File Naming Convention for Digital Photos, Scans, and Documents

03/07/2014 – After writing this article, I have slightly modified my naming convention for the following reasons. I’ve made some updates to this article and crossed out my old conventions.

  • I didn’t like how long the file names were getting.
  • Often I didn’t know the date of the when the photo was taken. I was putting an estimated year, but I didn’t like doing that because then it’s sort of set in stone. Besides, I’m putting that information in the meta data of the photo so this seemed redundant.
  • I didn’t like trying to come up with a description of the photo. That can go into the meta data. I’m just numbering them sequentially now so I can get on with things.

I often get stuck on the picky details of how I’ll organize things, but once I come up with a system, I love it because I can move forward and put it to work. Until I develop a system, everything seems like chaos and it can feel overwhelming. Okay, so maybe I’m a little OCD.

One area that I’ve struggled with for a long time is coming up with a good file naming convention for the files associated with my genealogy research as well as the several old family photos that I scan. I’ve also struggled with how to organize my files into folders on my hard drive.

My requirements for a good standard are as follows:

  • File names that would work whether all of the files are together in one folder or if they are separated into sub-folders.
  • File names that would work if photos were in the same folder as scanned documents.
  • File names that would work if photos of people were together with photos of places or objects.
  • File names that would indicate something about the image, such as, being the original full resolution scan, a re-sized version for the web, a thumbnail image, a modified image, or a portion of the original (cropped).

After reading some other blogs on this topic, I took some ideas that I liked and formulated a naming convention that I think will work for me and meet the above requirements. Keeping with programmer syntax, I’ll explain my naming convention with square brackets [] to indicate required portions of the file name and curly braces {} to indicate optional portions, along with some examples.

Also, I chose to not have spaces in my file names but instead use underscores. I went back and forth on this one. One reason I chose to not have spaces, is because I didn’t like the URL that DropBox creates when I produce a public URL, such as “…/Knight%20Calvin%20Photo.jpg” instead of “../Knight Calvin Photo.jpg”.

Naming Convention (each portion is divided by an underscore _ character):

  1. {_} Optional underscore prefix if the file is not associated with a person, also “_Uknown” can be used when I don’t yet know the person, place, or thing.
  2. [surname / birth name / place / object]
  3. {first name}
  4. {middle name}
  5. {bYYYY} The letter “b” and then the year of the person’s birth.
  6. [YYYYMMDD] The date when the photo was taken (not scanned) or the date of the original document. For example, if the photo was taken June 15, 1945, this would be indicated by 19450615. If portions of the date are not known, replace with zeros. Even if the entire date is unknown, put in 8 zeros. This is for sorting purposes. Normally with genealogy the date format is something like “8 Feb 2012” but that style will not sort properly.
  7. [event / place / description] Whatever best describes this image or document.
  8. [999] A sequence number, even if there is only one, I’ll always use 001. This is NOT a version number. For photos, I’ll use 3 digits. For a specific document, I’ll use 2 digits (see examples below).
  9. {-image type code} These one-character image type codes (see below) will always be preceded by a dash character. The absence of this code would indicate that the image is the unaltered original. I suppose multiple codes could be used, but I don’t anticipate needing to do that. For example “-wc” would be an image that has been re-sized for the web but it is also a cropped portion of the original image.
  10. {version number} Only when needed and I chose not to zero fill the number. For example, “-w1” indicates that this is the 2nd version of the file that has been re-sized for the web. There would be another file with “-w” which is the first version. Confusing? I guess I went this route because often I won’t have multiple versions, so I didn’t want to force the number 1 until another version is created.

Examples of image type codes (item 9 above):

  • -e = Edited or retouched, changes were made to the original. This is probably still a full resolution image.
  • -c = Cropped image, or a zoomed in portion of a document
  • -w = Web, re-sized for placing on a web page or sending in an email
  • -t = Thumbnail image
  • -n = Notations added, or maybe a circle, a box, an arrow, etc.
  • -r = Reverse side of the document/photo

Example File Names:

  • Hall_Mark_Moroni_b1881_19040512_WeddingPortrait_01.jpg (unaltered original image)
  • Hall_Mark_b1881_Photo_001.jpg (unaltered original image, full resolution as it was scanned)
  • Hall_Mark_b1881_Photo_001-w.jpg (resized for the web)
  • Hall_Mark_b1881_Photo_001-e.jpg (edited)
  • Hall_Mark_b1881_Photo_001-t.jpg (thumbnail)
  • Hall_Mark_b1881_Photo_001-c.jpg (cropped)
  • Hall_Mark_b1881_Photo_001-n.jpg (notations/highlights/boxes/circles/arrows) (if cropped and notated, just choose “n”)
  • Hall_Mark_Moroni_b1881_19040512_WeddingPortrait_02-w.jpg (2nd photo from the wedding re-sized to fit onto a web page)
  • Hall_Mark_b1881_Photo_002-w.jpg (re-sized to fit onto a web page)
  • _USA_Ohio_Harrison_Georgetown_TownHall_1904_01-n.jpg (Photo of the town hall building in Georgetown, Harrison County, Ohio, taken in 1904. I’ve added my own red arrow (n=notation) to this image, pointing to the stained glass window. Yes, I’m making this stuff up.)
  • Hall_Mark_Moroni_b1881_19300000_1930USCensus_01-c.jpg (This is the zoomed in portion of the 1930 US Census page. I don’t know the month or day when the census was taken. Other family members are in this image but I’m listing just the father for the file name. In my genealogy program I’ll add the other family names.)
  • Hall_Mark_b1881_1930USCensus_01-c.jpg (This is the zoomed in portion of the 1930 US Census page. Other family members are in this image but I’m listing just the father for the file name.)


