The function of anthocyanins in green, vegetative tissues has always been a contentious issue. Here we evaluate their proposed photoprotective function since recent findings have shown that anthocyanins reduce photoinhibition and photobleaching of chlorophyll under light stress conditions. Anthocyanins generally accumulate in peripheral tissues exposed to high irradiance, although there are some exceptions (e.g. accumulation in abaxial leaf tissues and in obligatory shade plants) and accumulation is usually transient. Anthocyanin accumulation requires light and generally coincides with periods of high excitation pressure and increased potential for photo-oxidative damage due to an imbalance between light capture, CO2 assimilation and carbohydrate utilization (e.g. greening of developing tissues, senescence and adverse environmental conditions). Light attenuation by anthocyanin may help to re-establish this balance and so reduce the risk of photo-oxidative damage. Although it has been suggested that anthocyanins may act as antioxidants, the association between anthocyanins and oxidative stress appears to relate to the ability of anthocyanins to reduce excitation pressure and, hence, the potential for oxidative damage. The various aspects of anthocyanin induction and pigmentation presented here are compatible with, and support, the proposed general role of anthocyanins as photoprotective light screens in vegetative tissues.