There is a long-standing controversy as to whether drought limits photosynthetic CO2 assimilation through stomatal closure or by metabolic impairment in C3 plants. Comparing results from different studies is difficult due to interspecific differences in the response of photosynthesis to leaf water potential and/or relative water content (RWC), the most commonly used parameters to assess the severity of drought. Therefore, we have used stomatal conductance (g) as a basis for comparison of metabolic processes in different studies. The logic is that, as there is a strong link between g and photosynthesis (perhaps co-regulation between them), so different relationships between RWC or water potential and photosynthetic rate and changes in metabolism in different species and studies may be 'normalized' by relating them to g. Re-analysing data from the literature using light-saturated g as a parameter indicative of water deficits in plants shows that there is good correspondence between the onset of drought-induced inhibition of different photosynthetic sub-processes and g. Contents of ribulose bisphosphate (RuBP) and adenosine triphosphate (ATP) decrease early in drought development, at still relatively high g (higher than 150 mmol H20 m(-2) s(-1)). This suggests that RuBP regeneration and ATP synthesis are impaired. Decreased photochemistry and Rubisco activity typically occur at lower g (<100 mmol H20 m(-2) s(-1)), whereas permanent photoinhibition is only occasional, occurring at very low g (<50 mmol H20 m(-2) s(-1)). Sub-stomatal CO2 concentration decreases as g becomes smaller, but increases again at small g. The analysis suggests that stomatal closure is the earliest response to drought and the dominant limitation to photosynthesis at mild to moderate drought. However, in parallel, progressive down-regulation or inhibition of metabolic processes leads to decreased RuBP content, which becomes the dominant limitation at severe drought, and thereby inhibits photosynthetic CO2 assimilation.