File Naming is Naming Too

Of the many workflows I’ve improved since a certain hard drive malfunction had me scared I lost all my data, the most monumental has been the change from Apple’s standard-issue iPhoto to the formidable Lightroom photo management and editing software from Adobe. Someone on the Internet likened this conversion to switching from a bicycle to a Learjet, and that struck me as apt (though I admit to no actual experience with Learjets).

Now that my entire digital portfolio is finally edited for content, catalogued chronologically, and accessible via Lightroom, with most of the individual images cropped and corrected to my liking, I can finally begin to evaluate the component tasks of this amazing upgrade—and give advice to those still stuck with messy photo libraries.

For example, I can relay that the most frustrating and time-consuming first step consisted of extracting the original files out of disparate iPhoto backups. We’re talking mystery folder structure, images buried a dozen deep, and scores of orphaned files that I had already deleted. Some of these backups contained the processed photographs, which looked the way I wanted them to look but lacked the versatility of the original files; others saved all the raw capture data but none of my editing. Getting this apples-to-oranges content of more than thirty thousand files to a manageable pool of camera originals with no duplicates was probably the most laborious organizational task I have ever completed. And let me tell you, narrowing down the eventual keepers wasn’t easy either.

The most difficult conceptual challenge, in turn, consisted of establishing an optimal naming protocol for the individual files. I knew that I didn’t want to leave the original camera-assigned names, with their incompatible schemes and occasional unavoidable repeats open to accidental file overwrite, but I had yet to discover how the filenames themselves could best serve my storage and work needs. First things first, though: I had to determine what those needs even were.

Over the months it took to make sense of both my content and the Lightroom tools, I understood that there was no way to group my photos by topic or location that would be more beneficial than grouping them by date shot. I searched for a filename paradigm that would (1) reflect relative or actual chronology, (2) contain information about the camera used, and (3) include a proprietary sequence denoting my authorship. First attempts to attain these goals using Lightroom presets also revealed that NO- made a much better prefix than osiatynska- and that (4) I didn’t want a running count for my total, because I would be bothered by the inevitable “holes” that would necessarily crop up if I edited any past content. Ultimately, it turned out that I would be doing the renaming in hundreds of micro-batches, to limit running counts to the sufficient minimum corresponding to each separate date of shooting and to be able to plug in my own camera shorthand. Luckily, this was quicker and easier than it sounds.

The result? A gleaming naming structure that works for every new (or archival) batch, regardless of whether I rename on import or at a later time, with individual file names not a digit longer than necessary. Not only do these filenames deftly communicate both the date of capture and the camera info in a way that is highly useful to me—they also don’t require any renaming when I send images to clients or share them with friends and family. Thus, we have the NO prefix, followed by an 8-digit date stamp in the highly distinctive and perpetually ordered YYYYMMDD format, followed by a single capital letter denoting the equipment used (C for Canon, R for Ricoh, L for Leica), followed at last by a two-digit running count that is sufficient for the way I take photos, even on a day when I take a great many of them with a single camera.

For an example of the utility of such a transparent naming system, see for yourself how much useful information is contained in the filenames of the photos below.

Here’s the first shot I took using the Leica on July 12, 2013. I’m getting all that from the filename.

This one I took with the Ricoh on October 3, 2009. I was at a gallery in New York.

Here’s a shot taken with the Canon, on July 16, 2008. This was in Barcelona.

I’ve shared this thinking with some people and I’ve received mixed responses. One photographer said he needs his files named by project. A few people report that filenames are irrelevant: they go by thumbnail image alone as they’re handling theirs. I’m not saying this is the system for everyone. But, just maybe, for someone who wants a system, but doesn’t know what that should be—this really is the golden ticket to easier workflows and filenames with a purpose.

The implications are wide-reaching for me. Shouldn’t all names—whether they denote files, brands, post titles, or companies—make maximum use of their “ad space”? Shouldn’t none of them be allowed to “waste space” by containing snippets of code that fails at meaningful communication?