DAM Basics: Your Asset Naming Convention

Why You Need An Asset Naming Convention

The most basic, and possibly most important, aspect of your digital asset management (DAM) strategy should be your asset naming convention. A naming convention's primary purpose is to give each of your assets a unique identifier. Think of it as a call number on a book. This is important for many reasons:

  • most DAM systems do not allow the ingestion of multiple assets with the same filename;
  • if you have offline storage of other versions of your assets (e.g. RAW files), the unique filename allows easy location and retrieval of these;
  • if you have an ordering or retouching service, it allows the identification of individual assets without confusion (like a product number);
  • it reduces overall confusion, including the likelihood that assets will be overwritten or deleted by accident.

What Makes a Good Naming Convention?

There is no single best naming convention because yours will depend on your individual situation and what types of information you are working with. Nevertheless, there are some qualities that it should have:

  • it should be non-repeating (i.e. each filename must be unique);
  • it must be flexible enough to allow disambiguation in cases where two assets might end up with the same filename (see below);
  • it should be as simple as possible, including as short as possible;
  • the information it contains should be useful and meaningful (as opposed to just a random number, for example).

Because of these criteria, there are some pieces of metadata that are common to all assets that suggest themselves as good candidates to be part of the filename. The Creation Date, for example, is one piece of information that all assets will have, and that will never repeat. For that reason, I always recommend using the date as part of your filename. Secondly, the frame number (in the case of photography) is the consecutive number that your camera assigns as you shoot. So that will not repeat either. So one of the simplest naming conventions might be:


Assets from a photo shoot on April 2nd, 2019 using this convention would be named:


There are of course many (most) situations that will require more complexity. Here are some examples.

You may, for example, employ more than one photographer, and they may each be shooting different things on the same day. In that case, you would need to introduce a disambiguating element, such as the photographer's initials. In that case, images shot by Corey Chimko on April 2nd, 2019 would look like this:


whereas images shot by Man Ray on the same day would be named:


Or, perhaps the same photographer has more than one shoot on the same day. If you are numbering each shoot starting at 1, then you will have a problem. Again, you need a disambiguating element; you might for example use the following for the first shoot:


And the following for the second shoot:


Another situation I have frequently encountered involves large companies or institutions with many subdivisions or departments that each have their own asset collections, making it difficult to know what is going on everywhere at once. In a case like that, you might want to introduce a further disambiguating element to identify which department the assets belong to. This allows each department to internally regulate how they do the rest of their naming, as long as their identifier is part of the filename. For an example, let us assume that we are at a university and there is a college called Arts and Sciences and another college called Veterinary Medicine. These colleges are abbreviated AS and VM respectively. Their naming conventions might look like this:


I think you get the idea. At the end of the day, the naming convention you choose should be robust and flexible enough to accommodate the complexity of your individual situation. Most situations do not require more than about 3 levels of disambiguation. Remember our commitment to SIMPLICITY. You DO NOT need to try to pack every piece of data about an image into the filename. You DEFINITELY DO NOT need to put textual descriptions in the filename. That is what metadata entry in your DAM is for. The filename only needs to differentiate assets from each other.

The Devilish Details

You may be wondering why the examples above have the exact form that they do. There is a reason and method to each component of the filenames, as well as the order they appear in. Here is my logic:

Date format: I always recommend using the date format YYYYMMDD for two main reasons. Putting the year first, then month, then day allows you to accurately sort your file lists by date both in your DAM and offline. I use a 4-digit year because although you might not think your assets will be important in 100 years, someone else might. I guarantee you that whoever has your job then will thank you when they don't have to go back and add the digits to 100 years worth of assets. Many institutions already have assets that go back further than 100 years, so in that case the first two digits of the year become critical. Don't create a problem for someone else in the future. Do it correctly now.

Underscores: I always separate the different elements of the filename with underscores, and NOT dashes/hyphens. The reason for this is that most DAMs treat the underscore as a delimiter, while treating the hyphen as a part of a word (i.e. as a letter). This means that a filename that has the format 20190402-CC-001.jpg would be read as one element (not the date and photographer initials and frame number separately). Conversely, the format 20190402_CC_001.jpg allows you to treat each element of the filename as a separate search term. That means you could search "20190402" and get all assets that have that were shot on that date. Or you could search "CC" and get all assets that were shot by Corey Chimko. Bottom line, the underscores provide you with more versatility in terms of search.

3-digit frame numbers: In my experience, most photo shoots end up with more than 10 but less than 1000 images. Because of this, a 3-digit frame number works best for file naming, allowing you to maintain consistency and sortability without running out of numbers. If in your industry the norm is shoots in the thousands, you may want to use a 4-digit frame number instead.

Questions? Leave them in the comments below and I'll try my best to respond.

smallDAM is available for consulting and help with all aspects of DAM. Contact Corey at info@smalldam.com.

© smallDAM, LLC. All rights reserved.