We studied the effects of high-light exposure (500 μmol m−2 s−1 of photosynthetic active radiation) on the cyanobacteria Nostoc spongiaeforme Agardh, a fresh-water alga, and Phormidium corium Agardh (Gomont), a marine alga, with respect to photosynthesis, pigments, sugar content, lipid peroxidation, fatty acids composition, antioxidant enzymes activity and DNA. It was seen that the ratio of variable fluorescence (Fv) to maximum fluorescence (Fm), which is indicative of photosynthetic efficiency, decreased because of the light treatment. The damage to photosynthesis occurred in the antenna system and the photosynthetic II reaction center. Photobleaching of photosynthetic pigments was also observed. High-light treatment also resulted in decreased sugar content, which was probably due to the effect on photosynthesis. Peroxidation of membrane lipids, indicating oxidative damage to lipids and a high level of unsaturation in the cell membrane, was also observed. The activity of antioxidant enzyme superoxide dismutase and ascorbate peroxidase was increased, probably as a result of oxidative damage observed in the form of lipid peroxidation. Quantitative decreases in phospholipid and glycolipid levels were also observed. The level of unsaturated fatty acids in total lipids and glycolipids remained unchanged in both species; however, the level of saturated fatty acids decreased, which slightly changed the ratio in favor of unsaturated fatty acids. Degradation of DNA was also observed in both species. There was a transient plateau 2–4 h after exposure to high-light treatment in the Fv/Fm ratio and in levels of phycobilisome pigments, sugars and antioxidant enzymes after an initial decrease 1 h after the treatment. These findings may indicate a period of partial adaptation to high light that is due to the efficiency of protective processes operational in the two species, which subsequently failed after a longer exposure duration of 4–6 h.