Company: Alien Skin Software
Pros: Features many varieties of painting styles to choose from; works quickly; handy panel saves mouse clicks; output can be tailored to your exact specifications; new photorealistic settings; new ways to preserve detail in faces.
Cons: Output not good enough for high-end pro projects.
Many Photoshop plug-ins claim to be able to turn photographs into paintings -- but the results from most are terrible. The latest to boast that it can turn photos into great art in a few clicks is Alien Skin's Snap Art 2.
The program uses sophisticated algorithms to simulate a massive array of brush strokes that turn your picture from, say, a humdrum landscape to a pictorial representation of that composition -- a variation both unique and eye-catching.
Why not simply use Photoshop's filter library for such a task? Because it does not have nearly enough filters to create the range of effects that resides in the mind's eye. I generally use the Photoshop filter library for inspiration, to give me an idea of what I can or might want to do with a picture, and, after that, I find a filter that can really handle the job.
Snap Art's plug-in modules consist of 10 natural media: oil paint, watercolour, pencil sketch, colour pencil, Pen and Ink, Stylize, Comics, Impasto, Pastel, and Pointillism. Within those categories are a multitude of preset variations (over 700 in all) that will likely be enough to satisfy most artistic whims. But if they don't, you can always create your own unique pre-sets that give you exactly the effect you want for each photo. There are literally an infinite number of combinations.
Like most Photoshop plug-ins, Snap art can be installed with a variety of Photoshop-compatible programs, including the two most recent versions of Photoshop, as well as with Elements.
Immeasurably convenient is the CS4 panel that you can download from Alien Skin's Web site. While most plug-ins shut down after every use or cancelled command (this one does too), having the panel visible and accessible or docked as part of an existing panel group saves you from the tedious chore of having to launch the plug-in from the Filter menu every time you want to try a new effect. This saves a lot of mouse clicks.
You can preview your images in various sizes once they open in the plug-in: a fit in window size up to 1:1, which enlarges it to show actual pixels. You can adjust the plug-in window opening to have as large a working area as your monitor will accommodate.
One problem with converting photos to paintings is that often the real image is lost in a sea of simulated brush strokes that represent, but do not depict, the actual picture you took; this is especially true for portraits. Snap Art 2 now has a couple of ways to mitigate this loss of realism.