The applicability of environmental scanning electron microscopy (ESEM; imaging of hydrated samples) and conventional high vacuum scanning electron microscopy (SEM; imaging of dried samples at high vacuum) for the observation of natural aquatic colloids and particles was explored and compared. Specific attention was given to the advantages and limitations of these two techniques when used to assess the sizes and morphologies of complex and heterogeneous environmental systems. The observation of specimens using SEM involved drying and coating, whereas ESEM permitted their examination in hydrated form without prior sample preparation or conductive coating. The two techniques provided significantly different micrographs of the same sample. SEM provided sharper images, lower resolution limits (10 nm or lower), but more densely packed particles, suggesting aggregation, and different morphological features than ESEM, suggesting artefacts due to drying. ESEM produced less easily visualised materials, more complex interpretation, slightly higher resolution limits (30-50 nm), but these limitations were more than compensated for by the fact that ESEM samples retained, at least to some extent, their morphological integrity. The results in this paper show that SEM and ESEM should be regarded as complementary techniques for the study of aquatic colloids and particles and that ESEM should be more widely applied to aquatic environmental systems than hitherto.