Organisms adapt to environmental cues using diverse signaling networks. In order to sense and integrate light for regulating various biological functions, photoreceptor proteins have evolved in a modular way. This modularity is targeted in the development of optogenetic tools enabling the control of cellular events with high spatiotemporal precision. However, the limited understanding of signaling mechanisms impedes the rational design of innovative photoreceptor-effector couples. Here, we reveal molecular details of signal transduction in phytochrome-regulated diguanylyl cyclases. Asymmetric structural changes of the full-length homodimer result in a functional heterodimer featuring two different photoactivation states. Structural changes around the cofactors result in a quasi-translational rearrangement of the distant coiled-coil sensor-effector linker. Eventually, this regulates enzymatic activity by modulating the dimer interface of the output domains. Considering the importance of phytochrome heterodimerization in plant signaling, our mechanistic details of asymmetric photoactivation in a bacterial system reveal novel aspects of the evolutionary adaptation of phytochromes.