Review: Alien Skin Snap Art 3

Rating: 
Body: 

Pros: Selections are more precise. Interface is more streamlined. Effects look like they were created by hand, not by computer.
Cons: As in previous versions, Snap Art does not work with CMYK images, only RGB.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Some of Alien Skin's most inspiring products have been its artistic filters for Photoshop. The images they produce are artistic and organic, as if they were created by a human hand rather than a computer.

Now the company has pushed the state of the art a little further with Snap Art 3, the latest version of a suite of artistic filters for Adobe Photoshop. While Snap Art 2 yields beautiful artwork, Snap Art 3's results are not only a bit more natural in appearance, but they're easier to create, too.

Snap Art 3 costs $199; you can upgrade from version 1 or 2 for $99.

Better Selections With the Detail Mask
Snap Art 2 introduced the focus region, an ellipsis that served as a mask to selective reduce filter effects. In my review of version 2, I said that while it was an improvement, it wasn't a true mask. Snap Art 3 has replaced the focus region with the detail mask, a major improvement in masking. You paint rather than draw the detail mask, and the detail mask brush has its own size, hardness, and amount settings, which gives you greater control. The detail mask can have more than one mask, each applying its own effect. You control these masks in Snap Art's Layers panel.

Figure 1. The Layers panel gives you great control over detail masking. Some functions that are common in other software are missing, such as the ability to show/hide layers, but the core functions are all here.

The detail mask applies one of three effects—Abstract, Detail, or Structure—and provides the same general settings, such as Brush Size, Photorealism, and Paint Thickness. This means you can use detail masks to tweak filter settings for a specific area and/or use the effects to change what the filter emphasizes.

The effects aren't well documented, so experimentation will show what they can do for your images. I like the Detail effect for restoring photographic detail and the Abstract effect for creating patches of color—good for painterly techniques, though over the top if you want to keep details recognizable. The Structure effect looks similar to the Detail effect but I see more posterization when I use it.

Figure 2. In this image from Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral, I created a detail mask for the windows and applied the Abstract effect with a small Brush Size, low Photorealism, and maximum Stroke Color Variation settings. (See Figure 1 for the actual settings.) The result is vibrant swirls of color representing the stained glass. Click on the image below to see a larger version.

Although the detail mask is a major improvement, there are some things it can't do:

  • If you use a detail mask to edit an image in Snap Art and then open it in Photoshop, the detail mask won't convert to a Photoshop layer mask. However, you can save a Snap Art 3 detail mask to a new layer, and you can convert that layer to a mask in Photoshop.
  • As with version 2, Snap Art 3 doesn’t apply multiple filters at once, even though you can apply multiple detail mask effects. Multiple filters must still be composited in Photoshop.

Despite these restrictions, the detail mask is a major improvement that puts Snap Art 3's adjustment masking on par with applications like Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.

User Interface Improvements
I've criticized Alien Skin in the past for interfaces that are clunky compared to what we're used to from Adobe, Apple, and others. Snap Art 3's user interface has the same look and feel as version 2, but there have been some improvements:

  • The five panels of settings have been reduced to four panels with more descriptive names (Background, Layers, Color and Canvas). The Settings panel now has its own place in the left sidebar.
  • The buttons and notification region at the top of the UI have shrunk and moved to the bottom of the window.
  • The detail mask (which replaces the focus region introduced in Snap Art 2) is controlled in the Layers panel instead of the persistent Focus Control settings in version 2.

However, one of the best UI improvements to come from Snap Art 3 isn't even in the Snap Art window: Snap Art 3's filters have been combined into one filter and show up in Photoshop's Filter menu as one (Filter > Alien Skin > Snap Art 3). Snap Art's filters are now selected in the UI's Background panel. Previously, all ten filters had their own menu items under Filter > Alien Skin. I like this change because plug-ins such as Snap Art tend to crowd Photoshop's Filter menu and make it hard to navigate. Snap Art 3 keeps things simple and also makes it easy to change filters without closing Snap Art and selecting a new one in the Filter menu.

