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What's in a Name? Nomenclature, File Structure, and Saving Digital Images

This post is part of a series called Digital Asset Management for Photographers (Learning Resource Guide).
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Good filenames and filing structures allow you to correctly and easily find each unique image when you need it, even if your photo management software fails. It sounds simple, and it is! In this tutorial you'll learn about what you need in a filename and filing structure, how to establish a system, and use the system unfailingly. You'll learn how to keep your digital images organized and avoid a lot of needless heartache.

Romeo Romeo WTF Romeo after William Powell Frith by Mike Licht
Romeo, Romeo, WTF Romeo?, after William Powell Frith, by Mike Licht, CC BY 2.0

That Which We Call a Picture

Cameras and smartphones do a great job of providing unique identifiers to each photo taken. Unless you reset the counter in your device, each new image will be numbered sequentially: IMG_0001, IMG_0002, and so on to IMG_9999, and then the numbering starts over again. That’s a lot of photos before you begin to get conflicts, unless:

  • You use more than one camera. Each camera is on its own cycle for image numbering, so both cameras will, at some point, produce IMG_1234. Now you have two different images with the same file name.
  • You have your camera set to restart numbering with each newly formatted card. Now you’ve got the problem of the same numbering being used on two cards, both of which could be used in the same shoot if you’re a prolific shooter. In that case, you will not only have two different images with the same file name, you’ll also have two different images with the same file name and the same date.
  • You are a prolific shooter and always have your camera out. It won’t take long before you’ve accumulated 9999 images and your camera resets to IMG_0001. Once again, you will have two images with the same file name.

Now, imagine uploading those numbered images into your computer’s basic file manager or into photo management software. The files will certainly line up well by name, and depending upon the file or photo management software you’re using, the files may line up properly by date created, but do you remember if the pictures you took in Amsterdam are IMG_2345 to IMG_5432, or was that the shoot that you did for the newspaper? Was the Mad Hatter’s wedding the one you shot on April 1, 2011 or August 1, 2011?

You can create different folders on your computer for different sets of images: Amsterdam-March 2001, for example, or TheChronicle-StreetFair or Montague-Capulet-Wedding-2011. That works so long as the filing structure makes sense to you months later when you’re in a hurry and the images and folders haven’t become disconnected.

File manager with disorganized image files
Does this look like your photo directory? I have these images buried in RAID:\ToBeIntegrated\OLD-STUFF\pics-ddo. The names are meaningless and so is the filing structure.

You’re getting my point, I’m sure. And that brings me to the raison d’être of filenames and filing structures: to allow you—and someone who may be taking over for you—to correctly and easily find each unique image when you need it, even if your photo management software fails. It sounds simple, and it is so long as you think about what you need in a filename and filing structure, establish a system, and use the system unfailingly.

Files and Folders as Part of a DAM System

This tutorial describes the guidelines you can use to establish your file naming system (nomenclature) and filing structure. This part of digital asset management must be software agnostic: whatever you set up and use has to work no matter which file or image management software you’re using. So, ideally, think about nomenclature and filing structures before building your DAM system. And once you have your DAM system active, apply filenames to new images before, or as part of, ingesting images into a DAM system.

As we go along, you may have questions about how to name files and how to do that as part of digital asset management. I’ve provided a list of suggested articles and courses for you at the end of the tutorial.

Roses by any other name
Roses by any other name would smell as sweet. PhotoDune.

A Picture by Any Other Name: Use Unique and Descriptive Filenames for Images

Before you think about filing structures and folders, establish the nomenclature you’ll use for naming your image files. It’s easiest if you start with that.

There are four rules for naming files:

  1. The name should be descriptive enough that you can identify the file even without photo browsing software.
  2. Every file must have a unique name.
  3. The filename should follow conservative guidelines for naming computer files.
  4. Record your nomenclature and use it.

1. Make Your Filenames Descriptive

Filenames must help you rapidly sort through a large collection of images from multiple shoots. While you don’t want to add job names or descriptions that are going to make a filename too long and unwieldy, you may want to add some basic information and codes that help to group related images and describe them.

