The Adobe transition to a subscription-based business model has been successful by many measures, although it doesn’t meet everyone’s needs. If you want Adobe software but you don’t want to pay a regular subscription fee, do you still have options? Depending on what you need, the answer is “maybe”…although as of 2017, the non-subscription options from Adobe are fewer than ever. (Update: As of 2019, all Adobe professional software is now available only through a Creative Cloud subscription membership.)
First let’s make sure we understand the two common types of software licenses for consumer single-user software. The older way to pay for software is called a perpetual license, because you buy the license once and it doesn’t expire. With Adobe Creative Cloud and some other newer applications, you maintain your license to use Adobe software and services by paying a subscription fee every year or every month, as you might with Netflix or Spotify.
CS6 no longer available as of January 9, 2017
As of January 9, 2017, Adobe Creative Suite (CS6 or earlier) perpetual license applications such as Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, Adobe InDesign, Adobe Premiere Pro, and Adobe After Effects are no longer available for sale from Adobe (see below). They are now only available as part of a paid Creative Cloud subscription. Many Creative Cloud applications have a Single App subscription option in case you don’t want to pay for them all. If you read an earlier version of this article that talked about how to buy CS6 without a subscription, I’ve now had to bring this article up to date to account for Adobe taking CS6 completely off the market.
After the launch of Creative Cloud in 2012, Adobe originally stated that CS6 applications would remain on sale “indefinitely” (A word that does not mean “forever,” although many read it that way). Through most of 2015 Adobe provided a web link where you could still pay once to buy a perpetual license of CS6 applications. But in late 2015, Adobe redirected the link to a web page, shown below, where ordering by phone was the only option:
Then, on January 9, 2017, the content of that web page changed to this:
Note the text that my arrow points to, which says:
As of January 9, 2017 Creative Suite is no longer available for purchase.
There may be copies of Creative Suite software available for sale through the used market, but if you are interested in buying it that way you should exercise extreme caution to avoid scams and pirated copies. If you’re buying software that has been previously opened and installed, it’s a good idea to make sure the seller is willing to do an official transfer of license to ensure that you become the new legal owner of the software.
Also, CS6 applications were released in 2012, so they were not written for the latest operating systems and hardware. They are no longer being updated, so if there is a problem running a CS6 application on recent systems, a fix is probably not available.
The king of Adobe software is, of course, Adobe Photoshop. Now that Adobe no longer sells CS6 applications, you can get Photoshop only through a paid Creative Cloud membership. The most affordable membership is the Photography Plan, which for USD $9.99, includes Photoshop, Lightroom Classic, and Lightroom as well as a range of online services, including Lightroom cloud storage and syncing across devices as well as an Adobe Portfolio website (All of that may change, so read over the current offers carefully.) If you use Photoshop for business reasons this is probably going to be one of the smallest business expenses you have. The relatively low cost of the Photography Plan means that most of the people who don’t want to subscribe to Creative Cloud are opposed to it for reasons that aren’t economic.
The only non-subscription version of Photoshop currently for sale is Photoshop Elements, or you can use a non-Adobe Photoshop alternative. See below for more information about those options.
On October 18, 2017, Adobe announced the 2018 releases of Lightroom CC and Lightroom Classic CC under a choice of Creative Cloud plans; it was also announced that Lightroom 6 is the last version available through a perpetual license.
If you’re not sure about the difference between the subscription and perpetual license versions of Lightroom, it’s this:
- Lightroom and Lightroom Classic are available as part of an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription, including the inexpensive Photography Plan. Lightroom is the newer form that stores all of your images in the cloud; Lightroom Classic is the current version of the original Lightroom that stores all of your original images on your own local storage. These versions have Creative Cloud-specific features, such as the ability to sync with Lightroom in the cloud and on other devices. They are eligible for all Lightroom updates, which can contain new features or bug fixes. (These applications were formerly called Lightroom CC and Lightroom Classic CC, but Adobe dropped the CC after it was no longer necessary to distinguish the subscription and perpetual license versions.)
- Lightroom 6 was sold as a perpetual license. The last perpetual license version of Lightroom was Lightroom 6. Introduced in 2015, Adobe stopped selling it in 2019. In terms of features, the main difference is that Lightroom 6 didn’t connect or sync to any Creative Cloud services such as Lightroom Photos. Lightroom 6 received bug fixes as they become available, but new features added to the subscription version of Lightroom were not added to the perpetual license version. Lightroom 6 will not receive any further major upgrades; the equivalent of Lightroom 7 was Lightroom Classic CC (version 7) which is subscription-only.
For several years you could buy Lightroom 6 (perpetual license, no subscription) from Amazon.com, B&H, and Adorama. But when I checked on March 31, 2019, the only one of those three links that still worked was for B&H. This indicates that non-subscription Lightroom 6 is disappearing from the retail channel. Again, Adobe has stopped selling new or upgrade licenses for Lightroom 6 directly from their website.
