Photo Finish – Its Meaning and Origin


The phrase photo finish describes an evenly matched competition where the winner is not known until the final moments.

Example: If both teams in a basketball game are tied and there is only a few seconds left in the 4th quarter, someone might say: “This game is gonna be a photo finish.” In other words, they are saying the game is so close that it’s hard to say who will win.

Synonyms / Similar Phrases:
1. Down to the wire
2. Neck and neck

The Origin Of ‘Photo Finish’

Where does this phrase come from? It looks like the expression ‘photo finish’ originated from horse races. How so? Because in horse races, certain types of cameras were used to take photos at the finish line. The reason for their use was because in close races, it was sometimes difficult for the judges to declare the winner. To the naked eye, it might look like two or more racers crossed the finish line at the same time! So these cameras were set up to snap a photo at the end of a race to help figure out who won.

These cameras were called ‘photo-finish cameras,’ a fitting name considering they, you know, took a photo at the finish line. Anyway, from what I’ve read, they began being implemented in the late 1930s. It wasn’t long after the implementation of these cameras that the phrase started to be used outside the context of horse racing events. For example, in The Canberra Times newspaper, 1940, it 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.”

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

Example Sentence(s)

  • This football game has gone back and forth for the entire match. I think it will be a photo finish.

Similar Example:

  • I have a deadline to turn this paper in and it’s almost time; this is going to come down to the wire.

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