White noise techniques are used to compare the two photoreceptor sub-types in blowfly retina, the short visual fibres (R1-6) that code achromatic contrast, and the long visual fibres (R7 and R8) that together code wavelength distribution and polarisation plane. Measurements of signal and noise spectra and contrast gain, taken across a broad intensity range, permit a detailed comparison of coding efficiency under natural conditions of illumination. As a function of excitation (effective photons per photoreceptor per second; h upsilon/rec per s), adaptive changes in the long and short visual fibres are similar, suggesting that post-rhodopsin their phototransduction cascades are identical. Under identical natural daylight conditions (photons per cm2 per second; h upsilon/cm2 per s) short visual fibres catch more photons, thus operating with a higher signal to noise ratio and faster response, to consistently outperform the long visual fibres. Long visual fibres compensate for their poor quantum catch by having a higher absolute gain (mV/h upsilon) which at low light intensities enables them to achieve a level of contrast gain (mV/unit contrast) similar to the short visual fibres. Differences in signal to noise ratios are related to known differences in photoreceptor structure and synaptic frequency among visual interneurons. The principles of matching sensitivity and synapse number to quantum catch described here could explain analogous differences between chromatic and achromatic pathways in mammalian and amphibian retinas.