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What's in a File Name?

It would obviously be difficult for your camera to name an image "mt rainier sunrise" or "uncle joe's birthday party" but is _DSC5409.NEF or IMG_1234.JPG really the best we can do?

As with many things, this mess has its roots in bureaucracy. Back in the dim prehistory of digital imaging, the Japan Electronics and Information Technology Industries Association (or JEITIA) produced a standard known as "Design rule for Camera File system" (or DCF). This gave us the folder name DCIM which stands for "Digital Camera Images" along with the regimentation of everything underneath.

According to the standard, the folders under DCIM are supposed to be eight characters long. The first three being numeric and are not supposed to be duplicated within a DCIM root folder. The last five referred to as "free" characters and give the camera maker a bit more leeway as to their use. File names have to be exactly eight characters long too, not including the suffix. Of those eight characters, the first four were supposed to consist of nothing but letters, numbers and the underscore ("_") character, with the last four being sequential numbers only with no letters.

All this seems fairly primitive compared to other possible schemes that could be devised today, but you have to remember that this mess started back in 1998 when the capabilities that could be built into a camera were indeed that primitive. The standard has been updated a few times since then, but mainly just to add support for video, sound and other formats. The basic framework has remained basically unchanged. DCF 2.0 added official support for images in the Adobe RGB color space, calling out that they should begin with a leading underscore character. Thus, a file named _DSC1234.JPG should be in Adobe RGB while DSC_1234.JPG would be in sRGB.

The standard was intended to simplify the sharing and interchange of image files between various systems and applications by enforcing something that everyone could support. Today though, this standard seems more of a burden than a feature. Copy a whole bunch of images into the same folder, and you can't tell anything from their names. Copy the wrong images into the same folder and sooner or later their names will conflict and you might just overwrite an old file with a new one. With only a four-digit number in the name to work with, you'll obviously run out of unique names fairly quickly. Even if you kept around all those equally meaningless folder names you'd have a hard time avoiding conflicts in the long run. Some sort of solution is needed.

Regardless of where you put your image files, they can contain metadata within them allowing you to search based on keyword, EXIF or other embedded information. Some users avoid conflicts by remedying the folder name issue while choosing to ignore the file names within them. If you create folders on your computer for every trip you take or event you take pictures at, you could copy the images you shoot into meaningfully named folders. I've never been a fan of this method for the simple reason that files can be, and sometimes are, copied. Even if done only rarely, as soon as you do, the meaning of the original folder would be left behind.

Other users rename the files themselves based on subject matter or other criteria, appending consecutive numbers when necessary. This way, their files retain the added meaning no matter where they may get copied. But I've never really liked this solution either for a couple of reasons. First of all, it's a lot of work. You have to devise subject names for everything, good or bad. If you keep it, you're forced into renaming it if you want to avoid file name conflicts. When adding keywords and metadata inside a file I can concentrate on images I care about while still safely ignoring the ones I'm less sure of but don't want to delete outright. That is, the work of assigning subjects to images is optional when placed in the image metadata while it becomes essentially required when needed to create unique file names. Secondly, this method relies on avoiding duplicates by assigning sequence numbers to image files with the same subject string. But there's no good way I know of to keep track of the next number in line for each subject. And if you're not careful you could import the same file twice, ending up with duplicate images that have different names. I mean, if you're trying to give new images a different number, how do you really know an image is indeed new? Maybe it's another copy of an image you already dealt with.

Here's the solution I use:

A typical file shot this morning might have the name "eblight-141123-05-4066.nef." The "eblight" part is a shortened form of "earthbound light." I use this to tag images as being mine if combined with those of other photographers. I abbreviated it for the simple reason that that the fully spelled out version simply takes up too much space in a listing. The "141123" is simply the year, month and day the image was taken. The "05" is a number representing the particular digital camera that shot the image. It's my fifth DSLR since I started using this system. I've been using Breeze Systems Downloader Pro to automate my renaming scheme and it's the only program I know of that can pick up on the camera serial number embedded in a file to translate into a portion of the generated name. Sorry OS X users, Downloader Pro is Windows only. Oh, and that "4066" at the end of my example image name is simply the original sequence number from the DSC file name assigned by the camera.

Unless I shoot a ridiculous number of images in a single day with the same camera, this system safely avoids naming conflicts without need to look up the next number in sequence for some event or subject. This naming scheme also means I can uniquely generate the same name for a given original image no matter when I rename it. And no matter how many times I process the same image it will generate the same name only if the original was in fact the same image so I avoid duplication. Everything needed to generate a name comes from the file itself, either from the original name or from the EXIF data embedded automatically by the camera.

The files for digital images all come out of the camera with ugly names. You can either live with the problem, or you can rename your images. There are obviously other schemes that will get similar benefits, but I'm happy with my solution. Exactly what you do is up to you, but it certainly seems worth thinking about.

Date posted: November 23, 2014


Copyright © 2014 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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Related articles:
EXIF Reader Software
Working with Metadata Templates in Adobe Bridge
Breeze Systems Downloader Pro Really is a Pro
Migrating Keywords Between Photoshop/Bridge and Lightroom

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