Naming Your Photos by Parkinson’s Law

Volunteers “Weeding the Palms” at the deYoung Museum in San Francisco

Some photographers spend endless hours agonizing over naming their photos. I think about titles, but I don’t obsess over them, I let them come to me. I randomly consider many options, but rarely make a final decision until I have to fill out a form requiring a title. And miraculously – that’s when it comes to me – just before the deadline.

If you’re not familiar, allow me to introduce you to Parkinson’s Law, which according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary reads like this “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

This is not to say that I don’t think about titles, I do. The titles don’t simply fall from the sky just before I’m ready to push the submit button, I actually have a “loop tape of the mind” working from the time I see the processed photo until it finds its name.

Remember the quote of Roman Philosopher, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, (c. 4 BC – AD 65), “Luck is a matter of preparation meeting opportunity.” My method (outlined below) is something like that. Try it. You could potentially save many lost hours.



Naming a photo is similar to creating a headline. You need to select a word or phrase that inspires your image or story; helps the viewer or reader understand your intention; and draws them into the message of the image or story. When you use a photo to illustrate a story, you double-down on delivering the message through both a photo title and story headline.


“After the 2015 Blanco River Flood”


“Hey There Lonely Girl”

“On Little Cat Feet”

“The Last Peach”

“The Butcher’s Lover”

“Naptime in Riomaggiore”

Here are the triggers I use to activate my mind into searching for just the right title.

  • Identify the person, place, thing or activity – “Weeding the Palms”
  • Memory, smell, texture, sound – “After the 2015 Blanco River Flood”
  • Song title, movie title, book title, signage – “Hey there Lonely Girl”
  • Phrase, quote, poem, esoteric comment – “Little cat feet”
  • Time, color, season, terrain, landmark, weather – harvest “The Last Peach” (look between the 5th &6th rungs down from the top of the ladder)
  • Emotion, response, action/reaction – “The Butcher’s Lover”
  • What the viewer doesn’t see when looking at the photo “Naptime in Riomaggiore”
  • Juxtaposition – writing on the building “Bienvenidos!”
  • If all else fails, I return to the all-telling question – “What made me take this photo? What was I thinking? What did I see?”


“The Sleeping Dog Dreams in Color”

The answer actually existed before I shot the image as shown in this photo of a dog under a tree in Kauai aka “The Sleeping Dog Dreams in Color” which looked to me like an old masters painting with bright colors.

“The Apprentice”

At a Dia de los Muertos festival, a newspaper photographer saw a family in their elaborate costumes and asked them to stop so he could take a photo. What caught my eye was the drape in the pants worn by the young boy and how he represented a junior version of his elders. I titled the photo, “The Apprentice.”

My advice to those of you who become anxious over naming photos is this:

  1. Select a photo
  2. Look at the photo and think about the triggers I’ve suggested
  3. Put it away and forget about it
  4. When it needs a name, look at it again
  5. If the name doesn’t instantly come to you and you’re running out of time (like down to five minutes), look at the triggers again and just pick one – you can always change it later