Photosynthetic organisms regulate their responses to many diverse stimuli in an effort to balance light harvesting with utilizable light energy for carbon fixation and growth (source–sink regulation). This balance is critical to prevent the formation of reactive oxygen species that can lead to cell death. However, investigating the molecular mechanisms that underlie the regulation of photosynthesis in cyanobacteria using ensemble-based measurements remains a challenge due to population heterogeneity. Here, to address this problem, we used long-term quantitative time-lapse fluorescence microscopy, transmission electron microscopy, mathematical modelling and genetic manipulation to visualize and analyse the growth and subcellular dynamics of individual wild-type and mutant cyanobacterial cells over multiple generations. We reveal that mechanical confinement of actively growing Synechococcus sp. PCC 7002 cells leads to the physical disassociation of phycobilisomes and energetic decoupling from the photosynthetic reaction centres. We suggest that the mechanical regulation of photosynthesis is a critical failsafe that prevents cell expansion when light and nutrients are plentiful, but when space is limiting. These results imply that cyanobacteria must convert a fraction of the available light energy into mechanical energy to overcome frictional forces in the environment, providing insight into the regulation of photosynthesis and how microorganisms navigate their physical environment.