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The Complete Guide to Mac OS X Screenshots

The Complete Guide to Mac OS X Screenshots

OS X features powerful built-in tools for taking screenshots, but the default format and location of the captured images may not be suitable for every user. Thankfully, nearly every aspect of OS X screenshots can be customized using the Terminal app. Here’s how.

The Basics

Before we get in to the customizable settings for screenshots, let’s go over a few basics on exactly how to take screenshots (experienced users can skip this section).
There are three primary screenshot types in OS X: capture the entire screen, capture the selected window, or capture a defined area. Each of these can be triggered with a keyboard shortcut:
Command + Shift + 3: Take a screenshot of the entire screen. If you have multiple displays, a separate full-screen screenshot will be created for each display.
Command + Shift + 4: Take a screenshot of a defined area. Pressing this shortcut will turn your mouse cursor into a crosshair with pixel information. Simply position the crosshair in one corner of the area you’d like to capture, click and hold the mouse or trackpad, and drag  to paint the area you will capture. Note that before you click, the pixel count displayed beneath the crosshair represents the pixel coordinates of your display (with 0, 0 representing the top-left of your screen), while after you click and begin to drag, the pixel count represents the size of the selected area.

Mac OS X Screenshot Crosshair

Command + Shift + 4 + Spacebar: Take a screenshot of the selected window. To use this shortcut, press Command + Shift + 4 first, then tap the Spacebar. The crosshairs will turn into a camera icon. Hover this icon over a window and you’ll see the window become shaded in blue. Click the mouse or trackpad once and a screenshot of just that one window will be created.
Mac OS X Screenshot Window Camera
Using any of the shortcuts above will create a screenshot file on your Desktop (by default; we’ll show you how to change this location later on). If you add the Control key to any of the combinations above, your screenshots will be saved to your clipboard instead of being created as an image file.
In addition to the screenshot shortcuts, users can also open the Grab app, located in  /Applications/Utilities. This app gives users access to the same functions discussed above, as well as a timer option that automatically takes a screenshot ten seconds after it is activated.

Using Terminal

OS X Terminal App
Now that you know the basics, let’s get to the customization options. First, you’ll need to use Terminal to take the steps described in this tutorial. You can find Terminal in the Utilities subfolder of your Applications folder. You can also quickly launch Terminal by searching for it with Spotlight.
Second, after inputting every command that is described below, you’ll need to type the following command to force the changes to take effect:

killall SystemUIServer

If you don’t type this, your changes won’t be noticeable until you restart the Mac. Also, every change made below can be easily reversed to the default setting by reentering the command with default values, so feel free to experiment with the different options.
Now, on to the options for customizing OS X Screenshots:

Change the screenshot image type

By default, OS X saves screenshots as PNG (or Portable Network Graphics) files. This format can be useful because it supports transparency, but PNG files are not suitable for all uses. To change the default capture file format, open Terminal and type in the following command:

defaults write type [format]

In the command above, replace [format] with one of the following (click on each link for a description if you are unfamiliar with a particular format):


For example, typing “defaults write type jpg” will make JPEG the the default file format. You can change this as often as you need to by simply entering the Terminal command again with a new format.

Change the default screenshot file name

OS X saves each screenshot with the name “Screen shot [date] at [time].” As an example, a screenshot taken on Friday, March 1, at 9:29 PM will be saved as “Screen shot 2013–03–01 at 9:29 PM.”
You cannot remove the date and time from the name but you can easily change “Screen shot” to something else. To do this, type the following command into Terminal and press Return:

defaults write name [file name]

Replace [file name] with the custom name you’d like to use with each screenshot. If it’s a single word, you can simply type it in place of [file name], but if it’s a phrase with one or more spaces, you need to put the phrase in quotations. For example, if you’re taking screenshots for a book and would like to keep them organized by chapter, enter:

defaults write name “Chapter 1”

This will create a series of screenshots named “Chapter 1 2013–03–01 at 9:29 PM.” In the case of our book example, you’ll update the Terminal command as you start each new chapter.

