In this paper we establish a methodology to predict photoacoustic imaging capabilities from the structure of absorber molecules (sonochromes). The comparative in vitro and in vivo screening of naphthalocyanines and cyanine dyes has shown a substitution pattern dependent shift in photoacoustic excitation wavelength, with distal substitution producing the preferred maximum around 800 nm. Central ion change showed variable production of photoacoustic signals, as well as singlet oxygen photoproduction and fluorescence with the optimum for photoacoustic imaging being nickel(II). Our approach paves the way for the design, evaluation and realization of optimized sonochromes as photoacoustic contrast agents.