What is a naming convention and why do you need one?

What is a naming convention? Is that when a bunch of names get together and agree on who will be their presidential candidate? Nah, seriously, a naming convention is one of the most important parts of digital imaging workflow and yet most photographers have little idea what it is, let alone how to use it.

A naming convention is, according to Wikipedia:

“A convention (agreement) for naming things. The intent is to allow useful information to be deduced from the names based on regularities. For instance, in Manhattan, streets are numbered, with East-West streets being called “Streets” and North-South streets called “Avenues”. Well-chosen naming conventions aid the casual user in navigating larger structures.”

Naming conventions have been around forever, in some form pr another, but with the explosive growth of digital imagery, they are more necessary than ever. For a photographer, a naming convention is simply a way to name and organize images to be able to keep track of them now (and in the future.) Naming one image “dog at the lake” and the next “bird in tree” is not a viable naming convention, especially after you have photographed the 10,000th “dog at the lake.”

Each photographer who sets up their own naming convention has a different goal in mind for their naming system. Before establishing a naming convention, I would STRONGLY urge you to study the naming strategies of other photographers. For example, many folks, especially ones who are aligning an older film based system with a newer digital imaging system, use a chronologically based filing and naming system. In that case the date the images were made, whether film or digital, are the starting point in that kind of naming convention.

Virginia photographer, Chris Crumley, whose work can be found starting at: http://chriscrumley.com/ has generously shared his organizational structure, which goes looks like this, starting with folder names and then working through to the individual file names:

CAC Images (CAC are my initials; could be anything meaningful)

CAC Images 1991

910101_ClientShootName (the shoot folder)

910101-1234A.CR2 (or other RAW; the “1234” was the four digit number generated by the camera)

910101-1234A.DNG (made a DNG from previous image to insure future accessibility)

910101-1234A.xmp (sidecar with metadata and Lightroom/Photoshop image modification specifications)

910101-1234A16b.psd (a processed RAW 16-bit file where Photoshop retouching is done)

910101-1234A8b.jpg (a jpeg made for email or some other purpose)

The naming convention is clear and meaningful. We know when the photography was done; “91” is 1991 giving us a 100 year span. If you think you’ll need more than 100 years for your photography, use the entire year “1991” and you’ll have a numbering system that will last 1,000 years. “0101” is the month and day of the shoot; January first in the example. ClientShootName can just as easily be that of personal projects, such as “NewYearsDay or FootballParty”

An added strategy that many folks use is adding a letter in the last section for versions.

A means a second/alternate version

B means Black and White version

C means a cropped version

F means the final color version

M means the Magazine version (due to differences in sharpening and levels)

P means the final color version to send out to have prints made (due to differences in sharpening, levels and paper profiling)

S means the version for a stock photo agency (due to differences in sharpening and levels)

W means a website version (due to differences in sharpening and color space)

Some people even mix the letters such that BF means Black and White Final.

My own naming convention is a little different but it is equally thoroughly thought out. It is also equally effective at helping me organize and find my images, now and in the future.

A similar and very common strategy, which is focused on having all the information in the file name goes:


Wedding photographers gravitate to this, since the wedding date is such a key part of that kind of work. Portrait photographers might restructure this to put the subject’s name up front, to look more like:

Last name_number_yyyymmdd_version.extension

You should not use more than 31 characters (including the extension.) This is dictated by the underlying operating systems is not an arbitrary choice. You really should be using shorter names, ideally 27 characters or less to accommodate ALL the various operating systems where your images might be used.

If you want to read more about naming conventions and how different photographers approach them, go to the web and start with:






If you have read this far, it means you are serious about establishing a naming convention, which is very good. If you followed the links above, much of what you read probably seems contradictory at best. That is normal. There is no fixed standard for naming conventions. No one photographer has the answer, and if they say they do, run the other way.

With digital imaging and the over-abundance of images we produce, some kind of naming convention is the key to organizing your images now and finding them in the future. In the next blog entry I will tell you about my particular naming convention, particularly focusing on how and why I set it up just the way I did.

One response to “What is a naming convention and why do you need one?”

  1. Thanks for your well-thought out suggestions as well as your reasoning for them, which encourages modifications based on individual use. The list of other photographers’ naming conventions is especially helpful in that regard as well.

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