A Few Thoughts on Filenames…

by George on January 5, 2012

Photographs © George A. Jardine

File names are hard.

Nailing down a coherent and consistent file naming strategy for my own library took some time. Let alone for my clients. And the thread goes way back. Back to before we even starting thinking about how to support folder structures and manipulate file names in Lightroom.

I think a lot of the reason why photographers have such a hard time with file names in general, goes all the way back to the innovation of “files and folders” in early desktop computer user interfaces. As much of an innovation as the graphical display of files and folders was, the one fatal flaw was that it reinforced a very distinct real-world behavior that eventually conspired to actually make finding a specific thing in the computer more difficult.

But that took years and years. At first, the files and folders thing represented a true innovation.

Especially for photographers and designers. People who—for whatever reason—are more visually oriented than most others. Files and folders gave us an immediate reference to the real world, that made organizing stuff in the computer easier. In fact, the metaphor still works wonders. Each day I sit down at my computer, and I look at my desktop, and I can immediately put my hands on the stuff that’s top of mind. And if I need to dig deeper, into stuff that’s more permanently filed away, I know to go into the Documents folder, and then further into my Tax Documents folder, or whatever. And I can always pretty easily find precisely what I’m looking for.

Even after building 4 fairly large tutorial series, with scripts, sound files, video captures, graphics, and all the other associated junk that you need to create in order to mount such a venture, organizing essentially by subject, into folders is the only way to go. I’ve even gone to the extreme of having hard drives dedicated to just the tutorial production files. But you don’t have to dig very far down inside there, before you’ll find folders with names like Amazon Parts, Original Captures, Compressed Audio, etc., etc. Some files have version numbers that might go from xyz.01.doc up to xyz.09.doc… but not much beyond that. It’s manageable. At least for me.

When I get pushed under the bus, they may not be exactly transparent to anyone who cared enough to plug in that hard drive. But by then, those files wouldn’t matter, would they?

It was in the course of thinking about how to design a user interface for a digital photo library that we started to dig deeper into the problem. The engineers were asking those of us in product management what photographers wanted. And so we in turn went out and asked photographers how they organized their libraries. Which, at the time, meant… film. And two things about what I found struck me as interesting. First, nearly every photographer that I talked to organized their photos by subject. Date was an afterthought, if it was taken into consideration at all. The date-stamp on a Kodachrome slide mount was enough, and if it wasn’t, a small amount of what we today call metadata could be written onto the poly sleeve with a sharpie. Photographs taken 20 years apart were archived right next to each other, even in the same binder, if they were taken of the same subject.

The second thing that struck me was that each and every photographer we talked to could walk into their library, or their vault, or whatever that storage space was, and literally put their hands on a specific piece of film that they were looking for, in just seconds.

This very same thing was true in the archives of much larger institutions that I was able to see; artworks everywhere are stored, and organized by subject.

So something was clearly working here. And sure enough, my own personal film library from nearly 15 years of shooting professionally was no different. I could literally find any photograph that I was looking for, in just moments.

My personal digital library was not huge… but of course it was starting to grow. Just like everybody else’s. The advent of what I call “viable digital capture” had dawned with the release of the Canon 1Ds MKII, and all of a sudden photographers could embrace digital without all the insecurity, and have immediate image quality that was equal to, or even better than what they were used to when shooting film. Digital photo libraries started to explode.

What did I do? I did the very same thing almost every other photographer out there did. I started making a lot of folders on my hard drives with names like Workshop in Mendocino, and Wine Tasting in Napa. And then as those libraries grew and grew, a funny thing happened. Eventually it became impossible to find anything. My photographs were no longer stored in binders that occupied specific locations on specific library shelves, but were simply buried in long lists of words, in the folder views of my hard drives. Words and words and more words. Your eyes glazed over looking for something.

