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Optogenetics allows manipulations of genetically and spatially defined neuronal populations with excellent temporal control. However, neurons are coupled with other neurons over multiple length scales, and the effects of localized manipulations thus spread beyond the targeted neurons. We benchmarked several optogenetic methods to inactivate small regions of neocortex. Optogenetic excitation of GABAergic neurons produced more effective inactivation than light-gated ion pumps. Transgenic mice expressing the light-dependent chloride channel GtACR1 produced the most potent inactivation. Generally, inactivation spread substantially beyond the photostimulation light, caused by strong coupling between cortical neurons. Over some range of light intensity, optogenetic excitation of inhibitory neurons reduced activity in these neurons, together with pyramidal neurons, a signature of inhibition-stabilized neural networks ('paradoxical effect'). The offset of optogenetic inactivation was followed by rebound excitation in a light dose-dependent manner, limiting temporal resolution. Our data offer guidance for the design of optogenetics experiments.