Humic acids (HA) have a high binding capacity towards traces of toxic metal cations, thus affecting their transport in aquatic systems. Eu(III)-HA aggregates are studied by synchrotron-based scanning transmission X-ray microscopy (STXM) at the carbon K-edge and laser scanning luminescence microscopy (LSLM) at the 5D0 --> 7F1,2 fluorescence emission lines. Both methods provide the necessary spatial resolution in the sub-micrometre range to resolve characteristic aggregate morphologies: optically dense zones embedded in a matrix of less dense material in STXM images correspond to areas with increased Eu(III) luminescence yield in the LSLM micrographs. In the C 1s-NEXAFS of metal-loaded polyacrylic acid (PAA), used as a HA model compound, a distinct complexation effect is identified. This effect is similar to trends observed in the dense fraction of HA/metal cation aggregates. The strongest complexation effect is observed for the Zr(IV)-HA/PAA system. This effect is confirmed by quantum chemical calculations performed at the ab initio level for model complexes with different metal centres and complex geometries. Without the high spatial resolution of STXM and LSLM and without the combination of molecular modelling with experimental results, the different zones indicating a `pseudo'-phase separation into strong complexing domains and weaker complexing domains of HA would never have been identified. This type of strategy can be used to study metal interaction with other organic material.