The photochemical properties of organic ligands on the surface of nanocrystalline CdSe particles were examined. A number of thiols carrying a substituted cinnamate tail was synthesized. In solution, these cinnamate compounds undergo light-induced (374 nm) E-Z isomerization, followed by a nonphotolytic lactonization to give highly fluorescent coumarin. The cinnamate-thiols were successfully exchanged onto the CdSe nanocrystal, and the photochemical behavior of these conjugates was studied. Upon aerobic photolysis at 374 nm, the surface cinnamates released coumarin accompanied by rapid nanocrystal degradation. This degradation was not observed under similar anaerobic conditions or when the organic ligands did not contain the cinnamate group. Surprisingly, very similar results were obtained upon irradiation at visible wavelengths at which the cinnamate has no absorption. With the aid of UV-visible absorption spectroscopy, fluorescence spectroscopy, and electrochemistry, a unified theory for both the increased photoinstability of the nanocrystal as well as the coumarin release was proposed. It involves cinnamate radical anions on the CdSe surface, formed upon electron transfer from the excited nanocrystal to the surface cinnamate, undergoing E-Z isomerization. Practically, this results in the remarkable ability to release coumarin from nanocrystal ligands simply by exciting the nanocrystal with visible light. This new photorelease protocol not only aids in the understanding of fundamental nanocrystal-ligand interactions but may also offer new opportunities in the areas of drug delivery and imaging.