Photographers and lighting designers set up lighting environments that best depict objects and human figures to convey key aspects of the visual appearance of various materials, following rules drawn from experience. Understanding which lighting environment is best adapted to convey which key aspects of materials is an important question in the field of human vision. The endless range of natural materials and lighting environments poses a major problem in this respect. We present a systematic approach to make this problem tractable for lighting–material interactions, using optics-based models composed of canonical lighting and material modes. Results demonstrate that a system of canonical modes spanning the natural range of lighting and materials provides a good basis to study lighting–material interactions in their full natural ecology.