Disturbance or rainforest is often followed by mass mortality of understorey seedlings. Transitions of shade grown plants to full sunlight can cause reductions in the efficiency with which light is used in photosynthesis, called photoinhibition. In order to assess the influence of photoinhibition on mortality and growth after rainforest disturbance this study examined photoinhibition in both simulated and real forest disturbances in northern Papua New Guinea. In an experiment simulating rainforest disturbance, exposure of shade-grown plants to full sunlight resulted in abrupt decreases in the chlorophyll fluorescence parameter F v/F m that is characteristic of photoinhibition. However, in the well-watered plants used in these experiments there were no fatalities during 3 weeks after exposure to full sunlight. Thus, it is unlikely that photoinhibition, alone, is responsible for seedling fatalities after rainforest disturbances, but more likely that fatalities are due to photoinhibition in conjunction with other environmental stress. There were differences between the response of species to the simulated disturbance that concurred with their preferred habitats. For example, species form the genus Barringtonia, which is commonly found in shaded understorey environments, underwent greater reductions in F v/F m and were slower to recover than species that usually inhabit high solar radiation environments. The extent of photoinhibition and the rate of recovery appeared to be dependent on avoidance of direct solar radiation by altering leaf angles and on increasing maximum photosynthetic rates. A field survey of photoinhibition in man-made rainforest gaps corroborated the findings of the simulated disturbance experiment showing that plant species commonly found in shaded environments showed a greater degree of photoinhibition in forest gaps at midday than those species which are classified as species that benefit from gaps or specialist gap inhabitors.