How to take superb screenshots
Long after the battle is over and the credits have rolled, the memories of saving the world still linger. Make them even better with our guide to building up a collection of great gaming snaps and videos.
Before you can start taking good screenshots, you need to get your hands on a couple of tools. Many games offer a simple screenshot button, but these are best avoided. They often spit out files as poor quality JPEGs, and have a horrible tendency to splash words like 'SCREEN CAPTURED' across the picture - especially if you're repeatedly hitting the screenshot key to get a tricky image from an action packed scene.
Instead, you want to use a dedicated screen capture program, and while there are several out there, FRAPS is easily the best. It comes in a free version, which watermarks your images, and a paid one, which is a very reasonable $37. It shoots pictures, records video, and works with almost every modern game. You can export pictures in PNG, JPEG, BMP and TGA format, and we recommend PNG for games. You can convert to JPEG for smaller files later, but the amount of red splashing around the average game doesn't necessarily compress very well. PNG is also perfectly usable on websites like Flickr if you want to share your images later.
On older games, or for desktop screenshots and applications that don't use DirectX, we use Grabby. This costs $9, and is a good secondary tool to have on hand. Unlike FRAPS, it doesn't name its screenshots according to application, making it easy to overwrite old pictures. It also only shoots JPEG and BMP. Of the two, we recommend BMP, then converting them into JPEG/PNG in a dedicated editor, where you can control the size/quality level depending on what you plan to do with the picture. In Settings, make sure you set the 'recycle rate' to 0 to stop it overwriting files during your session (although it'll still do so in future sessions) and make sure you actually click the Start button - unlike FRAPS, it won't start shooting automatically.
Most screenshot tools offer two modes - taking the shot when you press the button, or taking shots every few seconds after you press the button. The former tends to be the more useful. With the latter, as well as risking a performance knock from all that screenshotting, you can almost guarantee lots of shots that are almost but not quite what you wanted. You'll also end up with far, far more to sort through when you're done. Whichever mode you use though, the first thing to do with any new game is to make sure that your screen capture tool is working. For FRAPS, press F12 to bring up the frame-rate number if it isn't up already and then your screen capture button. If the number flashes, the screen capture is working. Hide the number with a few more presses of F12 - although it shouldn't appear in the screenshots, it's been known to glitch its way in.
Taking screenshots is easy. Taking good screenshots is a genuine challenge. To put this into context, when reviewing a game, it's not uncommon for us to end up looking through a few thousand screenshots just to get ten or so genuinely good looking ones. Much like photography, you want the scene to be interesting, attractive, full of action, to tell a story at a glance. In games, that's made difficult by the fact that you're usually trying to do this while being attacked by armies of zombies, with the screen constantly flashing red from unseen attacks, through blood splatter and depth of field attacks, and covered up by interface elements, text and other nonsense. An otherwise perfect image can be ruined by a bit of screen clipping or half-rendered gun flare effect.
What this means is that to get good screenshots, you often need to become one with the screenshot key - reacting and snapping as and when exciting things happen. You also have to be able to hit that key while still playing the game, shooting, dodging, or whatever else you're up to. It's important to choose a good one. By default it's usually either Print-Screen or one of the F-keys, but they're too far out of the way. "Professional" screenshot takers (to whatever degree that word can apply without great laughter or sadness) typically use either the CAPS-LOCK key (altHOUugh thIS can be PROBLEMATIC IN MULTIplayer gamES) or the tilde, on the top left of the keyboard. This way, your key is always accessible, but your fingers remain free.
Another option, if you have a beefy machine and the hard drive space to spare, is not to worry about it at all. FRAPS can record full-resolution video of your game, and even if you don't want to use that for anything directly, you can open it up in an editor like Adobe Premiere Elements and extract individual frames. This is great if you don't know what you want to shoot, or just want to focus on actually playing the game instead of constantly wishing you'd snapped a picture of something, but make sure you delete the files afterwards - even a terabyte drive will quickly fill up on high-resolution files. You can cut the space requirements down a bit by reducing the number of frames being captured. It doesn't matter if the video is slightly choppy if you're just pulling frames.
If you have the registered version of FRAPS, you get a bonus feature - loop recording. This constantly holds the last thirty seconds in memory, so you don't have to be precise. Just hit the button and the event you just saw will be ready for frame-extraction. This is particularly good for multiplayer games where funny things can happen without warning, and a great way of keeping file sizes under control.
The main problem when taking screenshots is that to get good ones, you usually have to fight against the game. In a cover shooter, there's no point getting a picture of the back of the box you're hiding behind. In a stealth game, there's limited screenshot potential in a safe dark shadow. Ideally, you want to approach it like a regular photograph. Get up and close with your subject matter instead of shooting them from afar. It doesn't matter if they gun you down if you get your own shot off first. Find a good angle, free of foreground clutter like railings or steps. Duck down and look up to make an enemy look taller and more imposing. Find a crack in the wall to frame the shot with. Every game has its own quirks and atmosphere that you can play with.
If at all possible, it's worth turning off or dialing down the HUD in game. This increasingly requires a mod, but many games will let you do it directly, either from a graphical options menu (as in Just Cause 2) or with a keystroke (in World of Warcraft, it's ALT-Z). Third person games will often let you control the camera as well, albeit usually just rotating it around your character, which is great for more dramatic shots. Stand in front of a vista, spin the camera round to show your character's face, and you instantly have a more emotive photo.
You don't need to do any of this, of course. If all you want is a quick memento, a picture of your character, or a shot of a funny sign on the wall, just hitting the key will be enough. However, much like playing with a camera, just keeping a few basic rules in mind means that the pictures you take will be that much punchier when you go back to them in the future. To take it to a whole new level of course, you can use mods, alter configuration files, play with the field of view, and deploy cheats to stop the monsters fighting you, and many more things. Visit Duncan Harris' blog Dead End Thrills and its associated Flickr group to see just how amazing your favourite games can look with a careful photographer armed with a few cheats and some technical wizardry.