49 Name Folders to Organize Your Images

Name Folders to Organize Your Images

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You have many digital-shoebox applications to choose from to help you organize your photos. Or, you could simply use the built-in tools that come with your operating system.

Of all the places I've been, the most amazing one I've seen remains my grandfather's basement. It was organized.

He had, perhaps, an unfair advantage over the rest of us. As a pharmacist in the days when all pills were white, being disorganized could have been fatal. The discipline of being organized was part of his daily routine.

But he also enjoyed the advantage of organizing things, which is simply being able to find just what you need without the frustration of looking for it. The screws were on these shelves, the nails there, the adhesives right here, the rubber bands (sorted by size) over there, and on and on. His basement was as neatly organized as Noah's ark.

Fortunately, he passed that gene on to me, so when I started collecting digital images, I quickly established a scheme so that I'd never have to look for them or remember where they were.

This was long before asset-management programs such as Adobe Photoshop Album (Windows), Canto Cumulus (Mac/Win), Extensis Portfolio (Mac/Win), iPhoto (Mac), iView MediaPro (Mac/Win), Kodak EasyShare (Mac/Win), Picasa (Windows), QPict (Mac), and others were available. I had to rely on the only thing available: the filesystem.

1 Filenames

When I was the computer guy at the office, I used to have a standing offer of US$100 to anyone whose problem could not be resolved by a clear understanding of the four parts of a filename. In the days of MS-DOS business systems, I never had to pay out.

Here are the four parts of a filename:

  • The volume name (e.g., C:\ or Macintosh HD:)

  • The directory and subdirectories, if any (e.g., DOS\ or Documents:)

  • The root name (e.g., AUTOEXEC or Read Me)

  • The extension (e.g., .BAT or .txt)

As you can see from the examples, this tends to be true for all operating systems. In Windows, you might see C:\DOS\AUTOEXEC.BAT, and on the Mac you might see Macintosh HD:Documents:Read Me.txt, but all four parts are there in each filename.

Each part does a different job:

Volume name

Tells us where the file can be found. The volume can be the internal hard drive (as in our previous example), an external storage device, a CD, or a floppy.

Directory and subdirectories

Together with the volume, these give us the pathname of the file. The pathname in our example is C:\DOS\ or Macintosh HD:Documents:.

Root name

Pretty much what we call a filename, period. It's the basic name of the file. Without the root name, we don't have anything.


Often, our only clue to what kind of data the file contains The extension .jpg indicates a JPEG image, .tif a TIFF image, .txt an ASCII text file, .doc a Microsoft Word document, and so on. So, we don't want to mangle our extensions (even if modern operating systems sometimes hide them from view). Tread carefully here.

2 Organizing by Filename

To use this information to organize thousands of images, first think about your images and the way you shoot. Do you shoot business separately from pleasure? Do you shoot more than one event at a time, storing them all together?

Then, work out a naming system for your volumes. Give meaningful family names to your external (and infinitely extendable) storage media, such as CDs and DVDs. You might name the volumes by year, season, location, or client, depending on how you work.

The volumes represent your permanent collection or archive. Your internal hard disk should only be a waiting room for your images until they find a permanent place on a removable disc. And that disc should be copied so that your collection can exist in two places: one at hand, and one offsite for insurance. That way, when your smoke alarm goes off, you won't have to grab the photo albums on your way out. You can grab clean underwear.

By using well-named directories and subdirectories (or folders), these broad categories can be organized into smaller collections. Just don't overdo it. Remember, you don't want to have to remember anything. A hierarchy of one or two levels is deep enough.

3 Real-World Example

I originally used a scheme much like the one used by iPhoto: a folder name for the year, another for the month, another for the day. That buried my images a little too deeply to see what I had quickly.

Gramps wouldn't have approved of a system that put everything in boxes that were stored in drawers behind cabinet doors. Everything has to be out there on shelves or in cubbyholes, where you can see it.

So, I simplified my system by creating long folder names that said it all. Of course, I wasn't restricted by the eight-character root MS-DOS filename limit anymore. Modern Macintosh, Unix, and Windows systems all support my new scheme, which is simply the year, the month, and the day (in numerals), followed by a short description (a slug, really) of the event.

For example, 2003.12.25-Christmas works on any operating system. You can use more than one period, and hyphens are fine. Not every character is legal, though. Beware of slashes and colons especially, but every operating system has its taboo characters.

Folders named this way will sort naturally by date in any alphabetical directory listing. So, you can quickly scan nothing more than the default directory listing to find someone's birthday, a client shoot, or anything at all. You can even use your operating system's search utility to limit results to just those events.

In the real world, we don't just shoot images; we edit them. But that doesn't make the originals indispensable.

As soon as I copy the images to my hard disk from the flash memory card, I copy them to a second device. Only then do I return the card to service, wiping it clean only in the camera. I make two CDs of the original images and leave them on my internal hard disk for a few months to edit, print, and share as I see fit.

I save the new versions in a folder with the same name as the originals but with a little appendage, such as -r for retouched. So, our Christmas images in 2003.12.25-Christmas might have slightly improved versions in 2003.12.25-Christmas-r.

4 Auto Keywords

There's another advantage of using an explicit pathname. If you do one day decide to use a program such as Photoshop Album or Portfolio to catalog your collection, the pathnames can automatically be parsed on import to create keywords for each image in the directory—very cool.

Keywords make it easy to find images with a greater degree of precision than our shoot-oriented system. With date and event keywords automatically added, you can spend your time adding specific keywords to each image to identify them further. Nothing else will do when it's time to find pictures of Dad or My First Girlfriend or My Last Husband.

5 Image Root Names

Many programs let you change the root name of your image file from a nondescript DSC2345.JPG to something meaningful. That strikes me as too much work. Your camera names each image. Let it and forget it. This system thrives on not remembering anything.

If you simply put the description of your shoot in the folder name, you don't have to change the root names of all your image files. And you can change any particular ones you want without disorganizing the collection.

6 Final Thoughts

Gramps didn't organize his basement just for the pleasure of it. He was an avid amateur golfer who played in tournaments all over the state. Keeping the basement in shape gave him more time to hone his game.

Keeping your image collection in shape will, at the very least, let you spend more time taking and editing pictures. And you don't need to spend a penny to do it!

Mike Pasini

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