Capturing Screenshots of Individual Elements on Your Mac

Grab a Menu Item, Window, Dialog Box, or Sheet With Just a Click

Capturing screen shot of individual elements
Screen shot courtesy of Coyote Moon, Inc.

The Mac has long had the ability to capture screenshots by pressing the command + shift + 3 keys (that's the command key, plus the shift key, plus the number 3 from the top keyboard row, pressed together at the same time). This simple keyboard command captures an image of your entire screen.

The other commonly used keyboard combination for screenshots is command + shift + 4. This keyboard combination lets you draw a rectangle over the area you wish to capture.

There's a third screenshot keyboard combo that's often overlooked, yet it's by far the most powerful. This keyboard combo lets you capture a screenshot of a particular window element. When you use this keyboard combo, each window element will be highlighted as you move your cursor over it. Click the mouse and you can capture just that element. The beauty of this method is that the captured image requires little or no cleanup.

As long as the window element is present when you press this keyboard combo, you can grab an image of it. This includes menus, sheets, the desktop, the Dock, any open window, tooltips, and the menu bar

Screenshot Element Capture

To use the screenshot element capture method, first make sure that the element you wish to grab is present. For example, if you wish to capture a menu item, make sure the menu is selected; if you want a drop-down sheet, make sure the sheet is open.

When you're ready, press the following keys: command + shift + 4 (that's the command key, plus the shift key, plus the number 4 from the top keyboard row, all pressed at the same time).

After you release the keys, press and release the spacebar.

Now move your cursor to the element you wish to capture.

As you move the mouse, each element the cursor passes over will be highlighted. When the correct element is highlighted, click the mouse.

That's all there is to it. You now have a clean, ready-to-use screen capture of the specific element you wanted.

By the way, images captured in this way are saved to your desktop and will have a name that begins with 'Screen Shot' appended with the date and time.

Tooltips and Other Problems

Tooltips, those bits of text that pop up now and then when you hover your cursor over a screen element, such as a button, icon, or link, can be surprisingly difficult to capture in a screenshot. The reason is that some developers set the tooltip to disappear as soon as any click or keystroke occurs.

Normally, getting the tooltip out of the way as a user continues interacting with an app is a good idea. But in the case of taking a screenshot, it can be a problem, as the tooltip disappears as soon as you use the screenshot keystrokes.

The tooltip disappearance problem is very much dependent on how the app is coded, so don't assume tooltips are always going to pop out of existence as soon as you try to take a screenshot. Instead, give the screenshot technique outlined above a shot.

If it doesn’t work, then try this little trick:

You can use the Grab app to take a screenshot of your Mac's entire desktop after a slight delay. This timed screenshot gives you additional time to perform some action, such as opening a menu or hovering over a button, for a tooltip to pop up just in time for the screenshot to be taken, and since no keystrokes or cursor clicking are involved, the tooltip won't disappear just as its picture is taken.

Using Grab to Capture a Tooltip

  1. Launch Grab, located in your /Applications/Utilities folder.
  2. From the Capture menu, select Timed Screen.
  3. A small dialog box will open with a button to Start Timer or Cancel the screen grab. Clicking the Start Timer button will start a ten-second countdown to a full-screen capture.
  1. With the countdown running, perform the task, such as hovering over a button for a tooltip, to produce the image you wish to capture.
  2. After the countdown runs out, the image will be captured.

Screenshots can be stored in various file formats including JPEG, TIFF, PNG, and others. You can change the screenshot image format by following the instructions in:

Change the File Format Your Mac Uses to Save Screenshots