Why Are Photos Stored in a DCIM Folder?

Every digital photo-taking device uses the DCIM folder — but why?

If you have a digital camera of any kind and have paid any attention to how it stores the photos you've taken, you may have noticed that they're kept in a DCIM folder.

What you may not have realized is that just about every digital camera, be it the pocket kind or the professional DSLR variety, uses that same folder.

Want to hear something even more surprising? While you probably use apps to view, edit, and share the photos you take with your smartphone or tablet, those photos are also stored in your phone in a DCIM folder.

So what's so special about this ubiquitous acronym that every company seems to agree is so important that they must all use it for your photos?

The DCIM folder is unrelated to the file format abbreviated as DICOM (Digital Imaging and Communications in Medicine). DCIM also stands for other technology terms like digital camera image management and digital camera internal memory.

Why DCIM and Not 'Photos'?

Close-Up Of Camera Lens
Shannon Kropp / EyeEm / Getty Images

DCIM stands for Digital Camera IMages, which probably helps this folder make a little more sense. Something like Photos or Images would be much more clear and easy to spot, but there is a reason for the DCIM choice.

The consistent naming of the photo storage location for digital cameras as DCIM is defined as part of the DCF (Design Rule for Camera File System) specifications, which has been adopted by so many camera makers that it's practically an industry standard.

Because the DCF spec is so commonplace, developers of the photo management software you have on your computer and photo editing and sharing apps you downloaded to your phone, are all comfortable programming their tools to focus photo-searching efforts on the DCIM folder.

This consistency encourages other camera and smartphone makers and, in turn, even more software and app developers, to stick to this DCIM-only storage habit.

The DCF specification does more than just dictate the folder that photos are written to. It also says that those SD cards must use a specific file system when formatted (one of the many FAT file system versions) and that subdirectories and file names used for the saved photos follow a specific pattern.

Also according to the DCF standard, the read only attribute can be used on files and folders to protect them from being deleted on accident. That's the only attribute the standard has called out as being important.

The DCIM folder can have multiple directories with a naming convention that starts with a unique number followed by five alphanumeric characters, like 483ADFEG. Camera manufacturers typically use pre-chosen characters to signify that the photos were taken by that camera maker.

Within the folders are files that are named with four alphanumeric characters followed by a number between 0001 and 9999.

For example, a camera with a DCIM root folder might have a subfolder called 850ADFEG, and inside that folder, files named ADFE0001.JPG, ADFE0002.JPG, etc.

All of these rules make working with your photos on other devices and with other software, much easier than if each manufacturer came up with its own rules.

When Your DCIM Folder Becomes a DCIM File

Considering the uniqueness and value that every personal photo we take has, or has the potential to have, a particularly painful experience occurs when your photos disappear due to a technical glitch of some kind.

One issue that can occur early in the process of enjoying those photos you took is a corruption of the files on the storage device — the SD card, for example. This might happen when the card is still in the camera, or it could occur when it's inserted into another device such as your computer or printer.

There are lots of different reasons why corruption like this occurs, but the outcome usually looks like one of these three situations:

  1. One or two images can't be viewed.

    In the case of this situation, there's often nothing you can do. Take the photos that you can view off the card, and then replace the card. If it happens again, you probably have a problem with the camera or photo-taking device you're using.

  2. There are no photos on the card at all.

    This could mean that the camera never recorded the pictures, in which case, replacing the device is wise, or it could mean that the file system is corrupted.

  3. The DCIM folder isn't a folder but is now a single, large, file, which almost always means that the file system is corrupted.

As similar as #2 and #3 are, at least if the DCIM folder is existing as a file, you can feel reasonably comfortable that the images are there, they're just not in a form that you can access right now.

In either #2 or #3, you'll need to seek the help of a dedicated file system repair tool such as Magic FAT Recovery. If a file system issue is the source of the problem, this program may help.

If you're fortunate enough to have Magic FAT Recovery work out, be sure to reformat the SD card after backing up your photos. You can do that either with your camera's built-in formatting tools or in Windows or macOS.

If you format the card yourself, format it using FAT32 or exFAT if the card is over 2 GB. Any FAT system (FAT16, FAT12, exFAT, etc.) will do if it's smaller than 2 GB.