Many bacterial systems rely on dynamic genetic circuits to control crucial biological processes. A major goal of systems biology is to understand these behaviours in terms of individual genes and their interactions. However, traditional techniques based on population averages 'wash out' crucial dynamics that are either unsynchronized between cells or are driven by fluctuations, or 'noise', in cellular components. Recently, the combination of time-lapse microscopy, quantitative image analysis and fluorescent protein reporters has enabled direct observation of multiple cellular components over time in individual cells. In conjunction with mathematical modelling, these techniques are now providing powerful insights into genetic circuit behaviour in diverse microbial systems.