Spin–orbit coupling (SOC) is an essential factor in photophysics of heavy transition metal com- plexes. By enabling efficient population of the lowest triplet state and its strong emission, it gives rise to a very interesting photophysical behavior and underlies photonic applications such as organic light emitting diodes (OLED) or luminescent imaging agents. SOC affects excited- state characters, relaxation dynamics, radiative and nonradiative decay pathways, as well as lifetimes and reactivity. We present a new photophysical model based on mixed-spin states, illustrated by relativistic spin–orbit TDDFT and MS-CASPT2 calculations of [Re(imidazole)(CO)3(1,10- phenanthroline)]+. An excited-state scheme is constructed from spin–orbit (SO) states characterized by their energies, double-group symmetries, parentages in terms of contributing spin-free singlets and triplets, and oscillator strengths of corresponding transitions from the ground state. Some of the predic- tions of the relativistic SO model on the number and nature of the optically populated and intermediate excited states are qualitatively different from the spin-free model. The relativistic excited-state model accounts well for electronic absorption and emission spectra of ReI carbonyl diimines, as well as their complex photophysical behavior. Then, we discuss the SO aspects of photophysics of heavy metal com- plexes from a broader perspective. Qualitative SO models as well as previous relativistic excited-state calculations are briefly reviewed together with experimental manifestations of SOC in polypyridine and cyclometallated complexes of second- and third row d6 metals. It is shown that the relativistic SO model can provide a comprehensive and unifying photophysical picture.