How to Get Screen Captures with Stock Mac Software - Part 1

| How-To

Being able to capture a visual copy of all - or some - of what's on your Mac's screen is a very handy tool to have at your beck-and-call.

Smiley Face take a picture of his computer screen.

Old-fashioned screen capture methods have now been replaced by state-of-the-art technology!

There are many reasons why you would want to grab screen captures (aka "screenshots"):

  1. Writing software documentation, tutorials articles, etc.,
  2. Grabbing a picture of a receipt or invoice displayed on screen,
  3. Seizing a picture of that 15" MacBook Pro with Retina Display you are lusting after so you can email it to Santa,
  4. Generating proof that you have mastered the LavaFlow level in Fieldrunners for Mac,
  5. Capturing a video of your realtime movements on screen (typically used for screencast tutorials),
  6. On-the-fly grabbing a picture of that crab-stuffed turducken recipe you want to try of Thanksgiving dinner,
  7. And, perhaps the key reason: Capturing an error message or condition for future reference or for submitting to technical support personnel.

A screen capture of a Mac system error shown on a vintage Mac running Mac OS from the 1990s

We had lots of these way back before OS X. We couldn't always grab a screen capture, though!

How do you use screen capture? Let us know via the comments section below your own unique reasons for capturing your Mac's screen.

There are plenty of fancy third-party software titles that provide screen-capture utilities. You really don't need to purchase any software in order to accomplish all of the above and more. OS X has included built-in functions for doing various types of image captures. Additionally, you will find a couple of other built-in applications and utilities that you can use for this purpose. We'll talk about these in the second of this two-part article on screen capture.

Today, we closely examine the screen capture functions built into OS X. These are available globally to let you capture anything you do on your Mac.

The easiest, most direct way to capture the entire screen is the venerable Shift+Command+3 keyboard combination shortcut that's been around forever. This action will produce a satisfying camera click sound and write a file to your desktop using this format: Screen Shot 2012-11-15 at 11.08.43 AM.png.

Let's now look at more powerful options available to you for enhancing your screen capturing prowess. As you will learn, there is more than just creating full-screen captures with Shift+Command+3.

It's generally not necessary to capture the entire screen, but it's quick-and-dirty for those fleeting moments you need to grab from the screen - like that super high game score that appears momentarily. Instead, you may want to define a particular region of the screen, or an isolated object like a specific window showing on screen or an open panel or dialog box.

A cartoon representation of The Grand Poobah of Screen Capture.

Shift+Command+4 is the Grand Poobah of Screen Capture

Introducing the Grand Poobah of Screen Capture  – Shift+Command+4

For grabbing specific regions of your screen that you define, press and release this keyboard combination shortcut. A cross-hair pointer will appear on-screen. You can now draw-out the screen region to be captured, by clicking and dragging your trackpad or mouse.

Illustration of the screen capture process by drawing out a region of the screen you wish to capture.

After the Shift-Command-4, draw out a region you wish to capture.

Photoshop users will recognize this: if you need to adjust the position of your selected region, while still keeping your pointing device pressed, hold down the spacebar, and position your selection exactly where it needs to be. Let go of the space bar to continue to resize your selected area. For you designers, this cross-hair pointer also displays the screen coordinates - width and height in pixels - of the pixel directly beneath the cross-hair's "hot spot" where the lines intersect.

For capturing a specific object on screen - that is, an interface element like a window, menu bar, panel or dialog box - here's what you do: press and release Shift+Command+4, but instead of drawing out a selection region, press the spacebar. You will see the pointer changed to a little camera icon. As you simply move (hover) the cursor around over the screen, you will see that whatever object happens to be beneath that camera icon becomes highlighted. You don't need to draw out a region for this. To capture that highlighted object, simply click your pointing device, and the capture is generated.

Illustration showing how you can capture a specific screen object like a Finder window.

When little camera icon cursor hovers over any screen object, the object will be selected and ready for capture.

Ready for even more obscure options that this wired-in screen capture facility gives you? You can get better control when resizing the selected region by holding down the Shift key while dragging your pointing device towards or away from the center of your selection. It will retain its height-to-width ratio while you resize.

If you feel particularly limber, you can use a combination of all the keys we've talked about to draw out a perfect screen region for capture.

Finally, here's another little-known gem, and one I use quite a bit – capturing to the clipboard. This is done by adding the Control key to either your fullscreen or selected region keyboard shortcuts. This helps reduce desktop clutter and saves time consuming steps. I love it!

