Femtosecond laser induced ablation from solid surfaces has been investigated by means of time resolved microscopy. On transparent materials ablation is initiated by dielectric breakdown and formation of a dense and hot surface plasma. Measurements of the plasma threshold yield values of a few times 1013 W/cm2 with little variation among different materials. This indicates that microscopic surface properties are responsible for surface breakdown. On absorbing semiconductors and metals near-threshold ablation is brought about by hydrodynamic expansion of the laser generated hot and pressurized matter. Upon expansion into vacuum initially metallic materials transform into a transparent state with a high refractive index. The observed behavior is related to general properties of matter in the liquid-gas coexistence regime.© (1998) COPYRIGHT SPIE--The International Society for Optical Engineering. Downloading of the abstract is permitted for personal use only.