Q&A: How Should I Modify My Current Scanned Photo File Naming Structure?

by Curtis Bisel
updated: February 9, 2024
Curtis Bisel
February 9, 2024

Choosing an appropriate filename for the photos in our digital photo collection is something we all have to deal with. And not being able to come up with a consistent system that we are happy with turns out to be one of the biggest reasons we put off starting the entire project.

Photo Collage - menu item to save photo as Mom's Birthday 1??
3-Part Series: “What Everybody Ought to Know When Naming Your Scanned Photos”

To help you get past this hurdle, I created a 3-part series called “What Everybody Ought to Know When Naming Your Scanned Photos” that walks you through the system I came up with and use to name my own photos.

Even though I am satisfied with what I came up with, this certainly doesn’t mean this is the only system out there, nor does it mean you have to follow any of it.

Dan Keiper had already been working his own naming method when he came upon my 3-part series. After a bit of thought, he wrote me to see if he should make changes to what he had already been doing, and to seek answers to additional questions he had.

Hi Curtis,

First of all, I want to thank you for putting up this AWESOME website! Seriously, a lot of your archiving tips really helped me out.

A few years ago, I’ve gained a passion in archiving and preserving my family’s vast, scattered photo, slide, & negative collection. Being a dental student now, it’s increasingly hard trying to find the time to do this, but with this summer off I’m trying to spend as much time as possible continuing this project.

After wrestling for a while on the file-naming concept, I originally decided to organize my photos chronologically. I researched different methods on how I could best name my photos and came up with this structure, which is split into 3 parts:

  • 1st – grouping # out of total photos in album (i.e. 01 indicates range possibility of 1 to 99 photos, 001 can go up to 999)
  • 2nd – descriptive title
  • 3rd – year:month:day date format.

For example:

001 Bill’s 20th Birthday at Smith Home 1977_03_12.tiff

After buying a new Epson V550 scanner this year, I’ve only recently started scanning in 35mm slides and negatives onto my Macbook Pro. Now after reading your 3-part article on naming scanned photos, I’ve begun to analyze and rethink my classification system.

I also purchased 2 album binders and am currently putting my slides & negatives physically into PrintFile archival pages. I like the idea of using a 5-digit numbering system to identify all of my pictures… but the task of implementing that seems daunting to me.

  1. The main question I want to ask is how can I modify my current naming structure?
  2. Also should I eliminate spaces and insert more hyphens/underscores?
  3. Where in the file name is the best place to insert the 5-digit number with added scanning detail?
  4. Should I organize and label all of my physical pictures first, then sort through and organize them digitally?

I just wish there was some standardized method of naming that could be universally accepted.

Hopefully I didn’t overwhelm you with my questions. I’m sure you have been doing this way longer than I have, so I’ll take any tips or advice you can give me. Thanks!

– Dan Keiper

Thanks Dan for your compliments of my website. I’m glad to hear some of my tips are helping you! :coffee:

It sounds to me like you have an excellent start with your photo collection, and a respectable grasp of what you are doing. If you kept moving forward with your current naming method, which I know you said you aren’t completely sold on now, you would still have a very informative collection to enjoy and eventually pass on to your family.

Yeah, Dan’s right — wouldn’t it be nice if there was a standardization with photo naming? I think if it was the right one, it certainly could make things a lot easier.

But, at least we currently have the standards available to us with IPTC and EXIF metadata fields inside of our photos. I just wish more photo applications would utilize this information in a way that we can all benefit from it — especially mobile applications that so far have done a horrible job.

So now, let me get to Dan’s questions. I actually think there’s a good flow if I answer them from bottom to top.

Organize Your Original Photos First or Later Digitally?

Whether you should organize all of your physical prints, slides, and negatives first or later digitally once you’ve gotten them inside your photo organizing software, I believe, really comes down to your skills on a computer and your grasp of the capabilities of whatever application you are using.

stacks of paper photographs all over a family room coffee table
My wife Stacy recently organized a portion of her “high school and college years” photographs. This is what our family room coffee table became in the process.

