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The purpose of this study was to evaluate the effects of luminance on visual acuity (VA) and small letter contrast sensitivity (SLCS). Computer-generated letter charts were used to measure VA and SLCS [6/7.5 (20/25) Snellen equivalent] as a function of stimulus luminance. Letter size (VA) and contrast (SLCS) were varied in equal logarithmic steps, making the task and scoring procedure comparable for the two types of measurement. Both VA and SLCS decreased with decreasing luminance, but the effect was far greater in the contrast domain. Reducing luminance from 116 cd/m2 to 0.23 cd/m2 produced a 3 x reduction in VA, but a 17 x reduction in SLCS. The greater sensitivity of SLCS to luminance endured even after correction for greater measurement variability. SLCS is a sensitive approach for detecting resolution loss undisclosed by standard measures of VA. It may be useful for monitoring visual loss from light attenuation in early cataracts, and for detecting subtle resolution loss from neural or pathologic factors in ocular and neuro-ophthalmologic disease.