Using a scanning near-field optical microscope, we visualize, in three dimensions, the electromagnetic field distribution near an isolated slit aperture in a thin gold film. At the metal-air interface and for a TM incident polarization, we confirm some recently observed results and show that the slit generates two kinds of surface waves: a slowly decaying surface plasmon polariton and a quasi-cylindrical wave that decreases more rapidly when moving away from the slit. These waves are not generated for a TE incident polarization. In a noncontact mode, we also observe how the transmitted light diverges in free space. At a small distance from the slit , we find that the emerging light spreads in all directions for TM, forming an electromagnetic cloud, whereas it is concentrated above the slit for TE, forming a more directive light jet. The experimental images are in good agreement with the numerical simulations.
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