The preparation of novel NIR fluorescent carbon based nanomaterials, consisting of boron difluoride azadipyrromethene fluorophores covalently attached to carbon nano-onions, is demonstrated. In addition, the analysis of the new nanomaterial is presented. The fluorescent nano-derivative properties are customized such that their emission can be reversibly on/off modulated in response to pH, which is demonstrated in solution and in cells. The in vitro imaging of HeLa Kyoto cells is carried out and the cellular uptake of the carbon nano-onion NIR fluorophore conjugates is verified. This journal is © the Partner Organisations 2014.