The Results Are More Natural
Snap Art 3's stroke placement algorithm is smarter, with more realistic and artistic results than in Snap Art 2. When I saw that claim in Alien Skin's marketing materials, I found it hard to believe because version 2 did a good job producing artwork that looked like it came from an artist's brush, but Snap Art 3 is indeed better.

Figure 3. The natural quality of Snap Art 3's output is exceptional. I produced this rendering of the Eiffel Tower with two Photoshop layers. Top: Colored Pencil filter, Abstract-Angled preset, layer in Color mode. Bottom: Pencil Sketch filter, Abstract-Charcoal preset (black and white). Click on the image below to see a larger version.

My testing suggests that Snap Art 3's improved algorithm focuses on preserving edges and detail, and it does this best in drawing filters such as Pencil Sketch, Pastel, and the new Crayon. The improvement isn't as pronounced in painterly filters like Pointillism or in abstract settings on other filters, but I do see some improved detail in filters like Watercolor when the Photorealism setting is high.

Figure 4. The Wax Crayon is a new Pastel preset that performs differently than other Pastel presets. Left: Wax Crayon. Right: Soft Pastel. Click on the image below to see a larger version.

Speaking of the Crayon, there is a new Wax Crayon in Snap Art 3. It's not a new filter; it's a new pastel type found in the Pastel filter and easily applied with the Crayon presets. It produces unique artwork that is much brighter than anything from the other pastel types. I hope Alien Skin makes Crayon a filter in its own right in the next version of Snap Art.

Use Lightroom or Photoshop
Snap Art 3 can now be integrated with Adobe's Photoshop Lightroom as well as Photoshop. This opens up possibilities for digital photographers who use Lightroom for their color corrections. They can go from the digital capture to a corrected, artistically rendered image without launching Photoshop.

Since Lightroom doesn't have a Filter menu like Photoshop, images are exported to Snap Art 3 with the Photo > Edit In command. From there, the Snap Art application takes over and the user interface is the same. You can choose to edit the original, a copy, or a copy with Lightroom adjustments.

As well as editing individual shots, Lightroom can work with libraries of images. To accommodate that ability, Alien Skin has added batch processing to Snap Art 3. You can select multiple images in Lightroom's Library module and open them all with Snap Art 3 at the same time, and you can apply unique settings to each image or leave the same settings on all images. Once you've modified an image in a batch, there’s no easy way to apply settings from another image, so take care to process a batch image fully before moving to another.

In addition to Lightroom and Photoshop, Photoshop Elements also supports Snap Art 3. You can even install Snap Art 3 for all these applications at once on the same computer.

Share Your Photos on Flickr
One final new feature in Snap Art 3 is its ability to upload your creations to Flickr. I had no trouble authorizing Snap Art 3 to publish to my Flickr account, and after that the process continued to be smooth.

Users with a strong Flickr presence who plan to make Snap Art 3 the final step of their workflow should be excited. However, I don't think this addition will be a big deal to most Snap Art users. Not only are there a lot of other places online to publish photos (SmugMug, Photoshop.com, etc.), but many photographers maintain their own websites and publish photos there. Perhaps version 4 will expand the list of places for automatic publishing.

The Same Old Complaint About CMYK
Snap Art has never shipped with CMYK support, and Snap Art 3 is no exception—it only functions with RGB images. Print designers will have to work in RGB long enough to use Snap Art 3 and change back to CMYK further down the workflow, taking care to avoid color changes that end up outside the CMYK gamut.

Worth the Cost
I really enjoy using Snap Art 3, and when it comes to producing quality artwork quickly, it comes close to Corel Painter. (Painter still takes the crown when it comes to longer projects involving more detailed work.)

Figure 5. I am very impressed by how quickly artwork can be created with Snap Art 3. This artwork of the Eiffel Tower was produced in seconds with the Oil Paint (Thick Brush) preset that ships with the product. Click on the image below to see a larger version.

I can quibble about aspects of the user interface, the lack of CMYK support, and a few other things, but the improvements in recreating natural artwork, the Crayon, the new compatibility with Lightroom, and the streamlined Filter menu item all make Snap Art 3 a joy to work with.

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