Monday, May 26, 2008

A guide to better screenshots: Part 1, taking the shot

This first part will cover all that happens before tapping your screenshot button: we will probably go over stuff you already know, because this is done also for people that never did a screen before. If you are experienced stay with us, you may still find something interesting.
In the second part I will talk about post-production of the image, from really fine tuning and cropping to bigger changes that make our shot more similar to a real photo or an illustration.

Ok, there are three ways to make a screenshot on Pc games (Consoles are a completely different problem we will cover in the future).

Let's start with the simpler way: simply pressing the print screen button on you keyboard makes an image of your whole screen. Then you open a graphic program and press the paste button. This isn't a very good idea and may not work with some games. Also alt+tabbing during a multiplayer? Insane.

Most of the games today have a screenshot button. That means, a command that creates a screenshot at the press of a button and saves it in a folder in a remote location you'll take some time to discover. This button may or not be the Print Screen button.
Change it! If you're serious about doing screenshots, you'll need a button you can press easily in the middle of a fight. If you're playing a game that it's not mouse-intensive, you could also bind the command to one of your mouse button (this, obviously if you have more than three buttons on the mouse). I often do that when I need to do some screenshots for a review.

And then, there's the PRO way. An external program that hooks up to the game and takes the images directly.
There are two solutions that I know: Fraps it's a commercial program, so maybe it's not a good idea unless you're planning to capture videos.
Taksi it's the opensource alternative. Get that for free and be happy.
One function very useful it's telling the program to do an image every x seconds.

Next we are going to open the game of your choice and have a look to the graphic options. Generally speaking, you'll want the best resolution your computer can handle. This, because later we may need to crop the screen to focus the image on the part that it's really interesting and, starting from a 800x600 resolution, we may end with an image that is less than 500 pixels. This is especially important when we don't have a way to make the user interface disappear.
If the subject of your photo is not trying to make a bloody pulp out of you, you can also play with lower quality graphic and then put everything to maximum once you've found the right shot.

Next problem: the user interface. UIs aren't interesting to see in a screenshot. You should always try to get rid of them. The most obvious way it's to crop them out of the image.
There are other ways. World of Warcraft and other MMOs allow to toggle the interface with the tap of a button (for WoW it's alt+z).
A modding-friendly game may also allow the user to make it less big or toggle it entirely.

Next, the fun part. Taking the screenshot.
Two basic rules I'll suggest there.
First thing. Decide the subject of your photo and keep the rest outside.
Take your time, don't rush it. In Stormwind doing a shot or two of the entrance? Wait for that level 1 naked gnome to pass. Yeah, doing screenshots in online worlds requires patience.
You'll probably take some stuff out later by cropping, but while you take the shot you should already have an idea on how the final image will look like.
The second thing. Rule of Thirds! It's the basic rule of real photography, and it's not less important in virtual one. This is even more difficult in first person shooters, where we tend to put our attention in the centre of the screen. Once you see a good subject, start to frame it and forget about the hits you're taking. Images that look like are taken from a normal playthrough of the game are boring and should be avoided.

Next week we are going to talk about what happens after you're pretty much satisfied by your shot.
If you got any post-production technique you want to talk about send me a mail at my gmail address.

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