Of course the other thing that contributed to this problem was that once freed from the shackles of paying for film and toxic chemicals, we began to shoot 10 times as many photos as we did in the pre-digital age. We were no longer simply dealing with those exposures that we wanted to get into the computer to print, or to retouch for publishing. All of a sudden, you had to have a computer to even see your photos, much less organize them! And so a system that had worked just fine before digital capture came along—giving each file some sort of meaningful name that included what amounted to keywords—became much less useful. After all, once you have thousands of photos with the word Mendocino or Workshop in the file name, those words simply become meaningless.

And so it seemed that when it came to finding a certain photo in a digital library, something had been lost. I eventually came to think of this intangible thing as a sort of tactile and spatial identity that each and every photograph had for me, in my film library. Which becomes… strangely… an intuitive component of that how-do-I-find-my-pictures formula that very few of us ever stopped to think about. When you make a photograph (especially a good one…), you almost immediately develop an emotional connection to the image. And then when you file it away, as a physical piece of film in a place that you’re aware of and familiar with, then I think a kind of spatial connection to that photograph becomes part of the visual memory. The location of the actual film… on your shelf.

My digital photographs no longer had a place, that I could put my hand on, in my library. Any individual file, or folder, looked just exactly the same as the next, once it was in the computer.

After that, the question becomes how do you look for, and with any luck, find… your digital photos? And then the question that immediately follows would be… how do you organize them? Because the two have become inextricably connected. Hence we come to file names, folder names, and library organization.

OK.. I admit it. I was a slob. I didn’t get it. Even though I was shooting literally thousands and thousands of digital exposures all through my years as Pro Photography Evangelist at Adobe Systems, I will still just copying them onto hard drives into folders with names like Sunset Over the North Coast. And yes, there was more than just a one or two files named _MG_4444.CR2. and _MG_9999.CR2. It was a mess.

Despite the fact that I had worked on the development of an asset management product, and had interviewed literally hundreds of photographers on the subject of their library organization (or lack thereof…), it still felt like there was no clear and definitive answer. Each and every photographer that I knew was still doing their own thing. And each one came up with their own individual solution. There was very little consistency across the industry, if any!

But in the process of hunkering down to build my Library video series last year, I knew that I finally had to bite the bullet. It was time to tie it all together, and that meant starting with my own library. So I literally spent another year thinking about the problem and researching further. More reading… and more interviews. Only this time I had a purpose: getting my own horribly disfigured library beaten into shape. Which I would sit down and work on every evening.

Anyway, long story short, the thing that I finally came to, is this. Just a few key factors play a role in determining why organizing photos into folders by subject no longer works as well as it used to, after you put pictures into the computer. One is simply the fact that we have so damned many of them now. Another reason is related to the way we need to cross-reference them. We no longer have to decide whether to put a photo of The Carlyle into the Art Deco and Design binder, or put it with the other photos taken in Miami, or into the Architecture folder. But you can—and certainly should—tag it with those keywords!

And so the concept of organizing by subject, changes complexion. Once you can slice and dice 100,000 photographs in the blink of an eye, by lens, by camera, by keyword, by ISO, or any combination of attributes, then the organization by subject is done for you. I can do a search, and in seconds show you every photo in my library that has the word motorcycle associated with it. And then if I can’t remember anything further about a specific photograph to help me narrow the search, it becomes a visual search. And we all know how that works. The visual identification of any given photograph is vastly faster and easier than most other methods, once you’ve narrowed down the field. And this is especially true for digital, when you can literally scan hundreds of photographs on the screen at once.

This is where chronology begins to come into play. The exact order in which any group of photos was taken becomes the last remaining relevant context for display, once you’ve narrowed down the search to a subject that you’re looking for. If I do a search for the word Yosemite, I want to see those search results in the order in which I shot them, because it helps me narrow the search. Visually. If I locate a specific shoot that I did for a certain client, seeing that group of photos the the precise order that I shot them helps me narrow my search, again, visually. Chronology is the last remaining context for a sort that can help you find the shot.

