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This is probably not the most important thing in the world of photography but, it can be the cause of some very unexpected problems. It is very much a digital issue, because with film cameras, frame numbers were permanently burned onto the film before you bought it. Digital cameras are different, they create a frame number for each photo just after you take the picture and, in some cases, you can control the way they do this.

The frame number is simply the file name that your camera gives to each picture it stores. This is usually in the form of a few letters followed by a 4 digit number that starts at 0001 and increments by 1 each time it stores an image on the memory card.

So, when you start using a new camera, the first pictures it takes will be called, for example, pic0001, pic0002 etc. This is exactly what you would expect. Once you have filled the card, you would transfer them to a computer, then delete them from the card to make room for your next set of pictures. If you do this using a card reader, that means removing and replacing the memory card, and in some cameras, this will reset the frame numbers.


What’s the problem?


Nothing, as far as your camera is concerned, it won't affect its operation in any way at all. However, when you come to transfer the next card full of pictures, they will have exactly the same names as the first batch, and that can be a problem for the computer.


Actually, it's not a problem for the computer, but it could be a problem for you. As far as the computer is concerned the frame number (including the letters) is the file name and the one thing a computer cannot do is have two files with the same name in the same folder.


In a worst case scenario, the second batch of pictures would simply "overwrite" the first lot. Your very first pictures with your brand new camera would be gone forever. These images won't be just deleted and appear in your recycle bin, easy to recover. They will be gone permanently, never to be seen again.


Of course, the computer knows about this problem and will warn you if you are about to overwrite a file, but if you ignore the warning, your first efforts with your new camera will be lost forever.


There is a solution - several in fact


1. Make a new folder for each batch of pictures. This is the easiest thing to do, especially for the transfer process. The computer has no problem whatsoever in storing two files with exactly the same name in different folders. However, the problem will still arise if you ever want to move your pictures around and organize them into different folders.


2. Back up your pictures to a new folder, ideally on disk for a long term solution. This is something you should do anyway because "overwriting" is not the only way you can lose pictures. Even in the worst case scenario mentioned above, you will still have a copy of the originals.


3. Check your camera's menus for a frame numbering option. If you have such an item on your menus, there should be an option for "continuous" numbering. This setting will cure the problem by continuing the numbering sequence so all your pictures will have a unique name. This is definitely the best solution because doing this means that the problem won't arise in the first place.


Ten thousand photographs

Until, of course, you have taken 9999 pictures - what happens next? Well, most cameras will just reset to 0001 but one or two will freeze up and not let you take any more pictures. If this happens, you need to find the frame numbering option again and reset the numbers manually. If you do take that many pictures then you will be back where we started with the overwriting problem, unless you try solution #4.


4. Rename your pictures. If you are using the software that came with your camera to control the transfer process then this is quite likely to have options for renaming the files as you transfer them. This is probably the biggest advantage of using this type of software. If you give every batch of pictures a different prefix then the whole issue of numbering won't be a problem.


Renaming your pictures is also the only solution if you already have lots of pictures with the same name in your computer. Although windows only allows you to rename one file at a time, there are plenty of programs (including many free ones) that will allow you to rename pictures in batches.


Although this is a problem that doesn't affect anyone when they first start using a camera, it is worth knowing about from the beginning. By far the simplest solution is to look in your camera's menus for a frame numbering option. If you find one, set it to continuous and don't think about it again until you are about to take your 10,000th photograph.

Frame numbering