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If You Don’t Add This to the Filename of Your Scanned Photos, You’ll Probably Hate Yourself Later

Writing on the back of a paper print — photograph

Whether you keep all of your scanned master (original) image files in folders on a hard drive, or you allow an image manager like Picasa, iPhoto or Aperture to manage them inside a library file, you will still be required to give each photo a filename.

It could be as simple and non-descriptive as “photo-1.jpg” or maybe even simple yet somewhat descriptive like “mom at the beach 1984.tif “.

But, it's actually a very important part of the process of scanning photos, that if done with a little bit of forethought, can save you a lot of time and headache later.

A Little Background

folder with three files named scan 1, scan 2 and scan 3 to demonstrate simple file naming by a photo scanner
Here's how a folder of scanned images might look using a basic filename and number. (Mac OS X)

As I began to wrap my head around the complexity of scanning my own massive 9,000+ photo collection, it occurred to me that I was going to expect my digital collection to become incredibly neat and organized.

For example, if my brother came to me and said, “Hey do you remember that photo of you and I as little kids standing on chairs in front of the kitchen sink at the old house?”, I wanted to be able to not only respond that I most certainly do remember it, but that I could find the digital “scanned” version of it on my computer within seconds.

As I got to learn the power of non-destructive image managers, how you can do searches inside of them for text within the photos' filenames and keywords (descriptive words usually stored as metadata inside of the photo file), I realized this goal of mine actually wasn't impossible at all. In fact, it was very doable, and it just required some additional time from me to enter in some additional data.

In the simplest terms, I could give this photo of my brother and I the filename:

boys stand chairs kitchen.tif

If I later went into a program like Picasa, or the folders on my hard drive where all of the scanned image files are stored, and did a search for just two words “stand chairs”, this particular photo would come up in the results because at one time a while back, I took the time identify this photo with both of these identifying descriptive words.

Infogram that shows how searching for two word keywords can bring up a photo
Doing a search for keywords in image managers like Google's Picasa (free) can bring up photos with the words in the original filename.

Once I realized this, it became obvious to me I wanted to come up with my own file naming system that I could use across my entire photo collection.

But also, I didn't want to stop at just describing what and who was in each photo. It was also extremely important to me that it helped me to chronologically order all of my photographs.

My Own File Naming System for Scanned Photos

After a fair amount of trial and error, I came up with my own file naming system.

Alright! Wahoo!!

It think it's a really good system. In fact, I thought I had nailed it. I thought it was near perfect for my collection. So, I decided to put it in action.

Here's an example of a 1978 photo I scanned and then named using this system.

And keep in mind, this is the actual filename that I typed in at the file level — in Microsoft Windows that would be in “Windows Explorer” for example or in a “Finder” window if you are using MAC OS X.

Boys in Blanket Tent - Scanning Photos Adding Captions Descriptions
My brother and I loved making blanket forts!

1978-02-xx Blanket Tent Tunnel Winter Snow Day (ES-600-48b-UM-DRm).tif

By the way, If you want to check it out and see if you might like to use it, or even part of it, I typed it up for you as a 3-part series called “What Everybody Ought to Know When Naming Your Scanned Photos.”

Working with this numbering system was great. At least for a while. Then I started to notice there was a problem. And to me, it was a big one.

Let's Play a little “Visual” Game

Let me try and explain it this way.

Scenario 1

One day you are going through your photo collection and you find a slide at the bottom of an old envelope. It's a beautiful shot of a dolphin jumping at a marine park show.

You start to wonder if you have already scanned it, and if so, you would love to send a copy of it to your Aunt Betsy to remind her how much fun you both had together that day a long long time ago.

holding a slide in fingers — image of dolphin show kind of dark

This image here is what this slide looks like in your hand. You can make out the dolphins jumping in the middle, but the details are pretty faint. But, you know it's just lovely!

So you load up your image manager Picasa and start searching for any and all photos from this marine park. And guess what, because you are totally awesome you find 4 images that appear to be from the same show and on the same vacation!


