Feeling Cloudy? To Photoshop or Not: The Adobe Creative Cloud Money Trap

Been there, done that? You wanted to order Adobe Creative Cloud but decided against it when you saw the price. Didn’t you feel like you were getting ripped off plain and simple. At $49.99 a month you get an ongoing membership that lets you download and install any of the Adobe Creative Suite 6 desktop applications plus other programs including Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4. That’s a lot of value — for a lot of money. And beware, once you depend on the cloud your beloved software might well become a money pit. But what are the alternatives?

Mainly a clever marketing thing that can easily turn into a money pit, the Adobe Creative Cloud.
If you only need the packages in Adobe CS 6 Design Standard, you’ll eventually be better off buying the boxed version and upgrading every update cycle. With the all-inclusive Adobe Creative Cloud the company is trying to entice people into spending a bit more by offering the full Master Collection at a price that is comparable to the current standard package. Sounds compelling, doesn’t it. But if you only ever use Photoshop and maybe Illustrator, what value is there in also having everything else?

And if you stop paying for the Creative Cloud you will no longer have access to any software whereas the “classic” buying option allows you to not upgrade and the old software will continue to work. But well, many users and SMEs decided to go for the cloud. Costs are piling up, but once you’re trapped by the cloud there’s only one way out: an even more expensive one. So better make sure from the beginning to choose the right package. Right, Adobe’s one of the monopolist companies whose pricing policies might force people to download illegit stuff. I’m not saying, I’m just saying, so let’s refresh our memories quickly to see what’s actually going on and whether Adobe or users are to blame:

In November 2008 Adobe announced CS4 and 18 months later, in May 2010, CS5. Just a year after that they told us to buy CS5.5 and yet another year later, in May 2012, we got CS6. Some of the updates were godsends, but who didn’t question the need for having to take part in each new update round? And it got more complicated than that:

In autumn 2011 we were told that only owners of CS5 were offered the chance to get a discounted update to CS6, meaning you have to update every two years or so to be entitled for an upgrade. Users of CS2, CS3 and CS4 had to quickly pay for CS5, otherwise they’d lose their upgrade benefit. Well even the most loyal Creative Suite users weren’t pleased. After a yet unheard of online upheaval that was supported by the likes of Photoshop Übervater Scott Kelby, Adobe had no choice but to backtrack. If you haven’t read Kelby’s open letter to Adobe Systems yet do so now.

A new ultimatum was given to CS3 and CS4 users allowing them to upgrade to CS6 until the end of 2012. If you’re still running one of the older CS versions and don’t upgrade in time you’ll have to get CS5 first before being allowed to get CS6. It certainly wasn’t easy for mighty Adobe to give in to popular pressure, but now it’s as clear as carved in stone that in the future only the two latest CS versions entitle for an upgrade, meaning you have to currently own a version no lesser than CS5 to get CS6.

So you or your company decided to avoid all these problems and therefore subscribed to Adobe Creative Cloud. But honestly, apart from Photoshop, Illustrator and maybe InDesign, what other program do you need? And of the newest filters in CS6’s Photoshop, 90% of post-processing work is done by functions that exist since early Photoshop versions. I’d be surprised if someone says CS6 really makes a difference. Most users are probably perfectly happy with CS4.

So honestly, who’s still working with Illustrator? And Acrobat? Dreamweaver? Maybe InDesign… If you’re a specific power user well then yes, the cloud is a gift from heaven. But if you’re an SME and you pay for full individual CS licenses, does each and every employee need access to all of these rograms? Or who ever uses After Effects or Premiere? That’s right, the cloud offers them for “free”…

So let’s calculate what a single user has to pay for the different Photoshop options. Assuming you made up your mind and are positively convinced that Adobe Photoshop CS6 is all you need for quite some time, that would — at the time of writing — cost you $534.95 ordered from Amazon. Assuming that Photoshop CS4 still offers more than most photographers ever need, it’s safe to say that CS6 will keep you happy for say many years down the road. Say four years That would add up to $11.25 a month. Not a bad deal. But then you’d probably lost your right to upgrade and would have to pay full price again for the latest Photoshop CS.

