Abscisic acid (ABA) is a plant hormone that regulates plant growth and development and mediates abiotic stress responses. Direct cellular monitoring of dynamic ABA concentration changes in response to environmental cues is essential for understanding ABA action. We have developed ABAleons: ABA-specific optogenetic reporters that instantaneously convert the phytohormone-triggered interaction of ABA receptors with PP2C-type phosphatases to send a fluorescence resonance energy transfer (FRET) signal in response to ABA. We report the design, engineering and use of ABAleons with ABA affinities in the range of 100-600 nM to map ABA concentration changes in plant tissues with spatial and temporal resolution. High ABAleon expression can partially repress Arabidopsis ABA responses. ABAleons report ABA concentration differences in distinct cell types, ABA concentration increases in response to low humidity and NaCl in guard cells and to NaCl and osmotic stress in roots and ABA transport from the hypocotyl to the shoot and root. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.01739.001.