File Naming

Follow basic computer system rules for file naming

Naming (or re-naming) digital image files is a key organizational task in digital image workflow because it is the most basic element of your file system structure. Digital cameras do not currently have very sophisticated naming options and the default names are confusing and lack one of the most important criterions for digital image file naming – each file name must be unique.

  • Letters in the name should only be the letters of the Latin alphabet (A-Z, a-z).
  • Numbers should only be the numerals 0-9.
  • Only use hyphens and underscores. Avoid any other punctuation marks, accented letters, non-Latin letters, and other non-standard characters such as forward and back slashes, colon, semi-colon, asterisks, angle brackets or brackets.
  • File names should end in a three-letter file extension preceded by a period, such as .CR2, .JPG, .TIFF, etc.

Use unique file names for each image

The next important criterion is each digital image file should have a unique file name. Having multiple files with the same name is confusing to photographer and clients alike. There is the danger that a file might automatically overwrite another file with the same name. How you arrive at unique file names will require some thought. Once you have developed a system, it is important to standardize and adhere to it. Some parameters that can be used to develop unique names can incorporate:

  • Your name or initials as the beginning of the string. Keep in mind that you are limited to 31 characters, so short names or initials work best.
  • The date of the photography session. This works best if you use year, month and day to keep files lined up in chronological order.
  • A job sequence number. The first project of the year might have a date/job string such as 09001, and so on. This will cause files to line up in job number order.
  • A sequence number. This number can begin at 0001 and go until the end of the job (make sure to have enough digits to contain the total number of files, or your files won’t line up correctly!) Many photographers like this model because they tell at a glance if the total number of files matches the final file number. Another reason to use this system is that the order in which files line up (and are likely viewed and proofed) can be controlled easily by organizing the files in a desired order and then renaming them. Another approach is to use the automatically generated numbers from the camera. One problem with that approach is that this cannot guarantee unique job names if you use more than one camera when you shoot.

Avoid incorporating job names or descriptions in file names

Although you can do this, it is easy to run into an overly long file name using this approach. Another consideration is that if you do a lot of shoots for a particular client or at a particular location, you’ll have to use some other naming string to differentiate the shoots from one another, so the descriptive component of the name is not particularly helpful.

Append file names to distinguish originals from derivatives

naming suffixes

One final criterion is to have a file naming system that allows you to easily tell whether a file is an original file, masterfile or derivative file. There are any number of possible variants such as a black-and-white version, a CMYK version, or a standard file format version from a raw original, such as JPEG or TIFF.

Plan for this and incorporate enough headroom into your file-naming schema to add a descriptor for these variations. For instance, a masterfile could have the letter M or MF or Master added at the end of the file name, but just in front of the three-letter extension. A CMYK version could have CMYK added, or a black-and-white version could have BW added, and so on.

Apply the file-naming system consistently

Once you have created a file naming system, use it consistently for all files. Just as with the optional workflow step of converting proprietary raw files to DNG, there can be early binding file naming or late binding file naming. While many prefer to implement a file naming schema on ingestion, those who use multiple cameras when they shoot, or those who want to organize image files in a particular order and have the file names preserve that bit of organizational effort, prefer to re-name image files after the editing workflow step.

Never use multiple names for the same image file

One of the very worst things you can do with file naming is to create a situation where the same image file has two different names. This can occur if you make an immediate duplicate copy of the ingested files, put away a copy and go on to edit and rename the other copy.

A workflow like that will be doubly confusing because not only will the file names not match up, but the total number of files may be different as well. Although there are work-arounds such as matching up image files by capture time, or putting the original file name into a metadata field and matching files up that way, it creates more work and wastes time.

However, putting the file name into a metadata field, such as the “Title Field”, is useful for delivery files. This allows you to easily recover from situations where the files’ recipient renames them and then needs another version of the same image.

You can direct the person to where the original file name is stored and your search time becomes much shorter! Additionally, keeping the original file name in the metadata can be useful when you need to rename a file for use on your web page. This will make it more discoverable by search engines.

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Last Updated February 27, 2012