Cameras have changed dramatically the last 100 years, especially since the dawn of the digital age, but one important piece of photography equipment has basically remained the same — the tripod.
A tripod consists of three legs with a platform on top to hold the camera. Once made of wood — film and video people still call them "sticks" — the tripod has evolved into steel and aluminum and more recently, lightweight carbon fiber. There are even small but very effective ones for cell phone cameras. Modern technology has made them lighter and more resilient for field work but other than that, they've pretty much remained the same.
The tripod heads that allow for camera movement have moved from arms that allow only an x-y movement to an assortment of ball heads that allow the photographer to precisely position the camera and lock it securely. Compared to complex digital cameras and auto focus lenses full of electronics, tripods are simple tools that can and should outlast many cameras. Buy a good one, take care of it, and it can last a lifetime.
Most professional photographers have multiple tripods that range from heavy-duty models for studio work, large cameras or long telephoto lenses to lightweight versions for backcountry work. They all perform the same task of securing the camera or lens, allowing for sharp photos, long exposures without camera shake, creative lighting and — precise composition.
The photos below make good cases for the tripod.
The sycamore tree photo was made just after dark on a clear winter day. The 10-minute exposure provided the blue background as the tree was "painted" with a powerful flashlight and with three low-voltage landscape lights outside of the frame. While the camera, atop a medium-duty Gizo tripod, exposed the overall scene, I could move around the outskirts of the scene and paint my heart out. The result was an evenly exposed tree that jumped out from the blue background because the camera's white balance was set for daylight and the lights employed to expose the tree had warm tungsten bulbs. Had this photo been made during daylight hours, it would have been a rather drab winter scene of a leafless sycamore. Waiting until dark, preconceiving what the end result should look like and employing the proper tools made all the difference.
The arrowhead flower photograph was made in a marsh along the Nanticoke River. Using a macro (close-up) lens, I composed the scene so that the stem curved to the lower corner of the frame. One flower was made the center of focus and the rest were allowed to drift into various levels of softness. Using the rule of thirds, the most prominent blossoms were kept in the lower third of the frame. This photograph was made in soft early morning light, so both the white flower and the green background were kept within a pleasing tonal range. The scene could have been captured with a hand-held camera, but the level of control that the tripod added was well worth it.
The star trail photograph would not have been possible without a rigid camera support. This 45-minute exposure was made with the camera pointed north so the stars would swirl around the pivot point of the North Star. It was an absolutely still night, thus the trees in the foreground, which provide a frame and context for the stars, are relatively sharp. Any camera movement whatsoever, even wind buffeting the camera and tripod, would have killed this shot.
My equipment requirements for the vast majority of the photographs I take are relatively simple. A couple of zoom lenses, a single digital camera body, some hand-held strobes — and a tripod. It's an indispensable tool for sharp, well-composed photos.