The life sciences can benefit greatly from imaging technologies that connect microscopic discoveries with macroscopic observations. One technology uniquely positioned to provide such benefits is photoacoustic tomography (PAT), a sensitive modality for imaging optical absorption contrast over a range of spatial scales at high speed. In PAT, endogenous contrast reveals a tissue's anatomical, functional, metabolic, and histologic properties, and exogenous contrast provides molecular and cellular specificity. The spatial scale of PAT covers organelles, cells, tissues, organs, and small animals. Consequently, PAT is complementary to other imaging modalities in contrast mechanism, penetration, spatial resolution, and temporal resolution. We review the fundamentals of PAT and provide practical guidelines for matching PAT systems with research needs. We also summarize the most promising biomedical applications of PAT, discuss related challenges, and envision PAT's potential to lead to further breakthroughs.