The cytochrome b6 f (cytb6 f) complex has a central role in oxygenic photosynthesis, linking electron transfer between photosystems I and II and converting solar energy into a transmembrane proton gradient for ATP synthesis1–3. Electron transfer within cytb6 f occurs via the quinol (Q) cycle, which catalyses the oxidation of plastoquinol (PQH2) and the reduction of both plastocyanin (PC) and plastoquinone (PQ) at two separate sites via electron bifurcation2. In higher plants, cytb6 f also acts as a redox-sensing hub, pivotal to the regulation of light harvesting and cyclic electron transfer that protect against metabolic and environmental stresses3. Here we present a 3.6 Å resolution cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) structure of the dimeric cytb6 f complex from spinach, which reveals the structural basis for operation of the Q cycle and its redox-sensing function. The complex contains up to three natively bound PQ molecules. The first, PQ1, is located in one cytb6 f monomer near the PQ oxidation site (Qp) adjacent to haem bp and chlorophyll a. Two conformations of the chlorophyll a phytyl tail were resolved, one that prevents access to the Qp site and another that permits it, supporting a gating function for the chlorophyll a involved in redox sensing. PQ2 straddles the intermonomer cavity, partially obstructing the PQ reduction site (Qn) on the PQ1 side and committing the electron transfer network to turnover at the occupied Qn site in the neighbouring monomer. A conformational switch involving the haem cn propionate promotes two-electron, two-proton reduction at the Qn site and avoids formation of the reactive intermediate semiquinone. The location of a tentatively assigned third PQ molecule is consistent with a transition between the Qp and Qn sites in opposite monomers during the Q cycle. The spinach cytb6 f structure therefore provides new insights into how the complex fulfils its catalytic and regulatory roles in photosynthesis.