The low-loss surface imaging STEM technique together with conventional TEM and SEM have been applied to study surface morphology and the evolution of microstructure in vapor deposited thin films of gold principally but also of copper and silver. Such films are shown to have cellular surfaces which are not related to the film grain size. Surface relief is observed where twins emerge. Islands of gold are deduced from TEM observations to be cubo-octahedra which can be physically aligned by cleavage steps. These observations give a new insight into the evolution of preferred orientations and defect structures in thin films. © 1982.