In this article, a detailed introduction of the light extinction spectrometry (LES) diagnostics is given. LES allows the direct in situ measurement of the particle size distribution and absolute concentration of dust clouds levitating in plasmas. Using a relatively simple and compact experimental set-up, the dust cloud parameters can be recovered with a good accuracy making minimum assumptions on their physical properties. Special emphases are given to the inversion procedure of light extinction spectra and all the required particle shape, refractive index and light extinction models. The parameter range and the limitations of LES are discussed. Two measurements in low-pressure gas discharges are presented: (i) in a direct-current (DC) glow discharge in which nanoparticles are growing from the sputtering of a tungsten cathode and (ii) in an argon–silane radio-frequency discharge. They demonstrate the capabilities of the LES technique to characterise, in situ and in real-time, the growth dynamics of nanoparticles in the size range 5–100 nm and volume concentrations in the range from a few ppb to a few ppm.