iPhoneography Apps – SkyLab: an app that remains grounded

Last week I covered Brain Fever Media’s Alien Sky, an app that’s been available for a few years. Immediately upon publication of that article, Brain Fever Media released a new app: SkyLab. It allows the user to not only put objects into the sky, but to change the entire sky. Unfortunately, there are some major drawbacks to this first implementation of SkyLab that makes it less useful than Alien Sky, in my opinion.

The interface is similar to Alien Sky. It’s a universal app, working on both the iPhone and iPad. The iPhone version works only in portrait mode, while the iPad can be flipped to landscape mode once the image has been loaded.


SkyLab has some tutorials available, but they load a test image, give you the place to start, and then quit. They don’t walk you all the way through. Therefore, I think of them more as “inspirations” than as tutorials.


Selecting Photos brings up your Photo Library. Tapping the words Photo Library at the bottom left brings up a list of your albums, and you can switch to any album you like. Buttons at the bottom right allow you to choose an image from iCloud or capture an image with the Camera. At the top is a selection of free-to-use images called Epic Horizons, and I will show you one of those images at the end.


Choosing an image takes you to the Crop window. Just as with Alien Sky, the crop handles are free-form, and the slider rotates the image to straighten the horizon. Cropping cannot be done except immediately after loading an image, so make sure any cropping is done now.


The main screen is similar to Alien Sky. Load and Info are at the top left; Save is at the top right. Along the bottom are selections for Skies, Elements, Layers, Mask, Filters and Textures. Skies and Elements replace Effects and Edit.


Skies allows you to choose from among seven different types, or groups, of skies: Clear, Cloudy, Sunset, Stormy, Vortex 1 and 2, and Night. Tapping the group name at the bottom brings up a selection of thumbnails in the row above.


Selecting a thumbnail places the chosen sky over the top half of your image. A bar appears above the thumbnails with editing controls for the added sky. Position, the default edit, allows you to drag and zoom to place your sky correctly within the image.


Vertical uses a slider on the right side of the image to move the bottom of the added sky up and down. This makes the sky stretch and contract.


Flip will flip the sky left-to-right.


Fade controls the feathering of the bottom edge. Moving the slider up will create a large area of feathering.


Moving the Fade slider down will create a sharp edge to the added sky.


Brightness will darken or lighten the sky, but not uniformly. Notice in the image below how reducing the brightness leaves the brightest highlights the same.


There are two available blend modes for the sky: Normal and Add. Add will always make the image brighter, so it is only really useful for Night skies.


When the sky is placed, I find that it overlaps some of my image. I move to Mask to erase the added sky over the wood crossbeam and the tops of the hills. There are sections within Mask that will erase the sky and the added elements.


I zoom in and use the soft round brush to erase the added sky where it obscures the non-sky areas of the image.


I move on to the Filters area to try and bring the sky and ground together. When I use the Brightness slider to darken the ground, I notice that there is a darker line in the sky. That is from the masking, and a stray mark that masked out that line. The darker background is showing through.


I return to masking and restore that vertical stripe. Now I’m free to use the Brightness slider under Filters to darken the ground. Don’t worry, I know I darkened it too much below.


Between the above Brightness change, and the overdone Vignette below, you can see that Filters do not apply equally to the entire image. Color changes apply to both sky and ground, but luminosity changes apply only to the ground. This makes it easy to create a totally unrealistic look. You have to take the image out of SkyLab to make luminosity or vignette changes to the entire image.


Fade darkens the top of the “ground” portion of the image, and is more useful with night scenes.


Textures are the same as in Alien Sky. In the iPhone version, they are a subset of Filters.


Elements are the extra pieces to add to your image, like Effects in Alien Sky. The Elements are grouped into Trees, Dead Trees, Birds, Clouds, Moon and Sun.


Elements can be moved, resized and rotated with the standard drag and pinch motions. However, when I do so, the added tree looks unnatural against the background. How do I edit an Element?


The Element editing controls are in the top bar of the Layers area. There are Position, Flip, Opacity, Brightness, and Haze controls. Below I’ve reduced the opacity of the tree a bit.


A reduction in brightness helps make the tree look more natural in this setting. But what is really needed is a way to introduce a slight Blur. Blur is available in Alien Sky, but not in SkyLab. Why is that? It’s an oversight that makes Elements a less-useful part of SkyLab.


Haze makes the Element whiter, but doesn’t add a haze or fog around the image. The haze has as sharp an outline as the element itself, thus making it less useful than it could be.


I eliminate the haze edit, and tap the plus sign in the next available layer box to add another Element.


I decide to add a single bird, and squeeze it down to fit on the right side of the image.


I return to Layers to lower the opacity of the bird – but it still has much too sharp an edge to make it realistic.


Nevertheless, I tap the menu at the bottom to see the entire image, and decide to save. I tap the button at the upper right.


Below you will see the Save options.


And here is the saved image, after some finishing touches in iColorama. I did have some trouble with saving on the iPhone version – the JPG image was rotated ninety degrees. When I saved a PNG version, it was oriented correctly. Hopefully this bug will be squashed soon.


I don’t know about you, but I don’t capture a lot of images with perfectly level horizons – the type of skies that are easily replaced in SkyLab. Below I’ve loaded an image with a rock outcropping rising up to the left.


I add a Stormy sky, but it covers the entire outcropping to the left. This is a function of the Normal blend mode, which does not combine the sky with the background, but just lays it on top.


After a lot of tedious masking, I get this image. It’s still not perfect: I can see the edge along the right front of the outcropping.


Using a filter to darken the ground helps hide the incorrectly masked edge.


The screenshot below shows another huge drawback to SkyLab. When I decide to change skies, all the masking I’ve done is lost and unrecoverable. I have to start all over again.


I changed the Night sky to an Add blend mode and darkened the background image. Stars still overlaid the outcropping, and I had to mask them out. (The masking didn’t need to be perfect, which helps.) I also added a Moon element. There’s something wrong, though. Would stars shine through the dark side of the moon?


Alien Sky had a method to quickly make sure the background was not visible through the object: the Opaque button. SkyLab does not have that button. (Why not?) I can hide the stars by masking out the sky behind the object. I try to “complete the circle”, and it’s not perfect, but a reasonable effort.


This kind of masking (behind an object) is only useful when the sky is blended in Add mode. You can see below the awful results when the sky is blended in Normal mode.


Here’s the finished image with the masked night sky and Moon.


But masking in SkyLab can’t solve all the problems. You might have heard that proper compositional technique calls for a framing object, such as a tree. How is an image that uses a framing branch treated in SkyLab?


Below I’ve made a start at masking the sky. Although I could clean up around the edges of the thicker branches, SkyLab does not allow you to zoom in far enough to handle thin branches and small leaves. This particular tree would take over an hour to mask imperfectly. I don’t have the patience for that.


The free-to-use background images, Epic Horizons, require no complicated masking. Here’s a quick edit of a free image with a Vortex sky.


Of course, you are not limited to realistic images. In the piece below, I used an abstract with swirls as the background. I added the cloudy sky and turned the tree upside down before saving. Then I rotated the entire image 180 degrees in Snapseed, added some grunge and birds with Distressed FX, and finished with the geometric brush stroke and Raise in iColorama.


Unfortunately, SkyLab seems rushed and incomplete to me. Features that are available in other Brain Fever apps are not included, and there are still bugs, like the Save I mentioned earlier. There is also a tendency to show a border in the workspace around the image that makes it seem like the added sky does not cover the entire image. This border shows in the editing, but not when the image is saved.

As much as I might like, I can’t recommend SkyLab, especially at the rather steep price of $2.99.


3 Responses to iPhoneography Apps – SkyLab: an app that remains grounded

  1. I have to differ with you. I have used Brainfever apps for a long time. They are all high quality apps. I paid for Skylab the first day it came out. I had seen what people were doing in Instagram in the beta version. I think it is an awesome new app of high quality worth the price. It has all kinds of applications in many different creative ways.

    • juryjone says:

      OK! You are free to disagree; I’m certainly not the last word on apps. I still think, after looking at all the BrainFever apps (with another coming this week), that SkyLab has major drawbacks, especially in the masking. I’m glad you’re putting it to good use!

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