Size-controlled soft-template synthesis of carbon nanodots (CNDs) as novel photoactive materials is reported. The size of the CNDs can be controlled by regulating the amount of an emulsifier. As the size increases, the CNDs exhibit blue-shifted photoluminescence (PL) or so-called an inverse PL shift. Using time-correlated single photon counting, ultraviolet photoelectron spectroscopy, and low-temperature PL measurements, it is revealed that the CNDs are composed of sp2 clusters with certain energy gaps and their oleylamine ligands act as auxochromes to reduce the energy gaps. This insight can provide a plausible explanation on the origin of the inverse PL shift which has been debatable over a past decade. To explore the potential of the CNDs as photoactive materials, several prototypes of CND-based optoelectronic devices, including multicolored light-emitting diodes and air-stable organic solar cells, are demonstrated. This study could shed light on future applications of the CNDs and further expedite the development of other related fields.