Despite the development of a large number of promising candidates, few contrast agents for established medical imaging modalities have successfully been translated over the past decade. The emergence of new imaging contrast agents that employ biomedical optics is further complicated by the relative infancy of the field and the lack of approved imaging devices compared to more established clinical modalities such as nuclear medicine. Herein, we propose a navigational approach (as opposed to a fixed "roadmap") for translation of optical imaging agents that is (i) proposed through consensus by four academic research programs that are part of the cooperative U54 NCI Network for Translational Research, (ii) developed through early experiences for translating optical imaging agents in order to meet distinctly varied needs in cancer diagnostics, and (iii) adaptable to the rapidly changing environment of academic medicine. We describe the pathways by which optical imaging agents are synthesized, qualified, and validated for preclinical testing, and ultimately translated for "first-in-humans" studies using investigational optical imaging devices. By identifying and adopting consensus approaches for seemingly disparate optical imaging modalities and clinical indications, we seek to establish a systematic method for navigating the ever-changing "roadmap" to most efficiently arrive at the destination of clinical adoption and improved outcome and survivorship for cancer patients.