What Everybody Ought to Know When Naming Your Scanned Photos – Part 1

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

As my scanned photo collection grows, it has become apparent to me how thankful I am for the added attention I have been putting into the filenames I give to all of my scanned images.

When scanning, it’s really easy to get into a “robotic” mindset where you are just trying to scan as many photos as possible in a sitting. So when you get to that blank field each time that asks you to type in a name for the file, it’s tempting to quickly bang out a few descriptive words with little thought to how useful they will be to anyone later.

Even if you plan on only visually organizing your collection in an image manager like Apple Photos or Adobe Lightroom, you want to pay attention to this root level of identification. You will reference them more than you may think.

Filenames are “Descriptive Tattoos”

I would like you to think of the filename as a permanent “descriptive tattoo” that will always ride along and identify the origin and story of the image. It’s kind of like those tiny rice-sized microchips veterinarians inject into dogs and cats to identify them in case they are found without a tagged collar. Or maybe you can think of it like when a baby is born. The baby’s footprints and the parent’s fingerprints are immediately pressed onto an official birth certificate, the day’s date, and everyone’s full name to permanently record who he or she is in this big scary world.

I think it’s a surprise for people when they find out that scanning their entire photo collection is less about being a technical chore as it is a time of investigation and discovery. You start out digitizing photos you are familiar with. You know everything about them because not only are you in the photos, but you were there!

Soon you’re scanning photos of your parents before they met you. They dated other people? Then you’re on to their parents before they met them. Who knew cameras were around back then? You’re calling them on the phone. “Who’s this dancing with you?” “Where was this one taken?” “Is that your sister’s first bicycle ride?” Before you know it, the pieces to your puzzle start coming together.

But time will pass and your memory will fade. And worse, 10, 20, 30 years from now, without having used a consistent and logical naming and captioning workflow, members of your family who inherited all of your hard work will have to start over – from almost the beginning!

How much will “Mom’s Birthday 1.jpg” really tell someone who has never seen this photo before… or knows anyone in it?

Because of this realization, I came up with a naming formula that is not only easy but is logical. This means almost anyone can make sense of your work years from now without your physical involvement.

And not only will using it save you time and headache later when you access your master files, but with this technique, you will be able to look at a file and know exactly what scanning software and settings were used to create them. But we’ll get to that later.

My naming formula is made up of 3 separate but equally important parts:

Graphic - My 3-part formula for correctly naming your scanned photos

Part 1 –  Add the Photo’s Shoot Date

When you take a photo with your cell phone or digital camera, your image is almost always saved with some useful technical information such as the camera model, the focal length, and the f-stop used to create your photo, etc. In addition, the shoot date (the day the photo was actually taken) and time of day the photo was taken are also preserved in this (EXIF) metadata.

There’s no better way of realizing how impressive this feature is than when you start scanning your non-digital photos and find out not only will you often not know the exact month and year (let alone day) these photos were taken back then, but it’s ultimately your responsibility to make sure this shoot date is somehow attached to your new scan!

Your scanning software will add a date – yes. But this date is when you scanned it or you last modified it (re-saved it).

Create a Date Field in the Format of  – YEAR – MONTH – DAY

It’s important when you create this date field to put the year first and not at the end. If you aren’t used to writing a date in this order, it will initially feel a little strange. This is probably because it’s not how you say dates out loud. For example, we are used to saying “January first, two thousand nine” – not “two thousand nine, January first.”

The advantage of putting the year first is that no matter how many files you throw into a folder, you are guaranteed to be able to sort every single image chronologically by the shoot date.

Also, put the date field at the head of the filename. This approach is much better than putting it later because you will find being able to sort chronologically by date is far more helpful later on than only being able to sort by the first word of your description – such as “Christmas” or “Birthday.”

So for example, using the above “arbitrary” (and unrecommended) naming system, here is how 4 photos saved with the shoot date added using three different methods will be listed in a folder when the name column is sorted by their filenames:

Graphic: Folder with scanned photos named the wrong way for chronological sorting

Graphic: Folder of scanned photos named in the best way to sort chronologically.

The methods in the first two examples are certainly a step up from just typing in a short description like “Grandma Sewing.” But I’m confident you will benefit more from entering them precisely, as demonstrated in the third example.

