Visual stimuli contain a limited amount of information that could potentially be used to perform a given visual task. At successive stages of visual processing, some of this information is lost and some is transmitted to higher stages. This article describes a new analysis, based on the concept of the ideal observer in signal detection theory, that allows one to trace the flow of discrimination information through the initial physiological stages of visual processing, for arbitrary spatio-chromatic stimuli. This ideal-observer analysis provides a rigorous means of measuring the information content of visual stimuli and of assessing the contribution of specific physiological mechanisms to discrimination performance. Here, the analysis is developed for the physiological mechanisms up to the level of the photoreceptor. It is shown that many psychophysical phenomena previously attributed to neural mechanisms may be explained by variations in the information content of the stimuli and by preneural mechanisms.