Advances in fundamental physical and optical principles applied to novel fluorescence methods are currently resulting in rapid progress in cell biology and physiology. Instrumentation devised in pioneering laboratories is becoming commercially available, and study findings are now becoming accessible. The first results have concerned mainly higher eukaryotic cells but many more developments can be expected, especially in microbiology. Until now, some important problems of cell physiology have been difficult to investigate due to interactions between probes and cells, excretion of probes from cells and the inability to make in situ observations deep within the cell, within tissues and structures. These technologies will enable microbiologists to address these topics. This Review aims at introducing the limits of current physiology evaluation techniques, the principles of new fluorescence technologies and examples of their use in this field of research for evaluating the physiological state of cells in model media, biofilms or tissue environments. Perspectives on new imaging technologies, such as super-resolution imaging and non-linear highly sensitive Raman microscopy, are also discussed. This review also serves as a reference to those wishing to explore how fluorescence technologies can be used to understand basic cell physiology in microbial systems.