And so before we get to file names and more about chronology, just a few more thoughts about folder organization. Despite the fact that I changed my mind about organizing by global subject on the folder level, doesn’t mean that I’ve thrown the concept of subjective organization under the bus entirely. It’s just shifted focus. Folders are certainly useful as a way to keep groups of photos together in the file system, but to what end? And when faced with the question of just how to structure my photo library—given that by now… grouping by global subject was out of the question—I took that question to mean, what is the smallest unit of organization (grouping) that has meaning in my library. And the answer was…. the shoot. Don’t get me wrong. A shoot is still a level of folder organization by subject. But it’s a useful subject, because you rarely need to break it up into smaller groups, and if you do, you can use keywords for that. A shoot is a group of photographs that were taken together, generally during one day, and generally of one subject. When I’m traveling, each day becomes one shoot, unless I’m in reasonably different places in the morning and afternoon. Or if I’m shooting two jobs on one day. Those two jobs will each have their own shoot folder.

Each time I go out and shoot, I come home and create a shoot folder in my library, and copy the photos into it. And those shoot folders get the date as the first part of the folder name, so that my chronology is preserved, both in my catalog, and in the file system. And so my shoot folders from this last ICP workshop in September, look like this:

And so for consistency, the shoot folder (the smallest grouping of photos in the library…) gets when, who, what, and where keywords, starting with the date (the when) in a format that gives me chronology—as I said—both in my catalog and in the file system. The keywords-in-folder names scheme correlates the keywords to the entire shoot, and that means I don’t have to put any of that stuff into the file names, which would be annoying and redundant. Any good database or search engine will recognize words in folder names as valid search criteria, returning all the photos in a shoot.

Besides…. once you have thousands and thousands of photos in a system, putting keywords into file names by subject simply becomes ridiculous too. But many pros that I know still do this. Once you have long lists of file names that are are all almost identical, even when they have meaningful keywords in them…. once they’re in long lists, the individual names become meaningless. And this becomes especially apparent when you finally embrace the way you really find a specific photo, after you’ve narrowed the search. And that’s visually.

That leaves me with the last, two remaining criteria that I feel your file names must fulfill. File names should give you 1) an absolutely unique identifier for each file within your catalog or database (no two files have the same name…), and… within the file system, and 2) your file names should give you an easy way to display any kind of search result you choose to view, in chronological order. Whether the search is done, again… from within your catalog, or, in the file system.

To that end, notice a couple of things about the file names in the screenshot above. First, the date in the file name gives me a one-to-one correlation to the parent shoot folder. So there is never any question about where an individual file belongs. Second, if the date-stamp on the file + the original camera file name (which is appended back onto the renamed files, for archival purposes) does not give you perfect chronology when sorting by file name, then the inclusion of the actual time-stamp will. And that’s the middle 6-digit number in these file names. Including the precise hour, minute and second of exposure in the file names, will give you perfect chronology, both within the shoot, and globally, within your entire library.

Finally, more careful readers will be asking, what are the times when I must have finer-grained date-time information in file names, besides date + original camera sequence number? (Meaning… when do I need to include the hour, minute and second time-stamp info?) Well….there are two circumstances when you will need this info to preserve the chronology for file name sorting. You need this finer-grained time-stamp information in your file names, when 1) you’re shooting with two or more cameras, and 2) when one of your camera sequence counters rolls over from 9999 to 0001 during the middle of a shoot.

Looking back at the file names again, you’ll see a jump after the first photo number 2808, to 4724. And that’s the type of jump that will occur when you’re shooting with two cameras. When you are shooting with two cameras, it’s the time-stamp that preserves the chronology in your sorting. And then last but not least, it should be obvious that all of the above is dependent upon having all your cameras set to the correct local date and time, each and every time you go out and shoot!

Special thanks to Seth Resnick for his steadfast and common-sense guidance on file naming and library organization…. from the very beginning.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Tapani Otala January 5, 2012 at 1:39 PM

Great write-up, tracks very closely with my own DAM evolution as well. The only difference is that I drop the _IM so my filenames wind up simply as:

yyyymmdd-hhmmss-ffff.cr2

Why leave the _IM in the name? Seems just like waste of space, and most photo import/ingest software can rip it out while creating the canonical name.

