The cone contrasts carrying different dimensions of color vision vary greatly in magnitude, yet the perceived contrast of color and luminance in the world appears similar. We examined how this perceptual balance is adjusted by adaptation to the contrast in images. Observers set the level of L vs. M and S vs. LM contrast in noise images to match the perceived strength of a fixed level of luminance contrast. The perceptual balance of color in the images was roughly consistent with the range of contrast characteristic of natural images. Relative perceived contrast could be strongly biased by brief prior exposure to images with lower or higher levels of chromatic contrast. Similar adaptation effects were found for luminance contrast in images of natural scenes. For both, observers reliably chose the contrast balance that appeared correct, and these choices were rapidly recalibrated by adaptation. This recalibration of the norm for contrast could reflect both changes in sensitivity and shifts in criterion. Our results are consistent with the possibility that color mechanisms adjust the range of their responses to match the range of signals in the environment, and that contrast adaptation plays an important role in these adjustments.
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