Graphics screen captures

Taking screen captures can form an important part of everyday computing. A screen capture is simply a snapshot of what is currently being displayed on your computer screen. While this may have obvious applications in writing manuals and books, it can also be helpful in other areas. One of the most beneficial uses is technical support. If you can send an image of what is displayed on your screen when an error occurs, this can help resolve problems. Likewise, you may want to capture an image of a Web site if you are experiencing difficulties accessing certain sections or features.

The type of program used for screen capturing will depend on which elements of the picture you want to capture. Some simple capture techniques do not include the mouse pointer, and there may be other times where you want to wait a set amount of time before taking the image.

PRINT SCREEN KEY

This is the simplest tool and is easily available to most Windows users. On your keyboard, to the right of the F12 button there should be a button labelled 'Print Screen'. There may be some minor variations such as PRN SCN or Print Scrn, and it may also have 'SysRq' under it. If you press this button, an image of your screen is copied to your clipboard (on some setups, you need to hit -). All you need to do then is paste the clipboard into any graphics program. You can crop the image to show the area of interest or remove background clutter.

There are two problems with the Print Screen key - images will not include the mouse icon and you can only capture one image at a time. However, there are alternatives.

GRAPHICS PROGRAMS

Many graphics program have built-in screen capture tools with many useful features (one notable exception is Adobe Photoshop). Paint Shop Pro, www.jasc.com, used to have an obvious menu system for setting up screen captures, but, in an unfriendly move, they have now buried the settings and use a more confusing system. If you want to capture a screen image, a small camera-like icon is available in the Standard Toolbar (see FIGURE 1). You can access this menu by selecting View-Toolbars and checking the box that says "Standard Toolbar". If you choose not to show this toolbar, you can start a screen capture by selecting the almost-hidden function at File-Import-Screen Capture-Start (or simply -C).

The camera icon in this toolbar will only start the screen capture process. To change its settings, you will need to go down four levels in the menu system, to File-Import-Screen Capture-Settings. The changes you make in this menu will be applied each time you press the camera button on the Standard Toolbar. Here you can select a range of Window types, delay times and hotkeys that will activate the capture. One trick to watch is that certain types of captures will not include the cursor - such as Area capture. After you take the screen capture, it will appear as a new file in Paint Shop Pro.

IrfanView (www.irfanview.com) also has a powerful screen capture option. After starting the program, simply hit C on your keyboard to bring up the window; alternatively, select Options-Capture. There are many nifty options with this program: for example, you can set it to take a series of captures and save them automatically in a range of file types (in Paint Shop Pro, you must save the files manually).

There are other screen capture tool alternatives. The pricey SnagIt ($80, www.techsmith.com) is a purpose-built capture utility with a range of advanced tools - including video capture. It can also record actions, such as your mouse and menus. This is ideal for creating manuals or showing the steps that lead to a system/program crash.

ScreenHunter 1.1 (www.wisdom-soft.com) is a freeware application that has similar features to IrfanView's capture tool, but it lacks the ability to capture the cursor.

SOME FINAL TIPS

Resolution: you can often generate captures with higher detail by increasing your display setting. If your setting is at 640x480, then your image will be 640x480 pixels. However, if the display is set to 1280x960 then your picture will be 1280x960 pixels and generally contain finer detail.

Media Players: one frustration with screen capturing is that it is almost impossible to capture an image from a video file being played through QuickTime, RealPlayer and MediaPlayer. Video images appearing in these programs run via a complex buffer system. If you try to capture an image while a video is playing, you will find that the viewing area will appear black/blank.

Resize: if you are using screen capture to assist with technical support issues, trim down the image to the area of interest and use either a GIF or JPEG format to minimise the file's size - don't e-mail large bitmap files.

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