The present study investigated the interaction of growth irradiance (Qint) with leaf capacity for and kinetics of adjustment of the pool size of xanthophyll cycle carotenoids (sum of violaxanthin, antheraxanthin and zeaxanthin; VAZ) and photosynthetic electron transport rate (Jmax) after changes in leaf light environment. Individual leaves of lower-canopy/lower photosynthetic capacity species Tilia cordata Mill. and upper canopy/higher photosynthetic capacity species Populus tremula L. were either illuminated by additional light of 500–800 µmol m−2 s−1 for 12 h photoperiod or enclosed in shade bags. The extra irradiance increased the total amount of light intercepted by two-fold for the upper and 10–15-fold for the lower canopy leaves, whereas the shade bags transmitted 45% of incident irradiance. In control leaves, VAZ/area, VAZ/Chl and Jmax were positively associated with leaf growth irradiance (Qint). After 11 d extra illumination, VAZ/Chl increased in all cases due to a strong reduction in foliar chlorophyll, but VAZ/area increased in the upper canopy leaves of both species, and remained constant or decreased in the lower canopy leaves of T. cordata. The slope for VAZ/area changes with cumulative extra irradiance was positively associated with Qint only in T. cordata, but not in P. tremula. Nevertheless, all leaves of P. tremula increased VAZ/area more than the most responsive leaves of T. cordata. Shading reduced VAZ content only in P. tremula, but not in T. cordata, again demonstrating that P. tremula is a more responsive species. Compatible with the hypothesis of the role of VAZ in photoprotection, the rates of photosynthetic electron transport declined less in P. tremula than in T. cordata after the extra irradiance treatment. However, foliar chlorophyll contents of the exposed leaves declined significantly more in the upper canopy of P. tremula, which is not consistent with the suggestion that the leaves with the highest VAZ content are more resistant to photoinhibition. This study demonstrates that previous leaf light environment may significantly affect the adaptation capacity of foliage to altered light environment, and also that species differences in photosynthetic capacity and acclimation potentials importantly alter this interaction.