Also, there’s one more very important reason for including the camera frame counter in the filename: burst sequences with >1 fps cameras. I don’t personally use more than one camera (typically), but mine goes 8 fps so that becomes vital at shoots like airshows, races, or other high-speed activities.

I don’t worry too much about the roll-over of the frame counter since by definition any subsequent shots would by timestamped later. The only problem here is that odd chance of shooting a burst sequence right when the frame counter rolls over ;-)

Ann Torrence January 5, 2012 at 2:15 PM

Keywording in the file folders suggests that you don’t completely trust and rely on your Lightroom catalog keywords. Why the redundancy?

George January 5, 2012 at 3:41 PM

No Ann, keywording folder names does not suggest anything about my trust in Lightroom. Except that I don’t always use it! Further, I probably did not elaborate deeply enough on my folder naming convention, of using when, who, what, and where as appropriate shoot keywords. (The complete story is in my Library video series….) The more complete version that I present there is that I have a strong belief that there is certain metadata that I want in my file system, and when it comes to when, who, what, and where, I consider those to be objective keywords. I consider star ratings, pick flags, and keywords—for the Venice shoots, for instance—like canal, bridge, boat, water, etc., to be subjective in nature. Any objective keyword that describes the entire shoot, belongs in the folder name, so that it is useful when using Bridge, or any other “asset management” system or file browser that I might need to use later. More subjective keywords and ratings, etc., belong inside of my LR catalog. So that’s where I put that stuff.

Lucky for me, Lightroom treats words in folder names pretty much the same as keywords for the purposes of search, so I have very little need to duplicate them into my LR metadata. But if I ever had to, it would be a relatively easy chore.

George

George January 5, 2012 at 3:44 PM

Yes, Tapani, you’re exactly right. 99.99 times out of 100, the date + time stamp + the original camera counter number will give you perfect chronology! And that .01 percent of the time when you are doing a motordrive burst, and your camera counter rolls over… well, then…. you’re just going to have to work that one out. Right?

Visually? :-)

Best, George

Cindy Lewis January 6, 2012 at 10:36 PM

Thanks for this illuminating post!

I rely on a similar filenaming convention, AND for double security I always make certain the IPTC Job Name field contains the filename. Embedded metadata is becoming increasingly essential in managing libraries.

Thank goodness our equipment now displays milliseconds in EXIF data. This key software evolution helps me better manage multi-camera shoots.

Love your photo of the dogs in the sidecar. What a ride!

All best, Cindy

George January 6, 2012 at 10:44 PM

Thanks, Cindy!

Yeah…. storing the original file name is important. But it’s sometimes hard to convince certain folks of the legacy value of that. I always tell my students to store it, because they may decide later that I’m smoking crack, and they might want to change their file naming back to something else! And if / when that happens, having the original file name can be helpful. Also I feel that having the original sequence number has some value.

But one thing that I neglected to talk about in the article, is that when you rename photos in the LR library, LR stores the original file name for you. Only trouble is, it’s quite ephemeral. Although it does store it in the catalog, it does not write it to XMP, nor is it exposed in the SDK. So your idea of also putting it into an IPTC field is a good one.

Finally, note that if you change file names during import, LR simply discards the original file name, and it is not stored anywhere at all. With luck one day, the LR team will fix that one.

Thanks for reading, George

Terry January 7, 2012 at 7:37 AM

Thanks for the article. Although my system is working well now (100% Lr based) I see the benefits of adding more meta data to file names.

Years ago, as a computer specialist, I relied on a large wall full of manuals. When I needed to look verify a fact, I often could visualize the page and paragraph that I needed and could pull the book off the shelf, and open the book to within a few pages of the target. Within seconds I could have the needed text in front of me, without using an index. As you describe it it was a spatial search. That ability was a career advantage for me.

I haven’t seen those printed manuals in years – all online now. The spatial relationship is completely gone. Although I still have a sharp memory, google works just as fast for me as it does for everyone else.

