If you aren’t custom naming your photos when you import or copy them to your archive, you are setting yourself up for trouble. The default file naming structure of most photo capture systems allows for around 1000 unique image file names before they start to repeat; eventually the 1001st photo you take on your device will have the exact same name as the first photo you took. Some cameras allow you to custom name the file in camera, but I generally find it easiest to rename all of the files upon import into Lightroom.
Having a consistent naming strategy for your photos can drastically improve your workflow and organization. It is important to choose a name is unique and will continue to be unique as you continue to shoot photos. Be sure not to set yourself up with a system that becomes obsolete as soon as your archive contains over a set number of images, or one in which the identifiers used to distinguish your photos become easily repeatable, therefore eliminating the point of having files with unique names.
I rename all my photos using a unique timestamp based system. Every file name starts with KP (my initials) and then contains a six digit date stamp followed by a hyphen and a six digit timestamp and single digit sequence number. It makes for a really long photo name (16 characters in all), but ensures that all of my photos end up with unique names and allows me to easily combine images from the same shoot that were shot with different cameras. In the event that shots were taken simultaneously (such as if I was shooting a time lapse with one camera while shooting handheld with another and both shutters went off at the exact same time) I could end up with two files with the same name but I have yet to have that happen.
So, for example, the filename for the photo above is KP070927-0825050. This means the photo was taken on September 27, 2007 at approximately 8:25am, and since it is the only photo I took then, it will have a unique filename. I use the YYMMDD date sequence for naming because it keeps all of my files in chronological order; I also use the 24 hour day for my timestamp for the same reason. The seventh digit after the hyphen is the sequence number, which comes in handy when I am shooting at a high frame rate.
Most photographers prefer shorter file names; sixteen characters really is a bit excessive. I use this method because I have photos that span over a wide range of time and subjects, and this one method can be applied to all of my photos regardless of when, where, or why I shot them. The disadvantage of this system is that the name doesn’t really tell me anything about the photo; if you asked me what I took a photo of on September 15, 2007 I’d have no idea what that was, but I could easily find it in my catalog.
For photographers who are a bit more specialized, choosing names that have some connection to the subject can be helpful. For example, a wedding photographer may choose to use the last names of the couple as part of the file name, someone who shoots primarily landscapes might include location, and someone who shoots project or assignment work may use the name of the client as part of the name. You can really be as creative as you want; the key is that all of the names are unique and won’t be repeated.
Lightroom makes it easy to custom rename files easily and quickly. I rename all of my files upon import, but you can easily rename files after the fact as well. I’d give you instructions, but with Lightroom changing all the time you are probably best off finding a YouTube video or looking in the Adobe forums for the recommended current method of using Lightroom to rename photos. Once you set up your naming structure, you can save it as a default setting and almost never think about it again. For example, whenever I import new photos they are automatically placed in a folder according to the date they were taken and renamed according to my date and timestamp based system. This makes the process of copying, importing, and organizing all of my photos quite easy, and then when I need to find them later I can locate the original file within just a few seconds.
Coming up with a timeless naming and file organization strategy that can grow with you is the first step to a well organized photo database. Even if you aren’t using Lightroom or another photo management software program and don’t have the ability to add metadata or keywords, making sure each photo of yours has a unique name and follows a consistent naming structure will set you up for success as you grow and develop as a photographer.