Interferometric techniques have proven useful to infer proximity and local surface profiles of microscopic objects near surfaces. But a critical trade-off emerges between accuracy and mathematical complexity when these methods are applied outside the vicinity of closest approach. Here we introduce a significant advancement that enables reflection interference contrast microscopy to provide nearly instantaneous reconstruction of an arbitrary convex object's contour next to a bounding surface with nanometre resolution, making it possible to interrogate microparticle/surface interaction phenomena at radii of curvature 1,000 times smaller than those accessible by the conventional surface force apparatus. The unique view-from-below perspective of reflection interference contrast microscopy also reveals previously unseen deformations and allows the first direct observation of femtolitre-scale capillary condensation dynamics underneath micron-sized particles. Our implementation of reflection interference contrast microscopy provides a generally applicable nanometre-scale resolution tool that can be potentially exploited to dynamically probe ensembles of objects near surfaces so that statistical/probabilistic behaviour can be realistically captured.
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