To Upgrade or Not to Upgrade? That is the Question.

I had a fascinating conversation recently with the renowned Danish photographer Thorsten Overgaard. Thorsten shoots almost exclusively with a Leica, the camera that arguably has more claim to the word “classic” than any other, and is one of the most brilliant documentary photographers in the world. Like many in the profession, he uses Adobe Photoshop Lightroom to “develop” his digital images into their final form. Also, like any professional, he knows his tools thoroughly, knows how they work and knows what they can and can’t do. He also has a large body of finished work that he definitely doesn’t want some new version of Lightroom to change (read, “mess up”). The conversation centered around whether or not he should upgrade to the latest version (Lightroom 4). We ended up doing a 30-minute informal video podcast (scroll down a bit on the linked page for the video) about the pros and cons of upgrading, using examples from some of his recent work. By the end of the podcast, he had made his decision to begin working with the new version.

This was a very specific conversation, but it brought to mind the more general question everyone faces at least once a year: “Should I upgrade to the latest version of [insert name of software program]?” For casual use, it doesn’t much matter. If the version of “x” you are using does everything you need, upgrading is more a matter of whether you simply like having the “latest and greatest” or the new version does some things the older one doesn’t.

For professional tools, like the ones I make my living with, the considerations are different and entirely pragmatic. My conversation with Thorsten made me think about this in some detail. There’s nothing like explaining an idea to someone else for clarifying your own thoughts. It seemed worthwhile to pass them along; if they were helpful for Thorsten, then they will probably be helpful for others.

A friend recently opined, “but you’re an upgrade hog” (I’m not sure “hog” was his first choice, or a word that starts with the same sound), referring to the fact that I typically upgrade to the latest versions of the Adobe Creative Suite software soon after it comes out. He doesn’t, needless to say. I think he has the idea that I’m in the “latest and greatest” camp, but that is a serious misperception.

A pro in any field buys a tool for one reason only: to get the best possible product with the least expense in the least amount of time. If you’re a writer, Microsoft Word or Scrivener or Final Draft is probably your tool of choice. For graphic designers, and many in the video and film industries, the Adobe Creative Suite or some parts of it are essential (Photoshop is, quite literally, everywhere). The movie, architectural and engineering fields have specialized software tools that are often fabulously expensive ($90,000 or so for a single license in some cases). Software manufacturers constantly work to improve their products. Each time the new version of a tool comes out, a professional user has to make the decision to upgrade. It’s an expensive decision. Or is it?

Remember why these tools exist — to get the best possible product with the least expense in the least amount of time. That gives you the clue to my own upgrade decisions. If I can get more work done in the same amount of time, or if I can get a product (or a quality of product) that would be difficult or impossible otherwise, upgrading is a solid investment that can pay for itself in a short amount of time. The various teams at Adobe, bless them, have made both production speed and production quality the defining characteristics of their development efforts, so it doesn’t take me long to move to the new version once it hits the market. I also participate in the pre-release testing of several of the Creative Suite programs, which gives me a seat at the table when it comes to deciding what would be the most productive new features.

There is always a learning curve with something new, so that has to factor into the equation, but if I can see the end result is worth the effort, I take that as part of the cost of becoming more productive. Photographers like Thorsten had to make the expensive leap from film to digital, years ago, as the movie industry has been doing more recently. Why did they go to all that trouble and expense? — To get a better product less expensively in less time.

By contrast, Microsoft made a major change to their Office suite in 2007 that, when I tried it, proved highly counter-productive. I could work at great speed with Word, Excel and Outlook in the 2003 edition, but found their new design awkward and slow by comparison. So, you guessed it, I skipped Office 2007 and Office 2010 as not worth the effort or expense. Office 2013 brings something new to the table, and I’m experimenting with that right now. No decision as yet.

There is one more factor in my own field that is worth mentioning: graphic designers are faced with fast-changing technologies (e-books, digital billboards, rapidly-changing web technologies, to name a few). New technologies demand new tools, or major improvements to existing ones, but in the end you either keep up or get left behind. Eventually, if you want to stay in business, you have to catch up. My experience has been that keeping up takes far less effort, and is a lot less expensive, than catching up. Q.E.D., as the old geometry books used to say.


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