Documentation tips: Getting the screen shots you need

Good documentation requires good quality screen shots. But that can be hard to accomplish without the right software or knowledge of the best formats. In this Daily Feature, Mike Jackman helps you create first-rate documentation.

How often has your boss asked you to document a procedure? Unfortunately, creating documentation isn’t going to be a priority until the pager stops beeping, the phone stops ringing, and users stop having trouble with their computers. But the time will come when you’d better get some documentation written, or else. When you’re down to the wire, you’ll want some quick and effective techniques for capturing screens.

Getting that Windows screen shot
As you probably know, you can use two shortcuts inside Windows to capture screens. [Print Scrn] captures the entire desktop to the clipboard, and [Alt][Print Scrn] captures the active window only. If you have no other graphics programs, you can then paste these screen captures into Paint (Pbrush.exe) by using Edit | Paste. Pbrush.exe is the ubiquitous Windows drawing program that goes back at least to Windows 3.1. It’s included in every version of Windows. Using Paint allows you to do some basic image editing, and you can save the image when you’re done.

If you have Microsoft Office, you can paste the image from your clipboard into Word. Choose Edit | Paste Special | Bitmap. Once the image is in your document, drag it or use the image handles to size it. Clicking once on your graphic opens basic image editing tools. You can also right-click on the image for more options. Edit Picture loads the image into Microsoft Draw, which lets you add shapes, highlights, lines, arrowheads, text, word art, and other helpful doodads for your documentation. Grouping lets you combine, or group, images for collective editing or moving. With Order, you get to set the way images interact. You can move them in front of or behind text, overlap images, or stack them front to back for special transparency effects. Finally, with Format Object, you can adjust image attributes such as brightness, contrast, cropping, text flow, and size. These editing tools can help you adjust your images so that they make effective visual aids—images that are clear, to the point, and not distracting. You don’t want to go crazy with these options.

While Paint and Office let you capture and render screen shots to a certain degree, screen shots captured this way have one inherent problem: they’re bitmaps. Bitmaps take up a lot of room. In this format, one pixel is represented by one bit (in monochrome graphics), or several bits (in color). I created a test file in Word that was blank, save for one screen shot of my desktop. The file took up 2.4 MB. Obviously, you can’t be e-mailing such large files around, and they’re not going to fit on a floppy disk. In addition, working with bitmapped graphics takes a lot of memory, causes programs like Windows 98 to become unstable, and is generally a pain in the keister. What you need are other image options.

Better than bitmap
Three other image formats are much better for creating documentation, but using them means investing in some software. The formats are TIFF, JPEG, and GIF, and their files use the extensions .tif, .gif, and .jpg. TIFF (Tagged Image Format Files) can be as large as bitmaps, but they also have a compression scheme to reduce their size somewhat, called LZW. For documentation that’s going to be published at a printer, .tif files give cleaner, sharper images than JPEG or GIF files.

You’re no doubt familiar with JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group) and GIF (Graphics Interchange Format) formats, as they are the kinds of graphics that Web browsers display. Both can be compressed. JPEGs work best with photographic-type images, while GIFs work best with line art, drawings, or screen shots—the types of pictures that have large areas of the same color. GIF images use no more than 256 colors, while JPEG images can support millions of colors. When highly compressed, JPEG images tend to have a bubbly, unattractive look. Its compression is considered lossy, which means that when the image is compressed, there’s degradation of the original. However, file sizes tend to be smaller. Using a mildly compressed JPEG, I captured a full screen and inserted it into a blank Word document. This time, instead of 2.4 MB, the Word file was only 110 KB. Fortunately, Word displays all the image formats mentioned in this Daily Feature.

Recommended software
To create your documentation, you’ll need two types of software: programs to capture images and programs to edit images. These days, software combines both tasks, but there’s still an edge to applications that specialize in one task. At TechRepublic, we recommend that our contributors purchase SnagIt32. This image capture program by TechSmith has the most versatile interface for creating screen captures. For example, SnagIt can capture the active window, a region that you define, the entire screen, or even a DOS window. SnagIt can even capture text out of an image and it can include or exclude the cursor (see Figure A). You can output to all the image formats I’ve discussed in this Daily Feature, as well as some others that are less common. The program comes with an image studio that provides generous image-editing capabilities. At $39.95 (U.S.) for a single license, or $200 (U.S.) for a 10-seat license, SnagIt is a bargain for even the most cost-conscious IT department.

Figure A
SnagIt has many capture options, suitable for every conceivable need.

As a publisher, TechRepublic needs a high-powered program and therefore uses Adobe Photoshop for image editing. This is one of the top programs in the graphic design field, and it’s priced to reflect its status and the gazillions of hours of design that went into it. I personally recommend the application known informally as “the poor man’s Photoshop:” PaintShop Pro, by JASC Software. Even if you have the budget, one of the disadvantages of Photoshop is a steep learning curve. If you’re not a graphic designer, you’ll appreciate the more familiar and intuitive interface PaintShop Pro uses. That’s not to say you won’t have to read some documentation.

While you won’t want to spend all your time designing graphics, with PaintShop Pro, you can add powerful special effects, such as drop shadows, highlights, cutouts, and embossing. You can use and edit layers and draw with superior drawing tools, such as an airbrush, paintbrush, or crayon. PaintShop Pro even has the ability to capture images. I’ve found the help documents easier to comprehend than those that come with Photoshop. In addition, there’s less system overhead with PaintShop Pro than with Photoshop. At only $99 (U.S.) for a download copy ($109 for a boxed version), you can have a great graphics studio for a great price.

What about DOS?
You’re not always going to be able to display MS-DOS programs in a MS-DOS box. When you have to capture images within DOS mode or the DOS operating system itself, find a copy of Grabber. Grabber is a small TSR (Terminate and Stay Resident) program. Once it’s loaded, pressing a hot key captures your DOS screen as an .exe file. You can later run the .exe file in Windows and capture the image in a more usable format. Grabber, as far as I know, doesn’t have a home page. It’s out there on the Web. Search Google for a copy. If you do find that it is still being hosted by a company, make sure you pay the registration fee.

Sometimes even Grabber won’t get the job done. For example, if you need to capture Windows NT or 2000 installation screens, you won’t be able to load Grabber during Setup. For those situations, you can manually re-create the screens in PaintShop Pro, include only the text of the screens in your documentation, or use your copy of VMware.

VMware is an amazing program that lets you run one operating system inside another. For example, you can install and run a copy of Linux inside Windows 2000, or another copy of Windows 2000 within Windows 2000. It creates virtual machines independent of each other. At $299 (U.S.) for a download copy, you wouldn’t purchase VMware just to make documentation. However, if your IT department has a copy, it’s the best way to capture installation and startup screens. Really, it's the only way I know.

Last words
When it comes to documentation, you can’t just have dry instructions. Illustrations guide your end users and create documents that really help. But to get the right kind of screen captures, you’ll need the right format and the right software. In this Daily Feature, I’ve given you some recommendations that are cost-effective and will make the job as easy as your busy schedule will allow.
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