How you name your image files is important. It is far more important for many more reasons than I think most people realize. Adhering to a convention when naming your files can help you to locate specific images, organize your images, identify ownership of your images, correlate various renditions of your images in various locations, factor into search engine optimization, assist in client proofing and image sales, and more.
And while file names tie into the use of TTG web engines in a number of ways, which shall be discussed, this is not an article only for TTG users; this is an article for all Lightroom users, and all digital photographers.
First things first; let’s take a field trip. Open a new browser window and perform a Google image search for
IMG_0001.jpg, which are common default file names produced by many makes of digital camera. There’s no telling what you’ll find. And I think this illustrates the importance of always renaming your own image files, lest you become lost in this mash of anonymous, often poor quality imagery.
Now, open your Library and search for the same. If you find even a single image still retaining its default file name from the camera, then you haven’t been doing a good enough job managing your files. I know I’m guilty. Are you?
Naturally, every photographer will follow different rules for naming their files as suits their system of organization. In the course of this article, I will outline and provide support for my own reasoning in naming files. This is the way I think is best, though opinions may vary and you are welcome to disagree. My rules attempt to take into account various factors such as computer operating systems’ file handling, file handing on the web, file name consistency in various locations, file identification, Lightroom behavior and more. I've also tried to keep my convention as universally applicable as possible.
As Lightroom users, the first thing we must take into account is Lightroom’s handling of file names. This is a consideration comprising two parts. The first, is our file handling preferences; the second is exporting from the Web module and will be discussed below. In Lightroom’s Preferences, go to the File Handling tab and locate the options for “File Name Generation”. Pictured below are my recommendations for how to setup these options in LR3 and earlier.
Lightroom 4 comes with a subtle change; the Web module is now capable of exporting file names with hyphens. In versions prior to LR4, hyphens were converted to underscores. According to some sources, search engines don't actually see underscores, and so a file name such as
This_Is_A_File_Name is seen as
ThisIsAFileName, such that there are no distinct words. These sources claim that separating words with hyphens is beneficial in that search engines recognize the breaks between words, making them more effective search terms. Whether or not this is entirely true, I cannot say. But if you're using Lightroom 4 or later, you might consider settings such as:
By setting our File Name Generation rules this way, we give ourselves a sort of insurance against pilot error when naming files in the future. And this leads us to our first rule of file naming:
Considerations taken into account by this rule include file sorting, Lightroom’s Web export behavior and Web use.
Spaces or special characters in file names can cause a number of problems in sorting, web use and more. Lightroom recognizes this, and strips file names of spaces and special characters on export from the Web module, replacing them with underscores ( _ ). Rather than relying on Lightroom to do this on export, though, we should name the files in our Library so that Lightroom will have no reason to rename them for the Web. This will ensure that your image file names on the Web match perfectly the image file names in your Library, making it easier to move back and forth between the two, and also ensuring that you can make the most of your web galleries.
To accomplish this, avoid spaces and special characters when naming your files; use underscores ( _ ) or (in Lightroom 4 and above) hyphens/dashes ( - ) where separation is necessary. Do not use exclamation points, parentheses, slashes, etc. Example file names might look like
If your files are named correctly, the file names of the exported web gallery images will match the file names in your Library.
With matching file names across the board, it’s easy to isolate files in your library in accordance with the feedback collected by the client proofing features in many TTG galleries. Feedback comes into your mailbox as a comma-separated list of files for each category of feedback (all selections in a list, all 5-rated images in a list, etc.).
You can copy this list of comma-separated files and paste it into Lightroom’s Text filter to isolate the specified images in your Library. The filter should be set to Text | Filename | Contains, as pictured below.
The filtered images can then be saved as a Collection for processing.
In summary, the only characters we will be using in file names are letters, numbers, hyphens and underscores.
Considerations taken into account by this rule include file sorting, file identification in your Library and Web use.
File names should begin with an alphabetic code or keyword that identifies you as the photographer. You might use your initials or your name, but this should be something that will be consistent for all of your images. The reason this identifier should never or rarely change is that the next step in the file name will be the date (see below), which will be used to sort our images chronologically. If this front-end identifier varies from image-to-image, it will invalidate our sorting by date.
But this begs the question, then why not begin with the date? The answer is the Web. In using Lightroom to export galleries, your file names will often be used in the gallery source code to fill in
class attributes for various page elements. It is invalid for either id or class to begin with a number or special character; they must always begin with letters or your page will contain validation errors. As a precautionary measure, and to ensure web validation according to W3C standards, it is best to adhere to this rule. Successful page validation can also benefit your search engine optimization.
Because your initials or name are not likely to vary, they make an excellent front-end identifier for your files. By using a photographer identifier up front, this also makes it easy to separate images from multiple photographers — if you have a second shooter on a wedding job, for example; or if you’re on location and your assistant takes a nice photo of you that you’d like to save, but not mix in with your own shots.
Having this identifier will also help your clients to identify your files amongst others when they receive or archive files from multiple photographers. Because your files all begin with your initials, they will always be grouped together in folders.
My name being Matthew Campagna, my identifier would be “mc”, and our file name in-progress is:
Considerations taken into account by this rule include file sorting.
One of the key concepts when naming files is to place your broadest identifiers first, and to narrow your identifiers as your move deeper into the file name. Your name will not change, making it the broadest possible identifier; the date will change and daily. But it is important to keep your images in chronological order, as capture time makes for a natural organizational structure.
In keeping with the broadest-first rule, we begin our dates with the year (YYYY), then the month (MM) and finally the date (DD). This will ensure proper chronological sort order on your computer.
For the sake of argument, however, let’s try it another way. Americans often follow the rather backwards habit of writing their dates in the order MM-DD-YYYY. A group of files named in this way would sort improperly, as in this example:
In order for the computer to sort files in the correct order, the year must come first, followed by the month and then the day. Our file name in progress now looks like this:
Considerations taken into account by this rule include file sorting, file identification in your Library and search engine optimization on the Web.
When placing your images on the web, the most important piece of information that search engines are capable of using to identify your images is the file name. It is therefore prudent to make your file names descriptive through the use of keywords. For file sorting purposes, keywords should follow the date and should appear with the broadest keyword first, narrowing in specificity with each subsequent keyword. Keywords should be separated by underscores or hyphens. For example:
In this example, “Italia” is the broadest keyword being the name of the country, while “Firenze” becomes more specific in naming the city. We might narrow further by adding additional keywords for locations within that city:
For the sake of argument, see what happens when this broadest-keyword-first rule is not followed:
As you can see, our cities and countries get all mixed up due to our file system sorting by the first letters of each specific location. Here’s one final example that might work well for files from a client shoot, in the order [ Client Name ][ Location ][ Descriptor ]:
Building our in-progress file name, let’s take it back to Italy. Here’s our example thus far:
Considerations taken into account by this rule include file sorting.
Why four digits? Say you’re shooting a wedding. You’re definitely going to shoot more than 100 images, probably going to shoot more than 999 images, but will likely not shoot more than 9,999 images unless you’re some kind of masochist. And so the four-digit counter is most often an excellent all-purpose fit. And so, our final file name might look like this:
And that’s it for file names. What have we accomplished in this process?
We now have a file naming system that produces file names which …
In closing, it’s easy to use Lightroom’s Filename Template Editor to create a template for naming your files in this fashion. Here’s how to setup your template:
Then you will only need to enter underscore-separated keywords when renaming files; the template will take care of the rest:
For more information on using the Filename Template Editor, see the Adobe Help Center.