Capturing the contents of a PC’s screen, using either Windows’ built-in facility or a dedicated utility such as SnagIt, is a useful technique. Indeed, virtually all the screen grabs you see on our website were created this way.
You’ve probably generated screen grabs yourself but, if not, it’s a technique that you may well find helpful in so many areas. If you teach IT you’ll find it invaluable for creating course notes and presentations explaining how to use particular applications. Or if you’re on the other side of the educational divide, it they could come in handy for illustrating your coursework.
If you’ve gained the reputation of a guru and your friends are constantly asking your advice on how to use their PCs, a screen shot could be just the thing to answer their queries.
Conversely, if your latest software purchase refuses to behave itself, and you’re fed up of telling support staff over and over again what’s gone wrong, you can send them the visual proof that their software is faulty.
Sometimes a still image of the screen isn't enough and what you really want is a movie showing on-screen action. It’s easy to think of instances in most of our examples above where a screen recording would offer so much more. Instead of having to provide a whole sequence of screen shots with associated explanatory text, a single video clip could do it all.
In addition to just the on-screen action, your movie can include an audio commentary or, if you prefer, on-screen annotations or captions to explain what you’re doing. Just like screen shots, the end result can easily be emailed, or hosted on your website.
Compared to making still screen shots, this may sound expensive and complicated but it needn’t be. While many of the more fully-functioned screen grabbers are paid-for products, such as Camtasia Studio, the package we’ve chose for recording action on screen is totally free.
It’s called CamStudio and you can download it from camstudio.org, install it on your PC and start it up before continuing. What’s more, using CamStudio will soon become second nature as our step-by-step guide will prove. The utility works in Windows XP, Vista, 7 and 8.
CamStudio will list any video codecs installed on your computer, but we recommend installing Xvid and using that if you don't already have it. You can download it from www.xvid.org.
How to record your screen with CamStudio
1. Specify a folder for your recordings from Options > Program Options > Directory for Recording. Click on the Record button (the red circle). Minimise CamStudio and then do whatever you want to record. When you’ve finished, double click on the CamStudio icon at the right-hand side of the task bar to maximise it and click on the Stop button (the blue square).
2. As soon as you’ve stopped recording, Windows Media Player will play the recording. Watch it through and you should see an accurate representation of what you did on-screen. However, you’ll notice that the recording includes the CamStudio window itself at the start and end of the recording. Since you normally won’t want to see this, we'll deal with that next.
3. Select Options > Program Options > ‘Minimize program on start recording’ to automatically minimise CamStudio before recording starts. To prevent CamStudio from appearing at the end we’ll use a keyboard shortcut to stop recording. Select Options > Program Options > Keyboard Shortcuts and then, in the dialog box, define keys for Stop and Record/Pause. Now just start recording as you did in Step 1 and stop it using your shortcut.
4. Sometimes you’ll only want to record part of the screen. Select Region > Region and start recording. Click and drag to select a region, then update the numbers to ensure they are even, not odd. CamStudio will refuse to record a video with odd pixel dimensions. Green/yellow ‘corners’ will show which part of the screen is being recorded.
5. To record the audio as well as the on-screen action, select Options > ‘Record audio from speakers’ before you start recording. Alternatively, if you want to add an audio commentary to your recording select Options > ‘Record audio from microphone’ first. If it doesn’t record select Options > ‘Audio Options’ > ‘Audio Options for Microphone’ and make sure your microphone is selected as the Audio Capture Device.
6. To add an on-screen caption while recording use the shortcut Record/Pause key you defined in Step 3. Then maximise CamStudio and select Tools > Screen Annotations. Double click a shape from the Shapes tab and drag the shape to the desired position. Right click on the box and select ‘Edit Text’. Enter your text in the ‘Text Properties’ dialogue box. Minimise CamStudio and use the Record/Pause shortcut to continue recording.
CamStudio: Using shapes as captions
Captions form an important part of any recordings of on-screen action yet the first time you try to add a caption – as we do in Step 6 – you won’t find any shapes to act as text boxes.
CamStudio’s shapes are stored in libraries and although it comes with a default library, unless you tell CamStudio where it is, it won’t be able to find it. Before you add a caption, therefore, you must first do the following which can be done without having to start a recording first.
Select Screen Annotations from the Tools menu and make sure the Shapes tab is selected. You’ll see an empty list where you’d expect to see the shapes.
Select Open Shape Library from the Library menu on the Screen Annotations dialogue box. In the Load Shapes dialogue box, find the shapes library called before clicking on Open. In Windows 7 with the current most recent version of CamStudio you’ll find it at C:\Program Files (x86)\CamStudio 2.6b\.
The list of shapes will now be filled in. Although you can’t preview the shapes before selecting them, the names are adequately descriptive (e.g. Plain and Point Right). However, if you do end up selecting a shape for a text box which you don’t like, it’s easy to delete it before trying again. To delete a shape, right click on it and select Close from the pull down menu that appears.