The effect of irradiance on leaf construction costs, chemical composition, and on the payback time of leaves was investigated. To enable more generalized conclusions, three different systems were studied: top and the most-shaded leaves of 10 adult tree species in a European mixed forest, top leaves of sub-dominant trees of two evergreen species growing in small gaps or below the canopy in an Amazonian rainforest, and plants of six herbaceous and four woody species grown hydroponically at low or high irradiance in growth cabinets. Daily photon irradiance varied 3-6-fold between low- and high-light leaves. Specific leaf area (SLA) was 30-130% higher at low light. Construction costs, on the other hand, were 1-5% lower for low-irradiance leaves, mainly because low-irradiance leaves had lower concentrations of soluble phenolics. Photosynthetic capacity and respiration, expressed per unit leaf mass, were hardly different for the low- and high-light leaves. Estimates of payback times of the high-irradiance leaves ranged from 2-4 d in the growth cabinets, to 15-20 d for the adult tree species in the European forest. Low-irradiance leaves had payback times that were 2-3 times larger, ranging from 4 d in the growth cabinets to 20-80 d at the most shaded part of the canopy of the mixed forest. In all cases, estimated payback times were less than half the life span of the leaves, suggesting that even at time-integrated irradiances lower than 5% of the total seasonal value, investment in leaves is still fruitful from a carbon-economy point of view. A sensitivity analysis showed that increased SLA of low-irradiance leaves was the main factor constraining payback times. Acclimation in the other five factors determining payback time, namely construction costs, photosynthetic capacity per unit leaf mass, respiration per unit leaf mass, apparent quantum yield, and curvature of the photosynthetic light-response-curve, were unimportant when the observed variation in each factor was examined.