Digital Image Numbering System

Posted Jan. 2nd, 2011 by Daniel J. Cox

Find Photos Fast with A Digital Image Numbering System

One of the first things any digital photographer should think about is a digital image numbering system. Even so, very few give it a second thought.  One of the true benefits of digital photography is the ability to organize your pictures.  However, without a good numbering system, that advantage is crippled dramatically.

Digital Image Numbering System

Notice each image has its indivudual specific number other than the one added by the camera 

The Computer Wants to Delete Your Precious Memories

An example of how things can get off track without a digital photo numbering system would be the following scenario. I’m confident we can all relate to this scary computer warning. Let’s say you’ve been traveling extensively throughout the year. Around the end of December, you decide to have a photo show gathering.  If you were traveling with Tanya and me you may have visited Kenya, Costa Rica, Madagascar, Yellowstone in Winter, The Canadian Rockies, and India.

Fun photo opportunities in Madagascar

As you prepare for your big holiday presentation, you start selecting images from all your different travel folders. To organize the cream of the crop, you create a folder on your desktop called Travel Photos. You start adding pictures to that folder, one from Kenya, one from India, several more from Costa Rica, and others from Yellowstone in Winter.  As you drag one image after another into the Travel Photo folder, you start seeing a warning, “The file you’re trying to add already exists. Do you want to overwrite this file?”  or something similar. If you say yes, you will replace one photo file with something completely different.  Why is this happening? It’s because you have chosen not to implement a digital image numbering system that makes certain each photo has its unique number.

Your camera is part of the problem

In most situations, the reason this problem arises is due to the camera or cameras assigning a number to each file. Most digital cameras will create an ongoing, running number that increases by one for each file captured. Typically the highest number most cameras create is 9999. Once the camera reaches 9999 frames, it resets itself and begins another series of 9999 frames. If you have two cameras, each creates its own 1-9999 image number. Unless you enter a designator identifying each separate camera, you will have 9999 opportunities to have images that want to overwrite each other. If you use some sort of camera ID you will give yourself additional time before your files start tripping over themselves. Either way, if you shoot a fair number of pictures, it won’t be long before you start having issues. That is unless you implement a well-thought-out digital image numbering system.

Two numbering systems to the rescue

What’s the answer? There are a couple of options that I like. For me, I chose to implement an ongoing running number. In other words, my digital files started at number 1 back in 2003 and have just kept going. My running number system has just passed 1,907,261, which signifies all photos I’ve taken since 2003. This option gives each digital file its own specific number and does so with the smallest number of possible digits. The key to this system is software that keeps track of the last number it assigned during the last import. You also have to use the same computer when Importing your pictures. That’s never been a big deal since I take my laptop to the field, and that’s generally where I import my photos. But… if this number gets off for some reason, it can be a nightmare.

Ongoing running number

Thankfully, my current software of choice, Mylio, handles the ongoing numbers without fail. I’ve never had it miss the last number imported. Other programs I used in the past, such as Lightroom and Nikon View, created problems if the import failed for some reason. Let’s say the computer died in mid-import. The problem with Lightroom and Nikon View was they had created those numbers but never attached them to the file. When the import failed, those numbers just evaporated. So I would then have to go into my last import and track down the last number. It not only took a lot of time but having to reinput a number was always dangerous. If you were off by one digit, look out for chaos. If it weren’t for Mylio, I’m certain I would have switched to the second numbering system I’ll explain next.

The renaming window in Mylio

Number by date and time

The second numbering option is to name each digital file with the numbers generated based on the date and time the image was captured. The only situation I can imagine that this option wouldn’t work is if the photographer was shooting one or more cameras remotely at high speeds. You could then have the possibility of taking photos at the exact same time. But for most shooters, this is a good option since no one I’m aware of shoots two cameras at exactly the same time. Many of us shoot two cameras but not concurrently. The one downside to this system is the file numbers can get quite long and cumbersome.  I know photographers who add a designator to the front of each file to tell them which camera the file came from.

