There are many strategies to file naming that are touted in the world of digital photography. Some use the date as a prefix: 20141214-subject-photographer-nnnn.raw. Some use just the subject and a sequence number followed by the extension of the file (nnnn.raw or 1234.cr2 for example.) Still others just keep the file number assigned by the camera and move on. These all work for a while (you are waiting for the “but” aren’t you?)


None of these systems or non-system in the case of using the camera assigned number have a way of showing that something’s missing.

Next logical items

A next logical item is one that we can all agree will follow the previous item or series of them. For the series ABCD, the next logical item is E. 7 would be the next logical number in the series 4, 5, 6.

I know wedding photographers that name their files with the last name of the groom and the bride. Brown-Black-nnnn.raw for instance. This works great because the couple will more than likely continue using the groom’s last name even in a hyphenated last name for the bride. What couple can we all agree will be the next one to marry after Riggs / Hale in the following list?

  • Black / Brown
  • Smith / Jones
  • Riggs / Hale

We can’t. There is no way we could possibly know who the next couple will be. There will be days between projects. So there is no way to know which dates we will be shooting on. There will be blanks in the dates so they won’t work for knowing something’s missing.

Using the two methods above, here’s how we find out something is gone. The bride (or client) calls up totally ecstatic with the work and wants to order a huge print (or buy a world wide all use license.) The photographer goes to his files and can’t find the job… Oops! Or rather OHHhhh NOOOooooo!!!!!

Serial numbers

Serial numbers are sequential. A serial number prefix on each project folder of images makes it obvious when one is missing


Each of my projects, jobs, personal work and even iPhone photos gets a job number and a description of the content in the folder name. Paid work usually includes the client name and a word or two about the job. My personal work goes into sketchbooks divided by season and tagged with the year. It really doesn’t matter how personal work is named on folders because more information for locating specific photos can be added in metadata which is a topic for another post.

Below is a series of job numbers and descriptions on folders from my archives. Which one is missing?

  • 2642-Virginia Morse Comp Card
  • 2643-Westin Peachtree Plaza Exterior
  • 2644-Honda Power Equipment Mowers
  • 2645-Hansell and Post Associates Portraits
  • 2647-Kevin’s Summer Sketchbook 2012

There’s no way to know what the job description is. Yet it’s super easy to spot that the project 2646- is missing. Check a back up of the archive to see that 2646- is a shoot of Dana. Copy that folder back to the archive to restore it.

How does a folder go missing? It could be accidentally moved into another folder, renamed or even deleted by mistake. Images can get deleted or moved too. Since every job has a project serial number prefix and the numbering always starts at one, it’s easy to see if a photo is missing. I never delete a photograph. More on that in a forthcoming post.

Finding lost folders

A missing serial number is easily found. Say that Dana calls and wants to see her retouched photographs. I check my archives and find that, for what ever reason the folder is missing. Do a global search for 2646-. Yes the dash or hyphen is important. All of her photos from the shoot appear including the RAW, retouched, web and print versions. If a folder is indeed missing from your working drive, do the same search on your archive drive then copy the missing folder back on the working drive.


The dash or hyphen is super important in the project serial number – description folder naming system. Searching for project number 0010 will indeed return all of the photos for that prefix. Without the dash the search results will include every number ten photo from every other project too. Add the dash and the search turns up only that project.

Humans make mistakes

We are human. Error making is our nature. A good serialized folder naming system is a great hedge against fatal ones.2192-PSW LV lightingKevin is a commercial photographer from Atlanta. He works for fashion, architectural, manufacturing and corporate clients. When he’s not shooting, he contributes to Photoshop User magazine & writes for