The Adobe transition to a subscription-based business model has been successful by many measures, but it doesn’t meet every customer’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”…and as of 2017, the non-subscription options are fewer than ever.
Just to get some terms out of the way, the conventional 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 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.
Update: CS6 no longer available as of January 9, 2017
As of January 9, 2017, 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.” 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 the 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 may not be available.
The king of Adobe software is, of course, Adobe Photoshop. Now that Adobe no longer sells CS6 applications, the only professional version available from Adobe is Photoshop CC, which you get through a paid Creative Cloud membership. The most affordable membership is the $9.99 Photography Plan which includes Photoshop, Lightroom CC, and Lightroom Classic as well as a range of online services, including Lightroom cloud storage and syncing across devices as well as an Adobe Portfolio website. 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.
Update: 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. For now, Lightroom 6 remains available for purchase through the online retailers listed below, but when stocks run out, only the subscription versions will be available.
Adobe sells a subscription version and a perpetual license version of Adobe Photoshop Lightroom:
- Lightroom CC and Lightroom Classic CC are available as part of an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription, including the inexpensive Photography Plan. These versions have Creative Cloud-specific features such as the ability to sync with Lightroom Mobile. They are eligible for all Lightroom updates, which can contain new features or bug fixes.
- Lightroom 6 is sold as a perpetual license. In terms of features, the main difference is that Lightroom 6 doesn’t connect or sync to any Creative Cloud services such as Lightroom Mobile. Lightroom 6 receives bug fixes as they become available, but new features added to Lightroom CC are not added to the perpetual license version of Lightroom until the next major upgrade. Adobe has not announced when Lightroom 6 will receive a major upgrade. Some Lightroom 6 users think it’s unfair that they are not getting the new features appearing in Lightroom CC, but it’s consistent with the traditional perpetual license model where, for example, if you bought Microsoft Word 5 and you wanted new features that weren’t in Word 5, you had to wait until Word 6.
Based on the number of people asking where you can buy Lightroom 6 (the non-subscription version), many don’t seem to be aware that you can still buy Lightroom 6 at the same retailers where other perpetual license software is sold. For example, you can buy Lightroom 6 for a one-time non-subscription purchase at Amazon.com, B&H, and Adorama. However, those are for new full-price licenses; if you want a discounted upgrade from earlier versions of Lightroom you may have to do it through Adobe.com. (An upgrade to Lightroom 6 may no longer be available after the October 2017 announcements).
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. And Affinity is working on an alternative to Adobe InDesign. If that happens, Affinity will have a trio of perpetual license 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. 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. For the last few years, Adobe has reported many quarters of record revenue growth partially driven by Creative Cloud subscription rates that exceeded their projections. 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 Photoshop CC 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.