Transcription, the process of copying genetic information from DNA to messenger RNA, is regulated by sequence-specific DNA-binding proteins known as transcription factors (TFs). Recent advances in single-molecule tracking (SMT) technologies have enabled visualization of individual TF molecules as they diffuse and interact with the DNA in the context of living cells. These SMT studies have uncovered multiple populations of DNA-binding events characterized by their distinctive DNA residence times. In this perspective, we review recent insights into how these residence times relate to specific and non-specific DNA binding, as well as the contribution of TF domains on the DNA-binding dynamics. We discuss different models that aim to link transient DNA binding by TFs to bursts of transcription and present an outlook for how future advances in microscopy development may broaden our understanding of the dynamics of the molecular steps that underlie transcription activation.