File names for your digital photographs

by Sally J.

in * How to ORGANIZE Your Photos, Free Articles / Blog

Should we keep the computer generated file names or come up with our own?

There are advantages to the machine generated name:

  • They easily sort in order of creation
  • There are no repeated file names
  • You don’t have to think about it, it’s already done. ^-^

Remember, the file name itself is not the only place to put information about the photo. If you want scads of information about your photographs at your fingertips, your best bet is to create a simple database in FileMaker Pro or Access.

You can create fields for information like who owns the original*, when it was taken, the names of everyone in the photo, the condition of the original, whether the digital file is the “unmolested digital master” or a copy that you restored digitally. One of the fields would be “file name.” Since you will search the database to find what you’re looking for, it doesn’t matter if the file name is something vague like xqp02064.tiff.

*(Genealogists, for example, often have digital copies of ancestral photos sent to them by distant cousins.)

Regardless of what kind of name you choose, it’s a good idea to write the file name on the back of all scanned photographs. Use a soft No. 1 pencil. If the print won’t take a pencil mark, you can slip it in a sleeve and write on the sleeve. Or you can mark it with an archival permanent marker on an edge that has only background information. (That ink might bleed through eventually, so don’t write over people’s faces.) My local camera company adds the file name on the back automatically when I print my digitals. I love that feature.

Generating Your Own Names: The 8.3 Rule
To ensure that your files have maximum portability, you need to follow the 8.3 rule. That means you have 8 spaces to describe your new digital photograph, plus the 3 spaces after the dot for the file type. It’s difficult to jam identifying information using this constricted format. I’ve tried, as you can see from this excerpt from my “8 Blunders People Make When They Scan Photographs” booklet:

I recommend starting with a date code. That way, sorting by file name will automatically sort chronologically at the same time. I use a 3 number date code with “1” for 1900s and “2” for 2000 and beyond. After that, a family name code, or even an individual code if you have already creating this kind of indexing system. The last 3 spaces are for a brief description. GP for a group portrait, for example.

A 1919 photograph of the McConnell family would get a file name like this: 119MCCgp.tif

And a 2006 photograph of the Jacobs family would get a file name like this: 206JACgp.tif

Is the 8.3 rule still necessary?

Maybe not. I asked Paul Hedges, Director of IT for the Wisconsin Historical Society, and he told me he uses longer file names for his family history documents. Here’s his summary of the situation:

“8.3 and 31 and 255 are supported across all the major operating systems. 8.3 is probably the safest, but lacks the flexibility to provide useful names. In the end, pick a standard, stick with it, and you’ll be OK.”

For more information about file naming protocols, Paul suggested the following articles at wikipedia:

8.3 Filenames
Long Filename
ISO 9660
© Photographer: Cristian Nitu | Agency:

Sally J. July 15, 2007 at 5:41 pm

You’re absolutely right, Beverly. The abbreviation for group should be “gp” not “grp” in order to save space. Silly me. I’ve updated the post to reflect that.

This is a great example of how much of a hassle the 8.3 name can be. Well, it’s really only a hassle if you want to describe the image using 8 characters.

I don’t have time to create an index or a database for my photos right now, so I’ve loosened up my own file naming.

I still put the year first, but now I use the entire year, plus “ca” for circa if it’s a guess. Then name(s) and sometimes a brief note about the occasion. It’s not perfect, but it’s doable and it works for me. Your mileage may vary, as they say. :)

Beverly July 14, 2007 at 5:27 am

Seems to me you’re using 9.3 naming? Or have I miscounted…

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