Stimulating the visual system tends to desensitize it to certain stimulus properties. Such desensitization is usually called adaptation or masking, but the distinction between the two is unclear. Nonspecific desensitization by light is usually regarded as adaptation, whereas pattern-specific desensitization is typically considered masking. Here we unify the treatment of such desensitizing phenomena by handling both in the spatial frequency domain. The amount of adapting light in a stimulus is represented in the spatial frequency domain by the component at zero frequency. To determine whether such adapting light acts like other components in the spatial frequency domain, we compared the effect of masking by the zero frequency component with the effects of masking by components at other frequencies. We show that the zero frequency component acts like other masking components, decreasing sensitivity to nearby test frequencies and thereby producing the insensitivity to low spatial frequencies that gives the contrast sensitivity curve its band-pass shape at high light levels. Treating light adaptation as masking by the zero frequency component leads to a general model that describes visual sensitivity to test gratings of varying spatial frequency at varying mean luminance, in the presence (or absence) of masking gratings of varying spatial frequency. Individual components of the model provide insight into visual processing at the system level. © 1995 Elsevier Science Ltd.