Background In this study, the detection of nifH and nifD by a polymerase chain reaction assay was used to screen the potential photosynthetic bacteria capable of producing hydrogen from five different environmental sources. Efficiency of photo-hydrogen production is highly dependent on the culture conditions. Initial pH, temperature and illumination intensity were optimized for maximal hydrogen production using response surface methodology with central composite design. Results Rhodobacter sp. KKU-PS1 (GenBank Accession No. KC478552) was isolated from the methane fermentation broth of an UASB reactor. Malic acid was the favored carbon source while Na-glutamate was the best nitrogen source. The optimum conditions for simultaneously maximizing the cumulative hydrogen production (Hmax) and hydrogen production rate (Rm) from malic acid were an initial of pH 7.0, a temperature of 25.6°C, and an illumination intensity of 2500 lx. Hmax and Rm levels of 1264 ml H2/l and 6.8 ml H2/L-h were obtained, respectively. The optimum initial pH and temperature were further used to optimize the illumination intensity for hydrogen production. An illumination intensity of 7500 lx gave the highest values of Hmax (1339 ml H2/l) and Rm (12.0 ml H2/L-h) with a hydrogen yield and substrate conversion efficiency of 3.88 mol H2/mol malate and 64.7%, respectively. Conclusions KKU-PS1 can produce hydrogen from at least 8 types of organic acids. By optimizing pH and temperature, a maximal hydrogen production by this strain was obtained. Additionally, by optimizing the light intensity, Rm was increased by approximately two fold and the lag phase of hydrogen production was shortened.