In photography, a sheet of ground glass is used for the manual focusing in some still and motion picture cameras, the ground-glass viewer is inserted in the back of the camera, and the lens opened to its widest aperture. This projects the scene on the ground glass upside down. The photographer focuses and composes using this projected image, sometimes with the aid of a magnifying glass (or loupe). In order to see the image better, a dark cloth is used to block out light, whence came the image of the old-time photographer with his head stuck under a large black cloth.
In motion picture cameras, the ground glass is a small, usually removable piece of transparent glass that sits between the rotary disc shutter and the viewfinder. The ground glass usually contains precise markings to show the camera operator the boundaries of the frame or the center reticle, or any other important information. Because the ground glass is positioned between the mirror shutter and the viewfinder, it does not interfere with the image reaching the film and is therefore not recorded over the final image, but rather serves as a reference for the camera operator.
Ground glasses commonly serve as a framing reference for a desired aspect ratio. Because most films shot with spherical lenses are shot full-frame and later masked during projection to a more widescreen aspect ratio, it is important not only for the operator to be able to see the boundaries of that aspect ratio, but also for the ground glass to be properly aligned in the camera so that the markings are an exact representation of the boundaries of the image recorded on film.
Ground glass is widely used as a weather- and heat-proof light diffuser in ambient lighting, namely on glass covers or enclosures for lamp fixtures, and sometimes on incandescent bulbs. Its functions include preventing eye damage by direct looking at lamp filament, hiding unsightly details of the lamp and fixture without blocking its light, and producing a softer illumination without sharp shadows.
Flasks and test tubes often have a small ground-glass label area on the side. (Pencil writing on ground glass is largely inert, rub-proof and waterproof, but can be easily erased.)
Microscopes often include a ground-glass diffusing filter to generate an even illuminated field behind the specimen. Microscope slides are often ground on the sides, thus softening the edges for safer handling.