Our house is kind of on the small side when it comes to room for creative projects. So like many families, my wife and I have limited table space where I would feel safe having irreplaceable prints sitting out for an extended period of time.

And I can see how this situation could easily become out of control. It could end up being like the scene in the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” where Richard Dreyfuss’ character has taken over practically the entire house with his new “hobby” obsession!

Man in living room with huge mountain model taking over room - Richard Dreyfus in Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Richard Dreyfuss in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

Additionally, I didn’t physically have all of the photos that make up my family’s photo collection here at my house when I started. Over the time span of several years, I have been bringing chunks of it home each time I visit my parents. So, my ability to organize the entire collection in some kind of logical order all at once wasn’t even possible.

Then if you add the fact that most of my life has been spent breathing and eating in front of a personal computer, the choice becomes even clearer. I consider myself very quick and extremely comfortable in the digital environment inside my computer. So for me, the scales easily tipped to the side of organizing digitally being the better choice.

However, you might prefer having more of a real physical connection with your original photos, where you can place them out in front of you and move them around with your hands. Or maybe the answer could be a little bit of both, organizing some of it while your prints and slides are sitting in front of you and then doing the rest in your software.

And if you’re still on the fence, looking for a reason to decide one way or the other, a good reason to scan first and organize digitally could be just for a feeling of safety. For many of us, that single copy of our prints and slides are the only ones we have. The longer we wait to digitize them into our computers, the greater the chances that something might happen to them before we get to scan them (e.g. being misplaced, “theft” by a family member who said they would bring it “right back”, floods, fires) or the greater the likelihood we might continue making excuses and put off the job entirely.

And once your photos are in a digital medium, it can be a lot easier for some people to get help from family members and friends identifying people and places in each of the photos. Whether this is done by emailing the photos in question, doing a screen-sharing show and tell session, or even bringing a laptop computer with all of your images loaded on it for an in-person one-on-one session.

One plus I discovered when scanning our photos in their un-organized manner they had randomly fallen into over the last 30-50 years of being stored and moved around to different places, is that it’s often extremely fun to discover what you are about to scan next!

If your photos are anything like mine, one moment you are scanning something you might find boring, like your parents at a 1970’s weekend office picnic, and then the next you might hit a bunch of photos of you and your siblings opening Christmas presents the year you got the Millennium Falcon (action figure toy) that you had wanted more than life itself!!

I’ve found photos I haven’t seen for years — or possible ever at all! It’s fun mixing that surprise with the possible monotony of scanning.

Where is the Best Place for the 5-Digit Number?

The 5-digit number that Dan was referring to is a system I implemented with my own photo collection to physically tag each photo with a unique identification number — like a “tattoo” — that will live with not only the physical print or slide, but also in the filename of the corresponding digital image so that you can later match up the two up if needed.

Here’s a simple example of how this might be implemented in the filename:

1978-02-14 Blanket Tent Tunnel Winter Snow Day – 03589.tif

As Dan pointed out, this certainly can seem daunting to anyone who’s considering whether they want to add this to their own collections. Really it’s not complicated, it just adds a little bit more time to the process.

Thankfully, I wasn’t very far into scanning my collection when I started adding these numbers, so I didn’t have to go back and modify a lot of my previous work. For new scans, I always add these numbers while I am doing the scanning so this “bookkeeping” is done at the same time I am focused on scanning the photo. To me, it’s just another task I’ve added to my checklist of things to complete for each photo before I’m done and can move on to the next.

In the simplest way, having this number on your original photos will quickly verify to you that a photo has already been scanned. This happens to me all the time where I wonder if I had already scanned a small stack of photos or slides. By just seeing that number I know I’ve already scanned it. (Just wait, if you’ve just started scanning, you’ll find it will happen to you too!)

In more complicated times, you will love having these numbers when you are searching for specific photos in your digital collection, and when you are trying to do any kind of organizing with your originals after you’ve organized them further digitally. (Hint: the two don’t sync up automatically!) 😉

There are just so many ways these little numbers pay off. I’m so grateful I made the effort to apply them.

