The A List Apart Blog Presents:

Driving Phantom from Grunt

Article Continues Below

While building websites at Filament Group, there are a couple tools that consistently find their way into our workflow:

  • GruntJS is a JavaScript Task Runner. It runs on NodeJS and allows the user to easily concatenate and minify files, run unit tests, and perform many other tasks, from linting to minification of images.
  • PhantomJS is a headless (Webkit-based) web browser. A headless web browser renders a page without having a visible window. Using this functionality, we can write code that you would want to run in a browser, but see its results in the command line. This allows us to run scripts and even render snapshots of pages without having to open a browser and do it manually.

Together, these tools allow us to get consistent feedback for our code, by further automating checks that would normally require opening a browser.

For this example, we’re going to build a Grunt task that takes a screen shot of the pages we’re building (similar to Wraith, but far less advanced). There are multiple parts to make this work, so let’s break it down. First, we will write a PhantomJS script that renders each page. Second, we make a NodeJS function that calls this script. Finally, we make a GruntJS task that calls that Node function. Fun!

To get started, we need to make sure that PhantomJS is installed. Since we’re using Phantom from the context of a NodeJS application, a very easy way to install it is by using the NPM PhantomJS installer package. Installing Phantom in this manner allows us to make sure we have easy access to the path for the Phantom command while simultaneously having a local, project-specific version of it installed.

To install locally: npm install phantomjs.

Now, we need to write a script to give to PhantomJS that will render a given page. This script will take two arguments. The first is the URL of the page that needs to be opened. The second is the file name for the output. PhantomJS will open the page, and when the page has opened successfully, it will render the page as a PNG and then exit.

var page = require( "webpage" ).create();
var site = phantom.args[0],
    output = phantom.args[1]; site, function( status ){
    if( status !== "success" ){
        phantom.exit( 1 );
    page.render( output + ".png" );
    phantom.exit( 0 );

Let’s create a lib directory and save this file in it. We’ll call it screenshotter.js. We can test this quickly by running this command from our command line (in the same directory we installed phantom): ./node_modules/.bin/phantomjs lib/screenshotter.js google. This should create a file in the same directory named google.png.

Now that we have a PhantomJS script, let’s work on making this run from Node. PhantomJS is a completely different runtime than Node, so we need a way to communicate. Luckily, Node gives us an excellent library named child_process and in particular, a method from that library called execFile.

If we look at the documentation for the execFile method, we can see that it takes up to four arguments. One is mandatory, the other three are optional. The first argument is the file or, in our case, the path to PhantomJS. For the other arguments, we’ll need to pass PhantomJS args (the URL and output from above), and we’ll also want to include our callback function—so we can make sure we grab any output or errors from running Phantom.

var path = require( "path" );
var execFile = require( "child_process" ).execFile;
var phantomPath = require( "phantomjs" ).path;
var phantomscript = path.resolve( path.join( __dirname, "screenshotter.js" ) );

exports.takeShot = function( url, output, cb ){
    execFile( phantomPath, [
    function( err, stdout, stderr ){
        if( err ){
            throw err;

        if( stderr ){
            console.error( stderr );

        if( stdout ){
            console.log( stdout );
        if( cb ){

Our example code from above is written as a Node.js module. It has a function that takes three parameters. These parameters are the same parameters that are used in the PhantomJS script from above and a callback function to run when the task has completed. It then calls execFile and passes it three arguments. The first is the path to PhantomJS. The second is an Array with the our passed in parameters. The third is our callback function. This callback function is called with three arguments: err, stdout, and stderr. err is the error thrown by Phantom if something bad happens within that script. stderr and stdout are the standard error and standard output streams. This should give us everything we need to call our script as though it’s a regular NodeJS function, which will make it perfect for a Grunt task. Let’s save it in lib/shot-wrapper.js.

Now, for the Grunt task:

var screenshot = require( "../lib/shot-wrapper" );

grunt.registerMultiTask( 'screenshots', 'Use Grunt and PhantomJS to generate Screenshots of pages', function(){
    var done = this.async();
    // Merge task-specific and/or target-specific options with these defaults.
    var options = this.options({
        url: '',
        output: ''

    screenshot.takeShot( options.url, options.output, function(){

Let’s take a look at this piece by piece. First, we require the shot-wrapper library we built above. Then, we create the task screenshots by using grunt.registerMultiTask. Since the takeShot method is asynchronous, we need to create a done callback function that lets Grunt know when to complete the task. The options object sets defaults for url and output in case they aren’t passed in (in this case, they’re empty strings, which won’t work). Finally, pass the options and the done callback into the takeShot method. Now, when somebody calls this Grunt task, your code will run.

Let’s give it a try. Here’s an excerpt from my Gruntfile:

screenshots: {
  default_options: {
    options: {
      url: '',
      output: 'ala'
An animated gif running screenshots tasks

The task has run, so we’ll open the file produced:

open ala.png

And voilà: as you can see from this rather large image, we have a full-page screenshot of A List Apart’s homepage. (Note: you may notice that the web fonts are missing in the rendered image. That’s currently a known issue with PhantomJS.)

Just imagine what you can do with your newfound power. Phantom and Grunt give you ample freedom to explore all sorts of new ways to enhance your development workflow. Go forth and explore!

For more in-depth code and to see the way this works when building a project, check out the repository.

6 Reader Comments

  1. In the grunt task, it isn’t necessary to wrap done() in an anonymous function, is it? “done” itself is callable:

    screenshot.takeShot( options.url, options.output, done);

  2. Beat – Completely correct. I left that open to better illustrate that somebody could also write some other code in there before calling `done`, but yes – a simpler and cleaner version of the code is to just pass done as a function instead of wrapped in an anonymous one.


Got something to say?

We have turned off comments, but you can see what folks had to say before we did so.

More from ALA

Voice Content and Usability

In this excerpt from Voice Content and Usability, author Preston So talks about the messy, primordial nature of human speech and challenges with programming computers to deal with these complexities.

Designing for the Unexpected

As devices continue to diversify in dizzying ways, how can we make sure our work on the web stays as relevant as ever for the long haul? Cathy Dutton shares how practitioners must perfect designs both for the paradigms of the present and the twists of the future, come what may.

Asynchronous Design Critique: Getting Feedback

Receiving feedback can be a stressful experience: will an open-ended question attract helpful guidance or harsh criticism? Erin “Folletto“ Casali coaches us through a process to ensure that feedback always lands gracefully.

Asynchronous Design Critique: Giving Feedback

You’ve heard the term “constructive criticism” countless times but do you know how to deliver it? Part one of this series from Erin ‘Folletto’ Casali gives you a framework for it! Flex your feedback muscles and practice these skills to empower and inspire others without deflating or confusing them.

That’s Not My Burnout

If, like many folks during the pandemic, you’ve begun confusing burnout for achievement, Donna Bungard will show you how to recognize that you’re low on fuel and give you a map of rest stops where you can refill your tank.