Use the Date the Image was Created: YYYYMMDD

The most basic information you can use in a filename is the date the image was created. Assuming you’ve set the clocks correctly in your cameras, every digital image will have the date created stored in the metadata. Almost all file and photo management software will provide some means of using the date created to name a file. You want to express that date as YYYYMMDD. Use four digits for the year to be internet-friendly and to make it clear that the numbers are a date, not random coding. Build your date in year-month-day order so that your files will sort correctly by date.

Some people recommend using hyphens in the date (YYYY-MM-DD) to make the date easier to read, but I recommend not using hyphens in order to keep your filenames as short as possible. Also, it’s common practice in business and retail environments to express a date with hyphens; however, depending upon where you live, the order could be YYYY-MM-DD or YYYY-DD-MM. Avoid the potential for confusion by using the eight digit system; it has been standardized to express the date in one order. If you have been using hyphens, try it without. You’ll be surprised at how quickly you learn to read the date expressed only as eight digits.

Use the Photographer’s Initials: INI

A common descriptor to use in a filename is the photographer’s initials. If nothing else, by adding your initials to the filename, you are marking the source image as yours. You are also preventing any kind of confusion if anyone handling your image files is also managing photos taken by another photographer. This can happen in commercial environments and is often the case in families when one family member acts as record keeper, managing the photos taken by all family members.

Some photographers like to include their name, not just initials, in an image filename. It’s one way of communicating copyright and it can help with marketing and search engine optimization. If your name is in the image filename, your name goes everywhere the image does. However, using your name instead of initials adds more characters to the filename. So, as with any aspect of digital asset management, think about your end purpose and decide what method suits your purpose best.

Add Client or Shoot Information: CODE

Some photographers will add a short code to the filename to identify the client or shoot. For example, for Dick and Jane Smith’s wedding, you might add WEDDJS or SMIT to the filename. Location photos might get an abbreviated place name added to the filename—NL, for the Netherlands, for example. Some photographers will use more characters, opting for clarity over brevity. The point is not that there is a specific system for describing your images but that you should think about whether you need descriptors in image filenames and if so, what method of describing images works for you. And if you’re going to use descriptors, keep it short.

The wall full of messages Verona Italy
The wall full of messages, Verona, Italy. PhotoDune.

2. Create Unique Filenames

There are two easy methods of generating unique filenames: use the time a photo was taken or use sequential numbering.

Use the Time the Image was Taken: HHMMSS

Digital cameras make it easy to use time as a unique identifier because digital cameras record the time down to seconds. Use that precise time as a type of image file DNA—HHMMSS—that, in combination with the date, will be a unique code for each image.

There is one situation in which two or more image files may have the same timestamp and so using the timestamp to name files will fail. When you are burst shooting, you are taking more than one image per second. It often happens in sports photography and can inadvertently happen on the most ordinary of shoots if you were quick with the shutter release. All images taken within one second will have the same time stamp and the images will look remarkably similar with only the slightest variation. To distinguish one from another, you have to look for more subtle differences or find a different naming system.

If you are the type of photographer who only rarely has two images with the same time stamp—I took one pair of such images in fourteen years of digital photography—take advantage of the warning system built into all file and photo management software. If you try to give a second file the same name as another file, the software will ask you if you want to want to replace the existing file with the new one, or if you want to give each file a unique name. Choose the option of unique names and your file will be appended with -1, -2, and so on as needed to distinguish each file with the same time stamp. To make sure there is absolutely no confusion, manually go back to the first file with the common name. It will not be appended with a distinguishing number. Add -0 to the filename so all files with the same timestamp have a code that reminds you that the image is part of a collection of different images with the same core filename.

Use Sequential Numbering: 0123

If you regularly shoot in burst mode and so often have clusters of images with the same timestamp, you have two choices: append timestamp-based filenames with a unique identifier (-1, b, etc.) or instead of using HHMMSS in your filename, use sequential numbering: 0001, 0002, and so on. Be sure to use leading zeroes so that your images will be correctly organized in any file management software. Without leading zeroes, some programs will order files as 1, 10, 101, 2, 20, 201, and so on. Also, use enough placeholders in your sequence to ensure you will have unique identifiers throughout the whole shoot. If you’re burst shooting at a hockey game, for example, you’re going to need at least four digit numbering.

