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The youngsters are excitedly opening their gifts around the Christmas tree, or the New Year's Eve gang is all dressed up and full of good cheer - but your camera is a dead duck. Chances are good that you're the victim of one of the most common problems photographers face: dead batteries.

Dead batteries turn most modern electronic cameras into very expensive paperweights. No meter, no shutter and no film advance mean that all those memorable pictures are lost.However, there's no need to let yourself in for such disappointment.

A battery check should be part of your tuneup before the holidays or any other important picture-taking session. Many new cameras have a battery check of one kind or another - an indicator light, or a time check on your shutter and aperture indicators. For example, an indicator light will remain on for seven or eight seconds if the batteries are in good shape, and for a shorter time if they are weak.

The smartest thing to do is replace the batteries - those in the camera and in the flash unit - when they become six months old. Batteries will weaken on the shelf or in the camera even if they aren't used. Some last longer than others, but if your pictures are important, why take a chance? There's no way to repeat the holidays, and the relatively low cost of new batteries will save your pictures.

If you are strictly a holiday photographer, take the batteries out of your camera and flash unit when they're not in use. This won't make the batteries last longer, but if they go bad, they won't do it inside your equipment, where they might leak and cause damage.

In any event, it's smart to keep an extra set of batteries on hand at all times. I always have spare batteries and extra film whenever I head out on a picture job. Having extra batteries is a good idea in cold weather, too. Low temperatures quickly reduce the power of batteries, even fresh ones. Keeping a spare set in the warmth of your pocket will solve this problem.

Another part of your camera tuneup is so simple that many photographers skip it, even experienced shooters.

It involves the instruction manual that came with the unit. You remember, the little booklet that was tucked into the box - the thing you glanced at when your camera was new, and was then filed away? Every camera is a little different, and it's easy to forget the necessary steps to set it properly.

If you use one of the older models that doesn't have an automatic DX film setting, it is necessary to set the camera to the proper ISO mark to prevent over- or underexposing the film. Do you know how to make that adjustment?

Let's say you want to get into the picture yourself; does your camera have a self-timer? If so, how do you use it?

This may sound elementary, but I can't count the number of times a photographer has asked me a simple question about his camera that leaves me red-faced because I don't have the answer. I've never read the instruction booklet for that particular model, and I hesitate to guess how to set the camera for fear of damaging it.

I think it's a good idea to skim through the instruction material from time to time during some spare moments. I have four Nikons, ranging from a 30-year-old Model F to a current N8008, and each one works differently from the other. This is especially true of the newest camera, an electronic autofocus.

So, check the batteries, stock some spares, and take a look at the instruction book before the holiday fun starts.

That way, the fun will continue long after your prints have come back from the photofinisher.