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What is involved with file naming and organizing photos?

Even if you’re not an organized type of person, I’m sure you know the value of being able to find a file easily. Imagine trying to find a book in a library with no filing system, or a document on your computer. Sure, you could use the search function to find the document, but only if you knew the name of the file. 

It’s the same with photos. 

However, file naming is not just for when you export your photos. It starts with how you name your photos in camera and continues through to how you name and organize images once they’ve been imported to your computer. 

Everyone has their own system, so you need to figure out a file naming system that works for you. But it also has to work for the technology you use.

I’ve got  great system that’s worked well for me for the last 10 years and share that with you in a moment.

Organizing photographs might not be the fun side of photography, but then neither is losing precious photos!Click To Tweet

Why is file naming important for organizing photos?

Before we get into how to name files, it helps to understand the issues involved and why a good system is essential for organizing photographs.

File naming is really important to get right from the start. With digital photography it’s so easy to build up vast folders of photographs and if you don’t have a good system things could go horribly wrong.

Worst case scenario – you lose an image you really did not want to lose.

Best case scenario of a non-existent or poorly thought out file naming system is that you can’t find the files you want.

If you’ve already photographed the world and his dog and don’t have a good system set up, don’t worry – better late than never! At least from today onwards your photos will be organised and your file naming will be set up for easy access.

I’ve learned about organizing photos the hard way…

I know what it’s like to spend hours going through all my files on various hard drives looking for the photos from that holiday 10 years ago. The panic I felt when I thought that they’d been lost is not a feeling I’ll forget. They hadn’t been lost. I just hadn’t perfected my filing system back then, so it took a long time to figure out where to find the photos.

If you haven’t set up a file naming system, you could get duplicate files, which then becomes a photo organization nightmare.

This is how you could end up losing photos!

When you import a photo with the same name as a photo already on your computer, in the same folder, your computer will ask you if you want to replace the file. If you’re not thinking you could very easily just click OK and then your old photo will be replaced by the new photo. 

We get so used to these messages flagging up that very often we don’t pay enough attention and hit OK before we realise the consequences of doing so.

I nearly lost wedding photos

I first realised the need for a file naming system in camera when I was photographing a wedding in 2008. I was shooting with two cameras and as it was a wedding, there were a lot of photographs! The following morning when I started importing the files to the computer I was confronted with the replace message.

Luckily I didn’t click OK, but I did have to spend quite a while figuring a way out of the mess.

Why do photos overwrite each other?

It happens because files on memory cards have a default naming structure of DSC followed by four digits, starting with 0001. So when you get to 9999 photos, the next number will be 0001. Putting in a new memory card does not necessarily mean that the numbering will start at 0001 every time – it depends on your camera settings.

Speaking of which…

How do you get started with organizing photos?

As I mentioned at the beginning, there are two parts to setting up a good file naming system for organized photographs:

  1. In camera file naming
  2. File naming on your computer

1. In camera file naming

I shoot with Nikon, so these steps are written from a Nikon point of view, but that doesn’t matter. Whatever your camera make, it will have the same capabilities, so just refer to your manual for the exact steps involved.

If you don’t know where your manual is, go to and type in the make of your camera to view the manual online. It’s a fantastic website for manuals. You’ll probably also find your dishwasher manual on there!

There are two parts to naming your photos in camera

First you need to go into the menu to find Custom Menu Setting and select Shooting/display.

Step by step instructions on naming photography files

Then scroll down to File number sequence.

How to name and number files in the camera

Select it and ensure that it is set to On.

How to name your photos on a Nikon

This will ensure that the file number sequence continues when you put in another memory card. If you have it set to Off, it will return to 0001 with each new memory card. On is the default setting, but it doesn’t hurt to check.

As you can imagine, if you’re using several memory cards in one shoot, you’re going to have a problem with duplicate file names.

The next step is to change the standard DSC letters that are set as a default for file naming.

Go to Shooting Menu. Scroll down to File naming and select it to go to the next screen.

How to name your photography files

Click on File naming.

How to organize and store digital photos on the computer

Use the multi selector dial to then set your own three characters that will form the start of your file names in camera.

How to name photos in camera

I use my initials and then on my D810 I follow it with an 8. On my D700 I follow it with a 7. As I sometimes shoot with both cameras, this avoids any potential problems with duplicate numbers at the initial stage.

2. How to organize photos on the computer

My process…

  • I import photos into Lightroom.
  • Select the ones that I want to keep and delete the others.
  • Once I’ve gone through this process I rename the files I’ve kept.

If you use another way of importing and storing your photos, ignore the first part of my process, but you’ll still find it helpful to rename your photos with this method.

The file naming system I use for processed photos is:

Date – yymmdd
Client name – Jane Doe
Photo number, starting with 001

So, as an example, if I photographed Jane Doe today, the fourteenth photo that I’ve kept would be named: 181217JaneDoe014.

If the final set of images is fewer than 100, the numbering starts at 01. For 100 or more photos in a set the numbering starts with 001.

With this system there’s no possible way that I can end up with duplicate file names for 3 reasons:

  • Using the date at the start of the name makes the file easy to search.
  • As does including the client’s name.
  • Including the photo number makes it easy to refer to a specific photo.

Organizing your photo filing structure

This is where I really messed up when I first started using Lightroom in 2007. I just put everything into one catalogue (folder) on my computer.

By September 2009 that was really full. I decided to draw a line in the sand and not try to reorganize everything that had come before. Fortunately, I’d always used the file naming system above. The worst part was that, because the folder was so large, backups took forever!

I started using external hard drives for storing all my photos (as well as for backups), because by that point I was working on two different computers and needed to access the files on both computers.

When I started a new catalogue, I just named it “Oct 2009 Onwards”. Clearly I still wasn’t thinking things through properly!

However, at least I started importing files into subfolders for specific subjects, like weddings, then a further subfolder for each wedding, within that main one. Backups were still taking forever as the folder was so large.

I was just so busy that I never stopped to take the time to figure out something that would work well for me. As a result I wasted so much time!

Overkill on photo organizing

In 2012, I realised I couldn’t carry on like that. So, annoyingly, I went too far the other way!

  • I created a new catalogue for each quarter of the year eg “2015 Q4”.
  • I then had subfolders such as “Holidays”, “Personal”, “Commercial”, “Family Portraits” etc and further subfolders within those folders for the specific trip or shoot.

That worked well for a while, but soon became a pain looking for a particular shoot, especially now. It’s impossible to remember the month of every shoot I’ve ever done.

What was I thinking?!

Finally, a photo filing system that works!

Here’s what I did next. My process for the last few years…

  • I created a new catalogue at the start of each year simply labelled with the year.
  • I divide that up into subfolders by genre – “Boudoir”, “Lifestyle”, “Holidays” etc.
  • Then finally into specific client folders, or holidays.

This is so much easier!

How to organize photos into folders on your computer

I hope my tips on organizing and naming your photos has helped you so that you don’t take the same ridiculous amount of time it has taken me to get more organized.

After processing your photos, your next step is exporting your photos from Lightroom for web or print, so here’s some help for that…

Further reading: Lightroom export settings for web and print

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