Abstract Plants possess a remarkable capacity to alter their phenotype in response to the highly heterogeneous light conditions they commonly encounter in natural environments. In the present study with the weedy annual plant Sinapis arvensis, we (a) tested for the adaptive value of phenotypic plasticity in morphological and life history traits in response to low light and (b) explored possible fitness costs of plasticity. Replicates of 31 half-sib families were grown individually in the greenhouse under full light and under low light (40% of ambient) imposed by neutral shade cloth. Low light resulted in a large increase in hypocotyl length and specific leaf area (SLA), a reduction in juvenile biomass and a delayed onset of flowering. Phenotypic selection analysis within each light environment revealed that selection favoured large SLA under low light, but not under high light, suggesting that the observed increase in SLA was adaptive. In contrast, plasticity in the other traits measured was maladaptive (i.e. in the opposite direction to that favoured by selection in the low light environment). We detected significant additive genetic variance in plasticity in most phenotypic traits and in fitness (number of seeds). Using genotypic selection gradient analysis, we found that families with high plasticity in SLA had a lower fitness than families with low plasticity, when the effect of SLA on fitness was statistically kept constant. This indicates that plasticity in SLA incurred a direct fitness cost. However, a cost of plasticity was only expressed under low light, but not under high light. Thus, models on the evolution of phenotypic plasticity will need to incorporate plasticity costs that vary in magnitude depending on environmental conditions.