The seasonality of sunlight and rainfall regulates net primary production in tropical forests. Previous studies have suggested that light is more limiting than water for tropical forest productivity, consistent with greening of Amazon forests during the dry season in satellite data. We evaluated four potential mechanisms for the seasonal green-up phenomenon, including increases in leaf area or leaf reflectance, using a sophisticated radiative transfer model and independent satellite observations from lidar and optical sensors. Here we show that the apparent green up of Amazon forests in optical remote sensing data resulted from seasonal changes in near-infrared reflectance, an artefact of variations in sun-sensor geometry. Correcting this bidirectional reflectance effect eliminated seasonal changes in surface reflectance, consistent with independent lidar observations and model simulations with unchanging canopy properties. The stability of Amazon forest structure and reflectance over seasonal timescales challenges the paradigm of light-limited net primary production in Amazon forests and enhanced forest growth during drought conditions. Correcting optical remote sensing data for artefacts of sun-sensor geometry is essential to isolate the response of global vegetation to seasonal and interannual climate variability.