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The photon emission yield observed in scanning tunneling microscopy (STM) measurements of Au hemispheroid-decorated thin films is used to elucidate the interaction of tunneling electrons with local surface plasmon modes. The photon emission probability is found to depend on the surface feature size. The agreement of a model calculation with the experimental results demonstrates that inelastic electron tunneling is the dominant mechanism of STM-induced plasmon excitation for 10–60 nm size metallic features. © 1999 American Institute of Physics.