We provide a comprehensive overview of water constituent retrieval algorithms and underlying definitions and models for optically deep and complex (i.e. case 2) waters using earth observation data. The performance of constituent retrieval algorithms is assessed based on matchup validation experiments published between January 2006 and May 2011. Validation practices range from singular vicarious calibration experiments to comparisons using extensive in situ time series. Band arithmetic and spectral inversion algorithms for all water types are classified using a method based scheme that supports the interpretation of algorithm validity ranges. Based on these ranges we discuss groups of similar algorithms in view of their strengths and weaknesses. Such quantitative literature analysis reveals clear application boundaries. With regard to chlorophyll retrieval, validation of blue–green band ratios in coastal waters is limited to oligotrophic, predominantly ocean waters, while red-NIR ratios apply only at more than 10 mg/m3. Spectral inversion techniques — although not validated to the same extent — are necessary to cover all other conditions. Suspended matter retrieval is the least critical, as long as the wavelengths used in empirical models are increased with concentrations. The retrieval of dissolved organic matter however remains relatively inaccurate and inconsistent, with large differences in the accuracy of comparable methods in similar validation experiments. We conclude that substantial progress has been made in understanding and improving retrieval of constituents in optically deep and complex waters, enabling specific solutions to almost any type of optically complex water. Further validation and intercomparison of spectral inversion procedures are however needed to learn if solutions with a larger validity range are feasible.