The DNA photoaffinity ligands, 7-azidoactinomycin D and 8-azidoethidium, form DNA adducts that cause chain cleavage upon treatment with piperidine. Chemical DNA sequencing techniques were used to detect covalent binding. The relative preferences for modifications of all possible sites defined by a base pair step (e.g. GC) were determined within all quartet contexts such as (IGCJ). These preferences are described in terms of 'effective site occupations', which expressthe ability of a ligand to covalently modify some base in the binding site. Ideally, the effective site occupations measured for photoaffinity agents can also be related to site-specific, non-covalent association constants of the ligand. The sites most reactive with 7-azidoactinomycin D were those preferred for non-covalent binding of unsubstituted actinomycin D. GC sites were most reactive, but next-nearest neighbors exerted significant influences on reactivity. GC sites in 5′-(pyrimidine)GC(purine)-3′ contexts, particularly TGCA, were most reactive, while reactivity was strongly suppressed for GC sites with a 5′-flanking G, or a 3'-flanking C. High reactivities were also observed for bases in the first (5′) GG steps in TGGT, TGGG and TGGGT sequences recently shown to bind actinomycin D with high affinity. Pyrimidine-3',5′-purine steps and GG steps flanked by a T were most preferred by 8-azidoethidium, in agreement with the behavior of unsubstituted ethidium. The good correspondence between expected and observed covalent binding preferences of these two azide analogs demonstrates that photoaffinity labeling can identify highly preferred sites of non-covalent DNA binding by small molecules. © 1995 Oxford University Press.