File Naming Convention for Digital Photos, Scans, and Documents

03/07/2014 – After writing this article in 2012, 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.



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One response to “File Naming Convention for Digital Photos, Scans, and Documents”

  1. Connie Avatar

    Thank you Calvin. A lot of great ideas. I’ve been struggling with RM for a year now because I’m “stuck on the picky details”

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