A reduced red to far-red (R/FR) light ratio and low photosynthetically active radiation (PAR) irradiance are both strong signals for inducing etiolation growth of plant stems. Under natural field conditions, plants can be exposed to either a reduced R/FR ratio or lower PAR, or to a combination of both. We used Helianthus annuus L., the sunflower, to study the effect of reduced R/FR ratio, low PAR or their combination on hypocotyl elongation. To accomplish this, we attempted to uncouple light quality from light irradiance as factors controlling hypocotyl elongation. We measured alterations in the levels of endogenous gibberellins (GAs), cytokinins (CKs) and the auxin indole-3-acetic acid (IAA), and the effect of exogenous hormones on hypocotyl growth. As expected, both reduced R/FR ratio and lower PAR can significantly promote sunflower hypocotyl elongation when given separately. However, providing the reduced R/FR ratio at a low PAR resulted in the greatest hypocotyl growth, and this was accompanied by significantly higher levels of endogenous IAA, GA1, GA8, GA20 and of a wide range of CKs. Providing a reduced R/FR ratio under normal PAR also significantly increased growth and again gave significantly higher levels of endogenous IAA, GAs and CKs. However, only under the de-etiolating influence of a normal R/FR ratio did lowering PAR significantly increase levels of GA1, GA8 and GA20. We thus conclude that light quality (e.g. the R/FR ratio) is the most important component of shade for controlling hypocotyl growth and elevated growth hormone content.