Genetically targeting biological systems to control cellular processes with light is the concept of optogenetics. Despite impressive developments in this field, underlying molecular mechanisms of signal transduction of the employed photoreceptor modules are frequently not sufficiently understood to rationally design new optogenetic tools. Here, we investigate the requirements for functional coupling of red light-sensing phytochromes with non-natural enzymatic effectors by creating a series of constructs featuring the Deinococcus radiodurans bacteriophytochrome linked to a Synechocystis guanylate/adenylate cyclase. Incorporating characteristic structural elements important for cyclase regulation in our designs, we identified several red light-regulated fusions with promising properties. We provide details of one light-activated construct with low dark-state activity and high dynamic range that outperforms previous optogenetic tools in vitro and expands our in vivo toolkit, as demonstrated by manipulation of Caenorhabditis elegans locomotor activity. The full-length crystal structure of this phytochrome-linked cyclase revealed molecular details of photoreceptor-effector coupling, highlighting the importance of the regulatory cyclase element. Analysis of conformational dynamics by hydrogen-deuterium exchange in different functional states enriched our understanding of phytochrome signaling and signal integration by effectors. We found that light-induced conformational changes in the phytochrome destabilize the coiled-coil sensor-effector linker, which releases the cyclase regulatory element from an inhibited conformation, increasing cyclase activity of this artificial system. Future designs of optogenetic functionalities may benefit from our work, indicating that rational considerations for the effector improve the rate of success of initial designs to obtain optogenetic tools with superior properties.