The ecological impacts of nighttime light pollution have been a longstanding source of concern, accentuated by realized and projected growth in electrical lighting. As human communities and lighting technologies develop, artificial light increasingly modifies natural light regimes by encroaching on dark refuges in space, in time, and across wavelengths. A wide variety of ecological implications of artificial light have been identified. However, the primary research to date is largely focused on the disruptive influence of nighttime light on higher vertebrates, and while comprehensive reviews have been compiled along taxonomic lines and within specific research domains, the subject is in need of synthesis within a common mechanistic framework. Here we propose such a framework that focuses on the cross-factoring of the ways in which artificial lighting alters natural light regimes (spatially, temporally, and spectrally), and the ways in which light influences biological systems, particularly the distinction between light as a resource and light as an information source. We review the evidence for each of the combinations of this cross-factoring. As artificial lighting alters natural patterns of light in space, time and across wavelengths, natural patterns of resource use and information flows may be disrupted, with downstream effects to the structure and function of ecosystems. This review highlights: (i) the potential influence of nighttime lighting at all levels of biological organisation (from cell to ecosystem); (ii) the significant impact that even low levels of nighttime light pollution can have; and (iii) the existence of major research gaps, particularly in terms of the impacts of light at population and ecosystem levels, identification of intensity thresholds, and the spatial extent of impacts in the vicinity of artificial lights. © 2013 The Authors. Biological Reviews © 2013 Cambridge Philosophical Society.