OSX Tip 1

I’ve wanted to do this for a while now. Since the day I found out I could fix computer problems faster than most people I knew, I’ve been the “go to” guy for my family and many friends with computer questions and problems. As any person with this dubious title can attest, it becomes something of an annoyance, but I like helping people when I can, so finding justification for the annoyance isn’t too hard.

One thing I strive to do is teach the user the how and why behind their problem. I’ve found that they are better off knowing how to do it themselves, but it also saves me the hassle of running over to their place every time the problem arises. This is especially useful as some of these friends and family live in other states, so hopping in my car and zipping over isn’t exactly an option (and as anyone who has worked in technical support – or anyone who has called up tech support, for that matter – can attest, trying to fix something over the phone is an arduous process).

I’m a Mac user, and as a good Mac user, I tend to want other people to use Macs as well. I’d like to say everyone in my family uses a Mac, but unfortunately that isn’t the case. Having used Mac OSX almost exclusively for the past few years, I’ve picked up quite a bit of knowledge about the ways of this powerful, yet often underestimated Operating System. Some people think that Macs are simplistic, dumbed-down computers only for use by the computer illiterate and graphic designers (okay… I’ll admit I’m a graphic designer and I use a Mac), and that there is no software available (hardly… check out VersionTracker, MacUpdate and Apple’s MacOSX software download site. Apple also boasts a huge developer community, bringing commercial, shareware and free software applications for all purposes). Macs are actually extremely versatile computers, especially now with the current OS, OSX, being based on a BSD core, bringing along with it the inherent stability and networkablilty (if that’s a word) of UNIX… you know, that buzzword that happens to be a huge part of how the Internet works.

Okay, enough touting the greatness of OSX. You already know this, otherwise you;d probably have skipped this article and written me off as another Mac nut (I am) by now. To the Bat Cave! Er, I mean, the tutorial. Today’s enlightening subject is something I find myself showing people how to do at least once a week: Screen Captures. I know, it sounds kind of weak for a first tutorial, but hey… it’s a pressing matter! 😉

Screen Captures

In a Windows-based system, a rather underappreciated feature is a simple button on the keyboard near the function keys: PrntScrn. This is an ancient language known only to Computer Science majors, which roughly translates to “Print Screen.” I know, you’re probably saying “Hey, I don’t want to print my screen on my printer!” Well, neither do I… well not right now, at least. Actually, this key is kind of a hold over from the DOS days. Not every program had the ability to print its screen output on a printer… in the early days, most people didn’t actually have printers with their computers. So what was a person to do if they couldn’t print out the awesome BASIC program source code? Why, hit the PrntScrn button and Prnt the Scrn! I mean, print the screen. It was kind of a hack workaround, but it was something. With the advent of GUI‘s, printing the screen didn’t really make much sense (who needs a piece of paper with their icons on it?). To be honest, my first Mac, a Mac Classic from 1990, had a print screen feature that actually printed up the contents of its 9 1/2″ black & white screen on my trusty Apple Imagewriter. I used it once.

With these PrntScrn buttons becoming obsolete, the folks over at Microsoft changed its function to grab an image of the screen and store it in the memory, so you could open up MSPaint and paste the image into a bitmap file. (I’m not quite certain about how this worked in Mac OS after System 7…). Before the Internet, this kind of had little point unless you were a software developer. With the popularity of the Internet came the inherent “coolness” of showing off the cool icons you have, and the “sweet” desktop background you got online. There are whole websites and online communities based on this. One of the most useful features of this technology is for getting help with computer problems (showing how the program is misbehaving, etc), or showing progress on a project without actually sending the project (I do this all the time as a designer).

Well, as simple as the PrntScrn button is, it is a bit limited. You need a graphic program to be able to use the image you captured… and not all of us have Photoshop (or anything like that). Also, PrntScrn only takes a picture of the entire screen… what about just taking an image of a certain area or certain window? Well, you need a graphic program. Oh, and another small problem: PrntScrn doesn’t exist on the Mac keyboard. I’ve had many a new Mac user ask me “Where the hell is the Print Screen button?” Well, Macs don’t have them. They do have, however, a solution that is much much more powerful.

