A lot of us might still use PrintScreen or F12 in Steam to take a screenshot on PC, but taking a great screenshot isn't as simple as that anymore. Knowing what tools to use and when, and studying some basic photography concepts can help anyone learn how to take great screenshots that do justice to the gorgeous games they come from.
Get the right tool for the job
If you just want to take a screenshot of your Windows desktop, PrintScreen and the Snip tool are the easiest options. Located on most PC keyboards, the PrintScreen (or PrtSc, as it's sometimes abbreviated) key will take and save an image of your desktop to the clipboard, which then you can copy and paste into Photoshop or another image processing software. The Snip tool operates under the same concept, but you won't need any extra software to save your image—just click and drag the box over what you want to capture, and save the image to you computer.
But for taking high-res game screenshots, PrintScreen definitely won't cut it here, and using the Snip tool can add weird distortions to your captures. Thankfully, many games these days have built-in camera modes, but for games that don't, there are plenty of other options:
- Plays.tv—One of the easiest to use capture tools. While its main purpose is for automatically recording in-game footage, you can now use Plays.tv to capture screenshots as of a March 2019 update.
- Fraps—This program isn't free if you want full, unrestricted use of its features, and compared to other programs, Fraps a little aged. But it's super simplified for those who want to take hassle-free screenshots.
- MSI Afterburner—This is primarily a GPU overclocking tool, but you can take screenshots with it in .bmp, .jpg, and .png formats. Afterburner also supports supports DirectX12 games and the latest AMD and Nvidia GPUs.
- GeForce Experience—It can sometimes be finicky, but unlike the others, it has a robust photo mode (separate from taking a regular screenshot) that even hobby or professional photographers can have some fun with when editing their screenshots.
- AMD ReLive—If you have an AMD GPU, this is their proprietary software with advanced tools for taking screenshots.
- Windows 10 Game Bar—Obviously, this comes with Windows 10. Pressing Windows Key + G will enable it in the background nearly of any game, but it works best using games from the Windows 10 Microsoft Store.
Not all the tools listed above have this option, but using a capture software that allows you to save your images as an uncompressed copy (usually .PNG format) is first key to taking better screenshots. Steam has this option, as well as MSI Afterburner.
Now, if you're trying to capture ultra high-res screens by using Nvidia DSR to run a game at 4x native resolution (4K on a 1080p display), the usual tools won't always work. With Geforce Experience, you can take screenshots in RAW format with Ansel (aptly named after the famous photographer) to get around this, but it's only compatible with a handful of games. Whatever you use, just make sure you're taking uncompressed screenshots.
Free up the camera
It's possible to take nice screenshots of the back of a character's head, but we're interested in composing shots with as much freedom as possible, and with the HUD hidden. Regarding the latter, some games allow you to turn off the HUD with a hotkey or within the graphics or interface menu, while others may require console input or the editing of a config file. It's case-by-case, but usually you can find the answer via search engine.
Freeing up the camera is trickier, and typically involves entering something into the console or hunting down a Cheat Engine hack that does it (not to be attempted in multiplayer games). More and more games include photo modes, though, so this is becoming less of an issue.
Think like a photographer
Before you start, study the work of established photographers for some inspiration. Whether it’s the majestic landscapes of Ansel Adams, the evocative portraits of Annie Leibovitz, or the striking photojournalism of Steve McCurry, you can learn a lot from the masters.
I’m not saying every screenshot you take has to be high art, but sometimes when I’m feeling uninspired, browsing the portfolios of real-world photographers can trigger a creative spark. Also, studying the work of the masters can lead you to think about other elements of photography like, composition, angle, lighting, exposure, etc., which we'll talk about individually below.
Rule of thirds
One of the main aspects of composing a great shot is the rule of thirds. Mentally divide your scene up into a grid of nine rectangles, then make sure your subject is placed along the lines, or at the points where they meet.