Important: Lightroom 6 is no longer being updated, so raw files of newer cameras may not be supported. The Lightroom 6 feature set and list of supported cameras is falling further behind Lightroom Classic. Before you buy a retail copy of non-subscription Lightroom 6, verify that it’s compatible with the raw files from your cameras. Also, after November 30, 2018, the live map view in Lightroom Classic 7.5 and earlier no longer works because the connection to the map server has changed (The rest of the Map module still works). The live map view has been updated and continues to function in the current versions of Lightroom Classic CC (version 8) and Lightroom CC (version 2).
Acrobat Pro DC
(Note: When this article was written in January 2016, Adobe was still offering perpetual licenses of Acrobat Pro DC. This was true throughout the first half of 2016, but when I checked the Acrobat Pro DC page at the end of August 2016, the perpetual license options had been removed.)
The Elements line
Years ago, hobbyists and non-professionals used to buy the full version of Photoshop because it was one of the few applications that could do a good job of editing images. Today many of those users may be satisfied with recent versions of Photoshop Elements. It’s sold from many retailers as a perpetual license for under $100, no subscription needed or available.
Over time many advanced features in recent versions of Photoshop (such as healing, hair selection, camera shake reduction, and panorama merge) have been handed down to Photoshop Elements, so some areas of Photoshop Elements are more powerful than older versions of Photoshop.
For video editing, Premiere Elements serves a similar consumer audience, and is also sold as perpetual license software.
Alternatives outside Adobe
Photo editing software has matured greatly since the days when Photoshop was the clear standout. On the Mac, hobbyists and others needing something more advanced than Apple Photos can turn to Acorn, Pixelmator, Polarr, and others. However, photo editors at that level tend to be missing features that advanced and professional users rely on in Photoshop. If you do need more advanced features such as support for true camera raw editing and non-RGB color modes (such as CMYK and Lab) and ICC profile conversions, take a look at Affinity Photo. That affordable application seems much closer to Photoshop than most other alternatives. GIMP is also a frequently mentioned Photoshop alternative; it’s mature and powerful but can be challenging to learn.
Affinity is the developer to watch here. Before Affinity Photo they released Affinity Designer, a legitimate alternative to Adobe Illustrator. In June 2019, Affinity released Publisher, a potential alternative to Adobe InDesign. This means Affinity now has a trio of perpetual license desktop applications that covers much of the same ground as the old Adobe Creative Suite. Serif (the parent company of Affinity) certainly has the background to build it, as they are the developer of the long-established PhotoPlus, DrawPlus, and PagePlus applications for Windows. Affinity has also said they are working on a digital asset manager, which could compete with Adobe Lightroom or Bridge.
For pure raw processing, alternatives to Lightroom and Camera Raw include Capture One, DxO Optics Pro, ON1 Photo Raw, Luminar, and the free/open source Darktable, Lightzone, and RawTherapee. These are generally very capable raw processors. If you value the organizational features in Lightroom you should evaluate the alternatives carefully, because in general their photo organization features are not as strong as their raw development features.
Some enjoy using Apple Photos enhanced with editing extensions made by MacPhun, DxO and others. These extensions bring the image-editing capabilities of Photos closer to Lightroom. But because these extensions are created by multiple developers, the editing experience is less integrated and consistent than in Lightroom. Another problem is that the organizational abilities of Apple Photos fall well short of what Lightroom can do, and so far, it looks like extensions are not able to improve that area of Photos.
The big picture
There’s no question that Adobe Creative Cloud has been successful for Adobe. Since switching to a subscription model, Adobe has reported many quarters of record revenue growth partially driven by Creative Cloud subscription rates that exceeded their projections, year after year. Adobe seems to have found a combination of products, services, and subscription pricing that works for the customers they want. Financially, Creative Cloud has worked out so well for Adobe that as long as revenue growth stays as positive as it has been, they’re unlikely to abandon their subscription-based business model or bring back perpetual licenses for their professional applications.
Remember that Adobe Creative Cloud isn’t just about subscriptions. It includes features that perpetual license software usually doesn’t offer such as online services, online storage and portfolios, and links that tie Adobe desktop and mobile apps into a single continuous workflow. These benefits tend to have the most appeal for highly mobile creatives who work daily with the latest workflows and need features that support them. For example, if you frequently prepare graphics for websites that are Retina/HiDPI enabled, you’d probably want the Adobe Generator, Export As, and Artboards features that are in the current version of Photoshop, but not in Photoshop CS6.
If you have a more modest or occasional workflow, like weekly processing of a few images for prints or a simple website, one of the non-subscription alternatives in this article might be all you need.