Photo-Finish —Its Meaning and Origin


A photograph taken at the end of a race which aids in selecting the appropriate winner.

This phrase is also used to describe competitions that are very close. For example, towards the end of a basketball game, if both teams are tied and there’s only seconds remaining in the last quarter, someone might say: “This game is gonna be a photo-finish!”

Synonyms / Related Phrases:
Down to the wire
Neck and neck

The Origin Of ‘Photo Finish’

This phrase appears to come from races where certain types of cameras were used to take photos at the finish line to help decide the winner.

Races can be extremely close. While this can be exciting for spectators, it can sometimes be a problem for judges. Here’s why:

When racers are nearing the end of a race and they’re equal with each other, to the naked eye it might look as though they cross the finish line at the exact same time. This is problematic because it makes it difficult for judges to accurately determine the winner. However, this became much less of a problem once cameras began to be utilized to take photos at the finish line.

It was in the late 1930s when cameras started to be installed for use in horse races. The cameras themselves were called “photo-finish cameras.” That sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

It wasn’t long after these cameras were implemented that the phrase started to be used outside the context of a horse racing event. For example, in The Canberra Times newspaper, 1940, there is a part that reads:

“‘The Daily News’ in a survey predicts that Mr. Roosevelt will probably win the very important New 

York State with a small majority,with a virtual ‘photo’ finish.”

Therefore, it looks like this saying is less than 100 years old.

Example Sentence(s)

  1. There’s only a minute left in this soccer match and both teams are tied. This game is going to end in a photo-finish.

Note: If you’re looking for a particular expression, we have an alphabetical list of common phrases that you can use. In addition, you can search for it up at the top.

On an unrelated note, I want to mention that an expression’s origin is sometimes unclear. So in cases like that, what you’ll see on the page are theories for how the phrase originated. But keep in mind that these are just theories.

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