We were visiting our son recently for our grandson Logan’s birthday. Our son was showing us his Sony Playstation 3 where he had inserted a jump drive with his own childhood photos on it. Years ago I had digitized many of my slide images and had come up with a file naming structure then. The above image came up on the screen and the viewer showed the file name “1975A025S John, Jeff at Redfish Lake.jpg”. At that instance I realized how important it was that I had used some type of good file naming structure back then because I would have never remembered when the photo was taken, that it was taken at Red Fish Lake and I might not even have been able to identify which child was in the picture.
In The Days of Film
Years ago it was relatively easy to manage the images I took. I usually would take 35 mm slides in those days and would just buy those bulk trays to store them sequentially. When I got them back from being developed, I would write on the slide cardboard holder the names of the people in the picture. I created little dividers in my bulk trays to separate the slides by year. When I used negative film, I would put the negatives in plastic sleeves and then include those in a binder.
Digitizing Film Images
Once I start to digitize some of these slides and negatives, I needed to come up with a naming convention for the file on the computer. I decided to tie the digital image back to the original, which meant I needed to do some type of naming on the original slide or negative sleeve. I started out by using two digits for the year, a letter from A to Z for which role it was and two digits of which frame, and a N or S if it was a slide or Negative. So if my image was 96A03N, to find the original I looked for the 3rd frame on the negative sleeve of the first role taken in 1996. It all worked okay back then but the images started to come more from digital cameras and less digitizing film. Still I stuck with this concept. I had to expand the year out to four digits and the sequence out to 3 digits, but I would name a file something like 2002A003D, which was a digital only image taken in 2002. The A was the first group and I would just add a sequence until I decided to go to another letter.
Following that I would add in text that contained who was in the photo and where it was taken. So I would end up with something like “1995B009N Sara at Tokyo.jpg”. When I first wanted to give the kids a CD with images they were in, I would search for all the images with their name in it because I had taken the time to insert the names right into the file name.
Computer Folder Structure
On my computer I would put 10 years of photos in one folder, with a separate sub folder for each year. So I had a folder 1990-99 with a sub folder 1999. That 1999 folder has only 185 images. I took a lot more pictures but have only digitized 185 of them.
Anyone who has a digital camera knows that the number of images taken is orders of magnitude more than with film. Last year I took about 2,000 images. So I gave up grouping the years in 10 year increments and just have a folder for the year. Inside that I have a folder for each day that I have images. I have Adobe Lightroom setup to import images from my digital cameras and create those sub folders, based on the EXIF information in the file. After import, inside Lightroom I rename the folder to include some descriptive name.
Others who use this approach name those sub folders with something descriptive such as “Visit to Beach”. But then that folder, might be towards the bottom while “Christmas” would be toward the top. I guess I am too structured for that so I use the month-day for the folder name and then add on that type of description, such as “06-23 Visit to the Beach”. Initially I also included the year in the folder name but thought that was redundant since that folder is inside a folder with the year on it. Since you can always get the date from the files EXIF, I am not too worried about not putting the year for the folder name, as long as the parent folder has the year in it.
Individual File Naming
That brings me down to the individual file names. When I was digitizing film, each file was a stand alone. I could later change the name if I wanted and it would not matter. Since I am now using Adobe Lightroom, which keeps a database of all the photos, any renaming I do must be done from within Lightoom or it will not know where the photo is located and I will have to manually match up each individual photo file or lose any edits I have done.
Initially I was just using the camera generated name. It seems like a lot of effort to rename every single image. My thought was that on my computer I have the folder structure that tells me the date and subject, and using Ligthroom, I have entered keywords to identify all family members. But then I thought about the recent experience with my son viewing his childhood photos on his TV.
In the digital world information about the photo can be located in one of three places:
- The File Name – that is carried with the photo no matter where it goes and is readable by any device that can view images
- The EXIF – embeded in each JPEG and RAW image is lots of information about which camera was used, shutter speed, etc.
- External – Any sidecar file or database such as Adobe Lightroom that can contain such things as keywords
The further you move down the above chain the more likely you are not able to retain that information many years later. Obviously putting all you want into the file name is the safest, but that takes a lot of work, maybe too much considering how many digital images we shoot. That was understandable when people would search for a file by something in a file name as I did in the 1990s. But today we search visually, using some time of photo management software. Using Lightroom, I can select the folder 2008 and see all the photos taken in this year. Or I can select the folder “07-10 Crater Lake” and see the images taken on our visit to Crater Lake. I don’t need to change all the file names. Instead, inside Lightroom I will use tags to find the images.
Placing the files for each day into a separate folder gathers together the folders that are usually associated with an event. Inside Adobe Lightroom, I can just click that folder in the navigation and see all the images. This is a bit like the Events in iPhoto, but not quite as powerful since some events span multiple days and some days have multiple events.
Concerns About This Approach
The more we depend on software library programs such as iPhoto, Lightroom, or Adobe Photoshop Elements, the less likely we are to put into the folder structure and file name any useful information. I was currently using the camera generated name but that has very little information. It only tells me which camera I used and the sequence of the image. What happens if I want to change what program I use to manage my images. Will all those tags I carefully entered, which are in the software database, be converted over. Information inside the EXIF should always be there since this is a standard. Adobe does offer the option in Lightroom to create a side card file, so when you open it in another Adobe program, such as Photoshop, it can read that information. But that means a bunch of additional files that only Adobe programs can read.
So I am changing my approach. I will continue to use the same folder naming convention I have in the past, but I will use Adobe Lightroom to rename all my images with a bit more information, but will retain the sequence number that was created by the camera. This is important since I have uploaded many photos to an online service and I need to be able to find the original in the future.
After importing the recent photos, using Lightroom I selected all the photos in the “FJK 01-07 Logan Birthday Folder” and then issued this renaming command.
This renames each file with my initials (so I know who took the photo), the year/month, a bit of information about the subject and where taken, and the original sequence number. With this small amount of effort, I ended up with the files named like this.
Yes, it is a longer file name than “_DSC2427.NEF” that was imported originally, but it contains a lot more information. It seems a good compromise since it takes very little time. The reason why I want to include the original file name sequence is because I have often uploaded the photos to some photo sharing site before I went back and renamed them. This allows me to connect what is in the website and the original image.
Currently I am happy with the folder structure I am using. I can easily find a group of photos as shown in this example that is from one year ago, at Logan’s first birthday.
This seems to be the simplest approach right now, but I have changed before and might well change again. I am still considering if I am doing enough in terms or renaming individual files but doing more would require renaming individual files. I believe I should go back and enter at least the names of the people in the file name, but that is a lot of work. It is just that I have some prints of my ancestors and I don’t know who they are because no one wrote the names on the back of the print. But for now, I would rather spend the time taking pictures so this subject is not yet closed.