Photo renaming window in Adobe’s Lightroom.

Both of these options are available via the ingesting/uploading process of most quality software packages. Software I’m currently aware of that can do the digital image numbering system I described includes Mylio, Lightroom and Photo Mechanic.  Finding the one you like will be a personal choice.

I hope the above information helps with giving you ideas of how you might want to execute a quality digital image numbering system for yourself.

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There are 12 comments on this post…
  1. MayankOn Jul. 23rd, 2019

    Greatly explained! recently I’ve seen the app in the play store which does the same facilities as you’ve shown
    Auto Numbering Stamp: Add Sequence Stamp To Photos

  2. Ashok Kumar SinhaOn Aug. 3rd, 2015

    I would like all my photographs to be numbered and saved sequentially

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      Daniel J. CoxOn Aug. 3rd, 2015

      Ashok, Unfortunately, the only program I know of that allows you to do this type of numbering system is Photo Mechanic. Nikon’s View NX may do it as well, I’m not sure since I haven’t used their software for 5 or 6 years now. I was using Apple’s Aperture for many years which allowed us to do an ongoing running number like I use but Apple killed Aperture which I think was one of the biggest mistakes they’ve ever made. Take a look at Photo Mechanic, it’s a terrific program and can be used alongside Lightroom or even all on it’s own.

  3. Mary Lee NolanOn Mar. 21st, 2014

    Which of the programs you mentioned do you recommend for numbering edited video clips before archiving them and sending copies to the various stock footage sites that market our clips?

    I have run into the problem with using the camera numbers. This is compounded by the fact that a single fairly long video shot may be edited down to several individual 10 to 20 second clips, all of which have the same camera number.

    Thanks for your advice.

    Mary Lee

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      Daniel J. CoxOn Mar. 21st, 2014

      Good question Mary Lee. Currently I use Aperture to renumber all of my stills and video footage. I have to admit that I’ve not been marketing my video that much and haven’t been in the position to worry about breaking a clip in to several different versions that would have the same number. But you’re question is a good one and after giving this some thought, I would keep the same number but add a sequential number at the end of each new clip made from the original. For example, my current numbering system with Aperture is an ongoing running number. It looks like this D789137. I would keep this number and add a sequential number at the end of the original such as D789137-1, D789137-2, etc. I think this would work very well. Thanks for the question. Stay tuned, I’m in the process of doing more and more video and your questions hos got me thinking.

  4. Marsha MorrisOn Oct. 19th, 2013

    I enjoyed your post. My situation is that I have inherited tons of photos which I am working on removing from the old black-paper albums (and lard cans), numbering, indexing, and storing in archival boxes. (Okay, I confess — not tons. But there are many thousands and when faced with the prospect of organizing, storing, and preserving them, it SEEMS like tons! :-> ) First challenge: I currently am numbering the photos on the back with an archival safe marker and writing down in a notebook a description of each photo that includes the date, place, people, and any quotes that may have been written on the backs of the photos or in the albums. The plan is to organize the photos by number in the archival boxes, placing dividers every 500 or so, and labeling the boxes with the number range contained within. Second challenge: Transfer description information to a computer file. I’d like to be able to search for pictures of specific people or places or dates at will, then pull the photo numbers that match. I haven’t been able to determine yet what might be the best format for this, so I’d like your opinion. Do I want to use a spreadsheet? A database? Is there some other type of format you think would better suit my purpose? Third challenge: After I’ve met the first two challenges, there are some of the photographs that I would like to scan to have digital copies, both to preserve them and to more easily share them. Should the scans be indexed using the same numbers that are on the backs of the photos? My fiance takes a lot of digital photos that need to be indexed as well. He uses some type of program that allows him to tag individuals in a photo, assigns a bizarre identification number, and then shuttles the digital photos into a file based upon the date of the upload. Should I create an index of those photos, or let things keep going as they are? And if I should produce an index, should I rename/renumber each photo? If yes, should I begin with “1”? I realize that sounds like a silly question, but what happens when I digitize some of the old photos I’m currently working on? Eventually the numbers will duplicate. Or is it just a matter of using the same numbers, but storing the files in different folders? And then the fourth challenge: I have a lot of “historical” pictures of folks who fit in somewhere in my family tree, but there’s no identification on the backs of the pictures. These photos are the ones currently stored in the lard cans, one passed down through my maternal grandmother’s line, and one through my maternal grandfather’s line. There may be people “out there” who are more directly related to these people than I am and may be able to identify them. Some of them might be very glad to have access to these photos. I am now the family keeper of the lard cans, and I consider it my responsibility to try to “find” as many of these “lost” ancestors as possible. Might you have any suggestions at what would be the best way for me to get these unidentified photos “out there” where people who might know could identify them and gain access to them? Whew! I’ve handed you a lot of challenges, haven’t I? I am eager not to have to meet them all alone … I hope you (or one of your readers) will help. Advice is eagerly awaited! Thank you so much for your time! (Note: I apologize for the lengthy, crammed post. I wasn’t sure if I could put in paragraph breaks without the system posting things in bits and pieces.) Thanks again!

