photoshop. With RAW formats, this required a RAW conversion tool to be provided with Photoshop, which Adobe called  Adobe Camera Raw (soon shortened for most uses to ACR). Now, the engine from ACR could be built into this image management tool, and eliminate several pieces of software at once, creating a convenient central place to do much of what used to be done in a motley crew of third party applications.

But, the centrality of Photoshop began to slip, as it became clear that most images could be reviewed, rated, and globally adjusted, without ever being opened in Photoshop, particularly once certain localized edits, such as dust busting, became available in these new photo processing applications. One result of this was for Adobe to add the name Photoshop to the name Lightroom in later editions; Photoshop Lightroom might not catch on as a general use title, but it did retain the presence of some Photoshop tool in the whole workflow, instead of marginalizing Photoshop to the position of the advanced editor used only on the best images, at the end of the process.

Since both Apple, with Aperture, and Adobe, with Lightroom, were racing to release the first-in-category product, and thus capture the early market, beta’s of the applications were released publicly, to capture user loyalty in advance, and familiarize users with the new type of application. It was a rocky road, and the earliest question was not “which one will I choose?” but rather “will I want to use one of these at all?” However, by release, or at least by v2, both apps had matured to be important photo tools that most advanced users wouldn’t dream of living without. But which one couldn’t they live without? Over time, Adobe’s Lightroom gained the upper hand, for a number of technical, reliability, and speed reasons, but also for the simple reason that it was cross-platform, and could be used under Windows, not just on the Mac, as with Apple’s Aperture.

But during the beta period, users became used to using these apps for free; and Apple chose an aggressively low price for Aperture; perhaps in hopes of undercutting Adobe’s price and gaining more market share. By Adobe logic Lightroom was a newly developed app with lots of development costs, which offered astounding new features to photographers, reducing processing time and effort, and should have cost as much, possible considerably more, than Photoshop. If $699 was the list for Photoshop, then a price as high as $1999 could have been justified for Lightroom. But this would have driven the majority of the market to Aperture, at its much lower price, and lost Adobe market share with the high end photographers they needed to retain as customers. So one could say that Apple forced Adobe’s hand on Lightroom pricing, assuring that, even if it cost more than Aperture, it would be a few hundred dollars, not a few thousand.

Enter Mobile Apps

Next player in this drama is the iPhone. Once the iPhone App Store was launched, a new software price range was established. Adding the iPad, as well as Android phones and tablets, a point was reached where real image editing apps could be run on newer, more powerful phones and tablets, doing things that previously required thousands of dollars of investment in desktop computers and desktop apps. Even in its infancy, this new category was already showing the potential to threaten Adobe’s position as the creator of THE apps that all serious professionals used. Companies such as NIK, who were free to sell powerful mobile apps such as SnapSeed, did not feel the need to tie every mobile application back to the users dearly purchased copy of Photoshop. So Adobe was facing a new predicament, not from companies attempting to build competing desktop applications that would match Photoshop and the other Adobe graphic apps head-on, but low cost, simpler apps with more user-friendly interfaces, and fun results. And these new apps followed the mobile app pricing strategy: a few dollars per app. Adobe needed to balance their higher price points, and their excellent margins, against remaining relevant, as a new crop of advanced smartphone users began looking for the best apps to use on their phone to edit their images.

Mobile Features and Pricing Jumps Back to the Desktop

And then it happened: NIK’s SnapSeed mobile image editing application won Apple’s “Best App for the iPad” award in 2011. And not long after, NIK announced a desktop version of SnapSeed; at a price under ten dollars. Now the world was looking at fun, easy to use image editing on real computers, at mobile prices. Even NIK had a plan to upsell these users to their more advanced tools, which would mean a copy of Photoshop, since many of those tools are Photoshop plugins. But the trend is evident, and not every company’s game plan will end up requiring a $699 investment with Adobe.

And then there is the question of Lightroom, and where it now fits in the mobile world. Previously Adobe, and others, had built the ability to store, view, and even edit TIFF and JPG files into their RAW apps. This initially was for the convenience of photographers who needed their libraries to include their converted files as well a their RAW files. But over time it also meant storing of ever higer megapixel phone images in the same library, and being able to process them with the same tools as the high end camera’s RAW files. And now those phone photos could be run through SnapSeed on the phone or iPad, and later, high end images from the same location taken wu=ith professional cameras could be similarly processed though SnapSeed for the Mac, or perhaps through more advanced NIK software to get similar effects on high resolution images. The world was converging again. And all of this will inevitably effect professional photo editing app pricing.

On to Video, and the FinalCut X scandal

Still-imaging is merging with video these days, with the high-end DSLR cameras being capable of shooting footage good enough for major motion picture production… and smartphones shooting video good enough for most web applications. Apple’s Final Cut Pro had led the way, with Cold Mountain, edited entirely on Macs using Final Cut, being the first major motion picture to be edited on personal computers, instead of large, expensive dedicated editing systems. That revolution happened with Final Cut still having a four digit price tag; a thousand dollars was nothing in pro editing. But as that market opens to a wider public, Apple did, with the radically altered FinalCut X, just what they did with Aperture pricing before it: the new version was not only much easier for new users to understand and master, the price dropped to less than a third of the cost of the previous version: $300; another factor in the shift towards lower cost editing software.

The App Store Jumps to the Desktop as Well

SnapSeed wasn’t the only thing that jumped from the mobile world to the desktop; Apple introduced a new App Store for the Mac, with many of the conveniences of their iOS App Store, only for applications that run on your desktop or laptop computer, instead of your iPhone or iPad. And pricing followed suit; most of the software on the new Mac AppStore is very affordable. SnapSeed is there, as are many other convenient image apps, including FinalCut X. But not Adobe Photoshop; or at least not the version used by experts; the low cost, vastly simplified Adobe Photoshop Elements 10 Editor is available there.

Back to Where We Started

Adobe Lightroom is also conspicuous in its Mac App Store absence. But what you will find present there is the alternative to Lightroom; Apple Aperture, now $79. So, dropping the price of Lightroom from $299 to $149 makes sense in relation to the current cost of Apeture… and to the series of other image editing price trends described above. So get your copy now; and when you do, remember to thank Adobe, as well as Apple, NIK, and all the others who assured that such a great product is also so affordable.

Credits: C. David Tobie, Copyright 2012.   Website:   Return to Blog’s Main Page