But, all the dolphin shots look about the same because they were all taken when the dolphins were in mid-air in just about the same place.

So you hold the slide up to the light, you do that squinting thing (you know I'm talking about), and you carefully inspect the film inside and compare it to the images on your screen.

Collage of 4 photos (each very similar) of 2 dolphins jumping through hoops

You think you know exactly which one it must be, but you can't be exactly sure.

Now you are wondering if this is even one of the four you found in Picasa. Maybe it really is possible this slide got loose a long time ago and it was just never scanned.

Scenario 2

Here's another situation. These three photos are pretty common in someone's photo collection. It's an amateur photo shoot of a little boy in a backyard.

3 very similar photos of a boy sitting in the grass from a photo shoot
I chose three shots that actually look pretty different from each other. But imagine if your photoshoot was 20 or 30 shots. I bet several of them would look almost identical!

It's really hard to get your son to not only sit up and smile, but to also get him to look at you and the camera all at the same time… forget about it!

You remember the day though, you really wanted that shot so you took 15 shots thinking that maybe when you brought the prints home from the developers down the street, 1 of them would be perfect!

So you're in Picasa and you have found this perfect image amongst all of the others. It was easy to find because you marked it with a star. Good thinking!

Now imagine how hard it might be to try and find the original paper print of it again that's now in that plastic tub you decided to store all your original prints in that's in the back of your bedroom closet.

Why would you need to find the original paper print if it's already been scanned you're wondering… right? 

That's a good question. I mean, that might be why you spent all that time scanning them in the first place — so you never have to touch your originals again.

Well consider this:

Maybe your Aunt Betsy loves your photography so much now, she is asking you for an 8″x10″ copy of this perfect shot of your son printed out so she can frame it and hang it on her wall between her bedroom and the bathroom. You think it would look nice there too and you likely have no say even if you didn't!

The problem is, after trying to print the digital version out a few times on your fancy new inkjet printer, you realize there just isn't enough detail (resolution) in your 200 dpi scan you made a long time ago and it just looks terrible when print it out this big. It's way too blurry for Aunt Betsy and her new prescription glasses.

So, you decide the only way to make ol' Betsy happy is to re-scan the original print at 600 or more dpi and then you will be able to print it out just fine.

Too bad you can't figure out which print is which because too many of them look alike after all these years!

And maybe this problem is compounded by the fact that your family made a lot of duplicate prints through the years of this photo shoot because of all of those 2-fer and 3-fer-1 priced deals!

Plastic bin filled with paper photographs ready to be scanned
Does this photo collection look familiar to you?

Which one is it!?

I think you might be getting the idea now. But, just so I know without a doubt that I have hit you over the head with this, consider this last example.

Scenario 3

Here's a shot of a beautiful beach during a rain storm. Or, is it 2 separate shots? You tell me.

2 photos almost exactly alike looking at a stormy beach

Yes, you probably noticed the difference in the palm branch in the top left corner of each shot.

It's 2 shots and you know you have scanned one one of them. But, you have these 2 slides in your hand and now you have to do that squinty “comparing” thing with your eyes again.

Which one did you scan last week? They just look so similar. Ugh!

There just has to be a way to solve these problems right!?  Just make this all stop!

The Real Problem and the Missing Element that Solves Your Problem

With a collection that is as massive and as un-sorted as mine, I realized there was one missing “element” to my naming system that I needed to add and fast. In fact, I knew whatever this “element” turned out to be may actually be the most important part of the entire filename!

I couldn't believe I didn't come up with this from the very beginning!

If you use my 3-part naming system as I had originally created it, the problem is that you haven't yet created any kind of a functional link between your original “physical” print or slide and the newly created digital version of it.

