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This paper presents a comprehensive theory of photometric surface reconstruction from image derivatives in the presence of a general, unknown isotropic BRDF. We derive precise topological classes up to which the surface may be determined and specify exact priors for a full geometric reconstruction. These results are the culmination of a series of fundamental observations. First, we exploit the linearity of chain rule differentiation to discover photometric invariants that relate image derivatives to the surface geometry, regardless of the form of isotropic BRDF. For the problem of shape-from-shading, we show that a reconstruction may be performed up to isocontours of constant magnitude of the gradient. For the problem of photometric stereo, we show that just two measurements of spatial and temporal image derivatives, from unknown light directions on a circle, suffice to recover surface information from the photometric invariant. Surprisingly, the form of the invariant bears a striking resemblance to optical flow; however, it does not suffer from the aperture problem. This photometric flow is shown to determine the surface up to isocontours of constant magnitude of the surface gradient, as well as isocontours of constant depth. Further, we prove that specification of the surface normal at a single point completely determines the surface depth from these isocontours. In addition, we propose practical algorithms that require additional initial or boundary information, but recover depth from lower order derivatives. Our theoretical results are illustrated with several examples on synthetic and real data.