Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.
A picture is worth a thousand words and a screen shot - an image of your computer screen saved as a picture - can eliminate a lot of frustration when trying to describe to someone what it is you're seeing on your computer.
A screen shot or screen capture is a way to "take a picture" of your computer screen or a portion thereof.
Well, let's say that you're trying to explain a computer problem to a technical friend of yours and you're trying to describe what you see on the screen - the dialogs, the buttons, the messages, whatever. You're not sure of the terms to use and your friend is having a difficult time understanding your description of what you see.
And of course, your friend insists that the exact wording of everything you see is incredibly important (for the record, he's right.)
You know what they say: "A picture is worth a thousand words." And it can go a long way to eliminating miscommunication.
Let's take a picture of your screen you can email to your friend.
Windows Vista and Windows 7 include the "Snipping Tool" for just this purpose (Windows 8 has it also, I'll describe how to find it in a moment). You'll find it on the Start menu, in All Programs, Accessories:
As soon as you run it, your screen dims somewhat and the following window appears:
(If the screen doesn't automatically dim for a screen capture, just click on New to begin one.)
As the instructions indicate, you can then click-hold-and-drag the mouse to specify a rectangle on the screen that should be captured:
As soon as you release the mouse, the Snipping tool opens with the region you've selected as an image:
At this point, you can use the editing tools to annotate your screen capture, if you like. Once you're done, click on the disk icon or type CTRL+S to save the image in a common image file format such as .jpg of .png.
You now have a screen shot you can send your friend.
The Windows 7 Snipping tool is still present in Windows 8. At the new Windows 8-tiled desktop, simple start typing "snip" to begin a search:
As you can see, the Snipping tool is by default the only result.
Ever wonder what the PrtScn key is for? A long time ago, it did what you might think. Push it and your printer would print an image of whatever was on your screen.
But that's not what it does in Windows today.
When you press the PrtScn key, an image of your entire screen is placed on your clipboard. Now, rather than printing it, you can do something with it.
First, we need to place it in a file. After you've pressed PrtScn, fire up your favorite image editor or use the Paint program that comes with Windows by pressing Start, All Programs, Accessories, and then Paint. This places an image of the screen into the system clipboard.
Now in Paint (or your equivalent), hit Edit, Paste, and you should now have an image of your screen within the image editing program.
Now, save this image to a file. Typically, that means File, Save As..., and selecting either a .jpg or .png file format.
A couple of additional notes:
PrtScn takes a picture of the entire current screen.
ALT+PrtScn takes a picture of the currently active window only.
PrtScn does not work on blue screens. The Windows operating system provides the PrtScn functionality and if the operating system has crashed, the function's not there.
The PrtScn technique actually works in all versions of Windows, including Vista, 7, and 8. The Snipping tool is typically more convenient in those versions.
The Snipping tool, or the paste-into-Paint method, provides a very basic yet powerful approach to getting screen captures. They're free and included with every copy of Windows.
I use something else.
I use SnagIt.
When run, Snagit replaces the PrtScn functionality with its own. It allows for full screen, partial screen, and even full scrolling-window capture, along with a number of capture-time options. It also comes with a fairly powerful image editor that allows me to quickly add call-outs, arrows, and the fancy "torn edge" effect I use in many of my screen shots, including a couple of those shown above.
Most folks don't need an additional screen capture utility, particularly if your version of Windows includes the Snipping tool.
That being said, if you take screen shots regularly (as I do), a more powerful tool with more options both in capture and annotation might very well be a valuable addition and SnagIt is an excellent choice.
Hopefully, you can see the value of screen shots by now.
You're presented with a complex situation or a huge, long error message that you don't want to re-type and just wish that you could show someone.
Run the Snipping tool or press PrtScn and you're on your way to creating an image of the screen, with everything exactly as you see it.
(This is an update to an article originally published June 22, 2004.)