How to take a screenshot in OS X

DisplaysIconXBuilt into Mac OS X is the ability to take screenshots using simple keyboard commands, which can be exceptionally useful for communicating what you are seeing on-screen with others.

The basic options for creating screen shots in OS X are fairly well-known; however, there are additional options for managing them, which can greatly enhance how you create and use screenshots. 

Using “Screen Capture”

Apple’s built-in screenshot service is called “Screen Capture,” and can be invoked using combinations of two basic hotkey commands:

Shift-Command-3 [Video]
This is the basic screenshot, which will take an image of the full screen and save it to your desktop.

This is “Selection Screenshot” mode, which will take a shot of the area outlined by dragging the cursor (the cursor should appear as a crosshair). This mode has several options, so once you press it and see the crosshair, then the following options can be used:

  1. Move the selection box  [Video]When you click and drag the crosshair in selection-screenshot mode, you can move the current selection box around by holding the Space bar. This will allow you to align up the corners before releasing your click to take the screenshot.
  2. Window-screenshot mode  [Video]Tap the Space bar, to put the crosshair into Window-selection mode. In this mode, the crosshair will turn into a camera icon, and when you mouse-over a window it will highlight. Clicking a highlighted window will take a screenshot of it.
  3. Resize the selection box  [Video]By holding the Option key when clicking and dragging your selection box, you will size the box from the center, as opposed to the corner. If you instead hold the Shift key, you will resize the box centered along one axis, determined by the initial direction of your mouse.

For all of these screenshot options, the resulting image will be saved to your Desktop; however, you can hold Control along with the initial hotkey (ie, Shift-Control-Command-3, or Shift-Control Command-4), to save the image to the clipboard. This can be exceptionally useful, since you can then directly paste the image into a Mail or iChat message, or a word-processing document, instead of having to manage a file on your hard drive.

For all these screenshot options, if you wish to cancel taking the screenshot, then you can simply press Escape before releasing the mouse.

Changing the format for “Screen Capture”

By default, “screencapture” outputs files in “PNG” format; however, several other common formats are supported. You can change the file format by entering the following defaults command in the Terminal utility (located in the Applications > Utilities folder):

defaults write type TYPE

In this command, “TYPE” is one of the following: gif, jpg, tiff, pdf, psd, or png.

Using “Grab”

Before “screencapture” and its hotkeys were implemented in Mac OS X 10.2.x, Apple supplied a screenshot utility called “Grab”, which is still available. Users can do almost all of the functions of “screencapture” in Grab, but the best thing about Grab is the option for timed screen captures. This allows users to take screenshots after a 10 second delay, allowing them to set up their screens as desired and be in the act of working when the screenshot is taken. Additional features of “Grab” are to set specific cursor types (or remove the mouse cursor altogether) during the shot, the options for which are available in its Preferences.

Using Preview  [Video]

Apple’s Preview program can also be used to take screen shots, as well as manage them. To do this, open Preview and then select “From Selection…”, “From Window…”, or “From Entire Screen” in the File > Take Screen Shot menu.

Note that while not directly related to screen shots, Preview also has the ability to create a new document from the contents of the clipboard. This feature works quite well with screen shots, especially if you wish to annotate them with Preview’s rudimentary drawing tools. To use this feature in a quick workflow, follow these steps:

  1. Take a screenshot including the Option key to save it to the clipboard.
  2. Open Preview (Press Command-Space and use Spotlight to quickly search for and launch it).
  3. Press Command-N to create a new image from clipboard contents.
  4. Press Shift-Command-A or choose “Show Edit Toolbar” from the View menu.
  5. Annotate accordingly

At this point you can save the image to disk, or you can press Command-A to select its entire contents and copy it, which will include any annotations made. You can then paste this edited and annotated version of the image into a program or document you have open.

15 thoughts on “How to take a screenshot in OS X

  1. darkdreamer4u

    I didn’t know about Preview doing all this.
    There’s also a free little utility called SnapNDrag – very nifty. The App store only offers the Pro version for $9.99, but you can still find the free basic version elsewhere. I have the old 2.5.7 version from my Snow Leopard times and it still works in Mavericks:-)

    1. jeffcard

      Thanks for the share. I used to take screenshot on my Mac with acethinker screen grabber, it’s free as well. Share it here as an alternative to SnapNDrag.

  2. tingo

    Onyx (Cocktail and TinkerTools too, if I remember well) lets you change not only the type of your screenshot files, but also their default name. In the long run I have found that adding two spaces (which turn into one single space in the actual file name, ask me not!) in front of Apple’s default “date” + “time” + extension (pdf, my choice) is the most convenient way if I want to give it a specific name and keep the date after taking the screenshot.

    Screenshots of single windows (shortcut + Space) I have repeatedly found to be an invaluable tool when shopping on the net. I just park them inside single folders named after the sellers, for use in case of dispute, or just to figure out at a later time what I’ve purchased from whom.

      1. tomeg

        My dearest wish is being able to drag, or resize, a selection – say, a friend’s FB status update – beyond the boundaries of the visible area of the window, e.g. say, I can drag to select the part of the status update I can see, down to the bottom of the window, but I can’t scroll down farther, to extend the capture fell length of the status plus at least some comments which follow. How might I accomplish that trick? Thx. 🙂

        1. Topher Kessler Post author

          Screenshots are limited to what you can see on screen. Your best bet here is to print the page to PDF, and then save the PDF as a PNG or JPEG image:

          1. Press Command-P to print
          2. Select Open PDF in Preview from the PDF menu at the bottom-left of the print window.
          3. In Preview, choose File > Export… to export the document, and then choose the image format you want (e.g., PNG or JPEG).
          4. Open the exported image in Preview, where you can now crop it according to your wishes.

        2. Ira Lansing

          The free application Evernote has a browser extension that allows you to capture (into Evernote) all of a window, both seen and unseen parts. You can also control whether or not the capture includes sidebar adds and other components.

  3. RT McCormack

    Wow! even the comments are helpful here on MacIssues. Thanks Topher and fellow Mac users.

    1. Ira Lansing

      SnapZPro X has had some issues (like not working) with OS X 10.10.x. Is your experience different.

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  7. ingulsrud

    Correction: The first step in the instructions about annotating screenshots with Preview, “1. Take a screenshot including the Option key to save it to the clipboard” should read, “…including the Control key…”

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