Light–oxygen–voltage (LOV) receptors sense blue light through the photochemical generation of a covalent adduct between a flavin-nucleotide chromophore and a strictly conserved cysteine residue. Here we show that, after cysteine removal, the circadian-clock LOV-protein Vivid still undergoes light-induced dimerization and signalling because of flavin photoreduction to the neutral semiquinone (NSQ). Similarly, photoreduction of the engineered LOV histidine kinase YF1 to the NSQ modulates activity and downstream effects on gene expression. Signal transduction in both proteins hence hinges on flavin protonation, which is common to both the cysteinyl adduct and the NSQ. This general mechanism is also conserved by natural cysteine-less, LOV-like regulators that respond to chemical or photoreduction of their flavin cofactors. As LOV proteins can react to light even when devoid of the adduct- forming cysteine, modern LOV photoreceptors may have arisen from ancestral redox-active flavoproteins. The ability to tune LOV reactivity through photoreduction may have important implications for LOV mechanism and optogenetic applications.