Optogenetic tools have recently been developed that enable dynamic control over the activities of select signaling proteins. They provide the unique ability to rapidly turn signaling events on or off with subcellular control in living cells and organisms. This capability is leading to new insights into how the spatial and temporal coordination of signaling events governs dynamic cell behaviours such as migration and neurite outgrowth. These tools can also be used to dissect a protein's signaling functions at different organelles. Here we review the properties of photoreceptors from diverse organisms that have been leveraged to control signaling in mammalian cells. We emphasize recent engineering approaches that have been used to create optogenetic constructs with optimized spectral, kinetic, and signaling properties for controlling cell behaviours.