How-To: Name the Files and Directories in Your Image Library

In the previous article I talked about the wonderful things that happen when you mercilessly sort out your images and build a small and well-organized image library. Today I want to show you how Katja and I organize the files and directories in our image libraries.

Let’s start with the most fundamental fact about asset management:

It’s impossible to create a directory structure and file-naming scheme that represent the contents of your images (that is, directories named “People,” “Activities,” or “Places”). The reason is that image content typically belongs to multiple categories, but an image has just one file-name and is stored in a single directory.

Here is an example. Where would you store an image of your child riding a mountain bike in Sweden: in “People / Family”, in “Activities / MTB” or “Places / Sweden”? If you chose “People / Family” you’d never find the image among the MTB images or be able to show it together with the pictures from Sweden. Creating a copy of the image in each directory is plain silly and relying on virtual copies (aka aliases, aka symbolic links) is way too cumbersome. If you pondered this long enough, you will inevitably come up with the following idea:

There are three rules for organizing an image library:

  1. Name all files and directories by their creation date.
  2. Rate each image from 1 to 5 stars.
  3. Categorize the content of the images using keywords.

This way you can use they keywords to find images based on their content, the directory structure to find images based on their creation date and use the ratings to find images based on how good they are. Of course, you can combine these methods to find the best images belonging to a given topic; the best images shot over some period of time; or all images from a given time-span that are decorated with a specific keyword.

Today I want to concentrate on the naming of files and directories, and in two future articles I’ll talk about rating with stars and keywording.


Name your Image Files and Directories by Their Creation Date

Of the three activities named above, the naming scheme is easiest to implement because most of it can be automated.

Start our by creating two presets in Lightroom:

  1. A file-naming preset like this, which changes the cryptic names that the camera chooses, e.g. 123-4567.ORF into the more readable 20130820-4567.ORF, basically the creation date followed by a unique identifier.
  2. An import preset that creates a directory for each shooting day, stores all images from that day in the corresponding directory and renames them using the above file-naming preset.

If you are very brave, you would now create a new Lightroom catalog, set the above import preset as default, then import all your current images into the new catalog. You would end up with something like this:


If you are less brave, you will simply adopt the preset from now on and live with the “mess” from the previous years.

The next step is to manually create a folder for each year, …


… then move all images into their corresponding folder:


At this time the mess is somewhat hidden and definitely more manageable. So whenever you have spare time, you simply:

  1. Go into a directory named with a date.
  2. Delete all repeating and uninteresting images.
  3. Edit, rate and keyword all remaining images.
  4. Think of a word or a very short phrase that characterizes the images in this directory.
  5. Rename all files in the directory by pressing F2 and adding the word or phrase between the creation date and the unique image number. You’ll need this file-naming preset, which turns 20130820-4567.ORF into 20130820-Sweden-4567.ORF.
  6. Rename the directory by right-clicking on its name, then adding the word or phrase after the date: 2013-08-20 turns into 2013-08-20_Sweden, which is much more expressive.

You’ll end up with something like this:


Once you’ve adopted the above directory structure you know immediately if a directory has been edited or not. If it is, simply open it and enjoy its fully asset-managed content. 🙂 If it’s not, then you have work to do. 😉

You also have work to do every time you import new images:


But don’t despair! Now it’s very clear which directories still need to be sorted and how much work is needed. Whenever you completely edit a date-directory, just drag it inside the corresponding year-directory.

At this point I have only about 5 unedited date-directories from recent shootings, but also 5 years-directories with unsorted images. It’s a daunting task, but one definitely worth doing, so I am making slow progress. And whenever I go into such older directories, I often discover strong images, so you can look forward to new images and even portfolios on this site.

Before I close, let me mention two special cases:

  1. If you have two distinct shootings on one day: create a second directory manually and split the images among the two: e.g. 20131107_Sunrise and 20131107_DinnerWithFriends.
  2. A shooting may span several days, so you might have directories like 20130420_Istanbul20130421_Istanbul and 20130422_Istanbul. I find it much more intuitive to move all images into the first directory (20130420_Istanbul) then delete the remaining empty Istanbul directories.

And that’s it! An extremely simple and effective directory-naming scheme that shows you at a glance which directories have been edited and which not, and also lets you quickly navigate to any image if you know approximately when you shot it.