June 7, 2003


It's often handy to screengrab, to take a picture of your screen, whether you need to reference an error message, capture an application's interface, or document a page layout problem.

Both Mac and Win platforms allow basic screengrabbing, but while Win OS offers two methods, both of which require the use of an additional application, Mac OS offers six, count 'em, six methods of grabbing entire screens or portions of screens, across displays, half of which save directly to disk without the need for an intermediate application.

The Printscreen button on Windows boxes let you place a bitmap copy of your screen, or, if you use Alt-Printscreen, the front-most window into your clipboard; from there you can paste into a graphics program like Microsoft® Paint to crop out just what you need and save to one format or another.

Macs have long had a bit more flexibility, including the above functionality and the ability to automatically save screengrabs to disk in a native Pict ("Classic Mac OS") or .pdf (OS X) format, and saving selections of the screen to disk or clipboard.

What follows is the sometimes byzantine key-combination required for each operation and the MacOS platforms supported:

Screengrab save action
Key combination
Display(s) to disk
Display(s) to clipboard
Selection of the display to disk
Selection of the display to clipboard
Active window to disk
Active window to clipboard
Active window to disk
Active window to clipboard
Lock and move selection
Hold down spacebar and move mouse
Constrain width of selection
Hold Shift and move mouse vertically
Constrain height of selection
Hold Shift and move mouse horizontally
Shrink/Expand from center of selection
Hold Option and move mouse towards or away from center of selection
Abort selection of display

Note that Classic Mac save-to-disk screengrabs save pict files on the root directory using a sequential naming convention: "Picture 1", "Picture 2", etc. On OS X, the pdf screen grabs follow the same naming convention but are instead saved to the desktop.

Workflow Tip:
While pdf is the native screen format in OS X, if you need to send screengrabs, your recipients may appreciate an easier to work with format. While it's easy enough to use the Control key modifier to push your grabs to the clipboard for pasting into an image-editing app, sometimes it's more convenient to grab and save screens to work with later.

Enter high-school senior Kevin Wojniak's DropJPEG, a wonderful freeware tool that's earned a coveted place in my dock and handily converts image files into jpeg files via drag and drop, including OS X PDF screengrabs, GIF, BMP, TIFF, PNG and more. Operation couldn't be much simpler, simply set the desired amount of compression, whether the original should be deleted, and whether or not to capitalize the extension, the latter two options are off by default.

Posted by Lewis Francis at June 7, 2003 10:27 PM

UPDATE: Mac OS X.4 by default now saves screengrabs in PNG format.

Posted by: Lewis Francis at November 10, 2005 6:12 PM

If you need to take screen shots of entire web pages, check out this entry on two tools for Mac and PC that utilize hooks inside your browser in order to grab the entire page, even if your screen is too small to display it. Paparazi.

Posted by: Lewis Francis at December 4, 2005 12:56 PM

Updated the table to include helpful new screengrab options introduced in Leopard. The Macworld article Use new screen region capture options in 10.5 includes a QT movie that demos the new options.

Posted by: Lewis Francis at January 7, 2008 3:09 PM

Windows 7 comes with a utility called Snipping Tool that allows grabs of screen regions instead of your screen. The util may be found at > Start > All entire Programs > Accessories > Snipping Tool. More info at MakeUseOf's How To Take Awesome Screenshots In Windows 7.

Posted by: Lewis Francis at July 7, 2011 2:09 PM
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