The scanning software Epson Scan that came with my current scanner, and that I’ve used up until this point, has a neat little feature in the “File Save Settings” window that allows you to set a prefix field (anything you want it to be), followed by a three-digit “Start Number” that is applied to every filename it creates as it finishes up scanning.

Epson Scan "File Save Settings" window (Mac vs
Epson Scan “File Save Settings” window (Mac vs

I use this 3-digit number, that counts up by 1 after each scan, as the last 3 digits of my 5-digit “tattoo.” This all but automates the numbering process on the digital side, and just leaves me with making sure I hand write that same code on the bottom of the slide or back of the corresponding print I just scanned.

Since Epson Scan adds this “Start Number” to the end of the filename. And since I am scanning all of my photos out of any kind of logical order, there would be no reason for me to have this number at the head of the filename for sorting.

I really can’t think of any reason why having this 5-digit number anywhere else in the filename would be any better than having it at the end. And to me, it makes sense to have this number at the end anyways.

If someone was looking at your filename, reading it to obtain useful information, the description and the date the photo was taken would be considered (in almost all cases) more important than this ID number. So, to me it makes sense to push it down to the end. It’s important yes, but I don’t think it’s necessary to have it front and center over other information.

But, this certainly doesn’t mean you couldn’t put it any other place that you wish —  for example right after the date at the head of the filename.

It could look something like this:

1977-03-12 – 01562 – Bill’s 20th Birthday at Smith Home.tiff

Eliminating Spaces and Adding More Hyphens?

I think spaces are fine. New operating systems on computers have accepted spaces very nicely as they have matured. I know there are some (older) versions of Microsoft Windows that still doesn’t allow really long filenames. All of the Mac OS X that I’ve used seems to allow an almost unlimited length and a lot of unusual characters before it gives you any issues.

These machines are working for us, not the other way around, so I like to think sanity and legibility for humans is fair to be a top priority when labeling our photos, over the slim chance your photos might return to an ancient form of OS years and years from now that (still) doesn’t accept spaces in file names.

I think the need for more hyphens and underscores or less spaces just comes down how legible you want your filenames to be for others.

The reason it might be good to add (normal) dashes, long dashes (em dashes: “—”), or even parenthesis (if your current operating system allows it) would be because it could possibly break up the sections of information and make it easier for people’s eyes to glance at the file names and quickly figure out which information belongs to which. Looking at one filename usually isn’t too challenging, but consider times when you or someone else might have hundreds of them in a single dense column.

Here are some possible variations you could experiment with:

1982-05-27 Bill Paints the House Pink – 01562.tiff
1982-05-27 Bill Paints the House Pink (01562).tiff
1982-05-27 — Bill Paints the House Pink — 01562.tiff

I don’t think one way is more right than the other. There’s still a lot of personal taste that can go into this. You as the family archiver will have to work with this all the time, so it’s important whatever method you end up choosing feels right to you.

I think what is important is to be extremely consistent with whichever method you go with.

I believe I can speak on behalf of those that have some degree of OCD. I personally require a large amount of consistency or I will flat out lose my mind. Yes seriously. I will be the one to go in and change that “_” to a “-” if every other time a “-” is being used!

1977-03-12 Bill Learning the Macarena.tiff
1978-01_06 Bill Last Halloween Party.tiff
1982-05-27 Bill Paints the House Pink.tiff

So see this example above? Yeah, it’s practically making my right eye twitch uncontrollably. I feel the need to fix it — like immediately.

But it’s not just the looks. Often typos and inconsistencies like this can cause groups of photos (or any file) to sort improperly because the computer considers every character differently when applying the algorithm. One character even slightly different could cause one photo in a set (album) to sort out of order.

To Modify Your Current Naming System or Not?

Finally, as far as a critique of Dan’s current naming method, and what I would suggest he possibly change, I really think there’s only one thing that got my attention.

Like I said at the beginning, if he was to continue using his current method, he would still pass on a collection that is full of a lot of great and useful information.

