Capture One Licensing
This issue was written in a hurry, without my normal relaxed pace for review and edits. As such I’ve changed sections in the 48 hours since publishing where the point I wanted to make wasn’t as clear as it should have been. I also failed to explain why I think Capture Ones value proposition is clear and something of a no-brainer for me.
Any photographer familiar with the RAW editor Capture One will most likely have encountered the unrest that recent licensing changes have caused. After reading other photographer’s complaints, Capture Ones rebuttal and then thinking about my own use of the software; I have some thoughts I want to share. If you’re not a Capture One user or even a photographer, you still might find some interesting ideas about how you pay for software in this denser-than-I-expected issue.
Context is everything in a discussion as wooly as this so I’ll start by stating my position.
Longterm Capture One users are those that have used little else since its inception as a RAW processor and tethering tool for Phase One back in 1994. So I’m definitely not a longterm user. However, I’ve consistently used it for the past four years as my RAW editor of choice and it’s now where I’m best able to edit my images. I started as a hobbyist buying a vendor-specific version, later upgrading to the Pro version and more recently using it as the cornerstone of a professional workflow. Prior to professional photography, I was a software developer across a range of fields for close to a decade; so I understand both sides of this dispute.
Like many Capture One users, I’m an Aperture-refugee1 by way of Apple Photos and Adobe Lightroom. After Adobe went all-in on subscriptions and cloud-based workflows,2 many people arrived at Capture One as the de-facto alternative professional editor by virtue of working with local files offering a perpetual license. I arrived at Capture One because I used Fuji cameras at the time, and Capture One made better sense of their X-Trans sensor.
Subjectively, I find Capture One easier to use than Lightroom, and it’s output has consistently been stronger across RAWs from Fuji, Canon, Sony and Leica. Many find it more intimidating and complex than Lightroom (particularly the newer, cloud-based version) but getting an image to look as I imagine seems much simpler in Capture One.
So, what happened?
Capture One always sold perpetual licenses based on major versions. Feature-versions and patch-versions were included in this license. This vernacular is called semantic-versioning — or semver for short — and is fairly standard within software development.
If a software version is
23 is the major version,
1 is the feature or minor version and
4 is the patch version. Changes to major versions are usually considered breaking changes where the new version of the software is incompatible with the old version. This update might require migrating data from an old format to a new one, and isn’t reversible. Minor versions are often improvements and fixes that don’t break anything, and patch versions are fixes for bugs and issues that don’t add anything new to the software.
I explain all of this because in Capture Ones case, every update is in fact a major one in my opinion. Opening images edited with a past version requires migrating the session or catalog to the current version and isn’t reversible, even on patches. Semver might be useful for noting the severity of a change, but as all updates require migrating the data Capture One could simply just be using an incrementing number or date stamp.
They’ve historically used major versions to demarcate and paywall the introduction of new features. Capture One also consider support for new cameras a feature worthy of postponing until a major version is released, which is frustrating for any users that have a new (unsupported) camera early in Capture Ones release cycle.
More recently they have offered an option for a monthly or annual subscription, but many — certainly the most vocal — users still opt for a perpetual license, as their primary reason for using the software seems to be the avoidance of Adobe’s subscription model and mitigating their outlay on software. In this vein, these users tend to upgrade on varying cycles, but rarely every year with every major version. However, I suspect that professional photographers and digitechs upgrading annually are better served by the cheaper annual subscription and guaranteed support that the subscription brings, and I suspect most will have opted for that early on, as I did.3
Previously, big features were developed and saved up for a new major version, usually released in November each year, even if the user was on a subscription and not fixed at a particular version. With this change in licensing, Capture One now want to release features as they are ready in “feature releases”, rather than bundled together in “major releases”. This feels like a small change but it actually has outsized consequences for license holders. An example helps clarify things:
Under the old model of licensing, if I bought a license in early January — two months after it’s November launch — then I might buy version
23.1.4. In this case I’ll receive all updates, both bug fixes —
x.x.X— and features —
x.X.x— until version
24is released about ten months later.
The new licensing model means I’m not entitled to a new feature that comes out in version
23.2.0even if it’s released a minute after I bought my license for
23.1.4. We’re also yet to see how well bug-fixes are back ported to older versions, something that commercial software is notoriously poor at.
