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A calibrated method for the experimental determination of dynamic lateral force using a scanned probe in air has been applied to the measurement of force vs distance as the probe tip approaches a solid surface. The probe is a fused silica fiber vibrated with its axis perpendicular to the surface in a configuration commonly used for distance regulation in near‐field scanned optical microscopes. Quantitative agreement of a fluid‐dynamic model with the approach data demonstrates that the effects of fluids between the probe and the surface dominate the force on the probe in the optical far field. A two‐layer fluid model indicates that fluid‐dynamic effects must also be considered in lateral‐force determination in the optical near field. © 1996 American Institute of Physics.