The mechanisms underlying specification of neuronal subtypes within the human nervous system are largely unknown. The blue (S), green (M), and red (L) cones of the retina enable high-acuity daytime and color vision. To determine the mechanism that controls S versus L/M fates, we studied the differentiation of human retinal organoids. Organoids and retinas have similar distributions, expression profiles, and morphologies of cone subtypes. S cones are specified first, followed by L/M cones, and thyroid hormone signaling controls this temporal switch. Dynamic expression of thyroid hormone–degrading and –activating proteins within the retina ensures low signaling early to specify S cones and high signaling late to produce L/M cones. This work establishes organoids as a model for determining mechanisms of human development with promising utility for therapeutics and vision repair.