A photo op (sometimes written as photo opp), short for photograph opportunity (photo opportunity), originally referred to an opportunity that resulted in a memorable and effective photograph of a politician, a celebrity, or a notable event. Among amateur photographers, the term is used to refer to any opportunity to take good photos.
The term was a Nixon Administration coinage which author William Safire credited to a Mr. Bruce Whelihan who was an aid to Nixon Press Secretary Ron Ziegler. Mr. Ziegler would say Get 'em in for a picture and Mr. Whelihan would dutifully announce to the White House press room, There will be a photo opportunity in the Oval Office. (New York Times ON LANGUAGE; In Nine Little Words, WILLIAM SAFIRE Published: March 26, 1989)
The term has acquired a negative connotation, referring to a carefully planned pseudo-event, often masqueraded as news.
The phrase is often thought of in a political sense, relating to politicians who do things such as plant trees, pick up litter, and visit senior citizens, often during election cycles, with the intent of photographers catching the events on film, generating good publicity.
Among nearly ritual photo ops are those when participants of a summit get out of their cars, shake hands or kiss, or sign a document. Formal, pre-planned photography sessions in the White House date back to the 1930s, when Franklin Roosevelt's press secretary advised photographers to avoid taking photos of the President in a wheelchair.