The operating regimes and the structures of dc corona discharges in air, nitrogen, helium and hydrogen-methane mixtures are studied for a point to plate electrode configuration. The characteristics of the dc negative corona discharge are investigated. In addition to the bright glow at the cathode (pin) region, a uniform diffuse glow is observed near the anode (plate) surface for the negative corona. This diffuse glow is observed in air and hydrogen-methane discharges only and not in nitrogen discharges. The presence of a glow near the planar anode is perhaps due to the increased electric field caused by a negative ion sheath formed only in electronegative gases. Optical emission spectroscopy (OES) was used to obtain species, spatially resolved temperature measurements and electric field estimations for the corona discharges in air. For the negative corona, the presence of a weak glow indicates an active plasma region near the positive planar electrode which may be useful for processing techniques such as plasma enhanced chemical vapor deposition. The dc negative corona discharge was observed to deposit films on the anode surface for air and methane. © 2009 IOP Publishing Ltd.