There are several ways to organize the folders on your hard drive. Pick a system that works for you. For me, I’m separating photos and documents, and then by surname below those categories. For example:

  • Family History
    • Documents
      • _Other
      • Atwood
      • Knight
      • Massey
    • Photos
      • _Other
      • _USA_Utah_Uintah_Vernal
      • Atwood
      • Knight
      • Massey

I hope these ideas might help you. The key is to find a system that works for you. I would love to hear your ideas. What has worked for you? What has been a challenge? Please feel free to share.


File Naming Convention for Digital Photos, Scans, and Documents — 38 Comments

  1. How do you label files that refer to more than one person? Or do you make another copy for each person in the image?

    • Emily, great question. I don’t like the idea of having copies of the image just for naming conventions. I would probably do one of three things. If most of the people in the image are associated with a head of household figure, I would start with his name and then some description. If there is a mix of families in the image, I would probably pick the most predominant surname as it relates to who I am most connected with, and just use that surname. If neither of these apply, I would probably just describe the image based on location or event. See examples below:

      • Hall_Mark_Moroni_b1881_19040512_FamilyPhoto_01.jpg
      • Hall_19040512_FamilyPhoto_01.jpg
      • _USA_Utah_Uintah_Vernal_19040512_FamilyPhoto_01.jpg
      • If cross referencing is an issue, may I suggest using a “shortcut” to point to the original file. Shortcuts take about 2KB of space. This way when looking for all the photos with Great Aunt Millie the shortcut would point to the family photo she appears in or her marriage record that is named under the groom’s name.

        Thanks for sharing your File Naming Convention. A little longer than I wanted, but it does incorporate all the information I would want to see when looking through my digital files.

        • How about adding an extra text file in the same folder as the photo (or document), with the same filename but different file extension, e.g., Hall_19040512_FamilyPhoto_01.txt? It could have a list of included people and any other useful metadata. Extra care would be needed when copying/moving to include the txt file, but one wouldn’t be limited by not having the right software to show the otherwise hidden metadata.

  2. Thanks for the file naming suggestions. I was too looking for a satisfactory system, and yours makes sense.

    I will try IPTC/XMP Digital Labelling for source, album information also.

  3. This is a great system and similar to mine. Your system has some improvements over mine that I will incorporate. One thing I do different it to place the birth date in parentheses “(b1827)” between the last name and the given names. This allows the photos for a “family name” to sort oldest photo to the newest. There is a case for either method and this is just my preference.

  4. Greetings! I know this is kind of off topic but I was wondering which blog platform are you using for
    this website? I’m getting fed up of WordPress because I’ve had issues with hackers and I’m looking at options for another platform.
    I would be fantastic if you could point
    me in the direction of a good platform.

  5. I think I’m going to revise this article. I’m finding that my file names are getting to be a bit long and verbose and often I don’t know the date of the photo. I will probably switch to something like these examples:

  6. I really like your system and this is the best one that I have found so far. My only addition might be to use all caps for the surname – HALL_Mark_b1881_Photo_001.jpg.

  7. I do not know if it’s just me or if perhaps everyone else
    encountering issues with your blog. It appears as though some of the text
    within your content are running off the screen. Can somebody else please provide feedback and let me know if this is happening to them too?
    This may be a issue with my web browser because I’ve had
    this happen before. Thank you

  8. You have just helped me get over that HUMP of re-scanning and naming my genealogy photos. When I first scanned them many moons ago, the resolution was all wrong and the files names where not working.
    Like you said in the beginning of this blog that you needed them to work no matter which folder or where they were, exactly what I needed because I’ve found with my Vitals Documents, I like to have all the births (baptisms) together, same with marriages and deaths and not divided up by surnames. So they are only divided by TYPE not SURNAME. Tried it like that and it drove me insane.
    My previous photos were divided by Surname folders, then Given name folders. Have ditched all that, might just start with Surname and leave it at that and see how it works out.
    Many thanks simple naming and to the point.

    • Emily, good question. If it’s a photo/document for a woman, yes,I use her maiden name. If it’s a family photo or a photo of a married couple, I usually name it based on the husband. If I don’t know the maiden name, I use the married name.

