Getting screenshots in Mac OSX

Apple’s OSX has a built-in screenshot utility, Grab, that can be used to capture the entire screen, individual windows, defined areas of the screen, or timed shots, and instantly create image files. There are also some built in shortcuts, similar to “Print Screen” in the Windows OS, only better.

But first, we’ll go through using the Grab utility program itself, which gives more options than just using the shortcut keys. Grab is located in the Utilities folder in Applications: in the Finder

When Grab is opened, it will appear in the dock, and its menu bar will be active, but no other parts will be visible. You can set some options by going to the preferences:

Grab preferences

In the preferences window, you can change whether the cursor will be captured, and what its appearance will be:

Grab Preferences window

To capture a screenshot in Grab, use the Capture menu, and select the type of screen capture you want:

Capture Options

Notice the shortcut options in the menu. These work when Grab is open and active. Selecting “Screen” will capture the whole screen. “Timed Screen” starts a timer countdown to when the screenshot will be taken. This is handy if you need to freeze an action, like a selection on a menu. Selecting “Window” will capture whatever window you select. Selecting “Selection” will allow you to drag across a section of the screen that you want to capture:

Dragging a selection in Grab

Notice the size numbers at the bottom right of the selection rectangle. Also notice the cursor that is captured.

Once the sceenshot is taken, it will appear as an untitled image which must then be saved. Unfortunately, it can only be saved as a .tiff file:

Save window

If you try to change the file type to something else, you will get a message like this:

Tiff Only

But it’s O.K. Once it is saved, you can open it in Preview (it should open by default with Preview), then select “Save As” from the file menu:

Save As in Preview

and save it in whatever format you want:

Save Options in Preview

It probably seems like a lot of steps to go through, especially if you have a lot of screens to capture. There is a quicker way, which doesn’t involve opening the Grab application, or making it the active application. In fact, you can use these shortcuts while using Grab, to take pictures of what Grab is doing (which is how I got most of these shots). Using the shortcut keys Command (that’s the one with the apple on it)+Shift+3 will capture the entire screen and instantly save it as an image on the desktop named something like “Picture 1.png” (all of the images will be named Picture, and consecutively numbered).

By using the shortcut keys Command+Shift+4 you can select an area of the screen to capture, rather than capturing the whole screen then editing it to get the part of the screen you really want.  Also, using this shortcut “freezes” the screen for capturing, so if you have a menu open or something highlighted, it freezes that state while you drag across the selection area to be captured.

The pictures are saved as .png images rather than .tiff. They can be changed to jpg images in Preview if you want to adjust the compression (and file) size. Usually png files are fine.

You may end up with a desktop full of pictures, however, which you will probably want to rename something more useful than “Picture”:

Desktop with picture images

Unfortunately, you cannot edit the pictures in Preview, other than to select part of the picture to create a new file from the selection. However, you can add circles and boxes directly in Pages or Word to highlight items in the images. But that would be the topic for another post.


One Response to “Getting screenshots in Mac OSX”

  1. alex Says:


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