Abstract Light is the factor that fundamentally determines the level of primary production. Primary productivity is controlled by bottom-up factors (nutrient levels), with secondary effects due to biological factors (zooplankton grazing). The light regimen experienced by algae is determined largely by mixing of the water column. The processes of photoinhibition and light attenuation combine with the resultant light–dark adaptation to shape the vertical productivity profile and it is important to determine their importance separately because they vary spatially and temporally. Daily variations in productivity can be as large as longer-term changes and events causing high productivity may not be important in whole-lake terms. At approximately 0.5 m depth, there is maximal photosynthesis causing depletion of nutrients, but there is vertical homogeneity in productivity control and horizontal similarity in productivity levels. There is zero productivity below 5 m depth due to light attenuation but, if the benthos becomes productive due to an environmental change, such as decreased turbidity, overall productivity may rise appreciably. Self-shading was investigated by incubating serial dilutions of whole lakewater with filtered water to reduce the density of algal cells. Photosynthetic efficiency was calculated as productivity per unit of chlorophyll a. Self-shading showed different responses for conditions of ‘low’ and ‘high’ productivity. With low productivity, there was a shading loss of 17%, while for high productivity this was 46%. Thus, self-shading is seen to have a considerable impact on potential productivity and may affect phytoplankton–cyanobacterial community structure with implications for lake management.