In many photo collections, it may be next to impossible for you to match up the original print to the digital image at a later time, for one of many reasons, because neither system lays the foundation for links between the two.

infographic demonstrating there is a missing link needed between original photos and their digital versions

Unless you are one of a very small percentage of people who are considering giving away or trashing all of your original prints, negatives and slides after you scan them, being able to “match back” and find your original physical masters is very important. And how easily you are able to “match back” is almost as important because it can save you or your loved ones lots and lots of time and headache later.

Side note: Please don't throw your originals away. Seriously. That just makes me very sad. If you're really thinking about doing this — do they really take up that much room in your closet?

How to Easily Create a Link Between Each of Your Scanned Photos

Creating a link between your photos is actually a very simple process.

I certainly can't take credit for this idea, because it's that simple. For all I know, the earliest men and women probably used a variation of it for something! And I certainly know Melvil Dewey came up with a brilliant variation of it when he came up with his library classification system for books.

All you have to do is give each photo a unique number and then use the same number in the filename after scanning the photo.

That's it!

Adding an ID "Barcode" number to all my scanned photos
Using my new Itoya Art Profolio Photo Marker to label my previously scanned photos.

On January 25th, 2012, for about half the day, I went through all of the digital masters I have stored in my image manager Aperture, and added a unique number on each and every one of their filenames.

Then I found all of the original paper prints and slides that I had scanned to make these images, and wrote the corresponding number on the back using a special ink pen meant for writing on photographs.

The basic idea for me was to start at the number 1 and work my way up until I was finished scanning and labeling my entire collection.

For me, I know I have close to, if not more than 10,000 photos, so the numbers would get pretty big.

You can create any kind of  a numbering system that you want, as long as it makes sense to you, and it's easy for you and others to follow it years down the line.

Numbering Systems

Here are a few examples of a numbering system you might come up with as well as example filenames written below using each system.

(Please note the filename examples aren't necessarily how I would personally suggest you name your files, but are there to show how you could possibly implement each numbering system using various naming methods you choose to use.)

Numbers Alone

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 … 4726 … etc.

Examples: 1972-03-14 Dads Birthday Party – 5.tif
1972-03-14 Dads Birthday Party – 6.tif
1975-11-23 Lukes Swim Meet Orlando Florida – 346.tif

Numbers with Film Type Differentiation

s1, s2, s3, s4, s5, s6 … s3687 … etc.

p1, p2, p3, p4, p5, p6…  p6124 … etc.

n1, n2, n3, n4, n5, n6 …. n4001 … etc.

Examples: 1972-03-14 Dads Birthday Party – p5.tif
1972-03-14 Dads Birthday Party – p6.tif
1975-11-23 Lukes Swim Meet Orlando Florida – s346.tif

This is how you could separate your prints, slides and negatives by adding a “p”, “s” or an “n” before the number.

Year Plus a Number

1972-1, 1972-2, 1964-3 ….  1972-4056 … etc.

1964-1, 1964-2, 1964-3 … 1964-2389 … etc.

Examples: 1972-5 – Dads Birthday Party.tif
1972-6 – Dads Birthday Party.tif
1975-346 – Lukes Swim Meet Orlando Florida.tif

Notice in these three examples I show how you could put the number before the descriptive part of the filename if you wanted to. This would enable you to be able to sort your photos by the unique numbers in system folders and image managers because the numbers appear first in your filename. And in this example, they would be sorted by year.

My Numbering System of Choice

All three of the methods above would work and have their advantages and disadvantages. And I'm positive there are many other ways you could come up with that could be specifically tailored to benefit you and your own collection.

But, because I know some of you would want to know, I thought I would list for you the method I am currently using to number all of my photos.

I simply took the first method I listed above, the “Numbers Alone” variation, and added 0's to the front of them so each number would be exactly 5-digits long.

5-Digit Numbers Alone

00001, 00002, 00003, 00004, 00005 … 01289… 03589 … etc.

Examples: 1972-03-14 Dads Birthday Party – 00005.tif
1972-03-14 Dads Birthday Party – 00006.tif
1975-11-23 Lukes Swim Meet Orlando Florida – 00346.tif
Writing number from filename of scanned photo on print
Labeling a print “00270” using my numbering system.

