The diffraction efficiency of holographically recorded volume gratings was extensively studied, and it can be accurately predicted as long as the recording wave fronts are simple. The derivation of the diffraction efficiency when complicated wavefronts or images are involved is much more tedious and less explored. In this work we derive operator expressions that can be used to analyze these processes regardless of the shape of the wavefront and the nature of the optical systems through which they propagate. The compact expressions derived are directly applicable to the analysis of volume holographic processes, and the deterioration of the holographic reconstruction quality is derived as a function of the deviations from the recording parameters. The generalized results obtained reduce to the conventional Bragg effect for plane wave recording and reconstruction. Previously unexplored phenomena are discussed and demonstrated through some simple, and practically useful paradigms, including hologram recording and reconstruction in the Fresnel, Fourier transform, and image plane regions, as well as recording with plane and spherical waves. Some prior experimental results are also interpreted mathematically. In subsequent publications the analysis will be explored further to facilitate its application to more complicated architectures.
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