This obviously looks like a terrible deal, and feels deeply unfair to the customer. Capture One will counter by saying that those features in 23.2 still wouldn’t have been free, instead the customer would have had to wait until November as part of the next major version. They state that…
A subscription is for you if […] you always want to have the latest version of Capture One Pro and get all new features and updates as soon as we release them.
This change increases the rate at which subscribers will see new features, but prompted uproar amongst those who had just bought the recently released version 23. The change in licensing came slightly over a month after the new version had gone on sale, making the move seem particularly cold.
A loyalty program was later put together to perhaps ease the tensions, but I find it baffling that it rewards subscribers with a free license after five years. Capture One need to be reassuring longterm license holders, not subscribers. It could be viewed as a confidence inspiring safety net to convince license holders that subscriptions are safe, but it just feels like they’ve got the carrot and the stick the wrong way round.
Subscriptions vs. Licenses
For the avoidance of any doubt, this won’t be the usual gnashing of teeth about subscriptions. I am incredibly pro-subscription for most software, but particular photo editing software; and think that those clinging to perpetual licenses fail to see how an outdated model neither serves them or the developers providing a crucial part of their workflow.
Perhaps as a developer myself, I have more sympathy towards the needs of a software business, or just a better understanding of what’s involved in bringing complex software to market. Simply, nothing stays the same. Operating systems and dependencies are always evolving, moving through their own patch, minor and breaking changes which all have an impact downstream. This is made worse for photo editing software as not only do the computers change, but so do the cameras, lenses and RAW formats that the software must support.
Even before we consider new features, the software must constantly evolve just to effectively stay still.
This is a lot of work and explains why subscriptions support software developers better. There is a regular, more predictable flow of money that supports this static-evolution that is required to keep using the software. This is why I find the notion of perpetual licenses really quite silly and counterintuitive.
You might hold a license to use a piece of software in perpetuity, but unless you’re going to keep your computer, your operating system, your camera and your lenses static during this period you’ll be relying on the developer to spend time (and therefore money) on updates to a piece of software they’ve already sold. That will be factored into the initial price you paid, but eventually you’ll hit an inflection point where something needs upgrading, and you’ll have to buy another license.
This is no different to a subscription, except the unknown, aggregate cost over years is spread out into a predictable annual figure whilst you are free to upgrade computers, operating system and cameras at will in the meantime. Much like furniture shops that always find an excuse for running a sale, it’s hard to pin down what the actual cost of a Capture One license is because upgrade or pre-order discounts are so prevalent that I think few users — outside brand new ones — would pay the full, advertised price. This makes the whole value proposition of licenses vs. subscriptions that much harder.
I’ve just prompted every perpetual license holder to hit “Reply” with a scathing missive that will tear my argument apart, but stay with me. They would argue that a subscription doesn’t allow them to stop paying for reasons such as reduced workload, transitioning to a different software or simply retirement4 and still access the software and their photo archives. They would argue that a license offers them choice and flexibility. And they would be right.
This is what makes the whole issue so incredibly stupid in my mind — Capture One had the opportunity to make everyone happy here, and they missed it. Users have been screaming — loudly and often — what they want to see in the software, and Capture One have seemingly done the opposite.
Capture One should have scrapped both licenses and subscriptions as we know them.
These changes to their licensing suit Capture One because a subscription better supports their business, and these changes will drive people to a subscription — even just to escape the complexity — or drive them away. Capture One needed predictable revenue to support future development after a nascent few years, but they went about it all wrong.
Their users are quite diverse, and all have varying needs and budgets. The Venn diagram for their customer base must look ridiculous, and there would be no two larger circles than the “Subscribers” and the “License Holders”, which are staunchly opposed. A change that benefits one most likely harms the other, even if just by comparison. That’s the change that Capture One made here. They hurt license holders, perhaps with the hope that they would either become subscribers or leave; either way they are able to prioritise one group in future.
Serving only subscribers would indeed simplify their business, but I think they’ve underestimated how many people they will drive away and how many will stick with licenses out of stubbornness. The result will be that rather than being freed of noisy, angry license holders, Capture One will still have to deal with them, but now they are more riled up than ever.
