Use Special Names When Saving Digital Photos

Adapted from Digital Photography: Expert Techniques (O'Reilly)
By Ken Milburn

Dateline: May 2, 2005
Version: Photoshop CS and Elements 3

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Adobe Photoshop and Photoshop Elements give you an impressive list of file formats that you can save to. They then complicate matters by adding a variety of options as to what to include with a file when you save it. If you don’t pay attention to how you name your files when you’re choosing those options, you’ll either needlessly increase the number of duplicate files on your system or you’ll start deleting files that you spent hours editing. Compare the two illustrations below to see examples of a magnified JPEG and a magnified TIF, based on various settings that we’ve given the files when we save it. (These are two separate images, each magnified to 400%.)


At left, detail of a JPEG file with moderate compression (magnified to 400% of original
image). Note the blockiness. At right, detail of a TIF file (magnified to 400% of original image).
Note how much better the image quality is compared to a JPEG.

The solution to this problem lies in doing two things:

  1. Choose your save options carefully and purposefully.
  2. Add information to the filename that lets you know how and why the file differs from the original enhanced file.
Naming files so that you know how and why they differ from other versions of the same photo makes it much easier to distinguish different versions of the same files from others that are simply duplicates. As mentioned previously, this is best done by adding a short abbreviation as the very last element of the filename when the Save or Save As dialog appears. Photoshop always shows the current name of the file in the File Name field. Place your cursor just ahead of the dot that precedes the file extension and then type in the abbreviation. The table below shows a list of abbreviations that I use to show the important characteristics of a file; these should be added to the abbreviations that designate the file’s purpose. I also add a serial number to the original in order to track different versions of these operations.

AbbreviationMeaning
cor01The primary exposure-corrected file; nothing else has been done to this image. You will want to go back to this file if you decide to explore a whole new route to enhancing the image. The serial number indicates further corrections.
fx01Special effects have been added to the original.
cmp01Additional images have been composited into the original
sm01This is a small 1024 × 768 version of the file that can be used for presentations, CD albums, project printing, etc. Using smaller images saves time when a prototype project involves numerous images.
wb01The image is web optimized.
pub01The image is sized and profiled for offset printed publication.
lg01The image is flattened and sized for an exhibit print.

There are literally dozens of image file formats, so it’s a good idea to limit your formats to those you’re most likely to use. Unless you have an application that requires a peculiar format in order for you to do a job, you should convert all of these weird formats to the four that are most universally accepted across the various computer platforms. Doing so will save a lot of confusion later on. The table below shows the most common Photoshop extensions, and some recommendations on using them.

ExtensionPurpose
.psdThe Adobe Photoshop multilayer file format, which can also be read by most other image-editing and paint applications. Always use this format for works in progress, including those that you may want to further alter at some later date.
.tifThe most cross-platform and cross-application compatible file format for single-layer lossless images. Use this for anything that you are shipping as a finished file for publication or for service bureau printing.
.jpgThe most widely accepted full-color format for photo-quality web images or for any other application where files must be highly compressed in order to save storage or data transmission space. Do not use this format to archive files that must maintain maximum quality.
.gifThe best web format for animations and colored text, drawings, and flat-color illustrations.

The Save As dialog
You may find it helpful to make use of the following features in the Photoshop and Photoshop Elements Save As dialogs. Most of these options should already be turned off, unless you have created that entity (e.g., annotations or layers) before saving the file. Some of these options are not available with Photoshop Elements.

As a Copy. This option lets you save a version of an image that you’ve altered to a different filename. You can also change the filename by adding the distinction codes listed in the preceding section.

Alpha channels. Any time you spend more than 10 minutes making a selection, it’s a good idea to save that selection so that you can recall it if you decide to make more changes to an image (choose Select . Save Selection). The saved selection takes the form of an alpha (transparency) channel, which will be bundled with the file if the Alpha Channels checkbox in the Save As dialog is checked. The downside of saving each selection is that it increases the file size by approximately one-third from the original RGB file. So you don’t want to save alpha channels if you won’t be using them again for a final version of a file or for a file that has to be web-optimized.

Layers. Each image layer can easily double the file size. However, you should save layers whenever reasonable. If disk space is a worry, you might be better off biting the bullet and buying more drives instead of having to re-create the entire editing process just to make a slight change in exposure or re-create a special effect or composite.

Annotations. Many people don’t know that Adobe Photoshop CS lets you add both voice and text annotations to an image. These annotations can be a big help if you’re part of a crew that is working on an image, or if you want to collaborate with someone else. They’re also useful as notes or reminders of something that you might want to teach or write about later on. On the other hand, annotations can add quite a bit to file size and won’t work in all file formats, so don’t save annotations if you don’t need them. To make an annotation, simply choose the text or voice annotation tool from the Toolbox and click when the cursor is over the part of the image that you want to annotate. You can open and close the annotation at any time. If you make all annotations on a separate layer, you can hide that layer anytime you want to see the image without the annotation markers.

Spot colors. Spot colors are process colors that are printed with a dedicated ink–usually to ensure a perfect match with a client’s logo or product color (think Coke red or Master’s Tournament green). If you’ve specified them in a file to be used by the client whose color it is, be sure that the color stays with the file.

Color profile. Be sure to embed the color profile if you want the destination printer to print the file as you envisioned it.

Image Preview options. If you check this box, you will save the thumbnails. I’d recommend doing this unless the file is being sent to an Internet destination where file space is important.

Try to make the Photoshop Save/Save As dialogs the only place where you set and change the options described above–even if other utilities allow you to change them. Keep in mind that if you don’t conscientiously stick to the plan, your efforts at effective file management will have a less consistent payoff. You’ll start wondering if it’s really safe to eliminate what you think is a duplicate, and you’ll start designating primary files that really should have been eliminated.

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This article is adapted from Digital Photography: Expert Techniques (O'Reilly) by Ken Milburn and is reproduced here with permission. Copyright 2004, O'Reilly.