This review covers recent findings concerning the specification of the photoreceptor subtypes in the Drosophila eye. Particular attention is paid to aspects of retinal patterning and differentiation where relative timing of events seems to be tightly controlled and essential for proper assembly of the compound eye. For example, specification of the founding photoreceptors of each cluster requires sequential positive and negative signaling through the Notch pathway, and reiterated signaling through the epidermal growth factor receptor leads to the pairwise recruitment of the distinct types of photoreceptors in discrete zones across the eye. Results suggest that different signaling environments for these two receptors may exist across the disc, and that receiving cells may constantly shift their predisposition to respond to such signals by adopting given fates. In addition, considerable data exist that the rate of expansion of retinal patterning across the disc is restricted to allow the orderly patterning of retinal precursors, and that one mechanism for controlling this rate may be the co-ordinated expression anterior to the furrow of factors which both inhibit and promote the expansion of retinal patterning. Finally, this review considers the possibility that the morphogenetic furrow serves as a moving source of morphogens which supply spatial information to both anterior and posterior tissue, providing temporal cues that regulate the many events involved in orderly assembly of the precise array of retinal cell types in the compound eye.