How to change Mac screenshot file format in OS X

By , Jul 31, 2014

OS X Mavericks (Grab icon, full size)

OS X, Apple’s operating system powering Mac desktops and notebooks, sports a surprisingly robust set of screenshot-grabbing features.

Better yet, you can save both time and money capturing images of the operating system itself, third-party applications or whatever is on the screen at any given moment using these built-in capabilities.

Yes, a plethora of third-party apps go beyond the Mac’s screenshot-taking features with advanced image management and annotation capabilities.

Still, most normals soon realize that OS X’s built-in features mostly get the job done for common use cases like how-tos, tutorials and other types of blog posts.

By default, OS X saves you screenshots on the desktop, as PNG files. PNG is great if you care about image quality: the format uses lossless compression techniques that won’t degrade image quality. On the downside, PNG screenshots tend to be fairly large in size.

Although you can tap Apple’s stock Preview app, or any third-party image editor, to convert PNGs into JPEGs and other image formats, why take extra steps if OS X can do all the heavy lifting for you?

In this tutorial, I’ll show you how to change the image format for screenshots taken on your Mac…

Before we get to it, keep in mind OS X recognizes the following graphics formats out of the box: JPG, GIF, PDF, PNG and TIFF. You can elect to have OS X save your screenshots in any of these formats.

And if you’re unsure how to take screenshots in OS X, we have an easily digestible how-to, just for you. And even if you know about ⌘-Shift-3 and ⌘-Shift-4, our tutorial will teach you some cool new tricks, so do give it a read.

With that off my back, using any Terminal command below below will make your screenshots appear in whatever file type you’ve specified.

How to change Mac screenshot file format in OS X

The first step is to launch Terminal.

Open your Applications folder by pressing Shift-⌘-A on the keyboard while the Finder is active. Next, navigate to the Utilities sub-folder and open Terminal.

Alternatively, use Spotlight to launch Terminal.

Change the screenshot format to JPG

Type or paste the following line into a Terminal window and hit the Return key to execute the command:

defaults write com.apple.screencapture type jpg;killall SystemUIServer

Change the screenshot format to GIF

Type or paste the following line into a Terminal window and hit the Return key to execute the command:

defaults write com.apple.screencapture type gif;killall SystemUIServer

Change the screenshot format to PDF

Type or paste the following line into a Terminal window and hit the Return key to execute the command:

defaults write com.apple.screencapture type PDF;killall SystemUIServer

Change the screenshot format to PNG

Type or paste the following line into a Terminal window and hit the Return key to execute the command:

defaults write com.apple.screencapture type png;killall SystemUIServer

Change the screenshot format to TIFF

Type or paste the following line into a Terminal window and hit the Return key to execute the command:

defaults write com.apple.screencapture type tiff;killall SystemUIServer

About image quality

To be perfectly clear, I’m unaware of any Terminal command that would make it possible to specify compression quality.

If you want control over that – or need to annotate your screenshots, resize them and perform other touch-ups – consider third-party image editors such as Skitch (free download) or Pixelmator (currently on sale, now $15.99)

Which screenshot format to use?

Each image format has its own drawbacks and advantages so you’ll have to decide for yourself which one to use depending on your specific use cases.

As a rule of thumb, you’d be typically using TIFF images for print, JPG/PNG for blog posts and web graphics, GIF for lower quality images with less colors and PDF for rich documents with complex layouts such as Pages/Word docs or Keynote presentations.

How to take Mac screenshot (image 001)

To give you a feel of typical file sizes relative to one another, I screenshoted my 13-inch MacBook Air desktop with the default Mavericks wallpaper and no icons on the desktop. The resulting 1,440-by-900 pixel screenshot, seen above, yielded the following file sizes for each of the available image formats:

  • JPG — 4.3 MB
  • GIF — 623 KB
  • PDF — 2.6 MB
  • PNG — 1.9 MB
  • TIFF — 3.9 MB

Again, your mileage may vary as the screenshot file size depends on the screen resolution, Retina or non-Retina, your desktop wallpaper, what’s displayed on the screen and other factors affecting compression.

A few quick tips

As a quick reminder, use the ⌘-Shift-3 combo to screenshot the entire desktop or ⌘-Shift-4 to grab a rectangular portion. If you need to screenshot an app’s window, use ⌘-Shift-4, hover over the app’s window and hit the Space key on the keyboard.

For more tips, check out our Mac screenshot-taking tutorial.

Folks who take a lot of screenshots may want to reduce desktop clutter by telling OS X to save their screenshots to a custom location.

And should you need to extract gorgeous full-resolution 1,204-by-1,024 pixel Mac app/document icons as transparent PNG files (like the Grab app icon top of post), don’t bother with screenshoting – all you need is Preview.

Check out these related articles

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Before signing off, folks who’ve stumbled upon other tips worth sharing, or have thought up a great tutorial idea, are kindly encouraged to send us their submissions to tips@iDownloadBlog.com.

We promise to do our best to include your brightest and most useful ideas in upcoming how-tos.

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  • Chris

    You appear to have a typo, JPG – 434MB should be 4.34MB or 4.3MB

    • http://www.idownloadblog.com/author/dujkan Christian Zibreg

      It’s a typo, fixed. Thanks for the heads-up!

  • http://R0Fleming.tumblr.com/ R0Fleming

    434MB JPG? Holy cow! #HopefullyATypo

  • https://twitter.com/MrElectrifyer MrElectrifyer

    Anyone have a link to the wallpaper? Would love to add it to my wallpaper slideshow…

    • https://twitter.com/MrElectrifyer MrElectrifyer

      NVM, screen sniped and reverse image searched, got it

  • Adham

    Another very informative article.

  • Brandon D

    wow, thank you for this….this is actually a VERY helpful post for me.. I’m a project manager for an electrical contractor, and I work with blueprints all day long at work, (they originally come to use as full size prints in pdf format).I use the grabber to screenshot all sorts of stuff off of full size prints to send to supply houses for pricing (light fixture schedules, panel schedules, the list goes on). When i send those off, they have to be in pdf format, so im always opening them up in preview and exporting them as a PDF. This will save me a ton of time, as it’s something i do almost daily.

    This probably wouldn’t be that big of a deal for most, but for me this is great…I really appreciate this :)

  • dis666

    This is a really dumb idea. Terminal is not for the casual user. NEVER use Terminal if you don’t have to. Half the people who do this will not remember later how they changed this, so they will have to search online again. Also, a goof in typing in Terminal could cause problems that you don’t know how to fix.

    Just use OnyX. It allows making these changes in GUI, which is much safer than command line. It allows many other tweaks and system maintenance steps, also, such as clearing caches and logs or showing hidden files. Then all these changes are easy as pie to revert using the same OnyX gui. Leave command line to the Linux geeks and don’t go to Terminal unless you have no GUI option.

    I am always amazed that there are a hundred different blog and tip site articles about editing a text document, such as the Hosts file, in Terminal. Geeze, folks, it’s a text document. You can edit it in TextEdit, for crying out loud!!!