Stoichiometric and gallium-rich wurtzite Cu-Ga-S ternary nanocrystals were synthesized via a facile solution-based hot injection method using 1-dodecanethiol as a sulfur source. The use of 1-dodecanethiol was found to be essential not only as a sulfur source but also as a structure-directing reagent to form a metastable wurtzite structure. In addition, the substitution of zinc in the wurtzite gallium-rich Cu-Ga-S nanocrystals was also investigated. The obtained nanocrystals were characterized by X-ray diffraction (XRD), X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy (XPS), transmission electron microscopy (TEM), diffuse reflectance spectroscopy (DRS), photoluminescence (PL), and inductively coupled plasma atomic emission spectroscopy (ICP-OES). Electronic structures of pristine and the Zn-substituted Cu-Ga-S system were investigated using density functional theory (DFT) with HSE06 exchange-correlation functional. The calculated bandgaps accurately reflect the measured ones. The allowed electronic transitions occur upon the photon absorption from the (Cu + S) band towards the (Ga + S) one. The Zn substitution was found not to contribute to the band edge structure and hence altered the bandgaps only slightly, the direct transition nature remaining unchanged with the Zn substitution. The photocatalytic activities of H2 evolution from an aqueous Na2S/Na2SO3 solution under visible-light illumination on the synthesized nanocrystals were investigated. While the stoichiometric CuGaS2 exhibited negligible activity, the gallium-rich Cu-Ga-S ternary nanocrystals displayed reasonable activity. The optimum Zn substitution in the gallium-rich Cu-Ga-S ternary nanocrystals enhanced the H2 evolution rate, achieving an apparent quantum efficiency of >6% at 400 nm. © 2015 The Royal Society of Chemistry.