Remote sensing of vegetation by spectroscopy is increasingly used to characterize trait distributions in plant communities. How leaves interact with electromagnetic radiation is determined by their structure and contents of pigments, water, and abundant dry matter constituents like lignins, phenolics, and proteins. High-resolution (“hyperspectral”) spectroscopy can characterize trait variation at finer scales, and may help to reveal underlying genetic variation—information important for assessing the potential of populations to adapt to global change. Here, we use a set of 360 inbred genotypes of the wild coyote tobacco Nicotiana attenuata: wild accessions, recombinant inbred lines (RILs), and transgenic lines (TLs) with targeted changes to gene expression, to dissect genetic versus non-genetic influences on variation in leaf spectra across three experiments. We calculated leaf reflectance from hand-held field spectroradiometer measurements covering visible to short-wave infrared wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation (400–2500 nm) using a standard radiation source and backgrounds, resulting in a small and quantifiable measurement uncertainty. Plants were grown in more controlled (glasshouse) or more natural (field) environments, and leaves were measured both on- and off-plant with the measurement set-up thus also in more to less controlled environmental conditions. Entire spectra varied across genotypes and environments. We found that the greatest variance in leaf reflectance was explained by between-experiment and non-genetic between-sample differences, with subtler and more specific variation distinguishing groups of genotypes. The visible spectral region was most variable, distinguishing experimental settings as well as groups of genotypes within experiments, whereas parts of the short-wave infrared may vary more specifically with genotype. Overall, more genetically variable plant populations also showed more varied leaf spectra. We highlight key considerations for the application of field spectroscopy to assess genetic variation in plant populations. © 2023, BioMed Central Ltd., part of Springer Nature.