I’m not talking about the program that comes with OSX for screen captures. Although Grab can be useful, it’s hidden away in the Utilities folder, and who wants to go find it every time you want a screen grab? Apple’s real power solution is a combination of keystrokes, shown in the following list (of note, Cmd refers to the “Apple” or Command key on Mac keyboards… the one one either side of the space bar):

  • Cmd-Shift-3: Takes a screenshot of your entire desktop, and saves it as a PDF on your desktop
  • Cmd-Shift-4: Turns your cursor into a crosshair. Click somewhere and drag. The area you select will be saved as a PDF on your desktop
  • Cmd-Shift-4, then Spacebar: Turns your cursor into a Camera icon. Move it over different windows. Notice it the window you are over turns blue. Click. An Image of this window is saved as a PDF on your desktop
  • Any of the above, plus Control: Saves the image to your clipboard for pasting into a graphics program, ala PrntScrn.
  • Get out of any of the above (except Cmd-Shift-3, which is instantaneous): press escape (esc)

Another useful trick: How do I change those PDFs into something I can use online, like a JPG or a PNG (and I don’t have a program like Photoshop)? Pretty, easy, actually. Another included program in OSX is Preview. Unless you have your PDFs associated to open with Adobe Acrobat (you can get around that by control-clicking on the icon, choosing “Open with…” and choosing “Preview”), you can just double click on the PDF and open it in Preview. In preview, choose File -> Export. This will bring up your familiar Save dialogue, except you have the option to choose the Format. Choose JPEG (or PNG, if you prefer) from the drop down. You can also hit the Options… button to change the JPEG options (such as a lower or higher compression ratio or quality). Choose where you want to save the file, name it, and hit Save. You now how a JPG version of your screenshot.

For the extreme power user (who has 30 to 70 bucks to spare), you can try out Ambrosia Software’s impressive Snapz Pro X. For $US 30, you get a program that augments Apple’s stock Cmd-Shift-3 (or any key combo you set) with numerous extra options, such as saving to different formats, creating drop shadows, making the captured image black & white, saving to different locations, etc. The $70 version adds the ability to capture your screen as a movie file, including all the movements you make, and if you have a microphone hooked up, everything you say. I use this feature to make short instructional videos.

One thing to keep in mind if you try out Snapz: if you don’t like it, don’t just drop the program in the Trash, as you may with most other programs. Because Snapz alters the key-combo of Cmd-Shift-3, if you just toss the program, you’ll end up disabling the Apple screen shot program as well, as Cmd-Shift-3 will still try to call up Snapz, even though it has been trashed. If you uninstall Snapz, it’s best to re-run the install program and choose “Uninstall.” Another thing I always do is change the keystrokes used to open Snapz to something aside from the regular Cmd-Shift-3/4, like Cmd-Shift-5. This way you can still use the old tools, if you want to, and if you accidentally lose Snapz, you still have access to your built-in screen capture tools!

If you have any questions or concerns (such as what to do if you’ve already trashed Snapz and can’t get your screen capture to work again), feel free to post a comment below.


  1. Hi Gregory! Thanks for the helpful info about screen captures on Macs. I always knew about CMD-Shift-3, but did’t know about the others. I installed a trial version of Snapz Pro recently, and even though I set its hot key activate to CMD-Shift-4, my regular CMD-Shift-3 has quit working. Any ideas on how I can restore it without uninstalling Snapz?

    Os X’s “Help” doesn’t even mention the possibility of CMD-Shift-3 — it instead directs me to use an application called Grab which is in the Applications folder. All well and good, but I miss my hot keys.

  2. Hmm… that’s odd. I personally set snapz to activate when i click cmd-shift-5, but I’ve noticed cmd-shift-3 has stopped working (I just get an error “boink” sound when I try it) for me as well, but that isn’t much of a problem, as snapz offers a full screen capture as well.

    Oh, and a tiny update: with the release of Mac OS X.4 (Tiger), those CMD-SHIFT-4s and the like save in PNG format by default. Awesome.

Comments are closed.