I mean, imagine how left out someone’s going to feel many years from now when they inherit a massive collection of photos still labeled as something like “DSCN2462” that wasn’t changed from the day the digital camera labeled it that! (sigh) Anything someone does to improve this situation is going to be a drastic improvement!

The only thing that jumps out at me is that he decided to list the date the photo was taken at the end of the file name. And in the front, he has a 3-digit number that can be used to manually order a group of photos that belong in a virtual “album” — such as a series of photos from a single event like a birthday party:

001 Bill’s 20th Birthday at Smith Home 1977_03_12.tiff
002 Bill’s 20th Birthday at Smith Home 1977_03_12.tiff
003 Bill’s 20th Birthday at Smith Home 1977_03_12.tiff

For the good or bad, he’s traded the ability to sort for example, a folder full of thousands of photos by the date they were taken, for the ability to sort them by this order he wants them to be in for a grouped “album.”

So if an entire album’s worth of photos are the only photos in a given folder, then this method works out well, because like in the above example, the photos will sort in that perfect order he want them presented in. And this particular group or album of photos could in fact be in chronological order.

However, the problems could start to occur if someone were to ever mix even just 2 “albums” worth of photos in the same folder. Now the photos will instead sort with the first photo from each album first, then the second photo from each album second.. etc. like so:

001 Bill Paints the House Pink 1982_05_27.tiff
001 Bill’s 20th Birthday at Smith Home 1977_03_12.tiff
002 Bill Paints the House Pink 1982_05_27.tiff
002 Bill’s 20th Birthday at Smith Home 1977_03_12.tiff
003 Bill Paints the House Pink 1982_05_27.tiff
003 Bill’s 20th Birthday at Smith Home 1977_03_12.tiff

If you want my personal thoughts of how I came to the method I chose, I would tell you I decided from a historical point of view. I wanted to label and archive my photos chronologically at all times.

Having all of my photos tell the big story from beginning to end, in the order in which they occurred in the past, is what’s most important to me.

Once I have passed on, I will have no control over how all of these photos are organized and how they will be used and shared.

So, if my heirs decide one day they want to do something like take every single one of the photos and put them into one massive folder (like I mentioned above), all of the photos would still theoretically sort by the way I want them to — in the order they actually happened — because I have the shoot date first in the filename and in the year:month:day layout.

All humans can grasp the concept of stories having a beginning through to an end. So chronology is an excellent method of sorting because it easily communicates an implied order to anyone, without having any kind of “legend” or “key” written out (and possibly translated in another language) to pass on letting our heirs know how and why they were organized in another fashion.

A method you could use, if a three digit “album” order is still very important to you, could be to add this number after the date, or even after your description. This is still more limiting than Dan’s current method, but it still will allow you to manually order an event (with similar description naming) that took place on the same day.

1977_03_12 001 Bill’s 20th Birthday at Smith Home.tiff
1977_03_12 002 Bill’s 20th Birthday at Smith Home.tiff
1977_03_12 003 Bill’s 20th Birthday at Smith Home.tiff
1982_05_27 001 Bill Paints the House Pink.tiff
1982_05_27 002 Bill Paints the House Pink.tiff
1982_05_27 003 Bill Paints the House Pink.tiff
1977_03_12 – Bill’s 20th Birthday at Smith Home – 001.tiff
1977_03_12 – Bill’s 20th Birthday at Smith Home – 002.tiff
1977_03_12 – Bill’s 20th Birthday at Smith Home – 003.tiff
1982_05_27 – Bill Paints the House Pink – 001.tiff
1982_05_27 – Bill Paints the House Pink – 002.tiff
1982_05_27 – Bill Paints the House Pink – 003.tiff

It just becomes a choice of what’s most import to you and your collection, and what you need to add to the filenames to make them easy to create and read.

Alright Dan, I hope this helps you with all of your questions.

If you’ve already started scanning and organizing your collection, what file naming method are you using? Or if you haven’t, what variation are you considering to use when you do get started?

Just let me know in the comments below. We can all work together to improve the usefulness of our own collections.

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