What Everybody Ought to Know When Naming Your Scanned Photos – Part 2

by | Last updated May 17, 2017 | Scanning Photos | 26 comments

Photo Collage - menu item to save photo as Mom's Birthday 1??In part 1 of this 3-part mini series about naming your scanned digital master files, we discussed how important I feel it is to start your filenames with the date the photo was taken. And this date is most useful when placed in the 4-digit: Year – Month – Day format.

So now with part 2, we're going to cover adding a description to your photo right in the middle of your filename.


Part 2 – Add a Description to Your Photo

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

In many ways, the point of a good filename is double duty. First it gives you the ability to organize and search for your photos on the “folder level.” So without even seeing the image loaded (previewed) on your screen, you are able to sort and find particular files in either Windows Explorer in Microsoft Windows Windows Explorer Iconor Finder windows Apple (Mac) Finder Iconif you are using a Mac.

Additionally, a filename can permanently take the place of much of the handwritten “caption” information you may or may not already have on the back or even front (sometimes) of your photographs.

Where I don't believe there is any room to budge on how you format the date field that we covered in part 1, I do believe you can experiment with the description – how you describe what you see in your photograph.

For this, I think you should come up with a method that works best for you. But do you and your photos a favor and make whatever method you choose be … (drum roll here) …. useful.

What's useful is adding a description that will mean something to someone who is unfamiliar with the photo.

This filename you give it – often hammered out in a hurry – may not seem very important to you at the time you type it in. Maybe it's because you are actually in the photograph and are completely familiar with everything about it – the time it took place, where it took place and everyone in it. Or maybe it's a photograph cherished by someone else in your family where even though you weren't around to have lived it, you have heard the story about it many many times through the years. In either case, you are taking for granted the knowledge you have stored up in that head of yours.

But someone in your family 60 years from now, possibly long after your passing, may have no memory of this particular photo – or many of them – heck maybe even most of them!

If you are knowledgeable of how many of today's image managers operate, you might be thinking to yourself you are far more clever than I am because you know how you can type in all of this descriptive “caption” information right into the image manager – such as in the “caption” field for each photograph.

Caption example in Picasa 3 for Mac

Example of a caption typed directly into the caption field in Google's “Picasa” (Mac version)

Why yes smarty pants – you can! And in fact, I recommend you type it in there as well (but do so in its entirety). Having a caption in an image manager is fantastically useful and fun. But I don't feel it's in you and your photos' best interest to neglect the master filenames because that is what identifies the photo outside of your photo manager – such as when you export them to your desktop or email them.

To me that would be like someone feeling there is no reason to have their full name and social security number on every page of their tax return (for identification) when their name is already written once on the outside of the envelope they're mailing it in.

These image managers, like Picasa and Lightroom, are tremendous programs and have almost rock solid databases. But you don't want to assume your digital photos will always be accessed only within them. Your photos need this “descriptive tattoo” – this “birth certificate” – to be carried along with them for when they are alone, “naked” without any proprietary database attached to them.

So What Should Go In Your Description?

I say make it easy on yourself. All you have to do is list what someone unfamiliar with your photo would want to know. Simply tell us “who” or “what” is in the photo, “where” it was taken and “why” (what's going on in it that was important enough for a frame of film to be developed).

Though not all photos will have all of the “w's” to list. For example, some photos don't have a special occasion to be your “why” – like a wedding shower or a school play. Sometimes it's just a picture of the front of your home and the front lawn. That person wanted to remember how it looked at that point in time so they took a snapshot of it. But if there was a significant reason the photo was taken it would be worth mentioning.

naming photos - front of house

“1925-xx-xx Marvel Ruth House Front Illinois”

Here are 7 additional tips that should help you out even more with your descriptions:

1. Don’t Write Overly Wordy Descriptions

Even though you probably are technically capable of typing in a lot of characters, this really isn't the place to write everything there is to say about the photograph. Try and resist the urge if you have it. Just keep it to what's important – what's unique.

Back of scanned photo with long handwritten caption

This would be an example of a caption too long to turn into the description part of the filename


2. Add Useful Keywords

Another way to keep the filename shorter is to avoid using words like “to, the, went, we” etc. Instead, just use specific keywords that you might use if you were using a search engine like Google or Bing. You want to be able to search your images' filenames to find your photographs.

For example, using the photograph above, I made part 1 and part 2 of its filename:

“1978-02-xx Blanket Tent Tunnel Winter Snow Day”


3. Make Your Descriptions Unique

Try not to use a description like “Moms Birthday.” Yes, it is better than no description at all, so pat yourself on the back if you at least get this much typed in.

