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Screenshots for Dummies (Like Me)

I am a decent screenshotographer. I should know, I made up that ridiculous, pretentious label. But don't take my word for it, ask the voices in my head (seriously, voices, you're embarassing me!). Anyway, I've been asked about my screenshots over the years, though more often lately. So I've decided to pull back the curtain on this freak show.

I say freak show because you will see that the quality of my screenshots is in direct proportion to how obsessive/compulsive I can be and to what degree I am a perfectionist as opposed to my having any real skill or innate ability when it comes to the visual arts. So if you share these traits, congrats, you can be a screenshotographer too!

I suspect people ask about my screenshots so they can benefit from my considerable wisdom and do the exact opposite of what I describe. After all, if you're familiar with how I play video games, you've probably got a healthy mistrust of anything I can tell you that masquerades as advice. And in that regard, you've got something in common with my kids.

And just like with my kids, I am going to use a lot of fancy pants language to beguile and distract from the fact I have no idea what I'm talking about. I'll discuss things like composition, shutter speed ... well that's it, I don't know any other photography terminology. Well I know aperture, but have no idea what it is outside of a name in Portal.

Hardware

I'm most often asked what I use to take screenshots. Well I don't use video or screen capture hardware/software, though if you've seen my action shots, that fact is too painfully clear. The fact is, I need a relatively cheap and easy means of taking screenshots, because I'm nothing if not cheap and easy.

If I remember, pricing for video or screen capture hardware/software begins around $100 and can cost up to several hundred dollars depending on quality. It also operates with a PC, and my setup makes such a connection impractical. So my poison has always been cameraphones.

For the past several months, I've been using a Motorola Droid Razr smartphone (above). I'd argue that a smartphone is only as intelligent as its operator, but that's another discussion. For two years prior, I was using an HTC Droid Incredible (a decent phone, but hardly incredible), and previous to that I'd used an LG flip-phone.

One consideration for quality is how your camera settings are configured. I might be confusing my current phone with my previous model (confusion is my normal state), but I can't seem to find more detailed settings such as resolution; however, it is an HD phone and I believe the resolution is set high (as I'd set it on my prior phone).

An important element is keeping flash off, which goes without saying but can be problematic as my Razr's default is flash on (at least the Incredible remembered your custom setting). If adjustable, also consider changing the brightness and color settings to ensure the image closely resembles your TV/computer monitor and is also clear.

For what it's worth, I play on my Playstation 3 most often. I don't recall to what extent the visual settings are adjustable, though I suspect mine were left at the defaults. (Last but not least, remember to turn any lights off, or risk glare.)

I recently upgraded my TV monitor to an LG LED HDTV, model 42LM3400/3700 (above), which I've been using for the past few months. Prior to that, I had a Sony Bravia, model KDL-V32XBR2. In comparison, the former has a clearer picture due to the LED screen and/or better contrast in general (the latter is notorious for a too-dark picture).

The TV settings mostly were left at their default options though I might have tinkered with a few. For these it's always preferrable to try a variety of channels to ensure that the settings are the most effective regardless of the image. That said, you might not want to trust an old man with poor eyesight and even worse judgment.

Composition

When I talk about composition I mean how you stage the screenshot. That might not be the conventional definition but I'm decidedly unconventional -- or at least stubborn, so my definition stands for purposes of this exercise.

The first consideration is framing. When I play, I sit a few feet from the screen. That might not be optimal for any number of reasons, but with a 42-inch screen I like the perspective sitting at that distance. Also, when I need to charge my controller or wear my wired headset, that's as far away as I can sit. But let's pretend it's my choice.

It also happens to be the best distance for taking screenshots with a smartphone. I try to match my phone's viewscreen with the TV screen (I also have my cameraphone set to widescreen, which I believe is default but happens to also match my television). This cuts down on the need for cropping screenshots and also gives a better representation when sizing.

The next consideration is the image itself. In general, I try to take screenshots during lulls in onscreen action, as this allows time for staging the shot you want and ensures a more clear image. For this discussion, I'll break it up into two sections, still life and action.

Still Life

In between action, you have the opportunity to establish the shot that will best present visually whatever idea you're inspired to blog about. In other words, you can move your character to the optimum location, change stance or equip your character as appropriate, adjust the camera to the best perspective, etc.

For instance, if you want to capture the level design, you'll move to the spot that will provide the best overall view; conversely, if you want a character close-up, move to the nearest wall and swing the camera so it's facing your character (all the while keeping in mind how in-game lighting will impact your image).