I’m not a fan of sequential numbering, but sometimes, it’s what works. If you will be using sequential numbering, keep the following in mind:

  • If you are shooting with more than one camera or you use more than one media card at a shoot, it’s easy to unintentionally restart sequencing at 0001 with each media card or as you upload from the second camera. If that happens, you’ve got the problem of either duplicate filenames or a need to append filenames with unique identifiers.
  • If you add an identifier to distinguish one camera or card from another, sequential numbering may not align images in the order they were taken. That may not be a problem for you, but it’s something to consider.
  • If you are shooting for a client and eliminate some images from the shoot before sharing the images with your client, you can bet that your client will ask about an image in the sequential gap.
  • When sequential numbering does not result in clean, sequential ordering of related files, it can be, oh, so tempting, to resolve the problem by renaming the files with new sequential numbering. If you do it, you can bet that you’ll end up duplicating filenames or worse.

Save yourself the hassle and just use HHMMSS as your unique identifier, if you can.

File manager with image files uniformly named and in order
With good nomenclature, files sort easily and are also easily found.

Preserve the Original Image Number: ORIG

Many digital asset management specialists recommend preserving the original image number when naming files. Usually this means giving your image file a new name that precedes the original image number: [New Filename]-[Original Image Number]. There are times when this is a good idea, such as when you are not the only person working from the images out of the camera. Your nomenclature may be different than that used by the other person working with the original images. By preserving the original image number, you’ll have a common reference in addition to information about the date and time the image was captured.

Sometimes, you will want to preserve the original file name, not just the number, when you name files. This would be the case when you’re working with an established, chaotic collection of images that have been named in different ways. Those image names probably contain some useful information; JulietBday3-001, for example, probably means that the image was taken on Juliet’s third birthday. You’ll also want to keep original filenames when you know you or someone else at some time worked with the file under that original filename. Yes, you can elect to keep the original filename as information in the image’s metadata, but remember that your goal with names is to be software agnostic. Don’t take a chance on breaking the connection to a source image file; unless you are renaming the image file right out of the camera, keep the original filename in the new name.

Use Slugs to Distinguish Originals from Derivatives: -slug

If you do any kind of processing or publishing with your images, you’re going to end up with different versions of one image file. Not only might you have a PSD file in addition to your source RAW file, you might also have a file generated to certain pixel dimensions, converted to CMYK colour space, or watermarked for use on the web. Some photographers also save versions at various stages through processing. Avoid any kind of confusion and keep to the same filename but avoid the risk of potentially overwriting a file by adding a descriptive slug to the filename as the image moves through its life cycle. You could use -bw, for example, to mark an image that has been converted from its original to black and white; -CMYK for an image that’s been converted to that colour space; -web for an image that’s been sized for posting online; -wm for a watermarked image; and so on. When I prepare images for my Tuts+ articles, I know that I need to size them to 600px across, so I append the sized files with -600px.

3. Follow Basic Computer System Rules

Before you finalize the nomenclature you’ll use for your images, review your plan with a few basic rules in mind. Technology has evolved a great deal and filenames are no longer limited to eight characters and no spaces; however, not all file and photo management systems play by the same rules. What might work in your operating system may not work in another. This includes online file storage systems, which could operate on any of a number of computer platforms. Also, longer and more complex file and folder names must be coded or “aliased” by most systems, which exposes the filename to possible corruption, rendering the content of the file inaccessible. To avoid all of these problems, use the most conservative file naming conventions for digital assets.

Use only letters from the Latin alphabet (A-Z, a-z) and use only numerals (0-9) for numbers.

All characters are created by a computer code (unicode) telling a font family what character to express. Letters from the Latin alphabet and numerals have been coded and standardized since the dawn of computing, so those characters are safe to use. Systems are getting better at recognizing accented and non-Latin letters, but many of these codes have not yet been standardized and not all operating systems will recognize every unicode. For reliable filenames, stick to the Latin letters A-Z and a-z, and to use as few characters as possible to express a number, use numerals (0-9) rather than words (zero-nine).

