Fluorescence-guided surgery using tumour-targeted imaging agents has emerged over the past decade as a promising and effective method of intraoperative cancer detection. An impressive number of fluorescently labelled antibodies, peptides, particles and other molecules related to cancer hallmarks have been developed for the illumination of target lesions. New approaches are being implemented to translate these imaging agents into the clinic, although only a few have made it past early-phase clinical trials. For this translational process to succeed, target selection, imaging agents and their related detection systems and clinical implementation have to operate in perfect harmony to enable real-time intraoperative visualization that can benefit patients. Herein, we review key aspects of this imaging cascade and focus on imaging approaches and methods that have helped to shed new light onto the field of intraoperative fluorescence-guided cancer surgery with the singular goal of improving patient outcomes.