The Best way to Name Photo Files, and Why

So, like most people, you have a heap of photos stored in a folder somewhere on your device / computer. You have finally decided to organise them into some sort of structure, because you are tired of searching through them all each time you want to find a particular photo. You may have even named a few with the people in them, or where it was taken, or when, but the idea of doing this to all of your photos is very daunting.

[screenshot of a folder full of photos coming soon]


TLDR; Too Long, Didn’t Read

Name your files this way for personal pictures:

Name your files this way for professional use:
Customer_Job_ YYYY-MM-DD_HH.MM.SS_Subjects

Name your files this way for corporate use:
Department_Purpose_ YYYY-MM-DD_HH.MM.SS_Subjects

Work out How You Want to Access Your Photos

Are you an amateur photographer, like most of us, who has a lot of photos of family, children, friends, pets, and holidays etc? Are you taking photos for business use, and need to organise these photos differently? Whatever your purpose and reason, think about how you would like to be able to find those photos.

e.g. For personal photos you may want to look at them by the date they were taken, as you know roughly when your last holiday was. For business or professional photography, you may need to look up photos for your clients, regardless of when the photos were taken.

Generally, regardless of how you choose to organise your files for a given purpose, you should follow this rule of thumb: Start with the most general information, and get more specific. Think of each of these pieces of information in the file name as a group – a way of keeping similar photos together.

e.g. You have a photo of your puppy on her first trip to the beach while on holidays in North Queensland. The most general piece of information would be the date and time – the year, month, day, then hour and minute the photo was taken. Then, because you may have visited a few locations that day, you may want to use the name of the beach or the town where the beach is located. Finally, you probably took photos of a few people, places, and scenes while you were there, so you would want to know what or who was in each photo.

Look at the File Names of the Photos

Chances are, your files are already named with the date and time they were taken. Most digital cameras and smart phones name photos with this information. In my photo folders, I have some fairly awkwardly named photos called things along the line of IMG_20190117_223222.jpg, 20181110_221229.jpg, 01112009007.jpg, and even DSCF0651.JPG.

If you look closer at the first 3 file names above, you may notice that they contain the date and time information of when the photo is taken. The first two show the date and then the time, separated with an underscore. The date and time are backwards to us westerners, using the format of YYYYMMDD_HHMMSS. YYYY = 4 digit year; MM = the 2 digit month number, DD = the 2 digit day; HH = 2 digit hour; MM = 2 digit minute; and finally SS = the 2 digit second.

The third file name is a bit more tricky to decipher at first glance, but is in the format of HHMMYYYYMMDD.

The last one is pretty useless, and doesn’t have any information except to say its an image and its image number 651.

A Note on “Leading Zeros”

You might notice in the examples above, I mention 2 digit values, and in the last file name example, the file is called DSCF0651.jpg and the number part is technically 0651. This leading zero is important because it helps keep all of the images taken in chronological order.

Imagine you have a group of files taken on a holiday for New Years day in 2018. They will be auto named something along the lines of 2018-01-01_091545.jpg. Those leading zeros are important, because if you had a bunch of photos without this zero, then things will look very confusing.

I.e. Imaging a set of files without leading zeros on the Month:
2018-1-01_091545.jpg, 2018-11-01_091545.jpg, 2018-2-21_091545.jpg, 2018-10-01_091545.jpg, 2018-3-01_091545.jpg

They would be sorted like this:

When they should be sorted like this:

Don’t Forget Folders

Now you have an idea on how to name your photo files, you can think about what folder structure you want to put them in. Rather than just relying on file sorting to group related images, you can of course put them in a folder of their own. BUT, you do not want to create a bunch of folders without also thinking about how they will be labelled and sorted. They follow the same rules as file names.

Folders will not only help you sort your photos, but is better on your operating system, as having tens of thousands of photos in a single folder can become slow and unwieldy to manage.

Its usually practical to create a series of folders, again considering how you want to find them. One of the simplest ways is to create a folder for each year, and inside that folder, a dated folder for particular events or trips such as birthdays or holidays. The bulk of the photos for that year will sit in the main Year folder, and the ones taken for particular purposes can be placed in the sub directories.

[Screenshot of organised folders and photos coming soon]

How to Rename All of these Photos

Your operating system (Windows, Linux, Mac, Android, iOS etc) has basic renaming functions that can be done on a file by file basis. Some have functions where you can select a group of files, and rename one file, and it will follow that naming for the other selected files, with a number appended to the end of the file name.

While this might be fine for small groups of files, it can be a very lengthy process to manually rename and sort out your whole collection of photos.

There are a number of free tools available to rename bulk files, including the recently released Windows 10 Power Toys PowerRename.

I have created a FREE and Open Source quick renaming tool for folders of photos called Fast Photo Renamer. It will rename photos based on the template rules you set, individually, or in bulk. All renaming actions can be set to be logged so they can be undone at any time. You can also read and edit the photo Exif / metadata to further improve descriptiveness of the file names with the location they were taken, device used, etc.

Use Fast Photo Renamer – Free, Open Source, powerful, and easy to use.

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