With the exception of hyphens and underscores, do not use any other mark, code, or punctuation mark.

Many punctuation marks and codes fall into that extended category of unicodes I’ve already mentioned, but what is more critically relevant is that many punctuation marks and codes are read by operating systems as computing actions. The solidus (/), for example, is regularly used by operating systems to signal a change in directory. Hyphens (-) and underscores (_) are always safe in file names. And, if you really want to be user-friendly, even avoid using underscores: they require two keystrokes to create (SHIFT+HYPHEN).

Use hyphens or underscores instead of spaces in filenames. While most systems read a space in a filename, spaces are encoded or converted to characters in some situations, especially on the web. Avoid potential problems by replacing spaces with hyphens or underscores, or by creating what is sometimes called “CamelCase”—beginning each word or code in a name with an uppercase letter, AllWithoutAnySpaces.

Ensure all file names have a period and a three-letter extension identifying the file type; e.g., .JPG.

This is just good basic computer hygiene. A program can’t tell what it’s working with if the filename doesn’t provide the information. Don’t mess with it.

Restrict the length of filenames.

Some systems allow extraordinarily long filenames. Still, the safest length for filenames is what is referred to as the 8.3 pattern: eight letters in the filename plus a three-letter extension designating the file type. However, eight characters is usually not enough to effectively manage digital assets. The standard recommendation is to keep filenames as close to the 8.3 pattern as possible but long enough as is reasonable to accurately identify the file. To decide how many more characters you might add to a filename, consider the following:

  • General netiquette guidelines recommend keeping a filename to 15 characters or less if you plan to share the file by email or on the web.
  • In Windows, the maximum length of a pathname—the filename plus all parent directories—is 256 characters. In the pathname C:\Program Files\filename.txt, 17 characters are used even before reaching the filename and another four characters are used to identify the file type (.txt).  Given that filing structures are commonly a few directories deep, you can see how a good number of the available character spaces may be used by the time you reach the filename.
  • File management software and image management software will truncate long filenames with ellipses (...). This means that you may not be able to read some of the information stored in the filename without taking extra steps to reveal the full filename.
Symbols of love in Juliets courtyard Verona Italy
Lock it up! Symbols of love in Juliet's courtyard, Verona, Italy. PhotoDune.

4. Record and Use Your Nomenclature

Once you’ve determined what you need in your image filenames, you need to decide in what order you’ll place that information. How you order the information depends upon your goals. If you need your images to fall into order, first, by time taken, regardless of the photographer, use the date (YYYYMMDD) first. If it’s more important to sort images by who took them, put the photographer’s initials (INI) first. If you need to keep wedding photos separate from your travel photography, put the descriptor (CODE) first. You get the idea. You do want your unique identifier (time or sequential number) at the end of the filename, followed by any slug you elect to use. And separate the key chunks of information with a hyphen or underscore.

A common rule of thumb for image filenames is to limit the length to 28 to 35 characters. I use that length with the following formula:


That’s 29 characters—a lot of characters in a filename, but it’s the balance between length and description that works for me. What’s most important is that the filename works for me, I have it written down in my business notebook, and I use it diligently.

There is one exception to this rule. When working for a client, always ask if the client needs a particular nomenclature. If you’re doing business-to-business work, you will find clients increasingly requesting that images be named in a way that works with their organization’s digital asset management system. If you run into a situation where the client wants a nomenclature that’s vastly different from yours, try, if you can, to name your files in a way that suits your client but still preserves the essential elements of your own system.

File manager with image files uniformly named and in order
Because I’ve used a consistent nomenclature and applied it diligently, I can see at a glance what I’ve got in this archived folder. And even though derivative files (PSDs, for example) have a creation date that differs from the original image, the related files still cluster together because they share the same core filename. Coding that I use for slugs quickly gives me more information about related files.

Avoid the Fates of Star-cross'd Filing Structures

You could simply keep all of your images in one directory without any folders, but navigating thousands of images in one directory, even with photo management software, becomes a mammoth, resource-demanding, and time-consuming task. A hierarchy of folders is the standard way to break a collection of files down into manageable groups and avoid mixing up the latest Montague family portrait with pictures from the Capulet family gathering. There’s nothing romantic about folders, but they do get the job done. Here are some guidelines that will help you get the most out of your folder structure.

