Light can be used to probe the function and structure of human tissues. We have been exploring two distinct methods: (i) externally emitting light into tissue and measuring the transmitted light to characterize a region through which the light has passed, and (ii) internally generating light within tissue and using the radiated light as a quantitative homing beacon. The emitted–light approach falls within the domain of spectroscopy, and has allowed for imaging of intracranial haemorrhage in newborns and of brain function in adults. The generated–light approach is conceptually parallel to positron emission tomography (PET) or nuclear medicine scanning, and has allowed for real–time, non–invasive monitoring and imaging of infection and gene expression in vivo using low–light cameras and ordinary lenses. In this paper, we discuss recent results and speculate on the applications of such techniques.