Complete guide to Mac and iPhone screenshots

You won't believe how much power is built right into OS X and iOS!

There should be a Scouts badge for taking screenshots on Mac, iPhone and iPad; it's a handy life skill for everyone to have, but for all sorts of reasons it's a vital one for those of us in the creative industries. You might know the basics, but we're confident you'll learn some spectacularly useful tips from this complete guide.

We're focusing on the built-in tools in the latest versions of the operating systems for taking static screenshots and moving screencasts on both Mac and iOS – you won't have to spend a penny! – but much of what we show you on the Mac will be valid for many previous versions of OS X too.

Taking screenshots on a Mac

Your basic Mac screenshot cheat-sheet:

  • ⌘⇧3 Takes a screenshot of your entire screen; if you have more than one screen, a separate file will appear on your Desktop for each one.
  • ⌘⇧4 Brings up some crosshairs that allow you to select a portion of the screen to grab.
  • ⌘⇧4 then Space turns your cursor into a camera icon; roll it over different elements on screen to highlight them, then click to screenshot them. The best thing about this method is that windows are captured with their soft drop-shadows and full transparency, ready to be dropped onto coloured backgrounds.

Adding Ctrl to any of the above commands sends the grab to your clipboard (for pasting into a Messages thread, say) rather than saving a file to your Desktop. (Remember that Photoshop, Preview and others will create a file matching the dimensions of whatever is in your clipboard when you hit ⌘N; useful!)

Other ways of taking screenshots

There are two apps on your Mac that can take screenshots: Grab and Preview.

Grab is now a bit long in the tooth, but there's still a reason to use it: although with the above methods your cursor is hidden when you take a screenshot, if you explicitly want it to appear, Grab lets you specify from a small palette of different cursors in its Preferences which should be burned into the screenshot.

It used to be the case too that you would go to Grab because it allowed you to time-delay a screenshot – giving you a few seconds to get something complex set up before the timer runs down and the grab is taken – which is still handy in older operating systems, but these days Preview can do that too.

Preview also does the window ('⌘⇧4, Space'-style) grabs, and selections, and will capture your cursor where appropriate. You might bother with Preview in some cases because it will let you export to various formats – though if you regularly want something other than the default PNG, you should probably create some format conversion workflows in Automator, or change the default format following the instructions further below.

Enabling HiDPI mode

If you have a Mac with a Retina display, unless you've tweaked the resolution in System Preferences, your grabs will have much more detail than from older Macs. If you have an older Mac, though, you can still enable the so-called HiDPI mode if you need extra detail. The effect will be that everything looks huge in your screen so you won't be able to fit much in – unless you're using a truly gigantic display – but the trade-off can be worth it if you intend to reproduce the grab at big sizes and want to reduce its apparent pixeliness.

To enable HiDPI mode, launch Terminal (it's in your Utilities folder inside Applications) and paste in the following, as one long line:

sudo defaults write /Library/Preferences/ DisplayResolutionEnabled -bool true

(You'll need to enter your password, and you don't get any feedback that your keypresses are being accepted; they are, so just carefully type your password then hit Return.)

Restart, then go into the Displays pane of System Preferences. Default for Display is probably selected, but instead click Scaled and then look down the list for a resolution with '(HiDPI)' after it. If you don't see any, click Default for Display again then click Scaled one more time while holding ⌥ to reveal more options.

Pro Terminal hacks

There are a few commands you can issue in Terminal to tweak how you take screenshots on your Mac; these can be very handy if you do it a lot.

Change the location of your screenshots

By default, screenshots are saved onto your Desktop, but if this is a clutter – or you have to keep moving them because they keep showing up in your screenshots – you can change where they're saved with this Terminal command:

defaults write location ~/Screenshots

In this example, screenshots are saved into a folder called Screenshots inside your Home folder (the technical shorthand for this is that tilde-like symbol, ~), but you can define any folder you like. Indeed, you could just type "defaults write location" and then drag the folder you want to change the target destination to onto the Terminal window for the path to be automatically inserted.
Remember that folders can have Automator workflows attached to them so that any items added trigger certain events; you could, for example, use this Terminal trick to change the location screenshots save to to a folder which automatically uploads the grabs to a website for client feedback, for example.

Change the format screenshots are saved in

By default, the Mac records your screenshots as PNG files, which is probably what you actually want, but you can, if you like, change it so it saves JPEGs or even some other formats when you use the standard keyboard shortcuts. For JPEG, in Terminal type:
defaults write type jpg
Replace the 'jpg' with 'tiff', 'pdf', 'psd' or 'gif' for those formats – or indeed 'png' to go back to the default.

