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, nearly all Adobe professional software is now available only through a Creative Cloud subscription.)
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.
Creative Suite 6 no longer available at retail 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 available only 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.
How to get Photoshop and other Creative Cloud applications today
Between 2012 and 2017, some Adobe professional applications were available by both subscription and perpetual licenses. This led to confusion about which version to get, especially as Adobe began to hide the perpetual license options. After CS6 went off the retail market in 2017, the choice became clear only because almost all Adobe pro applications became available exclusively by subscription. Still, I’ve included information on how to get current versions, how to know the difference between the two versions of Lightroom, some non-subscription alternatives, and whether you should consider the second-hand market.
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 a month, 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 subscriptions means that many of the objections to it are not economic. (The full Creative Cloud plan, which includes nearly all Adobe pro applications, is much more costly.)
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. Finally, some time around October 10, 2019, B&H withdrew Lightroom 6 from sale and listed it as Discontinued. Again, Adobe has stopped selling new or upgrade licenses for Lightroom 6 directly from their website.
If you find a copy of Lightroom 6 and are thinking about buying it, keep the following in mind:
- Lightroom 6 is no longer supported or receiving updates, so raw files of newer cameras may not be supported.
- The Lightroom 6 feature set is falling further behind Lightroom Classic. For example, it lacks features such as Dehaze and Texture, and does not include the performance enhancements and improved GPU support in Lightroom Classic.
- 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 (version 8 or later) and Lightroom (version 2 or later).
- On macOS, some Lightroom 6 components won’t run on macOS 10.15 Catalina, preventing it from being installed or uninstalled. Lightroom 6 may work if it was already installed before upgrading to macOS 10.15 Catalina.
As of January 2021, Acrobat 2020 Standard and Pro are still available as a one-time Full License purchase, but it isn’t easy to find. Go to https://www.adobe.com/products/catalog.html, expand the PDF & E-Signatures category, and select PDF. Or go to this direct link:
After you click Buy Now, the Full License version is available from the Type menu as shown below.
Buying a used copy
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, pirated copies hacked with malware, and serial numbers that Adobe has deactivated. 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 you upgrade your hardware or system and a CS6 application now has a problem running on it, a fix is probably not available. If you’re thinking about buying a used copy, confirm that its version is supported on the computer and operating system version you have. This is especially true if you use a Mac, because changes Apple made to macOS and Mac hardware over the last few years mean that only the current subscription versions of most Adobe software will install and run on the latest Macs.
Non-subscription alternatives from Adobe: Photoshop Elements and Premiere Elements
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 USD$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.
Here’s an intriguing option: A non-Adobe plug-in called Elements+ unlocks a long list of Photoshop features that are present but hidden in the Elements version. Elements+ is not free, but using Elements+ with Photoshop Elements gets you a lot closer to the full version of Photoshop, and the combined non-subscription price of both is still reasonably low.
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 PhotoLab, ON1 Photo Raw, Skylum 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 Skylum, 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.
Some history: The transition to subscriptions
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.
The big picture
From the Adobe point of view, 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. When people ask “Why doesn’t Adobe offer a perpetual license option for their professional applications?” the short answer is that Adobe doesn’t have any motivation to. Subscriptions bring in more revenue than perpetual license software did, and by an extremely wide margin.
From the customer point of view, Adobe Creative Cloud isn’t just about subscriptions. It includes features that perpetual license software usually doesn’t offer such as online storage and sharing, a portfolio website, fonts for desktop and mobile devices, and other online services that work together as a single integrated workflow across your desktop and mobile devices. These benefits tend to have the most appeal for highly mobile creatives who work and collaborate daily with the latest workflows and need features that support them. For example, if you frequently prepare graphics for websites and devices 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, and were not in Photoshop CS6.
But all of that still does not mean subscriptions work for everyone. 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.