A few reasons I chose this numbering method:

  • Correct Amount of Digits — I made my system 5-digits long because I knew my scanned collection would easily reach 10,000 photos for sure and the odds of it reaching 100,000 (6-digits) was next to impossible.
  • Consistency — I like my numbers to be consistent. Call it being a little obsessive compulsive, or maybe just being thorough, but I like my columns of information (such as in file folders) to line up evenly. A “1” and a “8923” don't line up as nicely as a “00001” and a “08923“.
  • Calendar Year Confusion — I also made it 5-digits so that I was sure to have numbers that wouldn't be confused with a calendar year in searches. For example, if I did an search for photos that took place in the year “1972”, I didn't want the possibility that the photo numbered “1972” would come up in the results. Instead, if you wanted to find this photo by number, you would just do an “exact match” search for “01972.”

Implementing My Naming System with My Numbering System

So, to bring this full circle, using the earlier example photo, here is how I have currently chosen to implement my numbering system into my file naming system.

Boys in Blanket Tent - Scanning Photos Adding Captions Descriptions
My brother and I loved making blanket forts!

1978-02-xx Blanket Tent Tunnel Winter Snow Day (ES-600-48b-UM-DRm-#03589).tif

TIP: Don't Strive for Organizational Perfection

Whichever numbering method you choose to use, I would like to suggest you implement this one important concept based on my own experience.

Please do not drive yourself insane by insisting the numbers represent any kind of an order to your photos. 

What I mean by this is unless you have an absolute perfect collection, where you already have in your possession every single photo you will ever want to have in your collection, and you have already sorted and ordered them in a perfect order before you number them, the odds of you being able to assign a number to every photo in your collection in the exact order that you wish for them to end up being in is next to impossible!

So my suggestion to you is to think of this number to be just a way for you to identify the photograph and not a way to identify the order of the photograph.

And just to make sure I am perfectly clear on explaining this concept, let me describe it this way:

I am scanning my own photo collection with little concern for the chronological order of the shoot date — when the photos were actually taken. I have chosen to sort and chronologically ordering my photos inside of my image manager Aperture after I do the scans.

So, even though my goal at the end of this massive project is to have all of my photos chronologically ordered, its possible that a photo taken in 1984 will be given a number like “01489“. And then the next day, I will scan a photo from 11 years earlier in 1973 and give it the next number that I haven't assigned to a photo which happens to be a much higher number — say the number “01502“.

The number is only a reference number — a way to identify the unique link between one original physical print or film to its corresponding scanned image file that you create.

It's often not representative of order.

Do You Have To Number Your Photos?

Is this necessary and do you need to do it? The answer is probably no and maybe — it's up to you.

You have to consider all the factors that will make your collection challenging.

If you have:

  • a lot of photos
  • a lot of duplicate photos
  • a lot of similar looking photos
  • slides or negatives that are hard to see without a magnifying glass etc.
  • an unorganized collection

… you just might want to consider numbering them.

It definitely adds some time to the process. But to me, the benefits later… far outweigh this little bit of extra time.

A digital scanned image of a dolphin jumping with the matching slide version linked - info graphic
Now that's what I am talking about! Here is that dolphin slide again viewed from my collection in Apple's Aperture. The “version name” holds the original filename and ID'ing number. Total bliss.

I hope you enjoyed this post!

I'm sorry if you felt it was a little long. Maybe I went a little crazy with all the info-graphics and photos. I just thought it might make it a little bit more entertaining that way!  :-)

If you wouldn't mind helping me

After reading this, can you think of any other reasons why you would want to number your photos like this that I left out?

I would love for you to let me know in the comments below.

I've got a couple more reason that I would like to share as well. So, I'm thinking of taking the best answers I receive from you all and I'll make a collective post out of it. I'll credit you of course, so make sure you spell your name correctly.


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