But the thing is, your Mom probably had LOTS of birthdays photographed through her years, so using “Mom's Birthday” isn't very unique. Now “Moms 40th Outback Steakhouse Birthday” … now that is unique and that is useful! Pat yourself on the back at least three or four times for that one!

Same with “Dad Fishing.” Unless you can honestly say this is the first, best and last time he has ever fished, this is not a unique enough description to be useful. Call your Dad by his real name and type in what really happened:

“1970-07-xx Ronald Catching 7 pound Bass Montgomery Lake GA”


4. Give Attention to the Unfamiliar

You can't possibly list everyone's name in your description for a large group shot. So don't beat yourself up when you can't. But when there are only a half dozen or less people in the photo, then it's useful to have this information recorded.

Also, I find it really helpful to make sure I list the names of less familiar people in my collection – like your “cousin Eddie” that made his presence known just a couple times over a twenty year span. And if I have too many “unfamiliar” people in a picture, I try to just list the people that mean something to the family – the ones I might actually do a search for someday.

5. Don’t Guess With Anything

Like in part 1 when adding the shoot date, it’s very important you don’t guess with any piece of information. If you aren’t 100% sure that this is your cousin “Rita Mae Lynn” in the photo, don’t type in that it is.


The reason I have found, is you don’t want to be in a position later where you are second guessing your own information as being reliable or not. And especially after you have passed on, (yes that time will eventually come) you certainly don't want anyone else doubting your accuracy (read as “really long and hard work”).

Like using “x's” with the date field, there is a way around this problem. I use a “?” next to names and keywords when I'm not absolutely positive of someone or something. For example:

“196x-10-31 Alices Halloween Party – Houston TX – Randy Tom? Mark”


6. Be Consistent

Consistency is always important when it comes to the filename.

If your method is to build your description like this:  [event] + [location] + [people] … then try and stick with it. Try not to have 7 photos in this manner and then have 3 with [location] + [people] + [event].

Also, if you call your father “Dad,” stay consistent and always use “Dad.” If someone unfamiliar with your collection gets used to you identifying your father as “Dad,” and then all of a sudden you label him in one of your filenames by his real name “Jim,” it could get really confusing quickly.

Additionally, if you are doing a hard drive search in folders full of your photos for all the photos your Dad is prominently in, the photo with your Dad labeled as “Jim” won't come up if you are searching for the keyword “Dad.” And by the way, given a choice, I would recommend you use someone's real name.

7. End a Series with an Additional Word or Number

Invariably, you will have a bunch of photos taken at one time – for example a wedding or your daughter's soccer game. On multiple shots where I use the same description for similar shots, I simply add a number or a word or two to differentiate the shots. For example:

“1986-10-14 Andys Soccer Game Chipmunks vs Otters – 1”
“1986-10-14 Andys Soccer Game Chipmunks vs Otters – 2”
“1986-10-14 Andys Soccer Game Chipmunks vs Otters – 3”

“1983-07-xx – Moms 40th Outback Steakhouse Birthday_wide”
“1983-07-xx – Moms 40th Outback Steakhouse Birthday_closeup”
“1983-07-xx – Moms 40th Outback Steakhouse Birthday_smiling”
“1983-07-xx – Moms 40th Outback Steakhouse Birthday_cutting cake”

So that's all there is to adding a description with my naming formula. That wasn't that hard – was it?

Let me know in the comments below what you think of how I write my descriptions or tell me how you write yours. I would love to know.

In part 3, the last part of this series, I'll show you how to end your filename with a handy technique that will enable you to simply glance at it and know exactly what scanner settings you used to scan in that photo. Very helpful! Skeptics… you might be surprised.

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I’ve read and reread your 3 part naming convention probably about 30 times.

My question is this: When you are doing your naming (which I’m in the process of organizing and renaming things now). Do you list everyone in the picture in the filename if you can? I know if it’s a big group that would be a long file name and I probably shouldn’t do that but if there’s like 5-6 or less people do you name them in the file name?

I’m trying to figure out the easiest process. Right now I’m just putting the date (ex: 2009-08-14) the event (Mom’s birthday) and then I thought I’d go back through all of the pictures and put in the names of people I can identify. I’m just wondering if that’s worth the effort.

I’m trying to learn and understand Picasa as well. I know it has face recognition but I don’t believe that adds it to your photo so unless you have that program I’m not sure what that does for adding the “people” to the photos.

