#565. On Digital Sharecropping and Cloud Photo Prisons

By pascaljappy | Opinion

Mar 03

Sharecropping: the rental of a piece of land by its owner to a farmer, in exchange for a share of the crop.

It can’t be considered slavery because (in theory) the farmer is always at liberty to buzz off and find new pastures to work on. Yet history has shown that what percentage of the crop is left to the famer is a decision largely in the hands of the owner. Starving the farmer is bad news for him and his family but it’s often just as bad for the land owner, who soon realises that, the greater his cut, the lower the global production.

In fact, for the past few years, North Korea has been doing exactly the opposite by making a switch from quasi-slavery to a household-based agricultural system. By giving more back to the farmers, the government has managed to increase global production significantly and raise the revenue / standard of living of its large farmer population. A smart move many European governments would do well to understand …



Digital sharecropping is a closely related strategy whereby individuals and companies alike build their online presence or other digital assets on someone else’s turf. For example, forfeiting your website for a Facebook company page is a form of digital sharecropping.

Digital sharecropping is a natural by-product of the general turn to a SaaS business model taken by the software industry as a whole (Facebook is software).

I was there, handling product marketing, when the decision was made at my previous employer’s, and the implications ran deep. SaaS (software as a service) means you can rent software for cheap and for as long as you need it instead of forking out a huge lump of money to acquire it. It is yours to use as long as you pay for it. For the customer, the price of admission to high-level features & services becomes much more realistic and budgetable. For the editor, the revenue stream is evened out, predictable and grows naturally.

The main business metric in a SaaS company is churn. More so than rental price, sales cycle or any other strategic KPI. Customer retention is essential to success as you lose a lot of money when a customer (acquired at greater marketing costs) leaves early and gain a lot when the customer ends up spending 10 times more than the old licence rate over a long lifespan.



SaaS is playing the long game.

Which is why so many SaaS companies need so much capital early in their life.

And is also why so many SaaS companies will stop at very little to retain the customer.

It is usually a very positive win-win situation, with one major caveat.

A common marketing adage goes: “if you’re not paying, you’re not the customer, you’re the product”. A cynical but realistic take on the more classic “there’s no free lunch”.

Ask Mark Zuckerberg. He became one of the richest persons on the planet by handing out free lunches by the billion. User pages, company pages, public groups, private groups, messaging, video … all free. Until reach dropped to 40%, then 16%, then 6%, then 2%, then less than 1%. But was OK because the advertising on Facebook (required to reclaim that lost organic reach) was cheap. Until it wasn’t anymore. Until it also became the downfall of the uninitiated (I use 4 different expensives pieces of software, and constant training to maintain efficiency on Facebook ads).

Ask Google. Very similar story. A tremendous and free service to the public and a more and more expensive and complicated survival kit for companies.

Many approaches are taken to ensure customer retention, ranging from extraordinary value for money and/or customer service to extorsion (offenders will remain nameless). All reflect a similar range of attitudes towards the customer as the land owner towards the farmer.


In a SaaS relationship, there is an implicit relationship between the farmer-customer (who has the power to leave) and the owner-editor (who has the power to change the rental conditions), the outcome of which depends purely on the goodwill of the two parties (yes, you can go to court, but that is never a win). Values and reputation are super important for a safe SaaS relationship.

And building your home on someone else’s turf is always going to be a riskier proposition. Ask the numerous companies who have been wiped out by a sudden change of Google algorithm or Facebook terms and conditions. For those who read French, read the recent account of the 80-person, 40 million startup who got shut down, in a single email, by Apple.



How does this relate to photography, you ask?

Post-processing is done via software. That software is either owned or rented (usually very cheaply compared to the selling price). And the use of that software to create a library of precious memories, money-making opportunities and elements of creative growth puts our work in the hands of various actors falling everywhere on the ethical spectrum of customer relationships.

Many comments, on this blog or in private, have questionned my and my colleague’s judgement for leaving the safe haven of the main providers of post-processing software.

Very intriguing.

When I published an article on how to backup photographs, the replies just blew my mind. Raid systems, one at home, one at a friend’s home, plus cloud backup, vaults, and more … It’s obvious we, as a community, treasure our photographs more than many other of our assets. What other part of our daily life are we so paranoïd about? Nothing that doesn’t breathe comes to my mind.