BTW, just to give you an idea of how much more our European brothers and sisters have to suffer, in the Amazon Germany store Photoshop CS6 costs €879, that’s the equivalent of nearly $1,150 (!), whereas Amazon U.K. asks for £631.20 ($1,010)… One wonders how many photographers at the other side of the pond started boycotting Adobe Systems. The pricing policy outside the U.S. is just plain ridiculous.

Anyways, instead of sticking to the latest CS version for some years to come you decided to regularly upgrade. And what if you go for the full package:

Depending on which CS5 or CS5.5 edition you own an upgrade to CS6 Master Collection costs between $525 and $1,049. That’s the package Adobe wants to sell you because it gives you more programs than you’ll ever need for the price of a single Photoshop CS6 license. Great deal, not?

On the other hand, $600 is roughly the price you’d pay for a 12-month Adobe Creative Cloud subscription. But what to do with all the programs that even the most artsy agencies hardly ever need.

Upgrade Photoshop only? That’s $199. So let’s say Adobe launches a new Photoshop version every 18 months, you’d pay some $1,200 for upgrades over the course of the next ten years, excluding price increases. Not too bad.

If you want the cloud’s Photoshop CS6 only, that’s $19.99 a month. So after roughly two years “clouding” you spent around $500. That’s about the amount to own a full Photoshop CS56 license if you’d have gotten the Amazon deal. And remember, once you cancel the cloud access to services is gone while the fully licensed package just keeps on working.

And if you plan to use Photoshop from the cloud over the next ten years you’d pay a hefty $2,400, double the amount of what you’d pay for fully licensed upgrades.

Yes, if money doesn’t matter then the cloud also gives you online services for file sharing, collaboration and publishing. Best of all, says Adobe, you get the latest apps and features as soon as they’re released. That might be important for you. It isn’t for me.

So what to do? Cheapest is to buy a fully licensed version and stay with it. The second-best option is upgrading. Worst price plan? The cloud. As good as it sounds it’s first and foremost a fancy marketing thing selling you stuff you most likely never need.

Just do the math. So you’re using Photoshop on the cloud for ten years, that would amount to some $6,000 excluding price increases. Without you enjoying any rights in case you stop paying. The cloud will just disappear.

Don’t get me wrong, but your photography won’t improve proportionally to this very steep price curve.




  • Call me old school, I like OWNING my stuff. It’s good for a one off project here and there but in the end….ouch

  • Carla Durham

    I have to disagree that this is a straight forward numbers issue. Photoshop is expensive software with a steep learning curve. For many, the upfront cost is prohibitive for the licensed version. You may not be making your money back anytime soon, especially if you’re still learning the software.

    Also, cloud services are the future. They allow customers more flexibility to use software on various devices and different operating systems. Companies can also make more frequent updates. In 10 years, you may not have a choice.

    • What if I’m off the grid? Where’s the cloud? I’m still on 5.5 and don’t feel to miss out on essential features. Call me old-fashioned as well, but at these price levels the cloud only makes short-term sense while I’m in it for the long run.

  • tsf

    I agree owning the software outright easily makes the most financial sense if your not addicted to pointless upgrading or require everything Adobe sells. A lot of our machines are still quite happily running Photoshop CS2, what would have been the equivalent Creative Cloud cost for all those years use sends shivers down my spine, especially as one of those Uk based $/£, we’re screwing you even more, pricing conversions.

    However living with Adobe maybe about to get a even more annoying according to an “off the record” insight from an Adobe representative at a recent graphics expo who stated that come next year the option to buy full software outright will be removed, Creative Cloud or nothing from now on it seems.

    So if your not a frequent upgrader I would suggest you buy your full software now before you have no other choice.

    However look at it this way, the more intollerable the Adobe evil overlord makes living under their draconian rule, the more likely we’ll be looking forward to a Creative Spring.