Bonnie Dineen
Bonnie Dineen

For complicated photos, say a crowd of relatives after a funeral: I add a white border around the photo, or just at the bottom, where I type in the filename as title, followed by full names of the people, left to right, occasion, etc. When coupled with genealogy work, this is most helpful. Also, when there are cryptic or important notes on the backs of photos, I use the bottom border (it can be made as large as necessary) to type: Back of photo: Winnie Smith wrote: “Harry was valedictorian 1923.” Appreciate all your great ideas. Thank you.


“5. Don’t Guess With Anything…..Like using “x’s” with the date field, there is a way around this problem. I use a “?” next to names and keywords when I’m not absolutely positive of someone or something. For example:
“196x-10-31 Alices Halloween Party – Houston TX – Randy Tom? Mark””

Curtis, your suggestion from above about not guessing does not work for file names in the Windows universe; a ? is a reserved character and they won’t let you put it in a file name. Sometimes I add a [Q] in lieu of a ?, but mostly I indicate my uncertainty in the relevant IPTC field.

Bill Zam
Bill Zam

I see that in your examples you used both “TX” and “Illinois.” I use iPhoto and have encountered search issues with both abbreviations and full names. For example, if you used abbreviations, searching for “IL” would find all the photos of “BILL.” If you used full names, searching for photos of your friend “Carol” would find all the photos taken in “South Carolina.” I know I can create Smart Albums (title includes Carol AND location does not equal North/South Carolina). But before I proceed I just wondered if you had settled on one or the other, or had any other insight. Thanks!



thank you for reminding me to breath!
I read your helpful comments and calmed down and tried a few things. I think I was mainly freaked out when I thought there would be 1 picture with 2 names…but then realized that the original will be updated (name wise) eventually.

I imported some digital shots and relaxed!

I’m now swimming in figuring out the difference between projects/folders/albums. oh. my!

I had my digital pics…nicely organized in folders by year.month.date…
so I imported “folders as projects” and it has line them up very similar to the way they live in the external hard drive.

I’m really unsure as how to import the scans tho…as they are less organized…and much like yours are a “work in progress” as far as re-naming and sorting into folders. maybe a “to be sorted project” and when named…moved to a different project?

so, how do you organize your pics once imported? projects? albums? folders?

thanks again…for the reassurance that all will be well!!
You really did break it down and make it easier to understand!!
especially the breathing part : )


oh. my.

would you like to turn this into an “aperture” blog?

I bought it and am a little overwhelmed. It is less intuitive than I expected.

I had no idea until you mentioned it…that it doesn’t write meta data to the originals.

I am also a little confused about file names.
I thought I would be able to import files as referenced…and if I changed the name in aperture…it would change the master file…but it doesn’t…only the aperture “version”….that just confuses me…wouldn’t that get really confusing…later on.

You said you have your scans referenced. Do you make sure that you name them before importing?…what if you find out more info and want to change it from 196x_12_25 to 1966_12_25 ? It won’t change the master file…so how do you know later that the two images are the same?

Aperture may be a little beyond what I want…

All I want is something that will let me keyword…pictures…so I can type in a name i.e.: Curtis Bisel and find all the pics I have tagged of curtis. or: Bryant Family, or neon signs. I will rarely retouch…or use a lot of the bells and whistles in aperture.

I’m a little freaked out about this duel name thing. any advice…from your experiences??


thanks Curtis.

I bought Aperture and am now on the verge of making this decision!

I like the idea of cloning…
but I’m still a little confused.

say I have the referenced masters on an external drive that sits in my house.
I clone those masters to the portable drive that I carry with me.
and then i’m in this situation:
I’m back at that family members with my laptop and the portable that is cloned.
I want to a keyword search and burn a dvd with all the pics I have of say, “zach”
will aperture “see” the originals on the cloned drive?

or should I make the portable the Master and the one at home the clone?

I’ve also thought about just importing EVERYTHING digital and scans and making everything managed…going thru and using faces…to at least get pics sorted…and THEN as I process…name…correct…keyword…finish an image… export it to an external as referenced master.

what do you think of that???

aye, yi, aye….


I know you are using aperture…
do you use referenced or managed files?
I’m going to make the LR vs. Aperture vs. iphoto decision this week…and will then need to make the referenced or managed decision.
I have a lot of space…but am leaning toward referenced to keep the drive on the mb pro as freed up as possible. used to be you could dump pics in the main hard drive forever…but with 10-15 mb. digital cameras…the space fills up faster than it used to! and video….well, I’m sure you know how fast space fills up with video!

any advice?

Carol Glover
Carol Glover

Thanks Curtis, these are great tips. I know your website is about scanning, but I’m wondering if the same should be applied when labelling photos in iPhoto. Should the Title (which I believe becomes the file name) be written according to your tips on file names?