George January 7, 2012 at 7:58 AM

Terry,

That’s such a great analogy, I wish I had recognized it myself! Very, very true. I do the same thing recipes in cookbooks. :-)

G.

MichaelT. January 23, 2012 at 4:41 PM

George,

Great post! (I know I have to finally invest in your Library module.) Two quick questions from your exploded shoot folder from your workshop last Sept.: a.) is the time/date stamp on each image GMT? (I am confused because you talked a great deal about using GMT and then at the end of the post say it needs to be the local time/ dateb.) from Tapani’s post what is the _IM field (it is “MG” in your posted example?

George January 23, 2012 at 4:50 PM

Thanks, Michael. Glad you enjoyed it!

About your questions, no… the timestamp numbers that I finally put into my file names are post-timestamp-shift… from GMT to the local time. To make that clear, since the first of the year, I’ve started including the time zone in my file names, so they now look like this:

20111227-120245-MST-_MG_6145.CR2 20111227-120247-MST-_MG_6146.CR2 20111227-120248-MST-_MG_6147.CR2 etc…

…where the MST is Mountain Standard Time. The _MG part of the file names, is simply the prefix Canon cameras put onto raw files when the color space is set to AdobeRGB. So the original filenames here, would have been:

_MG_6145.CR2 _MG_6146.CR2 _MG_6147.CR2

The prefix is IMG if the colorspace is set to sRGB. Perhaps that’s what Tapani meant.

George

MichaelT. January 23, 2012 at 9:08 PM

George,

I had to wait a whole nine minutes for you to answer my question, :-) — just joking…. as my urban Japanese friends would say: “ah so, desu ka”. But if you set your cameras to GMT post-timestamp-shift to local time (including an additional locator as your shoot folder also gives you the location), isn’t this a manual adjustment for each image?

George January 23, 2012 at 9:57 PM

Hi Michael,

I’m not sure what you mean by “set your cameras to GMT post-timestamp-shift to local time”… at all.

The sequence is this:

1) Set the cameras to GMT, and leave them there 2) Shoot pictures 3) Import into LR 4) Shift timestamps to reflect local time of shoot 5) Rename using date from the updated datestamp (into first 8 digits) + time from the updated timestamp (second 8 digits) + original file name

Does that add up?

Thanks, G.

Liz W April 7, 2012 at 4:51 PM

Hi George —

I’m a big fan of your Tutorials and have just moved from your Lightroom 3 Develop and Library series (excellent!) to Lightroom 4 Library series. I followed along pretty carefully on your Filenaming session (#10) — I’ve checked and rechecked but Lightroom picks up an erroneous date in the Filenaming process — I’ve asked for YYYY MM DD but Lighroom has renamed my files to a different date from that in the Metadata Timestamp and now my folder structure is out of whack. Any way to tweak this? I have a Date Time Original of 2012-03-22 where Lightroom has renamed (using F2 command) my files beginning with 2012-03-12 — 10 days earlier. Any way I can fix this? LR didn’t seem to give me edit options but maybe I just wasn’t asking the right way. Any suggestions most appreciated.

I had been going along successfully following your renaming process until I hit this bad patch where LR misread the Timestamp in the Metadata. Got my fingers crossed.

Thanks! Best regards,

Liz

George April 7, 2012 at 5:08 PM

Hi Liz,

Lightroom does indeed use the Date Time Original when you pull the date using the Filename Template Editor. And it is also the Date Time Original that Lightroom changes when you use the Edit Capture Time command. So once you’ve dialed in that date, that should be the date Lightroom uses in the filename. (NOT “Date Time”, or “Date Time Original”, or the “Metadata Date”. Those are all different.)

If Lightroom has indeed made a mistake, then you should be able to rename everything back to the Original Filename, using the Filename Template Editor, and then do some experimentation to see what might be going wrong. One thing to check is that you are using 3.6 or 4.0. There were some versions (somewhere along about 3.3 or 3.4 I think…) that did have some peculiar bugs in the file renaming.

