App

Transform your snaps into paintings, sketches, computer art, abstract shapes, and more

Your iPhone is one of the best cameras around, capable of taking sharp, pristine shots. But sometimes, you want to get more creative with your imagery.

Many iPhone apps emulate film stock, such as Hipstamatic. And the likes of Mextures (depicted below) can add grit, grain, and realistic light leaks.

But this round-up wants to take your photos further – transforming even the most mundane snap into something that looks like a work of art. We’ll therefore delve into the best the App Store has to offer when it comes to filters that mimic paint, ink, video games, abstract art, and more.

Turn iPhone snaps into paintings

You probably already know Prisma (free + IAP), an iPhone app that turns any photo you throw at it into something that resembles a work by a famous master – or, in some cases, a frame from a comic book). Despite regular subscription IAP nags, it’s impressive stuff. Visionist (free or $3/£3) is a single-payment alternative that’s also sleek – albeit lacking in terms of filter management and naming.

Arguably, though, there are more natural, interesting, and interactive painterly apps for your iPhone.

Oilist ($3/£3) – shown above – is perhaps our favorite. Load a photo into the app, select a style, and Oilist then paints a version of it in real-time. The effect is hypnotic – and if you get an attack of “back seat painter,” you can fiddle around with settings on the fly. Entertainingly, one of them is called chaos. That messes up the image to the point you half expect the app’s little AI painter to yell “I quit” and storm off in a huff.

Artomaton (free + $3/£3) is in a broadly similar space, but with two major differences. First, it does its thing in fast-forward, crafting art in a mere handful of seconds; secondly, its art box is much more diverse. Splash out on the one-off IAP (very much recommended) and you can art it up with charcoal, pencils, markers, spray paint, and more. The results look a bit digital, but a wide array of settings and export options enables you to add your own spin on things.

Adobe PaintCan (free) also converts favorite snaps into virtual oils, but requires manual intervention. Using a small selection of brushes, you finger-paint over your photo, gradually turning it into a painting. The interface is odd, but the process is quite mesmerizing. Naturally, you’re not really painting, but you can fool yourself into thinking that’s what’s going on. And the personal touch can feel better than letting an algorithm do all the work.

Waterlogue ($5/£5) is – as its name might suggest – rather more focussed in terms of medium. To some extent, it’s like a stripped-back Oilist but for watercolors. Load a photo, select a style, and the app quickly creates an effective and realistic-looking watercolor from your photo. Brush size, border, and lightness can be adjusted, before you share your masterpiece online – and pretend you painted it yourself.

By the same developer, the basic but effective Popsicolor ($1/£1) is also worth a look – a one-buck app that fashions illustrative watercolors from photos, based on a simple color gradient and digital ink.

Brushstroke ($4/£4) is our final pick for wannabe painters, who’d sooner use an iPhone as a canvas than accidentally trample paint into the rug. If you’re in a hurry, there’s single-tap filter selection for a range of oil and watercolor effects. But should you want to delve deeper, you can change the palette and canvas texture, and also adjust many attributes of the image, including color saturation, exposure, and sharpness. Entertainingly, Brushstroke adds a ‘Sign’ tool, so you can scribble your name in the corner of your art.

Transform iPhone photos into sketches

Should you prefer sketching over painting, Imaengine (free + $3/£3) is pretty fantastic.

The interface leaves something to be desired – it’s a bit cluttered and crude; but the effects are superb. ‘Hatching’ gives you results akin to a cartoonist’s take on a photo. ‘Mosaic’ is a gorgeous ink and solid color combination that looks like high-end graphic design. And that’s just scraping the surface of the effects. Beyond those, tap Editor and you gain access to a full-fledged vector image editor, so you can tweak every line – or add some new ones.

Vectornator X (free) doesn’t even attempt to shield you from the fact it’s a pro-grade vector illustration app. By default, you’re faced with a blank canvas and a slew of tools, and might therefore wonder why we’ve included it. But as our recent tutorial explained, Vectornator’s tracing smarts are a superb way to turn a photo into a stylized ink/paint sketch, or something that resembles a still from a rotoscoped video. That’s perhaps stretching the definition of a filter app to breaking point, but the results mean Vectornator is not to be missed.

Inkwork ($3/£3) is perhaps a better bet if you want a simple life. It’s an excellent app if you have a love of monochrome art that’s created with a pen, or a brush and ink. Load your photo, spin the dial, and you can spend many happy minutes delving into a diverse range of expressive styles, such as ‘Comic’, ‘Abstract’, ‘Wash’, and ‘Graphic’. Not so keen on black and white? A couple of buttons and some sliders provide the option to work with two alternate colors of your own choosing.

Insta Toon (free or $5/£5), though, sits firmly in traditional filter territory. It’s straightforward stuff: choose a style, optionally fiddle with settings, and share the result. Although painterly options exist, Insta Toon’s best filters mimic cartoons, comics, and sketches — albeit in a very stylized manner. Do be mindful, however, that quite a few filters and adjustment settings, along with very high-res output, sit behind a one-off ‘Pro’ IAP.

Make iPhone pics go retro

When someone talks about ‘retro’ in relation to digital photography, that usually means making your pics look like they were shot using an ancient camera. But some apps instead delve into the world of graphic design and old-school screen art.

