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Does Photoshop Really Cost Too Much?

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Read Time: 6 mins

Let's be honest, Photoshop isn't cheap. Most of us have probably complained about the cost of Photoshop, and Adobe products in general at some point in our careers. The fact is that none of us could do our job without it. It's an advanced application meant for professional users. It is used by people in all walks of life, from photographers to web designers; but is it worth the $699 price tag? In this article, we will take a balanced look at whether or not Photoshop costs too much, not enough, or if it is priced just right.

Before we get started let's take a look at what inspired this article. A few months ago, former Digg CEO Kevin Rose (@KevinRose) posted the following tweet:

He's not alone in that sentiment, of course. In addition to Rose, other users feel the price tag is way too high. When I posed the question about Adobe pricing on Twitter user @cothrift replied with, "Photoshop's price is steep, [and] the constant updates every year makes affording it hard." Another Twitter user, @BreRoz responded, "I think the software is expensive but I've been lucky enough to have had my employers provide it for me. I don't know if I would be able to get it otherwise."

Right now, the latest version of Adobe Photoshop CS5 sells for $699 to buy or $199 if you upgrade from a previous version. If you are lucky enough to be eligible for student or educator rates you'll be shelling out $199 for the full "Extended Teacher and Student Edition." But are these prices worth it? As usual, there are two sides to the story.

If you look at it from a business standpoint, you can argue that such pricing levels are justifiable based on the amount of Research and Development that goes into constantly building up and improving the product. Designers are continuously pushing the envelope with their creations, which translates into needing bigger and better products.

Secondly, the chances of a designer making that money back - and then some - are high so this can be viewed as a professional investment. If you have doubts, calculate your ROI…how many projects will you have to land in order to make your money back based on your current hourly or project rate? If you're able to spare the initial investment then your upgrades down the line are about a third of the cost.

Todd Hemker, co-owner of the design company Yellowshed breaks it down this way: "It's not like there's a formula for it – but if I were buying Photoshop as a stand-alone application the initial cost is $699 and the average lifespan of any particular version is roughly two years and we don't purchase every upgrade. If you use it daily, for example, that brings the cost to under $2.00 a day." Or roughly $60 a month. Chances are most designers, freelance or not, make at least $60 a month or the equivalent. "However," he concedes, " if we were just out of school and working as freelance designers - there's no way we would be able to put down that kind of cash!"

Now that he's a more established designer, Hemker's solution is to buy the bundled pack. Adobe's Creative Suite 5 Standard costs $1299 to buy and $499 to upgrade from a previous version. The Suite includes the latest versions of Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator and Acrobat Pro. If purchased separately, all of these components would cost around $2440, nearly double the Suite price. So if a person uses both Photoshop and InDesign, they would essentially receive Illustrator and Acrobat free if they get the Suite. Bulk pricing at its finest, right? Who doesn't love a "Buy 2-Get 2 Free" deal?

Finally, when compared to other apps like Logic Studio, Pro Tools, Final Cut Pro, the cost is about the same or more leading some to believe that Photoshop is getting a bad rap because it's the big kid on the block.

The Flip Side

Chances are, however, if you're a freelancer or a small design firm owner, $1299 - or even $699 for that matter - isn't pocket change, especially for those just starting out. Many designers turn to alternatives that don't have the full capabilities of Photoshop. But in reality, there are very few legitimate alternatives to Photoshop on the market and most designers are faced with either paying the full price, pirating a copy, or not buying it at all.

It's no secret that software piracy - whether it's Microsoft products or Adobe's - is a huge problem that these companies are taking a hard stance on. For example, Adobe's "Anti-piracy initiative" takes the position that software piracy doesn't just hurt the company, but it hurts retailers ("they may have to limit their selection to titles that won't be devalued by pirated copies floating around on the Internet.") as well as the consumer. While there are no hard stats on piracy rates specifically for Adobe software (c'mon who's going to admit to that?), companies DO have their ways of smoking out the culprits. Gregory Fair was convicted a year ago of selling $1 million in pirated Adobe software and sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison and was ordered to pay the company $743,098 in damages according to the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA), of which Adobe is a member. In other words, these companies aren't taking piracy lying down.

A couple of designers (who shall remain nameless, of course) privately responded to my inquiry on Twitter that as design students or new freelancers, they have had to turn to getting their copy from "non-official" places. Many schools require that their students own their own version of Photoshop. So they need it to pursue their education; and at its current cost, they said, they simply can't afford it.

Over all, it may seem as if small business owners and freelancers are getting the short end of the stick, but not just with Adobe Photoshop. In response to consumer pressures and increased competition, Microsoft has lowered the price of their MS Office Suite of products over the last few years…for their home users. The standard student and home edition is a respectable $149 yet their professional edition for businesses is a huge jump at $499 with the difference being the addition of Outlook, Publisher and Access.  That begs the question, if Adobe were to follow suit, would this cut down on piracy problems and increase legitimate sales?

So what is a freelancer or small business owner to do? Do you think lowering the prices on these products will increase sales and cut down on piracy issues or is it worth paying "elite" prices for what some consider an "elite" product?

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