Abstract The accurate quantification of gross primary production (GPP) in crops is important for regional and global studies of carbon budgets. Because of the observed close relationship between GPP and total canopy chlorophyll content in crops, vegetation indices related to chlorophyll can be used as a proxy of GPP. In this study, we justified the approach, tested the performance of several widely used chlorophyll-related vegetation indices in estimating total chlorophyll content and GPP in maize based on spectral data collected at a close range, 6 meters above the top of the canopy, over a period of eight years (2001 to 2008). The results show that GPP can be accurately estimated with chlorophyll-related indices that use near infra-red and either green or the red edge range of the spectrum. These indices provide the best approximation of the widely variable GPP in maize under both irrigated and rainfed conditions.