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 in the final seconds of the 4th quarter, someone might say: “This game is gonna be a photo-finish.” In other words, the game is so close that it’s hard to say who will win.
Synonyms / Related Phrases:
1. Down to the wire
2. Neck and neck

The Origin Of ‘Photo-Finish’

It looks like this phrase comes from horse races. How so? In horse races, certain types of cameras were used to take a photo at the finish line. Why? Because races can be close. So close, in fact, that it might be difficult for 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 to help figure out the winner in close races, these cameras would take a photo at the end of a race.

These cameras were called “photo-finish cameras,” which is a fitting name. They began being implemented in the late 1930s from what I’ve read. 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, 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 soccer match has gone back and forth the entire time. I think it will be a photo-finish.

Similar Example:

  • I want to finish my breakfast before I need to head to work; this is going to come down to the wire.

Tip: If you’re looking for a particular expression, we have an alphabetical list of common phrases that you can use. Or you can search for it near the bottom (if you’re on mobile).

Sharing is caring!