We’ve all been there. It’s review time for your monthly bill-paying session. If you’ve been in this business for any amount of time, you’ve witnessed a whole new paradigm in how you pay for software that is integral to your job. It doesn’t matter if you’re an audio editor, motion-graphics designer, graphic artist or video editor: If you are using a lot of industry-standard tools, you are probably paying at least yearly, if not monthly, charges to use some of your programs.One of the big changes over the past few years has been the number of popular software companies that have completely switched over to a monthly subscription model.
Below, I’ve provided a summary of how I used to use traditional software packages, and how I might use subscription-based apps today.
The Traditional Model
A few years ago, software like video-editing suites and plug-in collections tended to cost more. Take Final Cut Studio, which was my choice for video editing. Apple always charged around $1,000 for Final Cut Studio, and it included Final Cut Pro itself, Motion for doing motion graphics, Soundtrack Pro for doing audio editing and music generation, Compressor for compressing and outputting files, and, in various iterations and versions, programs and utilities like Cinema Tools for conforming video to film or vice-versa.
Whenever there was a major update to the suite, Apple would usually charge another $300 for the major update. Minor “point” updates were usually free.
We paid for a suite, and then we were kind of grandfathered into updates, only paying incrementally for significant upgrades, usually every year or two. The major plus was that it was easy to justify buying “the product” because it was a tangible asset that you had possession of. It was simple to budget for because once you paid for the software, you were done, other than an occasional major update, which, with Apple, that seemed to be once per year or even two years.
If you read the fine print, you could see that you didn’t really “own” the software, you owned the license to use said software. However, it felt as if you owned Final Cut Studio. It was sitting in a big box on your shelf in your edit bay or storage room.
The Subscription Model
In the past several years, several companies, most notably Adobe and Avid (along with Pro Tools for audio editing), have switched nearly all of their software apps to a subscription-based model: You must pay the company a monthly or yearly subscription fee forever to access the software.
There is no way to sugar coat it. If you want to access your projects, you are beholden to them financially…forever!
These companies tend to update their software more often than most non-subscription companies, although lately Blackmagic Design with DaVinci Resolve has been busting this paradigm, constantly updating Resolve almost every month or two. (Resolve isn’t subscription software!)
But to be fair, Adobe and Avid have been keeping up a fairly steady stream of updates as well. This is supposed to be one of the big advantages to the subscription model: You will always have the newest, latest and greatest software and features; no need to ever weigh if an update is worth the cost, it’s included in that monthly fee. (Note: There are many other software companies besides Adobe and Avid that are selling subscription-based software.)
The subscription model is obviously good for the software companies. Imagine monthly income from all of your customers for life! But is subscription software a good value for the user?
In my opinion, the subscription model is workable for a large post facility that licenses a business subscription that covers multiple seats. The monthly subscription becomes an operating fee, not really a significant cost for a business with, say, 10 or 20 in-house editors on a monthly or yearly basis.
It also works well for the freelance editor who is fluent in all platforms and programs and just turns on their license to edit a project and can then cancel the subscription until the next time they need to use the software.
But what about the small production company with only one or two seats that needs to access the program almost every day, therefore must pay the monthly fee forever? Does the subscription model make financial sense for this type of scenario? That’s up to you to decide which model works best for your situation. I know for me, it’s not always just purely a logical business decision; there is also the “big picture.”
With most software I’ve used over the years, I rarely want to be on the bleeding edge, using the newest versions as they come out. I have found that under high pressure with crazy client deadlines for large projects, it always pays not to be on the latest and greatest version.
It was much better to use the last stable and reliable version of the software.
Consequently, I didn’t need to be on the constant treadmill of continual software updates. We would update if the new software had a feature we needed. But often, software companies seem to issue updates that contain “bloatware,” huge laundry lists of “new features” that we look at and shake our heads because none of the new features apply to what we’re doing.
Here’s a case in point: A lot of editing programs have recently had huge updates, mainly to implement a ton of new VR-editing features. But we don’t edit VR. So those features are useless and inconvenient for us to deal with, and often require a new OS that is not compatible with lots of existing software, plug-ins and hardware.
In my recent required OS update from Sierra to High Sierra on my main editing Mac, I lost the use of approximately $2,000 worth of various software that no longer runs on the new OS.
There are simply no replacement versions available under High Sierra for the various utilities and programs we lost. (We did the update because we needed support for our Canon C200 Cinema RAW Light media and program since the footage only ran under High Sierra or newer.)
Again, let me emphasize this: Our “free” OS update actually cost us over $2,000!
