Abstract Gross primary production (GPP) by terrestrial ecosystems is a key quantity in the global carbon cycle. The instantaneous controls of leaf-level photosynthesis are well established, but there is still no consensus on the mechanisms by which canopy-level GPP depends on spatial and temporal variation in the environment. The standard model of photosynthesis provides a robust mechanistic representation for C3 species; however, additional assumptions are required to “scale up” from leaf to canopy. As a consequence, competing models make inconsistent predictions about how GPP will respond to continuing environmental change. This problem is addressed here by means of an empirical analysis of the light use efficiency (LUE) of GPP inferred from eddy covariance carbon dioxide flux measurements, in situ measurements of photosynthetically active radiation (PAR), and remotely sensed estimates of the fraction of PAR (fAPAR) absorbed by the vegetation canopy. Focusing on LUE allows potential drivers of GPP to be separated from its overriding dependence on light. GPP data from over 100 sites, collated over 20 years and located in a range of biomes and climate zones, were extracted from the FLUXNET2015 database and combined with remotely sensed fAPAR data to estimate daily LUE. Daytime air temperature, vapor pressure deficit, diffuse fraction of solar radiation, and soil moisture were shown to be salient predictors of LUE in a generalized linear mixed-effects model. The same model design was fitted to site-based LUE estimates generated by 16 terrestrial ecosystem models. The published models showed wide variation in the shape, the strength, and even the sign of the environmental effects on modeled LUE. These findings highlight important model deficiencies and suggest a need to progress beyond simple “goodness of fit” comparisons of inferred and predicted carbon fluxes toward an approach focused on the functional responses of the underlying dependencies.