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 a bit more creative with your imagery.

There are of course many iPhone apps that emulate film stock, such as Filmborn and Hipstamatic. And the likes of Mextures (depicted) 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 be delving into the best the App Store has to offer when it comes to filters that emulate paint, ink, video games, abstract art, and more.

Turn iPhone snaps into paintings

You probably already know Prisma (free), 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); but, to our minds, there are far more natural 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 mesmerizing – and if you get an attack of “back seat painter,” you can fiddle around with settings on the fly. Entertainingly, one 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 the personal touch.

Waterlogue ($4/£4) 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.

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.

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 a pair of apps instead delves into the world of graphic design.

Printed ($2/£2) sadly hasn’t been updated in a couple of years, but it’s nonetheless worth a look if you’re a fan of vintage printmaking. A dozen pre-set styles are included, emulating mis-registered ink plates, over-inked screens, and comic book art. Adjusting dot size and saturation can result in wildly different effects.

Retrospecs (free + $2/£2) 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, and even animated glitches, fashioning your own personal retro system that never was. Fantastic stuff.

Turn iPhone photos into abstract art

Retrospecs can create quite abstract imagery – although that’s to some extent through the resolution limitations of old systems rather than being the app creator’s specific 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.

Geometricam ($3/£3) mostly concerns itself with complex patterns of angles and lines rather than circles. It’s a beautifully tactile app, with you using gestures to adjust the chosen effect. With changes happening in real-time, the app can be quite hypnotic to work with.

Fragment ($5/£5) also focuses on geometry, but rather than rework the underlying image, it fragments it inside malleable prism-like virtual mirrors and pieces of glass. It’s a beguiling effect, and although you might question its practical value, there’s no denying that with careful use the results can be arresting.

Trigraphy (free + IAP) to some extent feels like a compilation of the other apps in this section, 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 two apps assist 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 the more abstract of the pair. 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.

If you want direct control, rather than Animatix’s canned animations, give Plotaverse (free + IAP) a whirl. This app has you load a still, mask out sections you want to keep static, and then draw arrows to animate the rest. This means you can create billowing clouds on your favorite landscape snaps, or whirling spiral staircases that rotate into the infinite.

Probably ignore the social network unnecessarily welded to the app, mind, and be aware it’ll bug you to sign up for subscription IAP to unlock some features. Still, the mind-blowing effects should more than make up for that.