  9. Very good info. Lucky me I discovered your site
    by chance (stumbleupon). I’ve saved as a favorite for later!

  10. Calvin:

    I’m in the process of reorganizing all of my photos, documents, etc, & utilizing your numbering format. I find it’s an easy format to use, but what if there more than one person in the photo, like say, my father & mother? How would you configure that? For example here’s a photo I just renamed:
    Thomas Clickner (my father) & Kimberly Clickner (me)1955CLICKNER_Kimberly_b1954_Photo_001.jpg.
    My question is if I use the numbering system: CLICKNER_Kimberly_b1954_Photo_001.jpg, we wouldn’t know who the other person or persons are.
    Should we have both people in the numbering system, for example:


    But the problem is with this is if there is a group photo or more than 2 people, this numbering system would not work. So, maybe we should use the photo say 4 times with four people in the photo?

    Do you have any suggestions on how to fix this problem?
    Thanks, & I love your page!

    • Kimberly,

      Great question. I would name the file based on the head of household or the person in the photo that I’m closest to in relation. Or in other words, the main person of interest to you. For your example, I would probably name the file CLICKNER_Thomas_b1931_Photo_01.jpg. Then in the meta data of the file I would add the other names. It’s just too hard to use the filename to document everything about the photo. That’s what the meta data is for. Thanks for your comments!


      • Calvin:

        You have me stumped, what is meta data? Is it similar to an embedded file?
        And how do you get access to it?

        • The meta data is embedded into the file. You can see it on a Windows machine by right-clicking the file and going to “properties” and then clicking on the “details” tab. You’ll see things like date created, date modified, dimensions, resolution, and maybe even the brand and model of the camera that was used to take the photo or the brand of the scanner if it was a scan. The really helpful stuff is being able to add a title and comments. You’re not able to edit much of this data without some kind of program. Most photo editing programs let you edit some of the meta data. I use a program called Picture Information Extractor by Picmeta.

          • Calvin:

            I’m familiar with right clicking to properties on an image, I do it all the time. I can change the date, time, author, etc., but cannot add other data. Mine even has the make and model of my camera.
            I did a little research online & I did find Picmeta. There is another one I like called MetaEditor.

            So how I’m understanding metadata, it’s similar to tagging only the meta data is embedded in the image and no one else can change the metadata but you. I find metadata fascinating, it’s something I’ll be playing around with for awhile.
            Thanks for the info!

  11. Pingback: Genealogy Do-over Establishing File System Foundations | Frayed Edge Photo

  12. Thanks for all the great info! I would like to ask a further question about the embedded metadata in Kim’s example. The suggestion was to name the file after the main person of interest and then get more specific in the metadata by adding her name there. What if Kim now wants to find all photos that she appears in? Is it possible to search metadata?

    • Good question Chris. I’m not sure. I did a quick Google search on the topic of searching metadata in photo files. I read some responses that made it sound like there isn’t something in Windows to let you do it but maybe with some photo editing/organizing software they might have that capability.

  13. I have found in renaming my files that is is very important to have the surname, or the main subject, like say the family dog as the first word in the file. Fritz is the name of our family dog so I’ll use that.


    Now if there was a person in the same photo, say my mother, I would do it this way:


    But I won’t do it this way:
    Mom_Fritz_1973_Photo_002.jpg The reason? If I did a search of all my images, the search results would come up with Mom as the first subject and not Fritz.

    But it becomes more difficult with more than 2 people, and especially with people who have a different surname. I suppose you could add that data in the metadata, but some people don’t know about metadata, and they also want to know who the people are right away.

    I’m still playing around with this, hopefully I can come up with something. I do like the idea of using an underscore between words. I have thought like with a family group photo, with more than one surname, you could do something like this: Smith_Jones_Green_Famreunuion_1954_001_jpg, but you still couldn’t add individuals names, that would make the name of the file too long. Another idea is: Smith_Sue_Bob_Mary_Mary1stbday_1955_001_jpg.
    I think it would be a neat idea, if anyone on this forum, could come up with some ideas and post them, we would eventually come up with something workable.
    Anyway those are some of my ideas, Kim

  14. This is a great post and I would love to be able to pin it to my Family History board in Pintrest, but I don’t see that as a sharing option above. Have you ever considered adding pinterest as one of the sharing options? I think you could get a lot of traffic that way.

  15. Calvin, You my friend are the last one I have seen comment on meta data and admits to using it, which is awesome.

    I use as well and have a question. When I digitize a file I include meta data. My original files are in TIFF, BMP, etc. Let’s say a relative wants me to send file to them. I resize the file and change it to JPEG for email transport purpose. I find the meta data does not make the change. Am I doing something wrong? OR this to be expected?

    Thanking you in advance for your time and input.

    Happy Hunting!

    • Susan,

      You’ve discovered what I have also learned. Some image editing programs do keep the meta data when you resize, modify, etc., but many do not keep it. Very frustrating. Lately I’ve been using a free tool called IrfanView. I don’t do much photo editing with this program, but it has replaced my default Windows preview capability. While viewing an image, press “I” for Information, then press “I” again for IPTC info (or in other words, the meta data). You can have two images opened and from there you can copy and paste the data to the 2nd image (the one that lost the data from the image edits that were made).

      Thanks for commenting and good luck.

      • Exact program I use…if my arms could reach I would hug you! Thank you so much. I am off to try this! Thank you so very much!!!

        Happy Hunting!

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