Photosynthetic reaction centres harvest the energy content of sunlight by transporting electrons across an energy-transducing biological membrane. Here we use time-resolved serial femtosecond crystallography1 using an X-ray free-electron laser2 to observe light-induced structural changes in the photosynthetic reaction centre of Blastochloris viridis on a timescale of picoseconds. Structural perturbations first occur at the special pair of chlorophyll molecules of the photosynthetic reaction centre that are photo-oxidized by light. Electron transfer to the menaquinone acceptor on the opposite side of the membrane induces a movement of this cofactor together with lower amplitude protein rearrangements. These observations reveal how proteins use conformational dynamics to stabilize the charge-separation steps of electron-transfer reactions.