The plumage coloration in great tits (Parus major) is the subject of much behavioural and ecophysiological research, yet there is a lack of analyses of the natural colour variation and its mechanisms. We used reflectance spectrometry and high-performance liquid chromatography to explore individual, sexual and age-related variation in carotenoid coloration and pigmentation, paramount to the often presumed, but rarely substantiated, costs and ‘honesty’ of carotenoid displays. In adults, we found that sex was the strongest predictor of ‘brightness’ (higher in males) and of ‘hue’ (longer wavelength in females). There was no sex difference in ‘carotenoid chroma’ or carotenoid content of feathers which also was unrelated to adult age (1 or 2+ years) and condition. Similar patterns were revealed for nestlings. Regarding the biochemical ‘signal content’, ‘carotenoid chroma’, but not ‘hue’, was significantly related to the carotenoid content (lutein and zeaxanthin) of feathers. These results refute the previously assumed exaggeration of carotenoid pigmentation in male great tits, and question the condition-dependence of carotenoid coloration in this species. However, the sexual dimorphism in total reflectance or ‘brightness’, most likely due to melanins rather than carotenoids, may have implications for signalling or other adaptive explanations that need to be explored. © 2008 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2008, 95, 758–765.