This work presents the unique features of a novel configuration of a synchronized dual-polarity time-of-flight mass spectrometer for comprehensive surface imaging. Mass spectrometry imaging of surface samples covering positive and negative ion modes is difficult due to rapid signal depletion. This limitation is overcome here by dual-polarity time-of-flight mass spectrometry (DP-TOFMS) via two separate TOF mass analyzers that are installed above a sample surface. The new instrument eliminates the polarity bias characteristic of most mass spectrometers, which is important for the analysis of samples with diverse physical and chemical properties. The experimental results show for the first time that the spatial distribution of positive and negative ions of various photolabile samples can be distinguished, including pigments and conventional matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization samples. The different positive and negative ion distributions suggest that accurate quantitative information can only be obtained when the entire sample region is examined by DP-TOFMS, which was unfeasible in the past. Such a comprehensive diagnostic method is essential for the molecular imaging of trace compositions in delicate biological tissues, as demonstrated here with a Phyllanthus urinaria leaf that only produced ion signals in the first examination and not in the subsequent measurements. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.