For instance, I don't usually need the files that the normal screen capture functions generate. When writing articles, I usually prefer capturing directly into the clipboard then switch to Pages and paste the capture into the article. From there, I can use the many object modification tools available in Pages to get my illustration of the screen element just the way I want it.

There are so many other uses for capturing directly to the clipboard. You can paste directly into a photo editor, like Photoshop or Pixelmator. For even more time-saving, Photoshop has a File > New > Image from Clipboard command, and Pixelmator has a clipboard preset in the New File dialog. You can also paste into Preview via File > New From Clipboard. You can paste directly into an email (using or an iMessage. Obviously, any application that supports the pasting of graphics will work for you this way. I think you'll agree that this method is indeed a time-saving winner.

Oh…I almost forgot to mention that as you create your captures using the Shift+Command+4 keyboard combination shortcut, if you need to cancel the operation without generating the capture, simply press the Esc (Escape) key.

In Part Two, I will show you other options built into OS X for your screen capturing pleasure!

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Yep, hardly anyone knows about the control key/copy to clipboard command, yet it’s one of the most useful screen capture function toggles.

I’ve found “command+shift+control+4” to be EXTREMELY useful for web development; particularly since a large part of my work is done in graphics software. At my day job, we partner with our vendors who use our online ordering. So what we’ll do is give them a graphic to use on their site which links to our ordering system, and show them a comp (from a screen capture) of where it would appear on their site.

For me, screen captures are just about as essential of a clipboard function as anywhere else that you can use “command+c”. Good stuff!


Nice. I use the screen capture a lot but didn’t know about the control key or using the shift key to maintain. I love Macs screen capture features but the control key to copy to clipboard is a tip I just didn’t know about and will be helpful. Thanks.


Yup, never understood why people spend perfectly good money on screen capture software, when OS X has just about all you need built-in. Try using the Alt key, too: gives a nice “multi-drag” sort of effect.

OS X has plenty of other neat stuff that comes free: Preview, for example, provides some excellent image editing functions, but you need to have a big enough window to see all the tools and first know you have to click on the editing icon to make the tools visible. It’s a lot more than a PDF and other image-format viewer.


The Control key is not necessary.  Reread the article.  Oh and you can toggle between capture zones with the tab key.

Gage Gecko

Awesome! Using a screen capture utility to talk about those built into the OS.

Sandro Cuccia

<< Awesome! Using a screen capture utility to talk about those built into the OS. >>

Heh-heh ... very funny!

But true ... the one thing we can not do with the built-in screen capture capabilities is a quick and painless way to do annotations into the capture. The one I prefer for this purpose is Skitch (available via and the Mac App store)... the newer version 2.x is OK, but the older version (before Evernote put their hands on it) was easier and had some additional features, now gone.


“... the one thing we can not do with the built-in screen capture capabilities is a quick and painless way to do annotations into the capture. “

Well, you could use Preview…


“Yup, never understood why people spend perfectly good money on screen capture software, when OS X has just about all you need built-in.”

How do you know what someone else needs?  If you’re okay with using a single file type for every screen capture, then the built-in function is fine.  However, if you want to change file type depending on the situation, the built-in function isn’t good enough.

Most people use JPEG for everything, even though it is a lossy compression algorithm optimized specifically for photorealistic images.  I use JPEG for captures I don’t need to edit, since the file sizes are smaller.  If I have reason to edit my capture and I want to maintain image quality, or sometimes if I’m capturing non-photorealistic images (text, for example), I switch to PNG.  There are screen capture apps that let me do that very easily.  OS X requires I use Terminal or an app like TinkerTool or OnyX to change file type.

There may be features others need that I haven’t considered as well.  I use a free app, but if an app that costs money is what someone else determines to be the best solution for him, more power to him.


“OS X requires I use Terminal or an app like TinkerTool or OnyX to change file type.”

No it doesn’t. You can do this very easily in Preview. Capture to clipboard, New from Clipboard in Preview, Save in any of the several formats offered.


There is also a “screencapture” command line tool with lots of options.

$ screencapture filename.png

captures to a PNG file. Use the -t option to select a different file format (pdf, tiff, jpg).

$ screencapture -c

sends it to the clipboard. The shutter-click sound also plays unless you add the -x option.



If you need a different file format, you can change the default with a command line:

$ defaults write type jpg
$ defaults write type pdf

After changing the type, bounce the SystemUIServer (or logout/login)

$ killall SystemUIServer

will pick up the new settings.


Thanks for the very helpful info. I’ve only had my MacBook Pro for 9 months & am still learning all the new stuff compared to that on my old HP PC.

Keep up the great input to use newbies.

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