File Naming is Naming Too

As I’ve noted before, 2013 has been my year of organizational advancement. Of the many workflows I’ve improved and discoveries I’ve made (Yes to Pinterest! No to Evernote...), 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 an apt simile (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 bestow advice on those still lost amid the sprawl of their unruly 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, with their mystery folder structure, sundry images buried a dozen deep and scores of orphaned files that I had previously deemed 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, in turn, 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 thing I have ever done and will probably ever do. (And that’s before even beginning to narrow that down to the eventual keepers.)

The most difficult conceptual challenge, in turn, involved 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 those unavoidable repeats that create a risk of accidental file overwrite, but I had yet to discover how the filenames themselves could best serve my organizational and professional needs. First, though, I had to determine what those needs even were.

Over the months it took to make sense of both my content and Lightroom’s myriad tools, I understood that I wanted consistent filenames 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 the Canon, R for the Ricoh, L for the 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.

NO20130712L01.jpg

NO20090618R01.jpg

NO20121204C01.jpg

And then, I suppose, decide if you’re suddenly in the mood for fresh fruit, a glass of wine or a cookie.