I’m … well … a rather poor example to follow. My photos are on my laptop and I occasionally put a few on a WD passport drive. And yet, I’ve been burgled, have lost photos to aging of DVDs and braking of hard drives, chemical destruction of slides … it doesn’t stop me sleeping at night. You lose some, you make some more …

But I find it difficult give custody of my photographs to a SaaS post-processing company. At least not until a super solid bond of trust has been established between us.

This isn’t a reflection on any editor’s ethical values but a recognition that anything in the future is possible. Acquisitions, mergers, failures, price hikes I cannot deal with … What happens to my data in those cases is anyone’s guess, and past experiences have not been encouraging.

However, others, most others in fact, will, without so much as a second thought. They create unfailable backup strategies for the files but hand their creative juices to an unknown 3rd party.

I’d rather face random burglary than corporate arm lock (voluntary or not). Any day. It’s OK to rent my software but my files and edits stay home. Mine. Forever. Renting access to software is OK. Renting access to my creative work isn’t.



But that’s just me.

Thoughts ?


Email: subscribed: 4
  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    “Nothing’s for nothing” – and when you mess with predatory corporations, you’ll really find out what that means!

  • Dmitri Serdukoff says:

    I fully agree. I loathe “renting” software or becoming a slave to predatory strategy of regular, imminent and mandatory upgrades. SAAS, as a concept, as it proliferates, seems also to go hand-in-hand with plummeting quality of delivered software product. Recently I had a chance to spend time on a fresh Windows 10 portable workstation by DELL, which was my first interaction with the latest OS by Microsoft. This was my honest attempt to spend time and configure my next engineering/imaging uber-workstation for the next ~5 years or so. Alas, I was appalled by how poorly were the individual moduli of the operating system stitched together. Some pieces of the OS were showing their age going right back to the dawn of MS Windows. Crippled functionality. Change tor the sake of change – an endless exercise in nonsense. The latest OS was a perpetually self-upgrading … SAAS. Yet, the damn Win10 is here to stay, as it is stable as a glacier. It also looks flashy, and the populus likes that. For me – less is more. After two weeks of dismay I sent the computer back.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Dmitri, unfortunately, you are right about declining quality.

      In order to justify the monthly charge, software companies feel compelled to evolve constantly, to add features to the point where their products are bloated versions of their former selves that do not always deliver more value. Instead of making software faster, cleaner, better designed, more efficient, features are piled up, much like buttons and AF points are constantly getting added to cameras that would be a great deal better without them.

      It really shouldn’t have to be that way.

      Delivering constant value is enough to justify constant fees. And additional value doesn’t necessarily require more features. Better security, better speed, better output quality, better support, better design, better customer relations,…, those are meaningful forms or value creation that are not only neglected by most but actually suffer from the feature pile approach. If only SaaS rhymed with continous improvement, we’d be having a very different conversation.

      Cheers, Pascal

  • Graham Harris says:

    Exactly – that’s why I removed all my blogs on LinkedIn when it got sold to one of the big guys. I didn’t want my IP messed with – and I keep all my photos on a big backup drive connected to my 5K iMac – the one computer in the house that only has very limited and brief internet access. And I use DXO not you know who. Yes, I have an iPhone – but now I have turned all data and location services off, to stop those spooky messages when I get in the car telling me where I am about to go, which route to take and how heavy the traffic is! Don’t like being snooped on.

  • NMc says:

    There seems to be one form of corporate ideal or goal for creating businesses that scrape much smaller returns or margins from extremely large numbers of transactions. The problem with this is that its logical conclusion is to get almost nothing from stuff that is seen as almost free and therefore of no value. The landowner has made his land barren and the whole share farming economy will collapse with the slightest disruption or external change, to follow your analogy. This economic model seems to be based on some reckless game of chicken, where the person who guesses the right time to jump in and out is the winner, and rarely has anything to do with productivity or innovation nor long term sustainability.

    If I was made (hopefully benevolent*) dictator of the world a significant portion of CEO, director and board member salaries will be determined by the average value of their company for the decade after they resign from their position. The bastards will probably find probably some way around it, but it is worth trying to make it work, because the customer (product) then has real value if sustained properly.

    Regards Noel

    * Warning; benevolent dictators always become ‘sub optimally’ benevolent, best avoided.