This change has done massive damage to the company’s reputation and they are drawing down on the last bits of goodwill that the they had. Open letters like this and community posts like this show how much trust they’ve burnt through in recent years. They will be losing current customers and putting off future ones too.
Instead, I think Capture One should have switched to what (I feel) is the benchmark for software licensing — a license with one year of updates included.
- You buy a license that is yours to keep — just like a perpetual license.
- You get one year of updates included.
- You keep the version that was current when the year runs out.
- You can choose to extend your upgrades for another year at any time afterwards, likely with a discount.
- You can keep paying annually if you need the features or just want to support future development. Or…
- You can wait until there’s a feature you need and leap-frog all the intermediate versions you didn’t need with no penalty.
As a developer, you price this model so that it’s sustainable. Some customers will renew their license annually, some occasionally, others never. The important thing is that your customers never feel pressured, restricted or squeezed. At all points they are in control and know exactly what they are buying. The onus is on you as the developer to deliver a years worth of updates that makes them want to renew.
To my mind it’s the best of both worlds for both customer and developer and it baffles me why Capture One didn’t take this much simpler route. It’s not innovative and many companies are using it to great effect such as Nova and Codekit.
Which brings me to…
Shoutout to Capture One developers
You’ll have caught a lot of flak recently. I’m sorry for that. I’ve been in your shoes before. I understand. You’re trying to deliver the best software you can, are excited by what you’re making but are having all of it undermined by the business-types messing about with licenses.
Last year you launched Capture One for iPad which unfortunately and unfairly in my opinion met a pretty rough reception. Users argue that it’s lacking in features, it can’t replace the desktop application, that it’s too expensive and should be part of their desktop license. I don’t agree.
I was a beta-tester for the iPad app and found it to be solid despite it’s beta status (and testing it on hardware much older than your specs required). The UI is new, intuitive and really felt like it was designed for the platform. Apple Pencil support wasn’t included because it simply wasn’t needed. You moved something as nuanced as a RAW engine to a new platform, yet managed to keep the colour science that people love about Capture One. I’ve not dealt with OpenCL (the old basis for the engine) but I have dabbled with Apple’s Metal (the graphics engine that Apple platforms now rely on) and it’s a tricky beast! To come out the gate with such a strong application on a new-to-you platform is testament to your hard work.
Of course it was lacking in features such as tethering, masks, layer support and Apple Pencil integration — some which are now present. The separate pricing is — I feel — fair, even if only to support it’s initial development. Adobe has just set unrealistic expectations for what a software provider can offer. They are a mega corporation with deep pockets.
The apps slow uptake is concerning, but only because it’s for all the wrong reasons. I wouldn’t want to see it axed because people aren’t using it yet. I think your iPad app will flourish given time and many will see it more than worth it’s price and perhaps even a reason to use Capture One on desktop too.
Turning attention to the desktop, I think you’ve made more progress here than many are willing to give credit for. Updates aren’t revolutionary and there aren’t a bevy of AI-driven5 features, but updates don’t need to rock the world every time, and I appreciate little things like the new grouping when culling images. Version 23 introduced seemingly small features that are in reality many orders of magnitude more useful to me than the ability to replace a sky with a single click.
As engineers and presumably passionate photographers, keep doing what you’re doing. Ride out the shit storm that the business-types have brought your way and I’m confident it’ll come good.
A future with(out) Capture One?
Unlikely for me. My subscription doesn’t renew until September, so I have time to see how all these things shake out. A decision for Ron.6
I’m very confident in the software behind Capture One. Version 23 has made meaningful progress for my use, and whilst I’m not using the iPad app — because I don’t do much editing away from home, and thus don’t own a recent iPad — I feel that it could become a real jewel in Capture Ones crown in the future. Outside of Hasselblad’s “Phocus” I believe its the only iPad-based option for tethering, which is a massive boon for those working in the field, rather than a studio.
As a professional though, I want to be certain that the software that I’m committing time and money to will continue to serve me and my business for years to come. Having to change editing software would be a huge drain on time (migrating past sessions, learning new software) and money (maintaining multiple licenses and possibly storage whilst split between the two platforms). Capture One is many times smaller than it’s main rival Adobe, and as such is likely more susceptible financial problems caused by upset customers leaving the platform en masse.