Change the default location to which screenshots are saved

Screenshots are saved by default to the user’s desktop. This is handy for the occasional screenshot but those looking to take dozens or hundreds of screenshots will want to set up a custom destination to avoid cluttering up the desktop.
First, create or identify a folder to which you want to save your screenshots. Next, go to Terminal and enter the following command:

defaults write location

Press the spacebar once to create a single space after “location” and then drag and drop the folder you created above onto the Terminal window. Doing so will enter the exact path to that folder. After you’ve dropped the folder and see the path displayed, press Return to activate the command.
Alternatively, you can also manually type the destination, although dragging and dropping the folder is faster and error-proof (if you mistype a destination path while entering the command manually, it won’t work). For example, if you wish to save screenshots to a “Screenshots” folder in your user’s Pictures folder, you’d type the following:

defaults write location Users/[username]/Pictures/Screenshots/

Dragging the folder from a Finder window into the Terminal window results in the same outcome.

Disable window drop shadow

A really nice feature of OS X is the automatic creation of drop shadows when taking a screenshot of an individual window with the Command-Shift–4-Space command. This may not be desired by all users, however, and it can be disabled by entering the following Terminal command:

defaults write disable-shadow -bool true

If you wish to revert to the default drop shadow, just head back to Terminal and type:

defaults write disable-shadow -bool false

OS X Screenshot Drop Shadow Comparison
The image above shows a screenshot captured in OS X with the drop shadow enabled (left) and disabled (right).
Remember, you can easily revert any of these changes to their default values so feel free to experiment. By customizing the built-in OS X screenshot capture tools, most users will have all the power they need to fit screenshots into their workflows. If you require additional functionality, third-party options such as Skitch (now owned by Evernote), or LittleSnapper are always available.

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21 thoughts on “The Complete Guide to Mac OS X Screenshots”

