Sun and shade environments place markedly different constraints on the photosynthetic performance of plants. Leaf-level photosynthetic responses to sun and shade have been extensively investigated, whereas there has been much less research on the functional role of crown architecture in these environments. This paper focuses on the role of architecture in maximizing light capture and photosynthesis in shaded understories and in minimizing exposure to excess radiation in open high light environments. Understanding these contrasting roles of architecture is facilitated by application of a three-dimensional structural–functional model, Y-plant. Surveys of understory plants reveal a diversity of architectures but a strong convergence at only modest light-capture efficiencies because of significant self-shading. Simulations with Psychotria species revealed that increasing internode lengths would increase light-capture efficiencies and whole plant carbon gain. However, the costs of the additional required biomechanical support was high, which, in terms of relative growth rates, would override the advantage provided by higher light-capture efficiencies. In high light environments, leaf angles and self-shading provide structural photoprotection, minimizing potential damage from photoinhbition. Simulations reveal that without these structural protections photoinhibition of photosynthesis is likely to be much greater with daily carbon gain significantly reduced.