The development of improved methods for early detection and characterization of cancer presents a major clinical challenge. One approach that has shown excellent potential in preclinical and clinical evaluation is molecular imaging with small-scaffold, non-antibody based, engineered proteins. These novel diagnostic agents produce high contrast images due to their fast clearance from the bloodstream and healthy tissues, can be evolved to bind a multitude of cancer biomarkers, and are easily functionalized by site-specific bioconjugation methods. Several small protein scaffolds have been verified for in vivo molecular imaging including affibodies and their two-helix variants, knottins, fibronectins, designed ankyrin repeat proteins (DARPins), and several natural ligands. Further, the biodistribution of these engineered ligands can be optimized through rational mutation of the conserved regions, careful selection and placement of chelator, and modification of molecular size.