A fundamental problem for the visual perception of 3D shape is that patterns of optical stimulation are inherently ambiguous. Recent mathematical analyses have shown, however, that these ambiguities can be highly constrained, so that many aspects of 3D structure are uniquely specified even though others might be underdetermined. Empirical results with human observers reveal a similar pattern of performance. Judgments about 3D shape are often systematically distorted relative to the actual structure of an observed scene, but these distortions are typically constrained to a limited class of transformations. These findings suggest that the perceptual representation of 3D shape involves a relatively abstract data structure that is based primarily on qualitative properties that can be reliably determined from visual information.