Is this the End for Photo Software Companies?

I recently reviewed DXO Photo Lab 3. DXO has been my equal favourite piece of photo software for some time now. Readers of this blog will know that DXO and Photo Ninja are my go to programs. If they can’t do it then Affinity Photo, anything by Topaz Labs and a bit of Nik Viveza will do the rest. Unless you want HDR. If you want HDR then Skylum Aurora!

But as I reviewed the latest update to this incredible piece of software, something struck me. No, not my wife reminding me to do the washing up. No. Something else. Something incredible. Something terrible.

ADOBE WERE RIGHT!

Gah! I’m a software user who hates the subscription model used by Adobe. Why should I pay to use the same features week in week out? Month in month out?

But the answer was in the question…

BECAUSE THE FEATURES ARE THE SAME

Technology has reached its zenith with 16-bit digital photography. What do I mean? 16 bit refers to the range of values that a digital camera can record for each pixel on the imaging chip. A camera can record a value from 0 (pitch black) to 65535 (bright white) for each pixel. Most cameras don’t record that wide a range of values. But it’s the maximum available.

Photo software can take that data from the imaging chip and turn it into a photograph that we can appreciate, love, laugh at or hate. But it’s 0 to 65,535 per pixel. That’s it.

And there’s only so much you can do with a range of 65,536 values.

Software has Matured

Photo software has provided us two main things:

  • The ability to edit and enhance our photos

  • The ability to catalogue our photos

And there is only so much that can be done. Your favourite software can, I hope, show you which photos you took in 2009, which lens you used, which camera you used. It can make the pictures look better. It can make them look great. HDR software can overcome dynamic range limitations. Panorama software can overcome your lens’ limitations. It can remove noise and sharpen the image. And it’s reached the point where almost all photo software can do everything.

There’s no point arguing over whether DXO is better than Capture One or Lightroom or Photo Ninja. In the right hands, all these programs produce amazing results and deciding what is ‘best’ is now more a matter of taste than actual quality. Because they (the various software programs) all work well. They are all great.

And I fear they are all in trouble…

Software Has Reached Its Peak?

Back in the early 2000s, I produced photo software. And when I issued a major upgrade (i.e. you paid for it) it was special. It added incredible new features and fantastic new benefits. But what do we see now?

Over the last year my favourite software companies have issued ‘upgrades’ that:

  • Made Hue, Saturation and Luminance changes a little easier

  • Provided a list of local edit changes so you need not click on the screen to find them

  • Allowed you to assign keywords to images and search on these

  • Provided very slight improvements to the retouching and photo healing

  • Allowed me to replace the sky in an image (why??? Now it’s a work of art and not a photo)

  • Provided better sharpening

  • Provided slightly better noise removal

In all honesty, with the only exception of AI Gigapixel, AI JPEG To Raw and AI Sharpen there has been nothing exceptional about any of this. Nothing I couldn’t live without. No ‘must have’ features.

Let’s face it: Photo software is played out. It’s reached its limits and there’s not much left to add. The differences between the various offerings are slight. They are noticeable if you print big. But on screen, there’s so little to choose between them.

And the software companies know it! They roll out new versions and ask you to pay for them despite adding so little to their functionality. Why? Because they need your money!

The fact is that camera sales are in decline, because of improvements in smartphones. Sales of digital SLRs are in decline. Camera manufacturers are pushing their mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras onto us in the hope they will boost sales. And they will because they are better than DSLRs BUT this doesn’t help software manufacturers at all. Software views an image as an image and it doesn’t matter much which camera took it.

And so it feels desperate for software manufacturers. Fewer people are buying cameras. Fewer people need this software. And there is little scope for making huge changes to these programs.

But if we don’t buy the software or we don’t upgrade, then the software companies will go bust. They know this. So what to they do? They keep rolling out ‘major’ (paid for) upgrades annually that offer minor improvements. Improvements that three years ago would be just minor tweaks or enhancements. It looks to me like desperation…

Adobe got it right

I hate to say it, but Adobe were 100% right to switch to a subscription model. I think they knew that they could not pile extra features into Photoshop and Lightroom. There really wasn’t anything significant to add. An improvement here or there. A tweak and a bug fix or two. But then what? How could they stay in business without making quantum improvements to their products?

