Fluorescent imaging of biological systems in the second near-infrared window (NIR-II) can probe tissue at centimetre depths and achieve micrometre-scale resolution at depths of millimetres. Unfortunately, all current NIR-II fluorophores are excreted slowly and are largely retained within the reticuloendothelial system, making clinical translation nearly impossible. Here, we report a rapidly excreted NIR-II fluorophore (∼90% excreted through the kidneys within 24 h) based on a synthetic 970-Da organic molecule (CH1055). The fluorophore outperformed indocyanine green (ICG)-a clinically approved NIR-I dye-in resolving mouse lymphatic vasculature and sentinel lymphatic mapping near a tumour. High levels of uptake of PEGylated-CH1055 dye were observed in brain tumours in mice, suggesting that the dye was detected at a depth of ∼4 mm. The CH1055 dye also allowed targeted molecular imaging of tumours in vivo when conjugated with anti-EGFR Affibody. Moreover, a superior tumour-to-background signal ratio allowed precise image-guided tumour-removal surgery.