Neural sensitivity to basic elements of the visual scene changes dramatically as information is handed from the thalamus to the primary visual cortex in cats. Famously, thalamic neurons are insensitive to stimulus orientation whereas their cortical targets easily resolve small changes in stimulus angle. There are two main types of cells in the visual cortex, simple and complex, defined by the structure of their receptive fields. Simple cells are thought to lay the groundwork for orientation selectivity. This review focuses on approaches that combine anatomy with physiology at the intracellular level, to explore the circuits that build simple receptive fields and that help to maintain neural sensitivity to stimulus features even when luminance contrast changes.