OS X: Mac Screenshot How-To & Power Tips

The more astute among you will notice that I take a lot of screen shots. I don’t just use them here, either—I send at least a few out in e-mails every day to explain this or that to a client. So being able to take nice ones is pretty much my job. And in this tip, explaining to you how to do the same thing is also my job. I’m going to try to cover all the bases here, so hold on to your hats.

If you don’t like the default shortcuts I’m going to go over here, by the way, you can always change them in System Preferences > Keyboard > Keyboard Shortcuts > Screen Shots, but it might be easier to just remember the darned things as they are.

So first of all, the basic screen shot keyboard shortcut is Command-Shift-3. That’ll take a picture of your entire screen, place the image file on your Desktop, and dub it “Screen Shot [date] at [time].” (Attractively formatted name, huh?) 

The second most popular shortcut is Command-Shift-4, which will turn your cursor into crosshairs. You can click and drag those crosshairs around an object to snap a picture of it when you release.

If you tap the Spacebar after you’ve hit the above shortcut, you’ll get a little camera icon. Hover the camera over a window and click your mouse, and zap! You’ll get a fancy shot of that window by itself in a file on your Desktop. 

If you decide you want to cancel out on one of these screen shots before you take it, just press Escape.

Here’s where things go all crazy, though. If you add the Control key to either of the above shortcuts, the resulting file will go to your clipboard rather than your Desktop—which makes it pretty easy to paste into an e-mail message or a document. So Control-Command-Shift-3 will copy an image of your entire screen to your clipboard, and Control-Command-Shift-4 will allow you to either select a portion of the screen or use a window to create the image. If you’d like to verify what’s happened, you can always choose Finder’s Edit > Show Clipboard command. 

And let’s face it—I just wanted to mention Edit > Show Clipboard because I like it. So sue me.


So we’ve gone over the basics. We’ve gotten a bit crazy. Now we have complete wildness a-comin’. I hope you’re prepared.

You can also use modifier keys after hitting Command-Shift-4 (or Control-Command-Shift-4). Here’s the deal: when you’ve got the crosshairs ready and are drawing a box around your object, hold down Option if you want to resize from the center (as opposed to resizing from the corner where your crosshairs are). You can also hold down the Spacebar, and you will then move your screen shot box around instead of resizing it. Finally, holding the Shift key will make your box resize only along one axis (up-down or left-right, depending on which way you move first). As long as you don’t release your mouse button, you can continue to make changes before taking your image. Whew! That’s a lot of modifier keys.

There’s only a couple more things you need to know, I promise. First, I’ve already talked about how to change the default screen shot format away from PNG in a previous tip. But did you know you can also change the default screen shot location if you don’t like them popping up on the Desktop? To do this, open Terminal (from Applications > Utilities), and type in the following:

defaults write com.apple.screencapture location [Path?]

Instead of “[Path?],” of course, you’ll need to fill in where you want your screen shots to go. You can do this pretty easily by typing the above command, hitting a space after “location,” and then dragging in the folder where you want the screen shots to live. Terminal will fill the path in for you that way, and it’ll look something like this:

defaults write com.apple.screencapture location /Users/melissa/Documents

Finally, if you need more control over your screen shots than these keyboard shortcuts have the capability for, there are plenty of other options to check out. For example, you have a program in your Applications > Utilities folder called Grab that, among other things, will allow you to take timed screen captures. That’s pretty useful if you ask me. There are also tons of third-party choices—one that I’ve heard some TMO staff members mention is called Skitch. It’s free and can be found on the Mac App Store. The program I personally rely on for most of my own images here is Snapz Pro X, which is not free, but it’s well worth its $69 price tag for my purposes.