Phytochromes are photoreceptors that provide plants with circadian, seasonal, and positional information critical for the control of germination, seedling development, shade avoidance, reproduction, dormancy, and sleep movements. Phytochromes are unique among photoreceptors in their capacity to interconvert between a red-absorbing form (absorption maximum of approximately 660 nm) and a far-red absorbing form (absorption maximum of approximately 730 nm), which occur in a dynamic equilibrium within plant cells, corresponding to the proportions of red and far-red energy in ambient light. Because pigments in stems and leaves absorb wavelengths below about 700 nm, this provides plants with an elegant system for detecting their position relative to other plants, with which the plants compete for light. Certain aspects of phytochrome-mediated development outside of flowering plants are strikingly similar to those that have been characterized in Arabidopsis thaliana and other angiosperms. However, early diverging land plants have fewer distinct phytochrome gene lineages, suggesting that both diversification and subfunctionalization have been important in the evolution of the phytochrome gene family. There is evidence that subfunctionalization proceeded by the partitioning among paralogues of photosensory specificity, physiological response modes, and light-regulated gene expression and protein stability. Parallel events of duplication and functional divergence may have coincided with the evolution of canopy shade and the increasing complexity of the light environment. Within angiosperms, patterns of functional divergence are clade-specific and the roles of phytochromes in A. thaliana change across environments, attesting to the evolutionary flexibility and contemporaneous plasticity of phytochrome signalling in the control of development.