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I describe a method for performing the synthesis and analysis of digital color images. The method is based on two principles. First, image data are represented with respect to the separate physical factors, surface reflectance and the spectral power distribution of the ambient light, that give rise to the perceived color of an object. Second, the encoding is made efficient by using a basis expansion for the surface spectral reflectance and spectral power distribution of the ambient light that takes advantage of the high degree of correlation across the visible wavelengths normally found in such functions. Within this framework, the same basic methods can be used to synthesize image data for color display monitors and printed materials, and to analyze image data into estimates of the spectral power distribution and surface spectral reflectances. The method can be applied to a variety of tasks. Examples of applications include the color balancing of color images and the identification of material surface spectral reflectance when the lighting cannot be completely controlled.