When stimuli are available for just a brief period (approximately 100 ms) only restricted spatial information can be processed by the visual system. If the stimuli are presented very briefly, eye movements are not possible. The time during which the after-image of the stimulus is available for inspection is terminated by presentation of a masking pattern. We show here that in these conditions a small pattern is easily detected against a background made up of many others, only if this target pattern differs from the background patterns in certain local features. In this case the detectability of the target is almost independent of the number of background elements, suggesting that a parallel process is operating. Detection of patterns not differing from their backgrounds in such features requires focal attention which is a serial process. The aperture of this attention is scaled to minimize the number of shifts of attention required.