Effect of crop load on tree growth, leaf characteristics, photosynthesis, and fruit quality of 5-year-old `Braeburn' apple [Malus sylvestris (L.) Mill. var. domestica (Borkh.) Mansf.] trees on Malling 26 (M.26) rootstock was examined during the 1994-95 growing season. Crop loads ranged from 0 to 57 kg/tree [0 to 1.6 kg fruit/cm2 trunk cross sectional area (TCA) or 0 to 8.7 fruit/cm2 TCA]. Fruit maturity as indicated by background color, starch/iodine score, and soluble solids was advanced significantly on low-cropping trees compared to high-cropping trees. Whole-canopy leaf area and percentage tree light interception increased linearly with a significant trend as crop load decreased. From midseason until fruit harvest, leaf photosynthesis decreased significantly on lighter cropping trees and similarly, a positive linear trend was found between whole-canopy gas exchange per unit area of leaf and crop load. Leaf starch concentration in midseason increased linearly as crop load decreased, providing some explanation for the increased down-regulation of photosynthesis on trees with lower crop loads. After fruit harvest, the previous crop loads had no effect on leaf photosynthesis and preharvest differences in whole-canopy gas exchange per unit area of leaf were less pronounced. At each measurement date, daily whole-canopy net carbon exchange and transpiration closely followed the diurnal pattern of incident photosynthetic photon flux. The photochemical yield and electron transport capacity depended on crop load. This was due mostly to reaction center closure before harvest and an increased nonphotochemical quenching after harvest.