Mechanical stimuli profoundly alter cell fate, yet the mechanisms underlying mechanotransduction remain obscure because of a lack of methods for molecular force imaging. Here to address this need, we develop a new class of molecular tension probes that function as a switch to generate a 20- to 30-fold increase in fluorescence upon experiencing a threshold piconewton force. The probes employ immobilized DNA hairpins with tunable force response thresholds, ligands and fluorescence reporters. Quantitative imaging reveals that integrin tension is highly dynamic and increases with an increasing integrin density during adhesion formation. Mixtures of fluorophore-encoded probes show integrin mechanical preference for cyclized RGD over linear RGD peptides. Multiplexed probes with variable guanine-cytosine content within their hairpins reveal integrin preference for the more stable probes at the leading tip of growing adhesions near the cell edge. DNA-based tension probes are among the most sensitive optical force reporters to date, overcoming the force and spatial resolution limitations of traction force microscopy.