I believe the recent uproar stems from hobbyists more than professionals. Professionals don’t mind the cost (and were likely on a subscription anyway), as the software you edit your images with accounts for a good percentage of the final result, but probably accounts for very little of the expenditure compared against equipment, studio hire, etc.
Hobbyists do mind the cost, and unfortunately the camera and photography industries are largely propped up by the prosumers these days. There’s certainly not enough working professionals with deep pockets left to do it alone. I’m happy that Capture One seems to be prioritising their professional user base again, but I’m concerned that by alienating hobbyists they will lose customers and remove the breathing room that extra segment of the market gave them. By extension this could end up impacting my use of the software, even if it’s just a slower rate of feature development.
However, I should point out that this is all speculation — I have no idea of the breakdown of users, which ones are most likely to vote with their wallets and how that will impact Capture One.
This has been a tricky issue to write. I’ve rewritten it many times, even editing it twice after publication. There’s been a lot of vitriol (and my earlier versions definitely partook) which makes it quite hard to dispassionately examine what’s going on and what the implications are. Like I said, this issue was denser-than-anticipated!
Aside from all that, let’s talk about some site updates I’ve made in the past two weeks. I mentioned previously that I wanted to bring in some nice typefaces from Klim, but by chance stumbled upon Duo from iAWriter freely available to use. I was surprised because the typography of iA applications is highly regarded and approaching secret-sauce levels of awesome.
I tried Duo because I was after a typewriter-like monospaced font that read well. Duo met this criteria — because it’s not actually monospaced — but I removed it from the site shortly afterwards. On most pages the two or three variants I needed represented about 80% of the page weight. Put another way, the font made the page 5x heavier. This website isn’t slow to begin with so I definitely have performance budget to spare, but it felt wrong for a detail to outweigh the content to such an extent. It also didn’t play well with the large, bold issue numbers at the top of each newsletter issue.
I’ll play with type again, but for now I’m sticking with an already-installed font stack that still manages to look pretty good.
The CSS refactor has also begun, but there’s a lot of cruft to sift through and doing too much at once is draining. My thought process on this job is most definitely go slow to go fast. Other changes are that the site is served by Caddy rather nginx now, for few reasons other than less tuning and configuration required, and the
Caddyfile sitting next to the site rather than buried in
/etc/nginx/sites.... This means I can add it to my version control and keep track of when I’m redirecting routes.
Next time I promise to not sound like a grumpy old man, and I might even include some photos too! 😮 I’ve spent the past 48 hours trialing a Leica SL2-S and 35mm APO-Summicron-SL, comparing it to my current primary of a Leica M10R and 35mm Lux. More details next time! À la perchôine7
Apple used to make a professional standard photo editor and catalog. It was widely loved and there are many that still use it on old Macs, stuck on a now ancient version of Mac OS X. I do wonder what it could have become in light of Final Cuts relative success, and think that if Apple brought it back many would return.
I didn’t stop using Lightroom for this reason. I’m generally pro-subscriptions and enjoy the lack of storage and data management that comes with cloud services, but I was burnt a few times in the early days by both Apple Photos and Adobe Lightroom, so have settled on local storage as a safer option for now. Capture One is my chosen software primarily for it’s results; I’m less fussed with cost and licensing.
Capture One have previously alluded that subscriptions account for the vast majority of new users, and many are exchanging perpetual licenses for discounted subscriptions as I did.
An oddly common point raised in my reading around this issue.
As a developer I shudder every time I see “AI” in marketing. What people are talking about is Machine Learning (ML) or Logic Learning Machines (LLM), not Artificial Intelligence (AI). We are still years away from general AI based on my reading, with every currently dubbed “AI” thus far being a lot of computing power and data combined with human touches that come together into a very good parlour trick.
You know… lateR’on. 🤣
The friendly “goodbye” said in the traditional language of my home island, Guernsey. The language was called “Guernesiais” or Guernsey Patois, and is rarely spoken now outside select phrases such as this.
If you've read this and liked it, have feedback or any interesting points you think I missed, I'd love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.