I know that many software companies reading this might very well label me a Luddite of sorts. But this is the real world. This is how we work in larger production companies.
We don’t all need or want to be on the bleeding edge of new technology all of the time. The latest and greatest often crashes, malfunctions and has OS and hardware conflicts.
Conversely, if you have a system that is fast, stable and reliable, that is gold to me. So, if I only occasionally update, can you see why the subscription model isn’t so appealing to me?
With these two software-pricing structures in mind, I wondered which programs I could utilize instead of subscription software to do my work as a cinematographer, writer, editor and photographer. So, I decided to take a look at programs that are available that are NOT subscription based. I‘m not suggesting trying to replace your Premiere CC subscription with freeware or open-source programs. The only criteria that I placed on potential recommendations was that they not have a subscription model.
Below, I compare four different types of software—video editing, audio editing, photo editing and visual effects—to find the one that works for me. Each begins with a summary, followed by the apps I compare.
Summary For Video Editing
I’m primarily a Mac-based editor, so I can’t comment about the PC-only versions of the editing programs. For me, the bargain of the bunch is the free version of Resolve, which even allows editing of UHD-resolution video files. Plus, it has most of the features of the paid Studio version, The Resolve Color Correction tools are world class, as are the Fusion Motion Graphcs/3D page and the Fairlight Audio editing software. For me, this free version is a steal.
Video Editing Software & Cost
- Avid Media Composer/First: Free
- Apple Final Cut Pro X: Free 30-day trial; $299
- Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve: Free; Resolve Studio, $299
- Lightworks: Free
- Media 100: Free
- Grass Valley Edius Pro 9: Free; $499 for the Pro 9 full version
- Magix Vegas Pro 16 Edit: Free trial; $399 for the full version
Summary For Audio Editing
I’d recommend applications based upon your main workflow: Are you creating audio for picture/post-oriented projects? Or are you creating more music-oriented audio? Once again, the bargain of the bunch is the free version of Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve. The suite features the Fairlight Audio tool that is incredibly powerful and sophisticated, and, unlike the competition, this isn’t a trial version. It’s very fully featured, and it’s free.
Audio Editing Software & Cost
- Pro Tools/First: Free
- Apple Logic Pro X: $199
- Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve: Free; Resolve Studio $299
- Nuendo 8: Free trial; $1,880
- Magix Vegas Pro 16 Edit: Free trial; $399 for the full version
- Magix Sound Forge Pro 12: Free trial; $299 for the full version
Summary For Design And Photography
Photoshop and Lightroom are industry standard programs, but both are only available now by Creative Cloud subscription. The programs outlined here fall into different categories: photo editing, paint software and RAW utility processing programs. Affinity Photo, Designer and Publisher together are only about $120—for all three programs. They offer most of the functionality of Photoshop and Lightroom, at a bargain cost.
Design And Photography Software & Cost
- Affinity Photo: About $40
- Affinity Designer: About $40
- Affinity Publisher: About $40
- Pixelmator Pro: Free trial; $39 for the full version
- Corel Painter 19: $429
- Capture One Pro 12: Free trial; $299
- ON1 Pro: Free trial; $99
Summary For Visual Effects And Motion Graphics
Adobe After Effects is the industry standard visual effects and motion graphics design software. It’s a great tool, but for many more casual users, it’s too deep of a tool and is available only via subscription. Depending on your visual effects or motion graphics needs, you may find that the programs highlighted here may be a better choice. Once again, BMD’s Fusion 9 gives you a lot of capability for free, but you must learn its node-based workflow. If you are like me and starting with motion graphics from scratch, it’s not a problem. But if you are an AE user, it can be difficult to transfer your knowledge from After Effects to a node-based editor like Fusion 9.
Visual Effects and Motion Graphics Software & Cost
- HitFilm Studio: $497
- Apple Motion 5: $49
- Blackmagic Design Fusion 9: Free; Fusion 9 Studio $299
The Bottom Line
Software, like hardware, is a means to an end. And after interviewing many editors, motion-graphics designers and photographers over the years, I’ve discovered that it’s not really what software app you use. What’s more important are the skills and ideas artists use to bring their visions to life.
So, take a close look at all the software here. On many levels, they’re all worth exploring and considering. However, be sure to shrewdly examine the value they offer you, especially in the work you’re currently engaged in. (This can be hard to separate from the work you might do or imagine you’d like to be doing.) It’s how you can determine if you’re getting the best bang for the buck—and, perhaps, escape the monthly financial burden of subscription-based software from your ledger.