The Drosophila peripheral nervous system comprises four major types of sensory element: external sense organs (such as mechano-sensory bristles), chordotonal organs (internal stretch receptors), multiple dendritic neurons, and photoreceptors. During development, the selection of neural precursors for external sense organs requires the proneural genes of the achaete-scute complex, which encode basic-helix-loop-helix transcription factors. These genes do not, however, control precursor selection for chordotonal organs or photoreceptors, raising the question of whether other proneural genes exist or a different mechanism of neurogenesis operates. Here we show that atonal (ato), originally isolated as a proneural gene for chordotonal organs, is also the proneural gene for photoreceptors. Pattern formation in the Drosophila eye involves a succession of cell fate specifications. Of the eight photoreceptors within each ommatidium of the compound eye, the photoreceptor R8 is the first to appear in the eye imaginal disc, right behind the morphogenetic furrow. The appearance of other photoreceptors (R1-7) follows in a defined sequence that is thought to arise by induction from R8 (refs 8, 9, 11, 12). We find that photoreceptor formation requires the function of atonal at the morphogenetic furrow and that atonal is specifically required for R8 selection. Formation of other photoreceptors does not directly require atonal function, but does depend on R8 selection by atonal. Thus, photoreceptors are selected by two mechanisms: R8 by a proneural mechanism, and R1-7 by local recruitment.