Media file names should be smart like everything else

Smart phones. Smart cars. Smart refrigerators.

Media files and folders

You have a bunch of photos on your digital device or cloud service. Maybe you have a few hundred, or if you have a little bit of a photo hobby (and small kids) like me, you might have tens of thousands. The photos and videos might be in one large folder, or in sub folders based on events, dates or similar structures. Some people like to organize their photos in a photo service online or in an application on their computer.

I have a Canon DSLR and an Android phone. It is not unusual that I bring the DSLR, but at some part of a trip or event, the phone is closer at hand for the Kodak moments. Then I upload my photos to Google Drive (manually, yes I still do that) and the folder might contain something like this:

— 2012–08–14 Iceland
—— 20120814_091849.jpg
—— 20120814_131825.jpg
—— (…)
—— IMG_7812.JPG
—— IMG_7813.JPG
—— (…)
—— MVI_7087.MOV

.. and so on, the folder contains around 700 files.


The problem

I see several problems with the file structure above. I like to make chronologically named folders. However, I don’t have the time to rename every single file.

  1. Looking through the photos

Most applications used to look through photos and videos list the files by name. So going through the photos from the Iceland-trip, I first see all the photos taken with the phone (chronologically), then all the photos from the DSLR (again chronologically, going back to the beginning of the trip again), and finally, I get to the videos chronologically.

So I actually go through the trip in order, three times. Just because different camera producers use different syntax for filenames, and in the case of Canon DSLR, different for photos and videos on the same device. Some display apps make it possible to order by date, but that also depend on what date is used (file date, meta data and so on).

2. Search

Since I have organized the photos in chronological folders by date, it is easy to find photos from a given date or period. But what if I want to find photos with birds regardless of date taken? Photos of one of the children? I guess I will have to find some photo software that includes tagging of photos?

3. Photo software

Photo software could probably solve most of my issues here. A good interface made especially to display photos and videos, and lots of extra features like organizing, tagging and enhancing. But what if I want to switch software at some point? Most photo software companies will probably not work hard to make switching to another software provider easy. How much work would it involve to export everything and import it in a service from a different provider?

This is one of the reasons why I still upload photos to my cloud storage and create folders by event manually.

The current state

I have seen plenty of different file name syntaxes from different camera manufacturers. Examples:

  • IMG_1234
  • 20160101_104127
  • 1234
  • img1234
  • image0123
  • P1234
  • DCP01234
  • DSC01234

What could improve here?

  1. More readable file names
  2. Searchable in file systems
  3. Common syntax, making different sources merge to one chronological list
  4. Easier to port to another kind of storage/display


  1. Remove the prefix. First of all, we don’t need the file name to state that it is a photo. The jpg (or other) image extension is enough to inform about the fact that it is an image, and images have different meaning based on where they are located in the file system. So let’s drop any P, IMG, MOV, DSC or similar prefix.
  2. Remove counters. An incrementing counter is of no use for most people. They usually reset at some time, and once you start deleting duplicate pictures, the numbers just make no sense at all.
  3. Date and time in the file name. The file names should contain date and time in a human readable syntax. To ensure chronological order in alphabetically sorted lists, the date should consist of year first, then month, then day. And dash between for readability. This ensure better merging of media from different devices into the same folder, make them sort chronologically by name, and keep a reference to when it was taken when copied outside of organized photo folders. Also, the file creation/edited date could change over time, and metadata could be changed by editors. The file name is the best place for a photo timestamp.
  4. Add optional tags / labels. The option to add words as tags is a great feature. You can search for the tag words recursively directly in any file system, and they can be used for search in photo software. In addition, tags can be combined. Like searching for any file name containing both “bird” and “iceland” to find all pictures of birds taken in Iceland.

Of course, unless the camera have software to recognize things automatically in photos, tags will have to be added later. All cameras have a built in clock, so the file name created by the camera device should be of a syntax like this:


At some time in ancient history, file systems had to limit file names to a max of 8+3 characters. However we now live in 2016, the year 2000 issues have been dealt with, and max 8 characters in file names should no longer be a requirement.

Then, I could choose to add some tags to the file name, making it into something like this:


Notice how I still avoid spaces and other characters, mostly based on my experience as a web developer. Url-friendly characters is preferred.

This syntax scales! It is much more flexible and work better across devices, systems and software both locally and in the cloud. And the best thing is, it does not limit the features possible in photo software! Applications could still have their own database with tons of extra data in addition to date and tags if people want to use it. The software just need to update the file name with these two pieces of information in addition to the application database when the user input the information while organizing their photos. Suddenly your photos and videos are searchable outside of your selected photo software, and if you at some time choose to move the photos to another location or another application, the basic organizing by date and tags is already in place by parsing the file names.

The challenge

Time to send out a challenge. Targeted at both camera device manufacturers and photo software developers:

Please agree on a common, flexible file name syntax for photos and videos across device and software!

Preferably one that contain date, time and optional tags.

So, Canon, Nikon, Sony, Olympus, Pentax, Google, Apple, Adobe, Serif and every other company with products handling photo and video files. Please help your users make most out if their photo experience through this little change.