Virus-based nanoparticles (VNPs) have been used for a wide range of applications, spanning basic materials science and translational medicine. Their propensity to self-assemble into precise structures that offer a three-dimensional scaffold for functionalization has led to their use as optical contrast agents and related biophotonics applications. A number of fluorescently labeled platforms have been developed and their utility in optical imaging demonstrated, yet their optical properties have not been investigated in detail. In this study, two VNPs of varying architectures were compared side-by-side to determine the impact of dye density, dye localization, conjugation chemistry, and microenvironment on the optical properties of the probes. Dyes were attached to icosahedral cowpea mosaic virus (CPMV) and rod-shaped tobacco mosaic virus (TMV) through a range of chemistries to target particular side chains displayed at specific locations around the virus. The fluorescence intensity and lifetime of the particles were determined, first using photochemical experiments on the benchtop, and second in imaging experiments using tissue culture experiments. The virus-based optical probes were found to be extraordinarily robust under ultrashort, pulsed laser light conditions with a significant amount of excitation energy, maintaining structural and chemical stability. The most effective fluorescence output was achieved through dye placement at optimized densities coupled to the exterior surface avoiding conjugated ring systems. Lifetime measurements indicate that fluorescence output depends not only on spacing the fluorophores, but also on dimer stacking and configurational changes leading to radiationless relaxation-and these processes are related to the conjugation chemistry and nanoparticle shape. For biological applications, the particles were also examined in tissue culture, from which it was found that the optical properties differed from those found on the benchtop due to effects from cellular processes and uptake kinetics. Data indicate that fluorescent cargos are released in the endolysosomal compartment of the cell targeted by the virus-based optical probes. These studies provide insight into the optical properties and fates of fluorescent proteinaceous imaging probes. The cellular release of cargo has implications not only for virus-based optical probes, but also for drug delivery and release systems.