All About Digital Photos
Digital Images and Genealogy

How to filename a Digital Photo

If you take a photo with a digital camera, it will create its own filename such as IMG_7159.JPG (which doesn't mean much) and if you scan an image, you'll have to invent your own filename. There are a couple of objectives when you create a new name. One is to provide some meaning to the subject of the photo and a second is to be able to group (sort) together photos with common subjects.

Please note this is not an exhaustive treatise on filenaming conventions - it's just my personal methodology and it is by no means perfect. I've just put this here to give you some ideas.

File Naming Do's and Don'ts

The operating system you are using (i.e. Windows, mac, linux) has various criteria for filenames, so compatibility with these various systems can be an issue.

  • Ideally the filename should be less than 64 characters (a CD limitation which includes the folder name(s)).

  • Don't use "illegal" characters such as : or ? - stick to letters and numbers.

  • Don't put spaces in a filename, use a dash ("-") as a separator

  • Make sure there is an extender indicating the filetype (i.e. .tif, .jpg)

  • Only use a period (.) as a separator for the extender. This means that there can only be one period in a filename, placed before a 3 character extender.

  • Keep in mind alphanumeric sorting - numbers before letters and numbers include "0." The later means that when numbering, maintain leading zeros - a list with 1aaa, 2aaa, ... to 11 aaa will be sorted 1aaa, 10aaa, 11aaa, 2aaa - whereas a list with 001aaa, 002aaa, etc. will be sorted correctly up to 100 (so if you have more than 100 in a series, use 0001 which will be good up to 1000).
Genealogy Photo Filenames

My regular photos are simply named by date - I do batch renaming in my thumbnail image program to change "IMG_7159.JPG" to "2011-08-23-img_7159.jpg" which has more visual meaning for me (plus it ensures I never have a duplicate filename). But this doesn't work well for genealogy where I want images sorted by topic, not by date. So, for genealogy I use combination surname/initials system. It's a bit of a cobbed together "system" - not perfect by any means, but it works for me. Any system that you use should mirror the way you like to locate files.

Keep in mind that I've labelled all the photos with IPTC data so they contain the full description of the photo, the filename is not needed for this. The filename is just to provide an idea of what the image is about and to be able to sort common topics together.

With genealogy, my files are kept in major surname categories which would be my parents and grandparents surnames (in my case Watson, Wickenden, French, Stanfield). These are folders within my Genealogy > Pictures folder.

With photos of individuals the process is quite easy. I take their surname and initials (i.e. my father would be watson-jkw) and then ideally a date and then any other identifier. With groups of similar photos, I'll add a number. So, I might end up with "watson-jkw-1940s-linton-001.jpg". The main component is the watson-jkw - all the photos of my father start that way, so they all group together when put into a single folder. If you have duplicate initials, then you'll have to add something to distinguish one from the other (i.e. jkw2 or somesuch).

If I've taken the photos with a digital camera, then I usually leave the digits (often four) from the original filename, so if I started with "IMG_7159.jpg" it becomes "watson-jkw-1940s-linton-7159.jpg." This allows me to easily identify the source image.

The "system" breaks down a bit with groups of people. If it is a group of single surname, then I'll do something like "watson-grp-1960s ..." If it is several families (usually two, husband's and wife's) then I'll do a double surname start such as "watson-wickenden-grp-1960s ..." If the photo is equal in genealogical value to two families, then I'll make two copies of the photo, putting one into each surname folder.

Using IPTC to find files

I add IPTC description data to all my images, so a question becomes "can that data be use to find files instead of creating topic specific filenames?" This gets a Yes and No answer.

The No part is that not everyone (or every software) can read IPTC data, much less sort on it. If you're distributing the images to relatives, it will help them to have meaningful filenames. Don't count on their ability to be able to view IPTC data.

The Yes part is that there is software (i.e. iMatch) that can can search IPTC data and so can be used to find files. People using this sort of software to maintain their collections usually use keywords (in addition to the description). But this requires dicipline and a consistent set of keywords - for instance, if you have a cottage, it might also be called a cabin or camp. If you put cottage in sometimes and cabin in at others, obviously a search on the word "cottage" wont find those images that you've labelled with "cabin".

Since I don't have the dicipline to enter and maintain a consistent set of keywords, I rely on my surname folders with surname-initials filenames and a thumbnail viewing program to locate photos.

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