1. Build your filing structure to be software independent.

You need to build a filing structure that will help you easily find images even without photo management software. The easiest way to build the filing structure you need is to look at your priorities when you established your file naming pattern. How did you decide to think about your images: by date, client, photographer, event, or by something else?  If you decided that you mentally sort your images first by when you took them, then your first level of folders will be by year (YYYY). If, on the other hand, you think about your images first by who took them, your first level of folders will be one for each photographer (INI). And so on.

2. Don’t use more folders or subdivide folders more than you need to reasonably manage your files.

It’s possible, even likely, that with your images divided into your first level of folders, you’ll still have too many files in each folder to easily navigate navigate your images. Subdivide your first level of folders in whatever makes sense to you, but avoid too many subdivisions. A complicated or deep folder structure will slow you down and create opportunity for error. A hierarchy of three levels of folders is probably the most you’ll need.

3. Use your folders for storage, not organization.

You should be able to pull an image out of a folder and still be able to identify it and know enough about it to figure out where the image slots back into your collection of images. Your folders should not be structured in such a way that you lose valuable information about an image once you remove it from a folder. For example, if your filename is YYYYMMDD-INI-HHMMSS, but you name your folder EVENT, you would not know where to return the image should it become separated from the folder. You would have to review the image and probably check the metadata before you knew where the image belonged.

4. Keep multiple versions of an image in the same folder.

There are different opinions about this guideline. Some sources recommend putting all of your DNGs in one folder and derivative files in another. The argument is that this reduces the odds that an original file will be overwritten by a derivative file. It can also be easier to automate some tasks if your images are sorted by function. For example, you may have an online gallery set up with a watched folder on your computer. When you add a file to the folder, the online service uploads the file into your gallery. In that case, you probably only want JPGs in the watched folder.

My experience with this kind of system is that I end up with multiple copies of an image and lose track of which versions are where and how many I have. And if the folder structure falls apart, will you know FILENAME-1.jpg came from a folder of files for the web and is an inferior version of FILENAME-1.jpg that came from a folder of files for the printer?

My preferred structure—and the system recommended by many digital asset management specialists—is to use slugs on the filename to distinguish versions of files and keep all versions in the same folder so you can easily see what you have, even without photo browsing software. That said, you may have reasons to sort images by type. If so, set up your system carefully so that you don’t lose track of what you have. A common solution I’ve seen is to use subfolders by type within a main folder for the shoot.

5. Record your structure and use it.

If there’s any magic to building an effective and user-friendly digital asset management system, it’s a result of taking the time to think about what you need, making decisions about how you can make that happen, then documenting those decisions and sticking with them. Always. Every time. Once you’ve decided how to name your files, write down your nomenclature. And once you’ve sorted out your filing structure, write it down too. Put your noted nomenclature and filing structure in an obvious place, and use them.

File manager with filing structure for image storage
My filing structure isn’t complex, but then it doesn’t need to be. If an image were to become separated from the filing structure, I would know where it belonged, and if I need a file, I can find it quickly.

Keep Learning

Now that you have a nomenclature and filing structure, you need to put it to use. I promised to provide you with a list of references that can help you with that.

Sometimes the best way to wrangle and brand image files is not to use photo management software, but instead, to use a renaming app. (This is especially the case if you’re dealing with a disorganized collection of existing, older image files.) You’ll find two quick tutorials in Computer Skills that could be helpful:

Finally, to learn more about building and maintaining a reliable system for digital asset management, explore our series on Digital Asset Management Fundamentals.

That’s a lot of information about naming and storing image files! I can’t overstate, though, how important this stage of digital asset management is. If I can offer you any final bit of advice, it is to start small. Make a duplicate set of about 100 of your images and move them into a separate directory that becomes your testing lab. Play in that testing lab with the guidelines and suggestions in this tutorial and once you’ve decided what you need and how you’re going to do it, apply your practice on your real image collection.

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