Remove the drop-shadows

You might want to remove drop-shadows from the window grabs you take with the '⌘⇧4, Space' command so you can add and control them with frame effects in InDesign, for example. To do this, enter this command in Terminal:

defaults write disable-shadow -bool true

To get the drop-shadows back again, it's:
defaults write disable-shadow -bool false

Change the naming prefix for screenshots

By default, screenshots taken with the regular shortcuts get called things like "Screen Shot 2015-05-28 at 13.25.21.png", but you can replace the 'Screen Shot' bit of that with anything you like. For example, to change it so new grabs are named such as "Screenshot taken on 2015-05-28 at 13.25.21.png", enter this command in Terminal:

defaults write name "Screenshot taken on"

You can change it as often as you'd like, so if you were writing a guide to Illustrator and taking loads of grabs to accompany it, for example, your grabs could all become "Illustrator grab 2015-05-28 at 13.25.21" – and you could then use Yosemite's new Rename command in the Finder to batch-rename all the dates, say.

Recording videos of your Mac's screen

Launch QuickTime Player and then select New Screen Recording from the File menu. Click the downward-pointing arrow next to the big record button to select from a few options; you can choose to record audio as well from a microphone – internal or external – or to record no audio track. (You probably want to record no audio track and then add narration in post-production if you're doing anything vaguely professional.)

You can also optionally show mouse clicks in recording, which puts a black ring around your cursor when you click the mouse; it's a bit ugly, but it might be helpful for quick-and-dirty tutorials. (The £7.99 app [Mouseposé]( can do a more elegant job, and don't forget you can increase the size of your cursor in the Accessibility pane of System Preferences.)

Once you hit record, you can either drag to select an area to record, or click (on whichever screen you want to capture with a multi-screen setup) to record the whole screen. Pro tip: consider lowering the resolution of your screen in the Displays pane of System Preferences if you're recording the full screen. Not only will this make screen elements appear bigger – and so be easier to see in a video – but it will tax your computer less during recording, and so may result in smoother video.

Some basic movie editing

Once you've recorded your Mac's screen, you can hit ⌘T to trim it down – say to remove a rough take from the start and some fumbling at the end. What's more, you can stitch clips together without even launching a simple movie editor such as iMovie; with your first clip open, select Add Clip to End from the Edit menu, then pick another that's saved on your Mac; repeat as needed. When you're done – or even if you just recorded one video – you can export it or click the share button to send it to YouTube, email and more.

If you still have the old version of QuickTime – QuickTime Player 7 – installed and activated with a Pro key, you can actually do some more advanced editing there too, including adjusting colour, exposure and saturation, and choosing what mode the video opens into when someone double-clicks it. QuickTime Player 7 [can still be downloaded from Apple](

Taking screenshots on iPhone, iPad, iPod touch and Apple Watch

Basic static screenshots:

  • For an iOS device, taking a screenshot is a simple matter of pressing the Home button and the power button (more correctly called the Sleep/Wake button) at the same time; it's then saved to your Camera Roll in the Photos app.
  • With an Apple Watch, press the Digital Crown and the side button; the screenshot is sent to the paired iPhone where it too will appear in the Camera Roll.

Recording videos of your iOS device's screen

If you have an iOS device that has a Lightning port and that's running iOS 8, and a Mac that's on OS X 10.10 Yosemite, then you can easily record a movie of what's happening on the iOS device's screen. Connect it to your Mac using the Lightning cable then launch QuickTime Player and select New Movie Recording from the File menu.

Click the downwards-pointing arrow to the right of the record button and then ensure your iOS device is selected as the 'camera'. You can also record narration from an internal or external mic, or chose to capture the iOS device's audio output, from this menu as well. Lastly, choose the quality; unless your Mac struggles with it, pick Maximum, since you can always downsample later.

Hit the record button, do what you need to capture on your iOS device, then stop it and trim, edit and share it in the same way as if you'd recorded your Mac's screen, above.

Bonus tip: if you need to extract a still from a video in QuickTime Player, get the playhead to the right spot, hit ⌘C then go to Preview and hit ⌘N – that will create a new file from what was in your clipboard, which you can then save.

Extra software and hardware

As you can see, you can do a whole lot just with the tools that are built right into your Mac – and that's even before you start building in workflows using Automator, editing in Preview, tinkering in iMovie and so on. But there are some extra bits of software and hardware you could invest in if screenshotting and screencasting is or becomes a big part of your job.

On the software side, investigate ScreenFlow, Camtasia, iShowU HD and the venerable Snapz Pro X, as well as thinking laterally about little helper apps such as the aforementioned Mousposé. Audio Hijack has long been trusted by pros for capturing sound wherever it comes from on your system, and Ecamm has dedicated capture software for Skype and FaceTime calls. Remember too that the service Twitch is focussed on live-streaming your screen when you're playing a game, and YouTube supports live broadcasting too.

Hardware for video capture get pricey, but it gives much smoother results (because you're not using part of your Mac to deal with recording as well as doing whatever it is you're trying to show) and is the only way to grab some screens where the usual screenshot shortcuts don't work. Blackmagic Design is the leader in this field – look first at its Intensity range – but there are others such as Epiphan.

Words: Chris Phin

Chris Phin trained as a graphic designer before falling into tech journalism; he's been trying to climb out ever since.

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