Membrane potential and fast ion imaging are now standard optical techniques routinely used to record dynamic physiological signals in several preparations in vitro. Although detailed resolution of optical signals can be improved by confocal or two-photon microscopy, high spatial and temporal resolution can be obtained using conventional microscopy and affordable light sources and cameras. Thus, standard wide-field imaging methods are still the most common in research laboratories and can often produce measurements with a signal-to-noise ratio that is superior to other optical approaches. This paper seeks to review the most important instrumentation used in these experiments, with particular reference to recent technological advances. We analyse in detail the optical constraints dictating the type of signals that are obtained with voltage and ion imaging and we discuss how to use this information to choose the optimal apparatus. Then, we discuss the available light sources with specific attention to light emitting diodes and solid state lasers. We then address the current state-of-the-art of available charge coupled device, electron multiplying charge coupled device and complementary metal oxide semiconductor cameras and we analyse the characteristics that need to be taken into account for the choice of optimal detector. Finally, we conclude by discussing prospective future developments that are likely to further improve the quality of the signals expanding the capability of the techniques and opening the gate to novel applications.