An atomic force microscope utilizes a pulse release system and improved method of operation to minimize contact forces between a probe tip affixed to a flexible cantilever and a specimen being measured. The pulse release system includes a magnetic particle affixed proximate the probe tip and an electromagnetic coil. When energized, the electromagnetic coil generates a magnetic field which applies a driving force on the magnetic particle sufficient to overcome adhesive forces exhibited between the probe tip and specimen. The atomic force microscope includes two independently displaceable piezo elements operable along a Z-axis. A controller drives the first Z-axis piezo element to provide a controlled approach between the probe tip and specimen up to a point of contact between the probe tip and specimen. The controller then drives the first Z-axis piezo element to withdraw the cantilever from the specimen. The controller also activates the pulse release system which drives the probe tip away from the specimen during withdrawal. Following withdrawal, the controller adjusts the height of the second Z-axis piezo element to maintain a substantially constant approach distance between successive samples.