A passive voltage contrast (PVC) system and method are disclosed for analyzing ICs to locate defects and failure mechanisms. During analysis a device side of a semiconductor die containing the IC is maintained in an electrically-floating condition without any ground electrical connection while a charged particle beam is scanned over the device side. Secondary particle emission from the device side of the IC is detected to form an image of device features, including electrical vias connected to transistor gates or to other structures in the IC. A difference in image contrast allows the defects or failure mechanisms be pinpointed. Varying the scan rate can, in some instances, produce an image reversal to facilitate precisely locating the defects or failure mechanisms in the IC. The system and method are useful for failure analysis of ICs formed on substrates (e.g. bulk semiconductor substrates and SOI substrates) and other types of structures.