And so they converted their software into a subscription model. Now you pay for it. Every month. Every year. FOREVER!

And that’s how to stay in business. Now it doesn’t matter if the upgrades are small or even trivial. You pay for every bug fix, every tweak. Even when Adobe do nothing you pay them for it!

What now for the small software companies?

They got it right, at first. DXO, Photo Ninja, Skylum Luminar are all, according to my tests, superior products. Exposure X5 (and X4) is a fantastic Digital Asset Management tool and a fine RAW converter. A combination of Exposure X5 and one of DXO, Luminar or Photo Ninja represent the best RAW photo software workflow available. Add in Affinity Photo and Skylum Aurora HDR and you have almost everything you could ever want. Topaz Labs supply the rest. The upfront cost of these is higher than a year’s subscription to Adobe. But then it’s done. You own the software. No more money to pay.

Which is bad news for everyone bar Adobe. Adobe owns far too large a share of the market to see its user base evaporate. Its tools are good. Very good. Whether they have the best software developers or business deals with the camera manufacturers, they are always first to the market when new RAW formats appear. Adobe were the first to support the new Canon CR3 RAW format. They were months ahead of everyone else. Way too many RAW development tools STILL (a YEAR later) can’t support it. If Adobe didn’t provide their free DNG converter, then these tools would be well and truly scuppered. (Please Adobe, keep producing the DNG converter!!)

I don’t know how long software companies will be able to offer small enhancements as paid for upgrades. Adobe can do it with a subscription model. But asking people to pay £50+ annually for minor changes doesn’t sit too well. Not with me, anyway.

True, not everyone does this. Affinity haven’t charged anything for improvements to Photo, Designer or Publisher. Not yet, anyway. And they are fantastic products. Photo Ninja hasn’t released a major update in years and it is, I think, unsurpassed as a RAW converter. But most other companies have been issuing regular, annual, upgrades that offer small feature enhancements. They can only do that for so long before people ignore the upgrades.

What should these companies do? I cannot say. I used to produce photo software myself and my products sold well until Adobe came along and I couldn’t compete anymore.

But what do you do when there’s no improvements left to make? When your software already produces fantastic images? When you can offer nothing new to your satisfied customers?

I wouldn’t be in their position. I saw it coming years ago and pulled out of the software market knowing I couldn’t compete with the big boys. But now it’s worse. Adobe, with their subscription model, continue receiving revenue for the same software whereas the others can only make one sale per customer. And then what?

Topaz Labs have an alternative strategy. They (as of this time of writing) don’t charge for upgrades. Good for them. They have extracted key features from their software, enhanced them and released them as separate products. So, besides Topaz Studio, we have their AI range – Sharpen, Gigapixel, JPEG to RAW, Noise and at have just released AI Mask.

It’s not a bad approach. They identify a key feature, such as sharpening, and release a specialist product to do it. If they can continue to identify needs and release the best tools to meet them, then they have created a niche for themselves. But that’s a big if.

Comments please, ladies and gentlemen…

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Recommended software

Image Resizing

The best image resize program is Topaz A.I.Gigapixel

Image sharpening & noise reduction

Topaz A.I.Sharpen can not only sharpen images but correct slightly out of focus and blurred images.

Topaz A.I.Clear both sharpens and removes noise. It is the best noise reduction program around.

Photoshop and Lightroom Alternatives

Exposure X4 is the best alternative to Lightroom as far as image browsing and management goes. It is also a decent RAW converter and image editor.

Affinity Photo is the complete Photoshop replacement.

RAW Development

Skylum Luminar is a full featured RAW converter with a basic image browser. Its shadow recovery is the best in the business.

Photolemur is an automatic RAW converter, based on Luminar. Its results are very decent with facial detection and enhancement.

Photo Ninja is a purists RAW converter. It is not as fully featured as the others but it produces some of the best results, especially if you are prepared to build camera profiles.

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