OS X: Mac Screenshot How-To & Power Tips

| TMO Quick Tip

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. 

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Lee Dronick

Snapz Pro X, which is not free, but it?s well worth its $69 price tag for my purposes.

That seems steep, but you do have very nice screen shots. What else does the app do?


I’d actually forgotten about the keyboard shortcuts. I started using Grab a couple OS-X versions ago and it works great. The price is right too.

Melissa Holt

That seems steep, but you do have very nice screen shots. What else does the app do?

Hey Lee!

It just allows me a lot of control right from within the app?like changing the file format or location on the fly, adding drop shadows and fades, changing colors, showing or hiding the cursor, and so on.

One of the things I like best about it is that invoking the keyboard command “freezes” my screen, which means I can easily get images of in-progress actions like moving icons from one place to another (or my third screen shot above). It’s really very cool, and it has a lot of features I don’t even use, like taking movie captures.

They do offer a free trial if you want to check the program out. I’m sure it wouldn’t be worth the cost for everyone, but I’ve become quite spoiled by it. smile


Lee Dronick

Sounds like more than I currently need in the way of screen capture and screen shot. I have a copy of SnapNDrag.

You all have a great weekend.

Lee Dronick

Oh by the way Melissa, I like your desktop image.


Speaking of Clip Boards; have you ever heard of Jumpcut?


Speaking of Clip Boards; have you ever heard of Jumpcut?

I use Jumpcut all day, every day as a part of maintaining and contributing to a sports fan forum.

I got it fairly recently as part of a MacUpdate bundle that was too good to pass on.

Each “cell” is full of html text formatting templates like this:

<font=Autumn><size=4><color=Navy><size=6><color=Green>W</color></size]ORDS HERE</size></color></font>

All I have to do is click the arrow associated with the cell I want, and the job is done.  Very, very useful.


I did an article about this a while back: http://is.gd/QAsRCL

If we’re talking about great apps, you should try Screen Float. It may well suit people’s needs who have to take lots of screenshots - http://is.gd/0VtTeC


I’m on Lion. It took me a while to find my screenshots. They go to the “Pictures ” folder rather than the Desktop.

Melissa Holt

Speaking of Clip Boards; have you ever heard of Jumpcut?

Hey WestcoastBob,

I hadn’t, but I’ll check it out now. Sounds cool, so thanks!


Melissa Holt

They go to the ?Pictures ? folder rather than the Desktop.

Hey rdeeg,

That’s weird. I have two machines running Lion at home, and both put screen shots on the Desktop, just like they always have. Is it possible that you changed that somewhere along the way?



I have two machines running Lion at home, and both put screen shots on the Desktop, just like they always have.

Ditto.  There must be a setting for where screen grabs go, but I can’t find it.


I thought the Desktop was the Default location for screen grabs, but I may have used Onyx many moons ago to make it so.  Onyx > Parameters > General > (middle of the window) Screen capture format > Path > Select.

Onyx is very, very useful, and it’s a free download. 
Stay away from TinkerTool, though.  The damned app is dangerous.

Melissa Holt

There must be a setting for where screen grabs go, but I can?t find it.

Hey iJack,

About two-thirds of the way through the article, I mention how to change that through the Terminal. smile



So I see, Melissa.  Only I skipped that part of the article first time around, because it was already set to my liking, and thus, I forgot all about it by the time I posted the above.

I still prefer using utilities like Onyx and LionTweaks, rather than Terminal for making changes.  Less chance of screwing something up.

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