Over the past few decades many diagnostics have been developed to study the non-equilibrium nature of plasma. These developments have given experimentalists the possibility to measure in situ molecular and atomic densities, electron and ion densities, temperatures and velocities of species in the plasma, to just name a few. Many of the diagnostic techniques are based on the 'photon-in, photon-out' principle and were at first developed to perform spectroscopy on atoms and molecules. Much later they were introduced in the research of plasmas. In this foundation paper we will focus on optical-based diagnostics that are now for quite some time common use in the field of low-temperature plasma physics research. The basic principles of the diagnostics will be outlined and references will be given to papers where these techniques were successfully applied. For a more comprehensive understanding of the techniques the reader will be referred to textbooks.