Hope that helps! George

Liz W April 8, 2012 at 8:17 AM

Hi George —

Thanks again – I so appreciate your prompt response. I’ve found following your tutorial on LR 4′s Library Module that there were many subtleties and details I couldn’t take in the first time around with the LR 3 tutorial that became more clear with watching your LR 4 tutorial. It is helpful and not redundant to step up to the next series.

I went back and checked the Metadata panel for the inaccurately renamed photos and determined that LR did indeed pick up the wrong date for Date Time Original (off from Date Time Original of 2012-03-22 to renamed file containing 2012-03-12). Interestingly enough, LR did pick up the correct digits for Hour – Minute – Second — go figure!

I checked Date Time, Metadata Date, Date Time Original, Date Time Digitized and Date Created in the Metadata Panel — all seemed correct.

I’m using LR 4.0 and these files were imported using LR 4.0, then Renamed in Library after Import due to your excellent advice on what steps to take to retain the Original Filename by following that procedure.

Best workaround I can think of is to Rename with Custom + Original Filename and just enter the correct date — 2012-03-22 plus the Original.

Another potential source of the problem: I’ve not so far had issues Renaming NEF raw files taken with my Nikon d300s; the files with problems were NRW raw files taken with my Nikon P7100 — could that be the problem?

At any rate, thank you for your speedy and helpful reply. Hope to see the George Jardine Develop series for LR 4 out soon!

Thanks again,

Liz

George April 8, 2012 at 8:29 AM

Hi Liz,

Well, I can’t say what might be causing that. But I will say that you have come to the exact solution that I would have, and that to simply fix the filenames manually. The reason I feel your experience here is incredibly relevant, is because you’re thinking, and problem solving on your own. You’re not just following formulas. Which is exactly where I hope to push people through the process of the tutorials. Nearly every other instructor will advocate heaping process on top of process during import, to “automate” it. And this is where you end up. One thing goes wrong, and either it can’t be fixed, or you never even notice that it happened. And so this is a perfect example of how—even when you seem to be doing everything correctly—something unexpected can, and frequently does happen. And if you are not watching, and paying attention, then the error could go right by you.

Keep up the good work! George

Liz W April 8, 2012 at 9:42 AM

Thanks, for your kind words. The reason I find your tutorials so helpful is that you carefully explain the reason things happen — that makes it easier to remember. I have to try to problem solve because I make so many mistakes, I get lots of practice trying to solve them…..

Dale May 24, 2012 at 3:10 PM

I watched your Lightroom 4 #10 video regarding file naming with much interest. I also read your blog article regarding file naming (#2653). I am looking for some suggestions regarding developing file names for my approximately 19,000 images scanned from slides, negatives and prints. I would like to convert my files to something similar to yours in that the file name starts with the date and time. For many of these images I do not have a good valid date as to when the image was taken. I named the scanned images in numerical order starting with 000001 and numerically up to around 19,000. I included the letter of p (print) or n (negative) or s (slide) as appropriate. The scanning order was completely random as the image was taken from a photo album, shoe box or slide tray. Therefore the file name does not have any relationship to when the image was taken. In some of the images the date and time can be determined from the subject of the image (most are of family members and relatives). In others the date would just be a plain old guess. Sometimes an estimated date can be refined with a newly scanned image. That is my problem with trying to convert to a date time file naming system. One solution I have thought of is to start using the date and time from the digital images I do have and leave the scanned images as named. That would really give me two catalogs and Lightroom does not allow the use of more than one catalog at a time. Do you have any ideas that could help me with this dilemma?

George May 24, 2012 at 4:37 PM

Hi Dale,

I have lots of film scans for which I don’t have accurate dates as well. In this case, it is tedious, but I first guess. I can usually get them within a year or two, then then, as I scan more images, and correlate photos with events of a known date, I slowly build the chronology, and correct the incorrect dates (that are in file names.) Really wish I had paid more attention to “metadata” back in the day!

Guessing at least gives me a rough chronology when sorting, which is the most important thing to me. I know it’s a lot of work with that many scans, but only you can decide if it is worth the effort!

Hope that helps, George

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