We investigated the effects of leaf color change in the fall on photosynthetic production and nitrogen resorption. Seedlings of Acer platanoides L. and A. saccharum Marsh. were grown in a shade house for 5 months in either 21 % (intermediate light, M) or 4.9 % (low light, L) of incident irradiance. After this period, a subset of the intermediate-light grown seedlings was transferred to a high-light stress treatment (H). Gas exchange, chlorophyll fluorescence, pigments, antioxidant activity, and nitrogen (N) resorption were examined at three leaf senescence stages during September and October. Our results show that plants of both species produce more anthocyanins in the H treatment. In comparison with plants grown in the L and M treatments, plants of both species in the H treatments had lower chlorophyll, carotenoid and chlorophyll fluorescence parameters (Fv/Fm, ΦPSII, NPQ and ETR) at the third sampling date (October 12–18), and indicating higher levels of photoinhibition in the seedlings exposed to high light. Our results imply that autumn leaf redness is inducible and closely linked to photo-oxidative stress. However, anthocyanins did not enhance antioxidant capacity in red leaves in either species, when exposed to high light. For both species, our results showed a higher N-resorption for high-light stressed plants. We also observed that the number of abscised leaves at the second sampling dates (September 10) was higher than at the third sampling dates. The intra-leaf distribution of anthocyanin, the association between anthocyanin production and the high-light environments, the retention of red leaves, the substantial physiological gain of photosynthetic activity, as well as the links between anthocyanins and increased N resorption led us to assume that one primary role of autumn anthocyanin could be to protect the photosynthetic apparatus from photo-oxidative damage as light filters rather than as antioxidant. Another major role is to extend carbon capture and help supply the energy needed for N resorption from senescing leaves in both A. saccharum and A. Platanoides during highlight stress. Nevertheless, photoprotective capacity of anthocyanins was not able to fully compensate for photoinhibitory stress as the anthocyanins are not optimally located to efficiently reduce light within the leaves.