Nonlinear optics is generally first presented as an extension of conventional optics. Typically the subject is introduced with reference to a classical oscillatory electric polarization, accommodating correction terms that become significant at high intensities. The material parameters that quantify the extent of the nonlinear response are cast as coefficients in a power series - nonlinear optical susceptibilities signifying a propensity to generate optical harmonics, for example. Taking the subject to a deeper level requires a more detailed knowledge of the structure and properties of each nonlinear susceptibility tensor, the latter differing in form according to the process under investigation. Typically, the derivations involve intricate development based on time-dependent perturbation theory, assisted by recourse to a set of Feynman diagrams. This paper presents a more direct route to the required results, based on photonic rather than semiclassical principles, and offers a significantly clearer perspective on the photophysics underlying nonlinear optical response. The method, here illustrated by specific application to harmonic generation and down-conversion processes, is simple, intuitive and readily amenable for processes of arbitrary photonic order. © 2009 IOP Publishing Ltd.