There have been occasions where I'll need to adjust my cameraphone's settings while staging a screenshot, typically because the image in my viewscreen doesn't match the one on the TV monitor whether color, brightness, contrast, etc. Sometimes just focusing (pressing the touchscreen) in a given area will have the desired effect.

Regarding the focus feature, I usually have to press the touchscreen between screenshots to ensure the image is in focus, as the camera will often refocus on its own (resulting in shots taken mid-focus). And as suggested, focusing on different areas will alter the image (i.e. pressing on a dark area will lighten the image; pressing on a light area will darken it).

Action

I've gotten to the point where I typically try to avoid actions shots, though that hasn't stopped me on any number of occasions (did I mention how stubborn I am?). The problem is that when taking shots manually, as opposed to with video or screen capture hardware/software, images are necessarily blurry and suffer from ghosting (or trailing animations).

Part of the problem is a logistic one, as it involves resting the controller on my left thigh while holding the fingers on my left hand over two or three buttons necessary for executing certain actions including pausing the game, while simultaneously holding my smartphone in my right hand between middle finger and thumb and with my index finger on the shutter button.

The process is a little less involved when taking screenshots of cut scenes or scripted events (unless, of course, quick time events are included). These sequences typically involve alternating between pressing the touchscreen to focus and pressing the shutter button, often in a kind of QTE all its own to ensure that I capture an otherwise fleeting moment.

Despite my best intentions, all such screenshots are invariably of poor quality and require some heavy handed editing. In fact, I included two examples below to best demonstrate the impact of the editing process; though in retrospect the result is worse than can be achieved with still life images and, frankly, might undermine this whole endeavor. Oh well.

It's for these reasons that I'm more likely now to show the outcome of action instead. However, more games help pause the action, such as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Dragon's Dogma (which actually allows in-game screenshots) and Tomb Raider. Even this might be moot if next gen hardware in fact includes video/screen capture capabilities.

Upload/download

The next step is uploading/downloading one's smartphone pictures. This can be done locally via cable to one's PC or remotely via the phone's share feature to an image hosting website like Flickr (which I use for more flexibility and to save my screenshots online). On Flickr, shots are saved to a Photostream that can be easily accessed.

When I do upload to Flickr, I do so in quantities of eight at most. To do otherwise has resulted in some images failing to upload right away if at all. Likewise, I'll wait until all eight are uploaded before choosing another batch to send, as multiple concurrent uploads jeopardize the successful transmission of any one image.

 

Flickr allows users to save any size of an image to a destination such as one's desktop. I typically will save a 640 size copy as 610 is the maximum allowable size for posting to GIO. I also will save a 1024 size copy for use as a Hero Image given that the maximum is 910. In this regard, the higher your camera resolution is set the larger the images you can use.

Editing

Although my smartphone has photo editing features related to lighting, effects, color and cropping, I rarely use them as they tend to be simplified functions best for sharing with social media. Instead, I use photo editing software. Again, I go for cheap and easy so use software already installed on my computers or whatever came with respective office suites.

Now, the tricky part here (and it's ALL tricky IMO; after all, you can't teach an old dog new tricks) is that photo quality is going to change depending on the hardware or software used. From TV to console to phone to computer, each has its own settings that impact how your screenshots appear. Viewing them in a Web browser can vary their appearance further.

That said, you can't account for how other components portray an image, including how readers of your blog have customized the settings on their viewing devices. You have to adjust each component's settings independently and hope they all play nice together.

My default program of choice is Microsoft Office Picture Manager on my PC. To begin, I crop the sides of each respective screenshot, and virtually every image requires cropping. (I'll adjust the rotation first if necessary, but usually this step isn't required due to the time taken to carefully frame each shot prior to taking it.)

Once cropped so only the image shows, I resize it to fit the maximum allowable size on the site (a width of 610). This tool resizes the entire photo larger or smaller in preset increments; to be more precise so most photos are of a similar size, I sometimes use the cropping tool again to adjust specific sides.

Color can be altered based on three measurements: Amount, Hue and Saturation. I don't use Amount or Hue much, as the former I think ranges from grayscale to darker shades, whereas Hue is like tint and makes images more red or blue. Both just aren't very practical. I end up adjusting Saturation on most images that I use.

Saturation will impact how bright each color appears, which is especially helpful when images are washed out. An interesting side effect is how small adjustments into the positive range seem to help sharpen the image by subtly brightening colors; in fact, in lieu of a Sharpness or Definition option, I'll use Saturation to make most images more clear.

