In a departure from previous top-down or bottom-up strategies used to understand neuronal circuits, many forward-looking research programs now place the circuit itself at their centre. This has led to an emphasis on the dissection and elucidation of neuronal circuit elements and mechanisms, and on studies that ask how these circuits generate behavioural outputs. This movement towards circuit-centric strategies is progressing rapidly as a result of technological advances that combine genetic manipulation with light-based methods. The core tools of these new approaches are genetically encoded optical indicators and actuators that enable non-destructive interrogation and manipulation of neuronal circuits in behaving animals with cellular-level precision. This Review examines genetically encoded reporters of neuronal function and assesses their value for circuit-oriented neuroscientific investigations.