The Dude says:
Personally, I think everybody should disable the Full Screen screen capture abilities of OSX (Preferences->Keyboard->Shortcuts->Screenshot.) Leave Command-Ctrl-Shift-4 enabled so that you can be sure you’re capturing what you want to share with your coworkers, or your relatives, or your friends. Lessens the potential for embarrassment.
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BondSan says:
Problem with the command shift 4 option: when you select the area and release the mouse key it takes the clip immediately. Most other clipping apps including the window’s screen clipper, allow you to draw the box around what you want to capture but also to finely adjust the box and then take the clipping.
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Dani Klein says:
Attempted to change the file path for screenshots. Tried both options. Neither worked.
ios dev says:
Did you make sure to create the directory for the screenshots? It doesn’t get automatically created for you. Also, did you remember to do `killall SystemUIServe in the terminal after you made your changes? You have to run that command to make your changes effective.
Tom Ti Dom says:
Same here, I can’t change the save location… If I type ‘killall SystemUIServe’, I get ‘No matching processes belonging to you were found’
Kevin Brent REALTORĀ® says:
I can’t believe you have to use the terminal to change these settings. There has to be a way to do it with the GUI.
Todd Streu says:
Has anyone run into the problem of “rapid” screenshots using command-shift-3 resulting in 10 images of all the same shot? (In Quicktime) Trying to get that perfect shot of a jumpy 8 month old pulled from a video is a pain, but worth it when it works.
v4themes says:
Great article, thx.
How can i set screenshot sounds?
Nelsoncolar says:
I always use acethinker screen grabber to screenshot on my macbook pro, it can help you set screenshot sounds.
oh/ex/oh says:
If you’re taking a screenshot using a defined area, if you start drawing the rectangle you can position it press also pressing space during the process (i.e.: when mouse is held down). Has anyone noticed that transparency isn’t working in Mavericks?
Casey Lewis says:
are these screen shots in hi res? If not how can you save high resolution files suitable for using on a website?
TekRevue says:
Hi Casey,
The screenshots will be saved at the resolution of your Mac. So, if you’re using a 27-inch iMac with a native resolution of 2560×1440 and you take a full-screen screenshot (Command-Shift-3), you’ll get an image file at 2560×1440. If you’re on a 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro, you’ll get 2880×1800.
If you take a screenshot of a particular window or area, your screenshot will be generated at the same resolution that the window occupies when you make the capture.
One exception to this is if you’re on a Retina Mac and you want standard-size screenshots (because Retina screenshots will appear 4 times bigger to those viewing it on a non-Retina display). For these, try the app Retina Capture.
For practically all Macs, taking a screenshot at native resolution is just fine for Web use. In fact, you may often want to decrease the resolution to better fit your website, especially if you’re taking full-screen shots on a Retina MacBook or 27-inch iMac. In that case, just open the screenshot image with Preview and go to Tools > Adjust Size. Change the measurement units to pixels and change the value to the desired size.
Pokey says:
Wonder if the screenshots can just be simplified and name themselves 1, 2, 3, 4 etc instead of by date and time. I’m taking a screenshot and it’s naming and dating it “Screen Shot 2014-02-03 at 6.41.03 PM” I don’t need this, too complicated! I’m sick of changing them but have to. Any way to make them numbered instead? An old version of Finder when I was a kid just used 1,2,3,4, etc.
ronaldbradford says:
How do I change the [date] at [time] part? This is perhaps the most annoying (spaces are bad for CLI people).
Tsung Hsueh says:
There is a variation of those three key sequences that allow saving the capture directly to clipboard instead of to a file:
Command + Control + Shift + 3: Captures entire screen
Command + Control + Shift + 4: Captures defined area
Command + Control + Shift + 4 + Spacebar: Captures selected window (5 key sequence ! :) )
Then Command + V to paste into the application (e.g. Pages) you need the shots in.
erinanne says:
Thank you so much! I’d used a tool to auto-save to Dropbox, but decided I didn’t like it and couldn’t figure out how to revert it back to my computer. This was easy to follow, and my screenshots are now happily saving to the right place once again. Thank you!
bluecifer says:
Is there a command that will allow me to take 1x screencaps to the clipboard instead of 2x Retina sized screencaps?
TekRevue says:
I haven’t yet found a built-in command to do that, but you could try an app like RetinaCapture, which lets you choose between screenshots at 1x, 2x, or both.
bluecifer says:
Yeah, Retina Capture looks like it is the next best thing. Used it awhile back – it seems to be better than the automator workflow I made up as well. Faster/Crisper etc. Oh well, thanks for looking.
dru Gash says:
How do I program my mac to automatically name a Screenshot according to the date & time the
shot was taken?
when you press comand+shift +3 it takes a screenshot. IT also automatically names it “Screen Capture 1” then the next one is “Screen
Capture 2”
My moms mac names the screenshot according to the date & time the
shot was taken.
Im wondering how can my mac os 10.4 do the same thing.
TekRevue says:
Sorry, I got your comment mixed up with one from another article. In OS X 10.4 Tiger, the date and time stamp aren’t added to the file name by default, and I’m unaware of any way to change that. If you can, upgrade your Mac to 10.6 Snow Leopard to get that functionality.
Pokey says:
I’m trying to go the other way. HA! I don’t like the date & time. I have OS X 10.7.4. Can I simplify it somehow just to name them 1,2,3,4,5 etc? LIke back in the good old days Finder was so simple.
TekRevue says:
Hi Pokey,
I recall reading about a process to do that. I’m out of the office at the moment, but I’ll check on it when I’m back and reply here.
TekRevue says:
Hey Pokey,
I searched a bit, but I don’t think it’s possible. I found this:
But it looks like that trick stopped working after Snow Leopard. :(
dru Gash says:
how do I change the screen shot file name back to the date & time?
TekRevue says:
Cat says:
Thanks so much! Great article.
Tiffany says:
Thanks! This was very helpful. Apple also has the built-in Grab utility which I have found useful when needing to include a cursor or drop-down menu in my screenshots.

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Jim Tanous

May 30, 2013

676 Articles Published