File Naming 101

Photographers create and name hundreds or thousands of files for each shoot, and how you name those files — just like how you name your kids — can drastically affect the way they’re treated throughout life.  Do yourself and your images a favor, and name them properly before sending them out into the big, scary world.

Following the below guidelines will help ensure your filenames do not confuse any of the technology out there, and we recommend these guidelines no matter what lab, hosting site, or other services you use.

1. Restrict your use of characters.  Many systems (the web especially) do not support the use of certain characters or reserve them for special purposes, so it is important that you use only the following set of alphanumeric characters within your file names:

  • Acceptable characters:
    • The letters A-Z (both upper and lowercase)
    • The digits 0-9
    • Dashes (“-“) and underscores (“_”)
  • Characters to avoid:
    • Spaces – These are a big no-no, but are so tempting to use.  Try dashes and underscores in place of spaces in your file names.
    • Periods – Files should have only one period within them, and that’s the one that comes before the file extension (ex: “filename.jpg”).
    • &,@,#,$,*,’, ! and all other “fancy” characters – Just stick to the basics.

2. Keep file names short. We know this is going to come as a blow to some people, but long file names can cause trouble.  Long names will often be truncated by hosting sites as well as by lab software when creating the back-printing on your prints.  We recommend keeping file names under 15 characters in length.

If you’re the type who likes to include every bit of detail in your file names (date, time, lens, subject, location, etc.), you should consider seriously shortening your names.  One thing to keep in mind is that much of this info is already embedded into each file by the camera.  If you open up an image’s properties, you’ll be able to see the time, camera, aperture, and often much more information.  Another alternative to long file names is tagging which lets you embed whatever information you want into your files without affecting the file name.

3. Use leading zeros.  Numbering your files can be deceptively tricky.  When numbers within file names contain varying amounts of digits, they will often appear to be sorted correctly within Windows or Mac OS, but less-forgiving computer systems will scramble them.  This is very often the case with online hosting sites.

To ensure your files always display in the desired sequence, you need to add what are called “leading zeros.”  Simply pad the beginning of each number with zeros so they all contain the same number of digits.  Here’s an example:

Avoid this: Use this:
1.jpg 001.jpg
2.jpg 002.jpg
3.jpg 003.jpg
4.jpg 004.jpg
5.jpg 005.jpg
498.jpg 498.jpg
499.jpg 499.jpg
500.jpg 500.jpg


Now go forth and name your files well.  They’ll thank you for making their lives easier, and so will your lab and hosting site.  Do you have another tip for naming files?  Tell us about it in the comments section below.



  1. As a Data Entry operator at a large pro schools lab, I need to add one more item to this list – DO NOT START EVERY CAMERA AT 001. When we get large orders with duplicate image numbers we have to jump through hoops to get your order into our system. This can result in images being lost, names wrong, etc; not to mention the extra time it takes to process your order and your work getting set aside until someone has time to deal with it.
    *just because your images are in different folders doesn’t help. We have to get them into a single file for your job order, and if there are duplicate names it creates problems.

    Our favorite customers have a different sequence for each camera that does not repeat – it can be as simple as putting 1_ or 2_ or 3_ in advance of the .jpg number for each camera.

    We deal with thousands and thousands of images every day, help us help your job get done right and quickly!

  2. Jenn, thanks for the addition. Duplicate file names are a definite no-no when they are headed for the same destination. Of course, some systems can handle them gracefully, but why risk it when doing so could result in delays and extra work for the lab?

  3. How do you use leading zeros with Lightroom 4? I’ve attempted this with no success.

    • Here’s how to rename images in Lightroom 4:

      1. In the Library module, select an image or group of images to rename.
      2. From the Library menu, choose Rename Photos.
      3. In the pop-up that appears, choose Edit from the drop-down menu.
      4. Create your file name by combining different pieces. For example, start with a sequence number (that has the correct number of digits), then type in a descriptive name after it.
      5. Click Done and then OK to begin the renaming.

      Renaming can also be done when exporting. The export menu has a renaming section with the same options.

      I hope this helps.


  1. […] Quick-Tip: Now that you know the tools to use for renaming, check out our article on the best file naming conventions. […]