Naming Folders and Images

by Wren McMains

[This is a start at re-writing my discussion of Organizing Your Images with Lightroom added to you Toolkit. (This discussion was originally written in about 2004 and updated in 2008.)]

I recommend you keep your original images together and organized in folder structures that make sense to you. If you shoot a lot, you'll find your original images (along with various edits) don't fit on one drive, even a 3 TB drive. But even if you use multiple drives keep your organizational structure consistent.

Know where your images are and ALWAYS BACKUP your images to another drive. You need to use a tool which backs up only images which have changed. Even with 9 TBs of images and other files, I can backup everything that has changed since my last backup in minutes. I know everyone loves automatic backup, but based on 50+ years of experience where I have seen backups wiped out when a drive starts to fail, I always preview my backup before it starts. (Just yesterday I saw a case on one of my own machines where a whole folder of fonts would have been lost if my backup was automatic.)

I recommend renaming your images in a way that makes sense to you, but guarantees every image you shoot over the years has a unique name. This keeps you from ending up with a bunch of different images with a name like DSC_1234 or IMG_1234 scattered across your drives.

On each drive I keep my images on, I create a top level folder for all my images. You can name it whatever you like, but I like to keep my folder (and image) names fairly short. I name the folder with MY images "Albums" because the name is fairly short and it sorts near the top alphabetically.

If I have original images on this drive taken by a digital camera I create a folder under Albums called "Cam", and under that folder I create folders for each year from which I have original images on that drive:


Jo does basically the same thing, she has a folder for each year and the different years may be on different drives. She then breaks each year into 3 folders with names like:


She may use longer names, but I highly recommend using shorter names as long as they make sense to you (in this case maybe FLsp). Shorter names make it easier to see them without scrolling (and believe me, there are all kinds of situations where you have to scroll to see where you are if you use longer names for folders).

Under these 3 folders she creates a folder for each shoot as she imports the images from her camera card. This is a perfectly good way to organize your images. She does use long names for these folders, because they make sense to her.

Over the 15+ years I've been shooting digital images, I've found any folder naming schemes for my original images based on subject, location, or shoot have only make my life more difficult years later. I've gone the other way. Under the folder named for the year I just have a bunch of folders named so they sort chronologically. Again I keep the names short, mine now look like this:


I repeat the year in the folder name, because sometimes I have a copy of just that folder someplace, and with the year in the name I know where the folder belongs.

Until a few years ago, I kept the overall size of each folder to something that I could first backup to a CD, and later to a DVD. Now images are so big that even backup to DVDs no longer makes sense.

Now I put something like 1-2,000 images in a folder, and start a new folder whenever it makes sense. A trip, a shoot with LOTS of images, etc. If I end up with more than 24 folders in a year I start naming them something like wm12xa, wm12xb, etc.

Whatever folder structure you decide on, Lightroom or whatever program you use to copy images from you camera cards to your hard drives can put them in the right place as it copies them.

BTY, I do name the folders for the images I want to share, or show others, with longer names based on Subject, Location, etc. They're on another drive and with Lightroom I export sRGB images to those folders. They're in a folder structure that looks like this:


Renaming Images

I don't think Jo renames her images, but I do (and have for at least 14 years).

My recommendation:


My image names for the last 12+ years have looked like this:


Since both Nikon and Canon use 4 digit sequence numbers for images on the card, the last four digits of my file names are the sequence number assigned by the camera. Most any good program for uploading images from your camera cards to your hard drives give you lots of control over how you name your images and can use the camera's sequence number in the name. Both Lightroom and FastStone give you great control over how you rename your images.

Since I'm a numbers person, the XX in my image names is a number. For example, I know that w1x#### images were shot with my Nikon D1X camera. The first 10,000 started w10####, for the next 10,000 I switched to w11####, etc. If I shoot more than 100,000 images with a camera I either start using letters, as in w1a####, or go to a different sequence for the first 2 numbers. At some point I'll run out of choices and go to 7 digit numbers in my file names. (Before I got my D1X, my image names only had 5 digits, in those names the first digit identified the camera. Those starting with 0-3 was one camera, those from the next camera started with 4-6, etc. I didn't take as many pictures back then.)

Why do I do this?

The initials are so that when your image ends up on someone else's computer they have a clue where it came from.

I keep the name short for two reasons:

  1. So that as I make various variations of the image, I can add text at the end to give me a clue what I did when creating that variation and still have a name that's not too, too long.
  2. If I want to rename edited images I share based on subject, shoot, etc. I can still add the original name to the end of the image allowing me to trace it back to original image. And if I have a bunch of edited images in a subject folder, I may add a 3 or 4 digit sequence number in front of the final name so they display in the order I've chosen, even if transferred to another computer.


I'm not suggesting you name all your images with 6 digit numbers, but I do recommend starting your names with your initials. After that use a scheme of letters and numbers that makes sense to you and ends up creating names that will be unique over your life.

I like names that alternates letters, numbers, letters, etc. This also keeps the names shorter because you don't have to add hyphens or underscores to be able to parse the names.

Backup your Images

What's most important is that you backup your images. I do it immediatly after uploading new images from my camera cards, and again each time after I've done quite a bit of editing (post processing).

You want to use a backup program that only updates your backup where changes have occurred: new, modified, or deleted images.

On PCs the program I recommend is SyncToy (it's free). Here's my (long) discussion of using SyncToy. Actually it's REALLY easy, soon I'll add a new page here to show you how easy it is. On a Mac the program of choice is probably Carbon Copy Cloner by Bombich Software.

Other Naming Considerations

There a few special characters you can start names with so they sort in front of all other names all other names (like _ or #).

There are some special characters you should avoid in folder or image names:

Some people recommend only using letters, numbers and the characters underscore (_), hyphen (-), and period (.) in names. That said, I'll sometimes use the following in names and haven't had a trouble: ( ) [ ] + #

Never start names with hyphens or periods, and never end a name with a period.

Lots of people use spaces in their names, but I recommend against this. Replace the spaces with an underscore or hyphen (or use an uppercase character in the middle of a name so the eye can parse it ... however, this doesn't work if you want the names to be indexed correctly, then you need to use the hyphen or underscore). Neither Macs or PCs have trouble with the spaces, but they cause a lot of trouble on the web ... and even if you don't now, someday you're going to want to put more images on the web. If you send me images to put on the web be sure they don't have spaces in them.

Some systems are not case sensitive. This means you can't have two files with names like Color.jpg and color.jpg in the same folder. On some systems all names starting with uppercase characters sort before those starting with lowercase characters. On other systems they sort together ignoring the case. Personally I like names with uppercase characters where appropriate, they look nicer, just avoid the duplicate names in the same folder problem.

Other Originals

You may have other original images that make sense keeping with the originals from your digital cameras.

For example, for images I have scanned from slides, negatives, and pictures I keep them under the same folder as pictures from my digital cameras in a structure that looks like this:


Initially I scan them into one of the 3 folders whose names sort to the top (because of the leading # sign), but then if I can, I place them in a folder named for the year they were taken.

If you read my Scanning Tips and the discussion of my Epson Scanner you'll see I scan these images at roughly 48 MPix. If I really want to print one of these images (and I've printed many at 2x3 FEET) there's a lot of cleanup that needs to be done in Lightroom and/or Photoshop.

In addition to an Albums folder on almost every drive, on some I have top-level folders with names like: Albums-ImgOP (images from other people), AssMed (assorted media I've downloaded), #Albums (a special tree with only a few folders that I keep syncronized across ALL my machines). Original I kept all these images in my Albums folder (or My Pictures), but it's easier to back them up to different places if each is in it's own folder tree.

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