Light requirements and functional strategies of plants to cope with light heterogeneity in the field have a strong influence on community structure and dynamics. Shade intolerant plants often show a shade avoidance strategy involving a phytochrome-mediated stem elongation in response to changes in red : far red ratio, while shade-tolerant plants typically harvest light very efficiently. We measured plant size, stem diameter, internode and leaf lengths in randomly chosen saplings of 11 woody species differing in their shade tolerance in both a secondary forest and an old-growth temperate evergreen rainforest in southern Chile. We also recorded the irradiance spectrum and the diffuse and direct light availabilities at each sampling point. Significant differences were found for the mean light environment of the saplings of each species, which also differed in basal stem diameter, internode length and leaf length, but not in plant height. Both plant slenderness (plant height/stem diameter) and mean internode length increased with increasing light availability, but no relationship was found between any of these two traits and red : far red ratio. The change in plant slenderness with light availability was of lesser magnitude with increasing shade tolerance of the species, while internode change with light availability increased with increasing shade tolerance of the species. Shade tolerators afford higher costs (thicker stems and plants), which render more biomechanically robust plants, and respond more to the light environment in a trait strongly influencing light interception (internode length) than shade intolerant species. By contrast, less shade-tolerant plants afforded higher risks with a plastic response to escape from the understorey by making thinner plants that were biomechanically weaker and poorer light interceptors. Thus, species differing in their shade tolerances do differ in their plastic responses to light. Our results contribute to explain plant coexistence in heterogeneous light environments by improving our mechanistic understanding of species responses to light.