Current musculoskeletal imaging techniques usually target the macro-morphology of articular cartilage or use histological analysis. These techniques are able to reveal advanced osteoarthritic changes in articular cartilage but fail to give detailed information to distinguish early osteoarthritis from healthy cartilage, and this necessitates high-resolution imaging techniques measuring cells and the extracellular matrix within the multilayer structure of articular cartilage. This review provides a comprehensive exploration of the cellular components and extracellular matrix of articular cartilage as well as high-resolution imaging techniques, including magnetic resonance image, electron microscopy, confocal laser scanning microscopy, second harmonic generation microscopy, and laser scanning confocal arthroscopy, in the measurement of multilayer ultra-structures of articular cartilage. This review also provides an overview for micro-structural analysis of the main components of normal or osteoarthritic cartilage and discusses the potential and challenges associated with developing non-invasive high-resolution imaging techniques for both research and clinical diagnosis of early to late osteoarthritis. © 2014 He et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.