Acclimation of foliage photosynthetic properties occurs with varying time kinetics, but structural, chemical and physiological factors controlling the kinetics of acclimation are poorly understood, especially in field environments. We measured chlorophyll fluorescence characteristics, leaf total carotenoid (Car), chlorophyll (Chl) and nitrogen (N) content and leaf dry mass per area (LMA) along vertical light gradients in natural canopies of the herb species, Inula salicina and Centaurea jacea, and tree species, Populus tremula and Tilia cordata, in the middle of the growing season. Presence of stress was assessed on the basis of night measurements of chlorophyll fluorescence. Our aim was to compare the light acclimation of leaf traits, which respond to light availability at long (LMA and N), medium (Chl a/b ratio, Car/Chl ratio) and short time scales (fluorescence characteristics). We found that light acclimation of nitrogen content per unit leaf area (Narea), chlorophyll content per unit dry mass (Chlmass) and Chl/N ratio were related to modifications in LMA. The maximum PSII quantum yield (Fv/Fm) increased with increasing growth irradiance in I. salicina and P. tremula but decreased in T. cordata. Leaf growth irradiance, N content and plant species explained the majority of variability in chlorophyll fluorescence characteristics, up to 90% for steady-state fluorescence yield, while the contribution of leaf total carotenoid content was generally not significant. Chlorophyll fluorescence characteristics did not differ strongly between growth forms, but differed among species within a given growth form. These data highlight that foliage acclimation to light is driven by interactions between traits with varying time kinetics.