• Plant light interception efficiency is a crucial determinant of carbon uptake by individual plants and by vegetation. Our aim was to identify whole-plant variables that summarize complex crown architecture, which can be used to predict light interception efficiency. • We gathered the largest database of digitized plants to date (1831 plants of 124 species), and estimated a measure of light interception efficiency with a detailed three-dimensional model. Light interception efficiency was defined as the ratio of the hemispherically averaged displayed to total leaf area. A simple model was developed that uses only two variables, crown density (the ratio of leaf area to total crown surface area) and leaf dispersion (a measure of the degree of aggregation of leaves). • The model explained 85% of variation in the observed light interception efficiency across the digitized plants. Both whole-plant variables varied across species, with differences in leaf dispersion related to leaf size. Within species, light interception efficiency decreased with total leaf number. This was a result of changes in leaf dispersion, while crown density remained constant. • These results provide the basis for a more general understanding of the role of plant architecture in determining the efficiency of light harvesting.