If you argue it’s better to put the date at the end of the filename because you would like to be able to sort by the event – the occasion in the photo, such as “Moms Birthday,” I would then add that this is an added benefit to putting the date at the beginning because all of your photos from one event will most likely happen on the same day or two. So not only will date first naming give you a chronological order sort, but you will also get the sort by event capability.

Add Zeros to Single Digit Numbers

Many of us aren’t used to writing extra 0s in dates – for example, when writing the date when filling out a check. We probably write “3-2-2010” or maybe even “3-2-10.” Fair enough.

But when filling in the shoot date for your photos filenames, it’s best to get into the habit of filling in these 0s for uniformity. It will make a much cleaner-looking and easier-to-read column of information.

Naming Scanned Photos Using Zeros Correctly

Use x’s for Unknown Numbers

If you haven’t started scanning your collection yet, and you didn’t catch what I said before, let me be clearer here. More than likely, you will have a lot of photos in your collection that need to have the date the photo was taken identified anywhere on the print, negative, or slide. And worse, you may have no idea how to begin figuring them out.

Lucky for me, through the years, my Mom has written a lot of information on the back of most of our paper prints. Sometimes she wrote the entire date – month, day, and year. Other times it’s “Fall 1974” or “Christmas 1975.” And then there are ones where she wrote much less, “1975” or “Easter.”

The back of two scanned photos showing handwritten shoot date information - "1972" and "January 23"

So to solve this problem, I decided to add a lowercase “x” where I wasn’t sure of a number. Doing this will allow you to sort and organize the master files as best as possible while in the “investigative phase” of this particular image. What’s important is to get as much of the date into the filename as soon as possible.

When you find additional numbers later, you can always modify the filename – even if it’s being managed inside an image manager like Picasa or iPhoto.

Here is how you would deal with the various date information commonly found written on the back of your photos:

Date Info FoundEnter ThisReason
Fall 19741974-xx-xxFall is in the later months of the year, but there is no way of knowing the month and day from just this bit of information.
Christmas 19751975-12-2xYou could put 25 instead of 2x, but “Christmas” could mean Christmas Eve or a couple of days around it.
19751975-xx-xxSince no month or day is listed, this is all you can enter. It’s possible something in the photo itself can give you a clue.
Easter197x-xx-xxEaster can happen anytime between March 22 and April 25th. But without knowing what year the photo was taken, there is no way of knowing which month and day. In the photo this example was taken from, I could tell I was only a few years old, so I know it was in the 1970s sometime.
January 19651965-01-xxAll I need to know now is what day the photo was taken.

Don’t Guess on Numbers

This is a really important tip. If you aren’t almost 100% sure about the accuracy of a missing number, don’t guess and put a number you think is correct. Believe it or not, you will be far better off working with an “x” until you are sure you will be with a number you guessed.


You need to establish from the beginning that any information you type into the filenames of your master images is based on fact and not an assumption.

For example, if you have narrowed down a set of photos to have been taken in either July or August of a particular year, it’s not in your photos’ best interest to guess August until you are completely sure it’s not July. If you were to type in August now and revisit this file next year, you would assume it’s a fact this photo was taken in August because, more than likely, you won’t remember your uncertainty.

You might allow yourself some exceptions here and there. You must decide how far you will allow yourself to stray.

Scanned photo border showing magnified portion with Jan 73 printed on it

For example, I have a lot of photographs in our collection from the 1960s and 70s printed on 3.5×3.5” paper with white borders around them. Often, a month and year is “burned” into the left-hand border in a nice shade of aqua blue. This isn’t the date the photo was taken. It’s actually the date the paper photo was printed.

It makes sense. I mean, how would the developer have known when each photo was taken when she was only just handed a roll of film?

I usually allow myself to use this date information in my filename because I know my Mom, and she is not a patient woman when it comes to “surprises.” If I mail her a Birthday card and it arrives in her mailbox a couple of days early, it will be opened almost immediately!

And she was the same way years ago. After a big event, if there were a few unexposed frames left on the roll in her camera, she would shoot pictures of the dogs sleeping around on the carpet so she could get the film off to the developer as soon as possible! If the photo was printed with the date “May 1976,” it was most likely shot in May of 1976.

So that’s it! That’s all there is to add in the shoot date, which makes up “Part 1” of my naming formula.

In Part 2 of this series, I’ll be going over how to describe what’s actually in the photo so someone unfamiliar with it or anyone in the shot will know all about it. Also, I will explain why “Dad Fishing” or “Mom’s Birthday 1” isn’t an adequate description for your filename.


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