Brightness and Contrast likewise is a helpful setting. There are three measurements including Midtones. As with color, I don't often use two of the settings, Brightness and Contrast, though might make incremental changes. Midtones is the tool that I most often will adjust and sometimes dramatically.

The advantage of Midtones is that the changes are more subtle. Brightening into the positive range won't wash out the image, whereas darkening into the negative range won't obscure it. Interestingly, incremental changes in this tool (like in Saturation) has the effective of seemingly making the screenshot more clear.

The advantages of such software might not be readily clear in these comparison shots (above), but please don't judge the process based on how big a tool the screenshotographer is. Again, I think the difference is more obvious with an action shot even if the final result isn't a high quality image. On second thought, go ahead and consider the source. I would.

When using a Mac, I start off with Apple's iPhoto '09 (Version 8.1.2). This program has basic Edit features such as Straighten, Crop and Adjust. The only option that's missing is one to effectively resize the image, for which I use different Apple software that I'll mention below (there is an option in iPhoto, I believe, just not one that's practical).

Straighten allows the image to be rotated accordingly. As on the PC, this is not a tool I need to use often, however, the option in iPhoto or Microsoft Office Picture Manager is fairly intuitive and, as in the case above, allows me to make small adjustments that can account for the occasional crooked action shot.

Cropping an image is pretty straightforward though it's handled almost exclusively through manipulating the frame. There is no option to adjust each side based on measurement. To that extent, this tool is not as effective for sizing as it is for adjusting image borders.

The Adjust feature allows for customizing a variety of elements though I tend to use mostly Saturation, Definition, Shadows and Sharpness. Saturation impacts color, Shadows is similar to contrast, and Definition and Sharpness affect image clarity. The latter two are particularly useful tools that I wish were options in Microsoft's software.

As indicated earlier, there is an option in iPhoto for adjusting size. However, if I recall it offers predetermined choices for generic sizes without providing a corresponding measurement. I therefore use Apple's ColorSync Utility (Version 4.6.2) to resize images as it allows one to input custom figures, ensuring that screenshots can be size 610-by-X.

Hopefully, as in the earlier example, the difference between before and after screenshots not only is appreciable but improved as a result of my tinkering. At the same time, this exercise might serve as a cautionary tale about taking action shots with a smartphone, which in hands as adept as mine is less smart than smart aleck.

The last step is to use the insert image tool in Advanced Editor on GIO for adding each edited screenshot to my draft blog. I'm not advocating others follow this practice, as I understand that adding such media to the site potentially can slow it down. Indeed, links from image hosting sites like Photobucket can be used instead.

The reason I don't use links is because many times links to such sites (and I've used two or three, though my feeble mind can't recall the others) have failed me. Conversely, inserting the images themselves always meets with success. Though again I encourage others to do as I say not as I do because my example speaks for itself. (That's what I tell my kids, anyway.)

That said, I do try to post fewer screenshots. As opposed to the phlogs that used to include up to 40 images, I now routinely will post ones that display 20 or up to 30. The main impetus is to keep from weighing down the site (in lieu of using an image hosting site), but also it just takes way too much time to create longer phlogs.

By the numbers, my phlogs historically have run with 20 to 40 images, so let's say 30 on average. For every image, I've taken between one and, let's say, five shots in order to have one image that's useful for editing. On average, that's three shots per image. That means that, on average, I've taken 90 shots. That doesn't count images I reject, so let's round to 100.

Those 100 shots typically represent two hours of playtime. Now, the 30 images I actually use have to be edited prior to posting, and then I have to write my phlog based on my playtime and often reference the content in those images (including captions at times). I use Advanced Editor because I can save drafts, an important option for me as I write as time allows.

In my experience, it takes me at least four to six hours and as much as eight to 10 to create a phlog. That includes time spent playing, uploading/downloading photos, editing screenshots and writing copy, all over several nights during any given week. Perhaps now you recall how I mentioned I can be obsessive/compulsive and a perfectionist.

That said, the process is a labor of love for me. Yes, love for the medium but, more importantly, love for the community as well. Without the support and encouragement of the staff as well as friends I've made on Game Informer Online and even members I don't know, I would not be inspired to put as much time and effort into my phlogs.

So, thank you to everyone on GIO for welcoming me into this community and making me continue to feel welcome every day. It's an honor and a privilege.

Happy fishing!

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