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

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

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 will 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 allows you 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 replace 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 we covered in part 1, I believe you can experiment with the description – how you describe what you see in your photograph.

For this, I think you should devise 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 unfamiliar with the photo.

This filename you give it – often hammered out in a hurry – may not seem very important to you when 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 your 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 with 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 seven 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 many 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 only a half dozen or fewer people are in the photo, 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 of 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 that you don’t want to be in a position later where you are second-guessing your own information as 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 about 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 seven 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,” then you suddenly 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 recommend using someone’s real name.

7. End a Series with an Additional Word or Number

Invariably, you will have many photos taken at once — for example, at 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 add 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 enabling 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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