The geometry of ductile strain localization phenomena is related to the rheology of the deformed rocks. Both qualitative and quantitative theological properties. of natural rocks have been estimated from finite field structures such as folds and shear zones. We apply physical modelling to investigate the relationship between rheology and the temporal evolution of the width and transversal strain distribution in shear zones, both of which have been used previously as rheological proxies. Geologically relevant materials with well-characterized rheological properties (Newtonian, strain hardening, strain softening, Mohr-Coulomb) are deformed in a shear box and observed with Particle Imaging Velocimetry (PIV). It is shown that the width and strain distribution histories in model shear zones display characteristic finite responses related to material properties as predicted by previous studies. Application of the results to natural shear zones in the field is discussed. An investigation of the impact of 3D boundary conditions in the experiments demonstrates that quantitative methods for estimating rheology from finite natural structures must take these into account carefully. (c) 2007 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.