This study examines the regulation of cGMP by illumination and by calcium during signal transduction in vertebrate retinal photoreceptor cells. We employed an electropermeabilized rod outer segment (EP-ROS) preparation which permits perfusion of low molecular weight compounds into the cytosol while retaining many of the features of physiologically competent, intact rod outer segments (ROS). When nucleotide-depleted EP-ROS were incubated with MgGTP, time- and dose-dependent increases in intracellular cGMP levels were observed. The steady state cGMP concentration in EP-ROS (0.007 mol cGMP per mol rhodopsin) approached the cGMP concentration in intact ROS. Flash illumination of EP-ROS in a 250-nM free calcium medium resulted in a transient decrease in cGMP levels; this occurred in the absence of changes in calcium concentration. The kinetics of the cGMP response to flash illumination of EP-ROS were similar to that of intact ROS. To further examine the effects of calcium on cGMP metabolism, dark-adapted EP-ROS were incubated with MgGTP containing various concentrations of calcium. We observed a twofold increase in cGMP steady state levels as the free calcium was lowered from 1 microM to 20 nM; this increase was comparable to the behavior of intact ROS. Measurements of guanylate cyclase activity in EP-ROS showed a 3.5-fold increase in activity over this range of calcium concentrations, indicating a retention of calcium regulation of guanylate cyclase in EP-ROS preparations. Flash illumination of EP-ROS in either a 50- or 250-nM free calcium medium revealed a slowing of the recovery time course at the lower calcium concentration. This observation conflicts with any hypothesis whereby a reduction in free calcium concentration hastens the recovery of cytoplasmic cGMP levels, either by stimulating guanylate cyclase activity or by inhibiting phosphodiesterase activity. We conclude that changes in the intracellular calcium concentration during visual transduction may have more complex effects on the recovery of the photoresponse than can be accounted for solely by guanylate cyclase activation.