How to Get Screen Captures with Stock Mac Software - Part 2

In Part One of this two-parter on the topic of doing screen captures on your Mac with built-in software, we explored the keyboard shortcuts and options that are configured in OS X. If you haven't had the opportunity to read it, be sure to do so before proceeding.

Before we start, a couple of tips on using the Shift-Command-4 method discussed in Part One. If you want to grab a shot of a menu, including its title, click the menu to display the menu commands, press the key combination, and drag the crosshair pointer over the area. If you want the menu without its title, click the menu to display the menu commands, press Shift-Command-4, followed by a press the Space Bar, move the camera pointer over the menu to highlight it, and then click.

Now, let's dig a bit deeper as we explore two other ways Apple gives you to do screen captures – available on all Macs. This time, we look at two utility applications available to you: Preview and Grab.

Icons for the Preview and Grab applications.

Preview and Grab are two great apps for doing screen captures.

In my experience, most typical Mac users only recognize Preview as an Apple application that allows them to look at PDF and JPEG files. Preview is a true Mac gem. It does so much more, and gets better and better over time, but that is a topic for another big article. For now, let's focus on Preview's screen capture capabilities – another selection of free built-in tools for the cost conscious.

Launch Preview from your Applications folder. You do not need to have a document open. Select File > Take Screen Shot. The From Selection… and From Window… sub-menu commands work just like the Shift-Command-4 keyboard shortcut that was discussed in Part One. These two options support the same Space Bar, Shift, and Option key modifiers and combinations for fine tuning your drawn-out region of the screen.

The From Window command lets you capture just the object (window, pane, dialog box, etc.) that appears directly below the pointer, which temporarily turns into a tiny camera icon. You can isolate and capture an entire menubar this way as well. Additionally, if you use Spaces in OS X, you can switch over to another space while the selection crosshair pointer remains poised for you to select a region there.

Preview also supports capturing to the clipboard as long as the Control key is used along with any screen capture options offered except the From Entire Screen one. That's unfortunate. Recall from Part One that with the Shift-Command-3 full-screen capture keyboard shortcut, you are able to save directly to the clipboard if you also hold down the Control key. The advantage goes to Shift-Command-3.

Additionally, selecting the From Entire Screen option in Preview starts a ten-second timer before the capture is made. This is useful for grabbing open menus as well as other screen objects that may be difficult to capture otherwise.

Unless capturing directly to the clipboard, Preview opens your captured screen image in a new window. This is extremely useful for several reasons. First, you can now use Preview's extensive selection of annotation tools (text, arrows, shapes, and more) for calling out and emphasizing the parts of your capture that you want to direct your readers' attention to.

An example of an annotated preferences panel using Preview's annotation tools.

This capture of a preference pane was annotated within Preview.

Second, saving the capture produces a .PNG file by default (which supports Alpha channel transparency). You are also given additional choices for saving or exporting to other image formats, including JPEG, TIFF, and PDF.

So, that's Preview, a valuable application that deserves more scrutiny. It's a great tool to have in your arsenal of screen capture choices.

Before bringing all this to a close, let's take a look at yet another built-in screen capture utility that gives us a couple of unique features. Did you know that Apple has provided us with a dedicated screen capture utility application since the mid-90's? No? Go into your Utilities folder (from Finder: Go > Utilities), and open the Grab application.

The business end of Grab is the Capture menu. With Grab, you can capture a selection you draw out, a "window," or the entire screen. "Big deal, we've covered that," you say? Let's see where Grab gives you a little more.

The fourth option under the Capture menu is Timed Screen. It's similar to the timed capture in Preview, but this one is a better implementation. With this option selected, Grab will capture the entire screen ten seconds after you engage the timer. Select Capture > Timed Screen. A little dialog appears instructing you to engage the timer when you are ready; when everything is positioned just right for your screen capture.

The Timed Screen Grab dialog in the Grab application.

Grab puts up an instructional dialog when selecting Timed Screen from the Capture menu.

Why would you use this feature?

The ten-second interval gives you enough time to activate whatever you need to capture – something that could not be or would be difficult to capture normally. Let's say you are writing some instructions on choosing a particular menu item. Here's what you do:

  1. Select Capture > Timed Screen. The small instructional dialog appears.
  2. Activate whatever app you need and arrange your screen as necessary.
  3. Click the Start Timer button (or press Return). The ten-second countdown timer starts. The progress can be seen in a small animation in the instruction dialog. Press Cancel or the esc (Escape) key if you need to.
  4. You now have ten seconds to activate whatever you need to display on the capture. For example, click on a menu and hold it open.

At the end of the countdown, you will hear a beep, followed after a second or two by that satisfying camera click as the screen is captured.

Where Grab differs considerably from the timed capture method in Preview is how the mouse/trackpad pointers are handled. Were you expecting to see your pointer within a dialog box or opened menu that you captured? When you do a Timed Capture, by default, Grab will not reproduce the pointer, as opposed to Preview's timed Entire Screen capture which does. Perfectionists may not want a pointer visible in the capture, as it may be distracting or misleading to the reader. Sometimes, showing an appropriate pointer is indeed useful. I like it to be visible when I want to emphasize a menu item to select, or a button to click; the presence of the pointer reinforces the action.

Grab's Preferences offers a selection of pointers to include in the screen capture.

Grab's Preferences panel offers a selection of pointers to include in the screen capture.

Grab comes to the rescue – and in a unique way because it also provides a choice of pointer styles. To see them, go to Grab > Preferences. You will notice a nice little selection of pointers to choose from. Click on the one you want to appear in your Timed Capture. You can then proceed, confident that your selected pointer will be included. Also notice that you can disable that camera-click sound in the preferences panel.

Grab has a couple notable shortcomings: there is no support for fine-tuning your drawn-out screen regions as you can with the Shift-Option-4 method or when using Preview's Screen Shot From Window option. Also, there are no file format options to choose from in Grab. It saves the capture file in TIFF format only.

All three methods we have explored in this two-part article on screen captures have their pros and cons. By understanding the features of all three, you have just about everything you need when it comes to producing quality and memorable screenshots for your documents, articles and tutorials.

There are third-party applications that give you several more capabilities in the screen capture department. Some examples of the possibilities include: the ability to capture web pages and windows that contain information beyond what can be seen on the screen, capture file library management, "layered" screen captures, the ability to direct screen captures to Mail and other apps, captures that fill non-rectangular shapes, tools to blur out or pixelate areas on a screen capture such as sensitive text, and annotations with freehand drawing tools.

In conclusion, we've seen other examples of hidden gems that come with our Macs. Many are not documented well; some not at all. With the screen capture options available to you, you can get the job done without spending any money of third-party software.