Organizing & Naming Digital Photo Files- Getting Started

My mom and I were chatting yesterday and she mentioned that her computer files were all lumped together in her My Documents folder on her laptop (PC). She asked if I could point her to some good resources for organizing them but I honestly didn’t have anything I could think of off the cuff. And, I didn’t want her to get buried in collecting how-to’s and not make any progress on her project.

Organizing & Naming
Since I had a few minutes, we jumped right into a web session using and I gave her a quick and dirty tutorial on using Windows File Explorer. Not all of the bells & whistles, just what she needed to know for what she wanted to do at that moment.

I basically stuck to the nitty-gritty of what she needed to do to accomplish the task of renaming photo files. But I know that she wants to get her files better organized and thought of a bunch of things once we hung up. As I started collecting my thoughts, I figured I would write it out in a post in case you could benefit from the information, too.

Ways To Organize Information

There are basically five ways to organize or represent information and it was originally coined by Saul Wurman as The Five Hat Racks. It is more generally recognized as the LATCH principle: Location, Alphabetical, Time, Category or Hierarchy/Continuum. The two methods that make the most sense when organizing and naming digital photo files are time and/or category.

An Ounce of Prevention

Here on the blog, I talked about the importance of preventing clutter, as well as its value as a step in the organizing process. As you begin to tackle a digital file organizing project, be vigilant about which new digital information you choose to add to your files going forward. Do you love it? Need it? Absolutely cannot live without it? If it doesn’t pass the test, pass on it.

Organized Enough

Don’t go overboard here! You can easily over-complicate this process because there are just so many different ways to categorize and describe photos. Don’t sweat the small stuff. You only need to organize them enough so you can work with your system. If your livelihood depends on it, then you probably want to be more thorough in creating your system & naming photos, adding tags and diving into the metadata. However, if you basically have a mountain of digital files that you’d like to instill some level of order on, don’t spend more time, energy, and attention on it than necessary. When you’re done with your project, you can always go back and apply more structure if you find it’s warranted.

Folder & File Names

For most situations, I prefer to name the folder and photos within it the same, at least during the initial organizing process. For example, I would create a folder within the My Pictures folder and name it “2015_05_27-Max Last Day TPS” and photos would be named “2015_05_27-Max Last Day TPP (1), 2015_05_27-Max Last Day TPP (2), 2015_05_27-Max Last Day TPP (3), and so on. You can highlight favorites or get more specific as you get further into the process. If you have a boat-load of photos to organize, start here and keep it simple.

I typically don’t create more of a hierarchy {or folders within folders} than that until I begin to archive. Then, I group everything together in a folder for the year. This method is pretty sufficient for most personal digital photo collections. If you have a photography business, serious hobby, or use your photos to document genealogy research, those usually have more complex requirements.

Also, it’s wise to avoid creating duplicate names within separate folders. For example, let’s say you have a folder for each child- Jack, Jill and Jonah. If you named a set of photos “First Birthday Party”, you would have to look at each photo to know whose party it was if they got separated from their folder. Be specific but brief and avoid duplicates. See below for more details.

Naming By Time (or Date)

For 99.9% of digital photo organizing projects {not statistically verifiable, but you get the point}, I suggest the following structure for naming photo files: YYYY_MM_DD-Short Descriptive Name. In other words a four-digit year, followed by an underscore (shift+dash), two-digit month, underscore, two digit day, dash, and finally, a description of the event or category of photos in brief, but memorable terms. If I am naming everyday family pics, I usually just label the folder and photos with the year and month (YYYY_MM) and leave off a day and description. I use this naming convention for basically all of my photos taken with a digital camera (where the date is easily determined).


Placing the year first will group all of one year together when you sort by name. Using the two-digit month and day, will also ensure the sorting is correct. If you used only a 1-digit number for month and/or day, sorting will look like this => 1,10,11,12,13…19,2,20,21, etc. instead of this => 1,2,3…9,10,11,12…19,20,21, etc. This is because, digitally, your file name is considered text and when your system alphabetizes it does so one character at a time, instead of seeing consecutive number characters as a single number unit. Confused & cross-eyed? Don’t sweat it any further! If you use the YYYY_MM_DD file naming convention, your photos will sort appropriately. And, if you perform this naming process on batches of photos, the system will (usually) a number suffix in parentheses to your description. i.e. 2015_05_27-Preschool Last Day (01), etc.

Naming By Category

You can name photos by category when you don’t know the date it was taken or if you naturally prefer to organize photos by category in your brain. The real consideration is to understand how you (or others) will look for photos later. Now, many of my mom’s photos are actually old family photos that she has collected and scanned. I suggested that you create a simple and consistent structure for naming your digital photo files. This will allow you to categorize photos and build that into the digital sorting function.

At this point, it is helpful to take a step back and look at the types of photos you have from a bird’s eye view. If dates mean gobbledygook to you, you could also categorize by person, place and/or event type like graduations, birthdays, etc. For my mom’s project, I suggested that she create a 3-5 character mnemonic (pattern of letters) to use as a prefix. With a family of German origin (or perhaps any one culture or country), I guess that can be a bit challenging. We came up with two family names right away that begin with “Schl”, so my mom just decided to use a five-character mnemonic followed by a description (and date, if known) ex. SCHL-Anna Graduation. It was more important and meaningful to her to have the photos categorized by family. And, that’s what counts.

There is no right way to do this. The only right way is the way that actually facilitates completion of the project. Regardless of which method you choose, keep it simple enough to be consistent across the board. Spending all of your time and energy stressing about what to name your files and folders takes away time you could be spending organizing your photo collection just enough to find and enjoy the best of them.

Check back soon for a tutorial for using Windows File Explorer to batch rename files…
Ciao for now!







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