Thalamic relay cells transmit information from retina to cortex by firing either rapid bursts or tonic trains of spikes. Bursts occur when the membrane voltage is low, as during sleep, because they depend on channels that cannot respond to excitatory input unless they are primed by strong hyperpolarization. Cells fire tonically when depolarized, as during waking. Thus, mode of firing is usually associated with behavioral state. Growing evidence, however, suggests that sensory processing involves both burst and tonic spikes. To ask if visually evoked synaptic responses induce each type of firing, we recorded intracellular responses to natural movies from relay cells and developed methods to map the receptive fields of the excitation and inhibition that the images evoked. In addition to tonic spikes, the movies routinely elicited lasting inhibition from the center of the receptive field that permitted bursts to fire. Therefore, naturally evoked patterns of synaptic input engage dual modes of firing.