Experimental efforts to understand how the brain represents, stores and processes information require high-fidelity recordings of multiple different forms of neural activity within functional circuits. Thus, creating improved technologies for large-scale recordings of neural activity in the live brain is a crucial goal in neuroscience. Over the past two decades, the combination of optical microscopy and genetically encoded fluorescent indicators has become a widespread means of recording neural activity in nonmammalian and mammalian nervous systems, transforming brain research in the process. In this review, we describe and assess different classes of fluorescent protein indicators of neural activity. We first discuss general considerations in optical imaging and then present salient characteristics of representative indicators. Our focus is on how indicator characteristics relate to their use in living animals and on likely areas of future progress.