Cavity ring-down (CRD) spectroscopy is a direct absorption technique, which can be performed with pulsed or continuous light sources and has a significantly higher sensitivity than obtainable in conventional absorption spectroscopy. The CRD technique is based upon the measurement of the rate of absorption rather than the magnitude of absorption of a light pulse confined in a closed optical cavity with a high Q factor. The advantage over normal absorption spectroscopy results from, firstly, the intrinsic insensitivity to light source intensity fluctuations and, secondly, the extremely long effective path lengths (many kilometres) that can be realized in stable optical cavities. In the last decade, it has been shown that the CRD technique is especially powerful in gas-phase spectroscopy for measurements of either strong absorptions of species present in trace amounts or weak absorptions of abundant species. In this review, we emphasize the various experimental schemes of CRD spectroscopy, and we show how these schemes can be used to obtain spectroscopic information on atoms, molecules, ions and clusters in many environments such as open air, static gas cells, supersonic expansions, flames and discharges.