Printed ($2/£2) remakes your image in the style of vintage printmaking. It works very well with photos, but also images to which you’ve added some text in the likes of Snapseed. A dozen pre-set styles are included with the app, emulating mis-registered ink plates, over-inked screens, and comic book art. Adjustments are few in number, but can radically change the look and feel of your image, whether you fade out color, add a border, or change the size of the print dots.

Retrospecs (free + $4/£4) moves on a couple of decades, immersing itself in the era of early home computers and gaming consoles. With a single tap, you can make a photo look like it was made on a Commodore 64, NES, Atari, or a slew of other systems. For the truly geeky, it’s possible to dig much deeper, gleefully fiddling with dither options, adjustment levels, character sets, and even animated glitches, fashioning your own personal retro system that never was. It’s fantastic stuff.

Photoshop Camera (free) is curiously named, given that it’s more a toy than the kind of pro-grade tool that befits the Photoshop moniker. Still, it’s a lot of fun, with a wide range of lenses you can apply to existing photos — or shoot ‘live’ within the app itself. Each filter type has several variations, and although some are conventional ones for improving snaps of food and landscapes, the best are based around pop art, old-school TV effects, and surreal fare that adds giant-sized food and bugs to your photos.

Ultrapop (free+IAP) or its pro incarnation ($4/£4 + IAP), which is bundled with more filters by default, is all about pop art. In practice, this means a tendency towards lurid eye-popping colors, rather than tiling a tin can print multiple times in the style of Warhol. Still, even the most mundane photo can be made quite arresting with Ultrapop, and the app’s shape masks and multiple effects layers provide further scope for retina-searing creativity.

Turn iPhone photos into abstract art

The apps in the previous section are capable of creating quite abstract imagery – although that’s to some extent through the limitations of old systems and styles rather than being the creators’ main intent. Several iPhone apps, though, are designed specifically to make pictures largely unrecognizable – yet still beautiful.

Percolator ($2/£2) is all about multicolor mosaics. You choose ‘Grind’ (circle size), ‘Brew’ (pattern/blend), and ‘Serve’ (effect/texture) settings, and watch as bubbles float up to create your image. Re-grind and the bubbles disappear, before a new liquid mosaic is formed.

nception (free + $2/£2) reimagines photos and videos by bending reality through the use of symmetry. You can shoot new images live within the app, or import existing snaps from Photos. Landscapes work particularly well. Applying a virtual mirror to almost any snap creates something compelling. Edits are non-destructive, too; so although you can export anything you like, it’s possible to rework existing nception edits. This lets you experiment at leisure with new combinations of symmetry and color overlays.

Trigraphy (free + IAP) to some extent feels like a compilation of several other apps in this list, and with a range of additional effects to boot. Its filters range from bizarre crazy paving to one that looks like something from Retrospecs that has melted. Masks and overlays add extra appeal, although this is admittedly blunted by the high price for the ‘pro’ IAPs ($4/£3.49 per month – or a one-off $29/£28) that many effects lurk behind.

Finally, Pixel is Data (free) is worth installing to see what happens if individual pixels within your image are reordered by an app concerned as much with data as what’s represented. (In short: anything from an explosion of pixels to something that looks like a reinterpreted Rothko.)

Make your iPhone photos move

Our last set of apps assists when you’ve been watching Harry Potter movies a bit too often, and decide that all of your photos should move.

Animatix ($2/£2) is one of the more abstract efforts. Various filters are on offer (many of which are rather nice in and of themselves), as are a range of animation styles. Depending on the subject matter, you might pick a subtle option, which makes the image barely shimmer, or alternatively plump for Electric, ramping up the frequency and tempo to make it look like your snap’s somehow got its fingers stuck in the mains.

Glitch Art Studio (free + $5/£5) has more of a direct link with reality, in its effects being designed to resemble old-school hardware gone wrong. For example, you can make a picture look like a still frame on a paused, broken VCR. However, if that’s a bit too normal for you, there are trippier alternatives, such as the appropriately named Hallucination filter, and a full-blown kaleidoscope. Although each effect can be used as-is, you can dig deep into its construction, defining your own custom colors, ripples, and blurs.

VIMAGE (free + IAP) is a mite subtler. Rather than turning your entire photo into some kind of eye-smashing weirdness, it has you add cinematic effects to your snaps. Some of these are animated overlays, such as twinkling lights and flares; others are designed to liven up a sky by way of a moon, birds, lightning, or a vibrant sunrise. More than two layers on any one photo requires monthly IAP, and the app’s output is geared more toward fun than realism; still, it’s a good bet when you fancy spicing up a photo rather than obliterating it in a soup of abstract weirdness.

Our final two choices are about having direct control over movement within a photo, rather than applying canned animations, ripples or fuzz. The depicted Plotaverse (free + IAP) and Enlight Pixaloop (free + IAP) both have you load a still, mask sections you want to keep static, and draw arrows to animate the rest.

It’s clever stuff. With care, you can genuinely add billowing clouds to a favorite landscape snap, or fashion whirling spiral staircases that rotate into the infinite. Both apps suffer slightly from IAP demands, and Plotaverse also has an unnecessary social network welded to it. But they’re free to try, and the mind-blowing visual effects more than make up for any shortcomings.