The accessibility of the vertebrate retina has provided the opportunity to assess various parameters of the visual abilities of a range of species. This thin but complex extension of the brain achieves a large proportion of the necessary visual processing of an optical image before information is delivered to the brain as neural impulses. Studies of the retina as a wholemount or a flattened sheet of neural tissue are abundant due to the large amount of information that can be analysed, as follows: the level of summation or convergence; the coverage, stratification and potential sites of synaptic connections; the spatial resolving power; the arrangement of neuronal arrays or mosaics; electrophysiological access for the recording of responses to visual stimuli; the spatial arrangement of cell dendritic fields; location of retinal 'blind spots' (optic nerve, falciform process and pecten); topographic differences in retinal cell sampling; spectral filters, and reflective structures. The present study examines all aspects of the wholemount technique, including enucleation, fixation, retinal extraction, flattening, staining, visualization of labelled cells and stereological mapping of cell density. Uniquely, it highlights the crucial technical and often species-specific differences encountered when examining a range of vertebrate taxa (fishes, reptiles, birds and mammals). This broad comparative approach will enable future studies to overcome technical difficulties, thus permitting larger conceptual questions to be posed regarding the diversity of visual tasks across phylogenetic boundaries.