On photography

The best folder and file naming conventions for photographers, and more

Being organised and efficient is a key ingredient to success in any business. This is especially true of photography, where we deal with thousands of digital assets on a daily basis. Here’s a rundown of the best practises for storing, organising and naming photos. I also share my own unique folder and file naming convention.

Keep everything in one place

It is good practise to keep all original photos in one place. Ideally this will be a folder on an internal drive, as it is faster and cheaper than external USB and network drives. Highly prolific shooters may need multiple internal drives or have to archive away older photos onto external drives.

Regardless of how and where you store your photos, just remember to keep a backup. Even the best disks can and do fail. Another option is to consider cloud storage, but this can work out expensive.

The next step is to build a good folder structure in which to keep everything organised. This is where DAM (Digital Asset Management) software such as Adobe Lightroom will make life much easier, as it offers powerful tools for organising and renaming your files. There are free alternatives if you are starting out on a tight budget.

Set up a consistent folder structure

The simplest folder systems are usually the best. There are two common methods of filing and which one you choose should depend on what you tend to shoot.

Method one: organise by date

This is the preferred method of many photojournalists and event photographers, for whom it’s logical to group together the photos taken on a particular day.

Lightroom can automatically create a nested folder structure on import, with years, months and dates, and various other combinations, eg:

Images\2019\01\31

Once the photos are imported, edit the folder name to add the name of the event:

Images\2019\01\31 Muriels wedding

Method two: create bucket folders

If you’re the kind of photographer that spends three days waiting for one perfect photo of a snow leopard, then there really is no need to organise folders meticulously by date. This is especially true since Lightroom can be used to filter by capture time and a whole host of other attributes. So creating a deep folder structure with dates can be just a hindrance.

I tend to work instead with a flat list of projects or shoots. Each time I import a batch of photos, I put them all in one “bucket” folder with an index number, and just have a top level folder for the year:

Images\2018\f32768 Venice
Images\2018\f34125 Winslow hunt
Images\2018\f35225 Snow in Buckingham

The advantage of this approach is that it is fast and easy to browse, with no deep folder structure to navigate through. But my real secret weapon is the index number. When importing the photos I rename them all with a unique index (more on that shortly). Then I insert the first index into the folder name. It makes browsing and searching for a specific photo lightning fast.

My bucket folders are sometimes a mixed bag of different photos, but there is no need to separate them out into further folders. Lightroom collections and metadata are much more versatile for that.

Sub-folders based on asset type

Many photographers prefer to keep original and processed files separate, so they create further sub-folders and have something like this:

Images\2019\01\31 Muriels wedding\RAW
Images\2019\01\31 Muriels wedding\Tif
Images\2019\01\31 Muriels wedding\Print
Images\2019\01\31 Muriels wedding\Web

This makes a lot of sense for wedding photographers and anyone who needs to provide a package to clients after a day’s shoot. Personally I don’t find this step necessary since I shoot mostly for stock and longer term projects. I keep all Photoshop-processed Tif files in the same folder with the raw file, and export a high quality jpeg into the same folder. This jpeg is my “end product.” Lightroom labels help me keep track of what’s what.

For any other products needed for a specific purpose, I export to an entirely separate folder. As these are only exported products that can be reproduced easily, I delete the folder after use, and just keep the project as a Lightroom collection. This takes up no extra disk space.

Filename conventions

Many cameras provide some limited options to customise how files are named. However, it’s likely you have photos from more than one camera. (Even if one of them is your phone.) This can quicky result in a confusing muddle of names, and even duplicates. Therefore it’s good practise to discard the original filenames when importing photos into your folder structure, and to use a consistent naming convention for all your photos. Lightroom (and most decent imaging software) can do this automatically on import.

As with the folder structure, there are two main schools of thought for file naming: the first is to use dates plus an index number and the second is to use a unique index number only.

Method one: files named by date

Many photographers prefer to use the date and even the time to name photos, often together with an index number that restarts each day. Lightroom can do this on import and in any format, using the filename template editor. Here is an example together with its Lightroom template:

Filename exampleLightroom template
20190131-0001{Date (YYYYMMDD)»}-{Sequence # (0001)»}

Method two: unique index

Visit any stock agency’s website, and you’ll see that they use a simple unique index or ID for every asset in their database. Getty use numeric names such as “12345678”. Alamy use alphanumeric names such as “AB12CD” or “ABC123”. (This gives a more compact name that is easier to read.) A unique index makes referring to and searching for a specific image a trivial task. Here is the format that I use:

Filename exampleLightroom template
a12345a{Image # (00001)»}

By changing the first letter when the index number reaches 99999, this simple filename convention will be good for 2,600,000 images. Still managing to hit z99999? Then start again with aa00001.

A hidden gem

Here’s an extra tip: I don’t always wait to reach 99999 before changing the first letter. Instead, I change it when I upgrade my main camera body. That way, the first letter gives me some indication of the vintage of a photo, if not the specific camera. For instance, I know that anything starting with “f” is from after I got the Canon 5D Mk III, whereas “c” is from the 5D Mk I era, and “a” harks back to the Canon 10D. I reserve “b” specifically for scanned slides from my pre-digital days. If I have to go back and edit an old photo then the filename instantly acts as a reminder to take extra care about digital noise, dust spots, and a whole host of other problems that plagued “early” digital photography.

Adding more info to filenames

Depending on how and why photographers are shooting, many advocate adding more info into the filename such as the client’s name or shoot name, the photographer’s name, camera body, etc. This is a good idea if your photos risk getting orphaned or lost. Keep in mind though that all this info can be managed with metadata and added to file names on export if necessary. Take a look at how your photos are being used, and who you’re routinely sharing them with, to decide what’s really necessary in a filename. As Einstein once said, “Make it as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

Putting it all together

If you follow all these tried and tested methods for filing and naming photos, then it will provide an excellent bedrock for your digital workflow. It may take a bit of time and money to set up initially, especially if you haven’t already got the right hardware and software. But a good database workflow will pay huge dividends in the long run. 

To summarise, here are the steps to take right now:-

  • Make sure you have sufficient disk space for your photos, with extra space for at least the next couple of years.
  • Set up a solid backup system.
  • Invest in DAM software such as Adobe Lightroom.
  • Choose and set up a folder and file naming convention that suites your type of photography.
  • Get all your photos organised into this new workflow.

Finally, be sure to stick with it: make sure all new photos are organised, named and backed up consistently. The system that you choose is not so important as making sure that you keep using it.