Various aspects of global environmental change affect plant photosynthesis, the primary carbon input in ecosystems. Thus, accurate methods of measuring plant photosynthesis are important. Remotely sensed spectral indices can monitor in detail the green biomass of ecosystems, which provides a measure of potential photosynthetic capacity. In evergreen vegetation types, however, such as Mediterranean forests, the amount of green biomass changes little during the growing season and, therefore, changes in green biomass are not responsible for changes in photosynthetic rates in those forests. This study examined the net photosynthetic rates and the diametric increment of stems in a Mediterranean forest dominated by Quercus ilex using three spectral indices (normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI), enhanced vegetation index (EVI), and photochemical reflectance index (PRI)) derived from Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) sensors. Average annual EVI accounted for 83% of the variability of the diametric increment of Q. ilex stems over a 10 year period. NDVI was marginally correlated with the diametric increment of stems. This study was the first to identify a significant correlation between net photosynthetic rates and radiation use efficiency at the leaf level using PRI derived from satellite data analysed at the ecosystem level. These results suggest that each spectral index provided different and complementary information about ecosystem carbon uptake in a Mediterranean Q. ilex forest. © 2013 Copyright Taylor and Francis Group, LLC.