  • philberphoto says:

    I know why you didn”t mention the most obvious case of attempted abuse by on-line service providers. When Adobe introduced its rental-only policy, word went round that, if one day you stopped paying, you would lose access to all your pictures. Not only that, but Adobe would become the sole owner of said pictures. I didn’t even bother to check if that was true. My blood turned to ice in my veins, and I couldn’t leave Adobe fast enough. As it turns out, they retreated somewhat from that predatory position due to massive customer pushback, but, as the saying goes, once a predator, always a predator. And, as far as my backup goes, none of it “belongs” to anyone else. External HDDs and NAS server for my very own (and very small) private Cloud. The cost is insignificant, as is the work to keep it updated.
    From an economics point of view, let’s not forget one thing. The humongous value of companies like Google, Facebook, and now Snap is strictly due to one source. Us. You get my drift?

  • artuk says:

    This topic has been discussed here before quite recently, and I’ve made my feelings quite clear already. As a photographer who travels, and uses multiple machines, why on earth would I want to use software that may prevent me accessing my own photographs the moment it cannot talk to the internet? Why on earth would I want to use software that often gives such sub-optimal quality, that appears to be lazily written, or perhaps cynically introduces issues that are later fixed in paid for releases?

    The last time I had a hard drive crash the vendor (we all know who we are talking about) wanted me to telephone America to restore my lost license, as they had no online process to do so. This was an “upgrade” license that cost the same price as a brand new license for a brand new customer.

    No thanks.

  • Per Kylberg says:

    To start with a comment to your agricultural analysis: In the European Union 50% of a farmers income is from sales, 50% comes from the EU…… Why the North Korea diversion?
    I strongly recommend, as said, to not use any “cloud” services for art work, personal history images. A daily/weekly backup (free software) to an external disk does it. I also have an travel disk that I bring on longer journeys. (fire/theft at home)
    Then buy a new disk every third year – they do not last for ever…

  • Soso says:

    I don’t get the panic here. There’s no (forced and usable) cloud storage within Adobe Cloud. It’s actually just a simple subscription model for their old stand-alone apps. No photos get to Adobe whatsoever. And you can buy Adobe Lightroom 6 retail which is about Lightroom CC minus Dehaze.

    If you look for something else, to improve your workflow, to get better results or faster performance, it’s absolutely OK to look somewhere else.

    In general, SaaS makes sense in a business environment to quickly up- and downscale software licenses or use expensive business software that requires constant support. Adobe CC is somewhat odd because it actually is not SaaS but stand-alone apps with a subscription model, without constant service. It makes sense for businesses which can buy some new subscriptions for new employees quickly and get rid of them fast. Before CC they needed to invest 3.500 € (yes, that was Adobe Master Edition in Germany) for one license. And when that employee or freelancer was done, you stuck with the license and burned a lot of money. Interestingly, agencies where very reluctant to switch to CC initially. I work for a very large company and we use special enterprise versions of CC that are not tied to CC but installed independently without subscription. So the old model is still available, but hidden.

    If you only want to use Lightroom, CC subscription makes no sense because Lightroom is only 130 € retail and 70 € upgrade. That’s why Adobe bundles it with Photoshop. Adobe knows that Lightroom alone is very important and too cheap to sell within a subscription model. Of course they needed something to huff their retail customers and add one function only to CC. I don’t see this as a final proof that Adobe will abandon retail Lightroom with the next major version. Lightroom is important but also has many competition. And many photographers talk about leaving Lightroom/Adobe for something else. The same also happens for digital designers. Sketch has become super-famous in the scene and Adobe has nothing against it. Soon these designers will retire their subscriptions. Adobe needs to rethink their strategy and product line up. Question is: Will they succeed? I have my doubts.

    Personally, I use Lightroom retail and have my own workflow which I don’t change easily. I don’t have a need right now to change. I would never subscribe to Adobe CC because Adobe has no exit strategy read. You subscribe until the end of days or loose exit to all of your files. But that is only true for Photoshop, Illustrator, Indesign & Co., not necessarily for Lightroom. With Lightroom, I still have my original files and I can render the Lightroom post-processing. I only loose Lightroom with its catalog and the option to re-edit my photos. Would I then switch, I would need to rebuild my edit in the new program. But the same is true if I would switch from Capture One to Luminar or anything else.

    • pascaljappy says:

      He he 😉 No real panic. It’s not the subscription model in itself but the fact that all your edits are lost when you cancel. This may well have changed by now, but the reputational harm is done and the fact that Adobe even considered that fair at some point just shows that anything similar could happen again in the future.

      I think your point is spot on. Adobe CC is aimed more squarely at companies than at individual amateurs.

      Is the standalone versio of LR still being maitained ? I bought version 6 but was under the impression that that would be the last update outside the subscription model. Feature-wise, no biggie as that was already a super competent package, but support for new cameras is more of an issue.


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