  5. ashokOn Dec. 29th, 2011

    i need to keep each of my photograph sequentially.please help me out.if at all ther’s a simple software available for the purpose, please send it to me.

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      danieljcoxOn Jan. 5th, 2012


      There are a number of good programs available for numbering your images. I currently use Apple’s Aperture which has a very good option for renumbering photos. Adobe Lightroom has a descent renumbering program as does Photo Mechanic and Nikon’s Nikon View NX.

  6. tony bynumOn Jan. 2nd, 2011

    Hello Dan I hope you’re having a nice winter – freezing blowing and snowing up here. Thanks for the reminder and the explanation. Like you I use more than one camera. 10k images and the camera turns over to 1 again is a bit problematic. But since I started using lightroom I have never noticed a duplicate over wright issue. I have have in some cases 20 images with the same number and all of them are in LR I keep track of them via key words and dates and only change the title upon export. I know this is not the best way to do things, but since you use lightroom, can you tell us about an example of when LR will over write a file upon import?

    I uncheck the duplicate file import task upon import. I have multiple files with the same numbers but they all have different meta data/tags.

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      danieljcoxOn Jan. 2nd, 2011

      Tony, great to hear from you. As you mentioned I use Lightroom as well but haven’t ever had images imported with the same name since I do all renumbering via Photo Mechanic first. It’s interesting to hear that LR will allow any number of different images with the same file name. If you are doing all of your slideshows/presentations from within Lightroom it seems the duplicate name issue may not be an issue after all. However, if you use something like Apple’s Keynote where you collect images and place them in a folder for access to put into Keynote or even Power Point you can run into issues. Both Mac and Windows folders require that each image have its on specific name. I don’t use Lightroom for presentations so generally I create a Mac folder and start exporting images into it via Lightroom. During the export process if LR or Mac sees that there is another file within that same folder that has the same name it will ask if you want to overwrite it or create a separate number. In short I’m a bit finicky about having duplicate numbers. I’m a fanatic about keeping track of my images and if I would have 20 or even 2 with identical numbers it would drive me a little crazy. But each to his own and I appreciate you writing to tell me how your system works. The good news is that Lightroom does a great job helping us keep track of our images which you have taken advantage of with the keywords and captions option. Be well and thanks for the input.

  7. Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

    danieljcoxOn Jan. 1st, 2011

    Dave, glad to know this post was helpful. Tell Shiela hello and best wishes to you two for the coming year. We’re going to have a great time in Kenya and we can discuss more details regarding the numbering system while in the field surrounded but fabulous wildlife.

  8. Dave GlatzOn Jan. 1st, 2011

    Hey Dan thanks for the post. Started running into issues with this recently (must have hit 10K shutter actuations) and NOW I appreciate the problem. Thanks to your post, I’m going to take a crack at your system. BTW Shiela says Happy New Year to you and Tanya!

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