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The last three decades have brought a revolution in fluorescence microscopy. The development of new microscopes, fluorescent labels and analysis techniques has pushed the frontiers of biological imaging forward, moving from fixed to live cells, from diffraction-limited to super-resolution imaging and from simple cell culture systems to experiments in vivo. The large and ever-evolving collection of tools can be daunting for biologists, who must invest substantial time and effort in adopting new technologies to answer their specific questions. This is particularly relevant when working with small-molecule fluorescent labels, where users must navigate the jargon, idiosyncrasies and caveats of chemistry. Here, we present an overview of chemical dyes used in biology and provide frank advice from a chemist's perspective.