We propose a rigorous definition of the minimal set of parameters that characterize the difference between two partially polarized states of light whose electric fields vary in three dimensions with Gaussian fluctuations. Although two such states are a priori defined by eighteen parameters, we demonstrate that the performance of processing tasks such as detection, localization, or segmentation of spatial or temporal polarization variations is uniquely determined by three scalar functions of these parameters. These functions define a “polarimetric contrast” that simplifies the analysis and the specification of processing techniques on polarimetric signals and images. This result can also be used to analyze the definition of the degree of polarization of a three-dimensional state of light with Gaussian fluctuations in comparison, with respect to its polarimetric contrast parameters, with a totally depolarized light. We show that these contrast parameters are a simple function of the degrees of polarization previously proposed by Barakat [Opt. Acta 30, 1171 (1983) ] and Setälä et al. [Phys. Rev. Lett. 88, 123902 (2002) ]. Finally, we analyze the dimension of the set of contrast parameters in different particular situations.
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