This technique is a great way to aid you in achieving an artful, balanced composition, and has been used by photographers, painters, filmmakers, and pretty much every kind of visual artist for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Not every shot has to obey this rule, as there are many composition techniques, but it’s a main one worth keeping in mind.
With any composition technique involving action or people, make sure the subject is positioned so it's entering the frame, not exiting it. It's called 'falling off the edge,' and it happens when the object seems to 'aim' outside the frame of the shot, via either its movement, its eyes, or its focus. It looks and feel awkward. Positioning the subject to the other side of the frame usually fixes this.
Field of view
Widen your field of view to show more of a landscape or fit large, distant objects into the frame, such as the mansion in the example above. This is one of the best ways of conveying the scale of a landscape or object, but don’t go too far with it. You’ll get a fish-eye effect if you overuse it, making your image look warped and unnatural (unless that's what you're going for). Just because you can slide the FOV all the way to the end doesn’t mean you should. Everything in moderation.
Alternatively, you can tighten your field of view to focus on the smaller details in a scene. Vistas and sunsets are fun to shoot, and modern games are getting ridiculously good at them, but the little things can be every bit as impressive. Whether it’s a flower, an animal, a costume detail, or a subtle architectural flourish, using your virtual lens to study the finer points of a game world can be just as compelling as capturing the bigger picture.
In a trick used regularly by Batman comics, this shot of Gotham City seems even bigger and more sprawling when you notice Batman’s silhouette set against it. Placing your character in front of a vista, or anything large for that matter, enhances the sense of scale massively. This is especially effective in space games such as Elite Dangerous, where the silhouette of a ship can make its various celestial bodies—planets, stars, and so on—seem impossibly vast.
Depth of field
Also know as the aperture on a traditional camera, knowing how depth of field works lets you focus on a subject in the foreground or background, intentionally blurring the rest of the image.
Adjust the intensity of the blur and the focal point and you can create some impressive, photorealistic images, but keep it subtle. Again, this is one of those effects that’s often overused. Artful use of shallow depth of field, particularly when focusing on a specific subject in an image, can really enhance the feeling of presence in a shot.
While we're on the topic of depth of field, portrait photography is an entire art form, but a good technique is adjusting the depth of field to make your subject the focal point of the image, without any background clutter distracting the eye.
Portraits can be close-ups of characters’ faces, full body shots, and everything in between. The important thing is that it’s a person at the heart of the image, not a place, but you can also use the environment to reveal something about their personality.
Exposure, in a camera, determines how much light reaches the film or sensor, and many photo modes simulate it. If an image feels like it lacks punch, bump the exposure up a little to make it sharper and brighter.
But if you go too far, you’ll blow the image out and it’ll look like a nuclear bomb has just gone off. Increasing the exposure can also reduce or erase the detail around light sources or shadows, so as with all things, find the right balance depending on what you want to convey.
Time of day
One thing that goes hand-in-hand with exposure the time of day/night of your scene. Changing light in games with day/night cycles can radically alter the mood of a scene (think Dying Light). So, wait for the right moment to shoot. A location can look uninspiring at midday, but transform into something beautiful at dusk.
Some games give you manual control over the time of day, for example the photo mode in No Man's Sky or GTA V's director mode. Otherwise, much like real photography, it’s all about watching and waiting.
A lot of photo modes come with built-in filters that can replicate various effects: old movies, analogue film, retro games. But most of them are ugly, and you should avoid using them in most cases. But in some games you can adjust the intensity of the filter, merging them with the natural colors of the image, and it’s possible to create some interesting, stylish effects if you get the balance just right. They’re worth experimenting with.
The best thing to do is take your raw images into a graphics package like Photoshop or Lightroom and tweak the brightness, contrast, and color levels by hand. Even the slightest tweak can make a huge difference to the final composition. Just make sure whatever you’re using to capture your screenshots, whether it’s Steam or something like Fraps, is outputting an uncompressed image. You don’t want a load of gnarly JPG artifacts spoiling your shot.