Collagen possesses a strong second order nonlinear susceptibility; when it is irradiated with intense laser light, some of the reflected and transmitted light will have twice the frequency of the incident beam, a phenomenon known as second harmonic generation (SHG). Polarization modulation of an ultra-short pulse laser beam can be used to simultaneously measure collagen fiber orientation, SHG intensity, and a parameter related to the second order non-linear susceptibility. This technique has made it possible to discriminate among patterns of fibrillar orientation in many tissues. In the present study the role that organizational complexity plays in the relationship between nonlinear optical properties and collagen structure is investigated. As a component of tissues and organs, collagen’s structure and function is inextricably intertwined with that of the many other matrix components; to what extent do these noncollagenous components affect its nonlinear properties? To answer this, we investigated SHG in two different collagenous tissues, liver and cartilage; in addition we looked at the effect of progressive pathological changes in these tissues on SHG. At the other end of the spectrum, we studied collagen organized at the minimal level of complexity necessary for SHG detection: fibrils generated from solutions containing only a single type of collagen. Data obtained from these studies suggest that collagen’s strong nonlinear susceptibility, a property no other biologically significant macromolecule shares to the same degree, may serve as more than the basis of a novel imaging device for soft tissue. Collagen’s nonlinear optical properties in conjunction with its vast capacity for self-initiated conformational change--through self-assembly, site recognition, post-translational modification, and the like -make it an attractive candidate molecule for any of several demanding engineering applications, such as nanopatterning.