Screenshots are a handy way to save, document, and share processes, errors, and communications on your computer. A screenshot is a snapshot of the entire screen or a section of it. On Windows and macOS, you will find several pre-installed free-to-use tools for taking screenshots.
What is a screenshot: definition and history
A screenshot is a digital photo of visibly displayed content on a screen. It is saved by default as a file to the clipboard or in the screenshot folder. Typically, you can also send it directly to a selected printer and print it out.
Not counting photographing a screen with an actual camera, screenshots have been around since the mid-1960s. Back then, you could print the content of a screen at the touch of a button.
Later in the 1970s and 80s, developers realized how useful screenshots were and began developing computers with a built-in screenshot function. For example, IBM’s VDU terminals and MS-DOS operating systems had a print screen function in the 70s that made it possible to print out text content directly via a connected printer port.
While early versions of the print screen function could only copy written content in text format, the popular function was quickly expanded to include all content visible on the screen or a selected part of it. This made it easier for many users to communicate with others what was happening on their screen. Modern operating systems typically save images of the screen in BMP format. After the arrival of the smartphone, the screenshot function quickly became a standard on mobile devices as well (PNG or JPG format) and has proven useful for saving and sharing chats and other content.
How does a screenshot work?
Practically all modern operating systems have a built-in screenshot function that allows users to capture screen images. Screenshots can either be taken using a keyboard shortcut or by clicking the corresponding button in the screenshot tool.
On Windows and the Linux interfaces GNOME and KDE, you can take a screenshot of the current screen by pressing the [Print] key on the keyboard. If required, there is also an advanced screenshot function that makes it possible to capture only the active window on the screen. As of the release of Windows Vista, Microsoft also offers the Snipping Tool as a built-in solution for taking screenshots and editing them when needed. The Mac keyboard for macOS does not have a [Print] key for taking screenshots. However, the Apple system does have a built-in screenshot function that can be accessed via a keyboard shortcut. Using the shortcut [Command] + [Shift] + , you can take a screenshot of the entire screen.
Using Windows shortcuts, you can take multiple types of screenshots in Windows quickly and easily. For example, if you press the Windows key + Print, your screenshot will go directly to the “Screenshots” folder for further use. If you only want to capture the active window, press Alt + Print. To launch the Snipping Tool, press the Windows key + Shift + S.
When you take a screenshot, it is copied to the clipboard in BMP format and can be inserted, shared, and edited in other programs or emails. As of Windows 8, screenshots can also be found in the “Screenshots” folder immediately after they are taken. On Mac, you will first need to create a folder for this purpose, otherwise the system will automatically save images to the desktop.
As previously mentioned, while there is no dedicated Print key, you can also use keyboard shortcuts to take screenshots on Mac. If you only want to capture part of the screen, use the shortcut Shift + Command + 4 and drag the crosshair to select the desired area. If you only wish to capture the active window or menu, use the shortcut Shift + Command + 4 + Space.
What are screenshots used for?
Screenshots can be useful and even necessary for a variety of reasons. Below are some of the most common reasons why a user might take a screenshot:
- An error message or message box appeared on the screen and the technical support service for your computer, operating system or website needs to see it.
- Screenshots can be used to create a historic record of the development and state of a website and then compared across its different development stages.
- Tutorials use screenshots in their step-by-step instructions to make them easier for readers and viewers to understand.
- The screenshot function is a highly popular tool in computer games allowing players to capture their successes, high scores, glitches, and funny moments.
- In website and software development, screenshots make it easier to communicate within a development team when evaluating programming sequences.
- When it comes to bullying or harassment via text or video chat, screenshots can be combined with IP addresses to be used as real-time evidence of online criminal acts.
What to keep in mind when it comes to screenshots
When editing images or writing online articles, program instructions or reviews, you need to keep in mind that the online images on your screen are protected by copyright and you must obtain the consent of the copyright holder to be able to publish or distribute them. You also should not use or distribute screenshots of people without their consent. Check data protection regulations and copyrights before using a screenshot you have taken and publishing it online.
Built-in screenshot function vs screenshot tools
While the latest Windows, Mac, and Linux operating systems offer built-in screenshot functions with basic features, some users may want more functions for editing their images afterwards. That’s where a free screenshot tool can come in handy. Not only do these tools offer a much wider range of features for performing detailed post-editing on screenshots, but they also allow you to take screenshots in movies and games or take system screenshots when using multiple monitors. Some tools automate the process of uploading screenshots to cloud services such as Google Drive or Dropbox.
The following are some of the most popular and reliable free screenshot tools available: