The light reaching the eye from a surface does not indicate the black–gray–white shade of a surface (called lightness) because the effects of illumination level are confounded with the reflectance of the surface. Rotating a gray paper relative to a light source alters its luminance (intensity of light reaching the eye) but the lightness of the paper remains relatively constant. Recent publications have argued, as had Helmholtz (1866/1924), that the visual system unconsciously estimates the direction and intensity of the light source. We report experiments in which this theory was pitted against an alternative theory according to which illumination level and surface reflectance are disentangled by comparing only those surfaces that are equally illuminated, in other words, by holding illumination level constant. A 3-dimensional scene was created within which the rotation of a target surface would be expected to become darker gray according to the lighting estimation theory, but lighter gray according to the equi-illumination comparison theory, with results clearly favoring the latter. In a further experiment cues held to indicate light source direction (cast shadows, attached shadows, and glossy highlights) were completely eliminated and yet this had no effect on the results.