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Screenshots in Mac OSX

April 10, 2009

in Macintosh

by Nathaniel Poor

A longstanding and long-overlooked feature of the Mac OS that goes back many years is the ability to take various types of screenshots. You don’t need an application to do it (although there is Apple’s Grab), and you can do it from any application (except DVD-playing applications may not allow you to do so).

This can come in handy if you want a section of an image from the web, but don’t want to copy the image and then crop it separately, if you want to grab a frame from some streaming media, or really if you want anything you can see on your screen. Notice I am not encouraging massive copyright infringement, although the DVD restriction is ridiculous (it is easier to copy the physical DVD or its contents than it is to copy a movie moment by moment using screen shots).

To start, press the command key, the shift key, and the 4 key all at the same time. (The 4 key on the keypad won’t work, since to the computer it is slightly different from the 4 key along the top of the alphabetical keys.) The cursor will change to a selection crosshair, and you can select whatever rectangular selection you want by clicking and dragging. If you change your mind, you can hit escape or just let go. When you do let go, the Mac will create a file on the desktop, “Picture #”, starting at 1 and increasing from there. The Mac will also make a camera shutter clicking sound.

If you don’t want a perfect rectangular selection but would instead prefer a window or menu, after hitting cmd-shift-4 hit the space bar. The cursor will change to a camera, and you can select the window or menu you want by moving the camera icon over it, even if the window is partially obscured. To get an image of a menu, make sure the menu is open before you hit cmd-shift-4.

The image format for the pictures is PNG, which is a widely used format. Your Mac will name the files with the lowest “Picture #” number available, so if you take five pictures and leave them all on the desktop but then delete “Picture 3,” the next picture you take will be “Picture 3.” The one after that would be named “Picture 6.” I would take a screenshot of taking a screenshot, but that’s one thing you can’t actually do.

Nathaniel Poor holds a Ph.D. in communication studies from the University of Michigan, where he studied media, technology and society. He has owned at least one Macintosh at any given time since 1988. He has built a PC, run Linux, and is a proponent of open source ideology. He is always on call for tech support for his mom. Currently he is a freelance researcher in New York City.