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Stepping into someone else’s gear is always a challenge. Freelancers who fill in for vacationing photogs, staffers in a shop that works with a common equipment pool, and anyone who has to shoulder a strange camera on short notice are all subject to a set of tiny faults and small defects that can quickly sabotage a shoot.

Fortunately, most of these problems are predictable; five minutes spent looking for them at the beginning of the day is likely to be repaid many times over before the shift is done.

Start with the batteries; even before removing them from the charger. Take a good look at the status lights. Are the indicators all green? Red, yellow, and blinking LEDs can indicate a problem, and might be telling you that the charger was not allowed to replenish a battery. It's always better to learn this while you're gearing up, instead of 15 minutes into your first shoot. Chargers with digital displays provide some very useful details. Learn how to interrogate the charger and you’ll be able to discover the age, number of duty cycles, and even the current Amp/hour capacity of each attached battery pack.

The baseplate used to mate the camera to the tripod is another potential “Gotcha!” It’s not unusual to find that one or both of the screws that attach the baseplate to the fluid head attaching plate have worked loose. The resulting slop or “play” allows the camera to wiggle from side to side and can make critical moves look like they were shot with the camera perched atop a beanbag instead of a tripod. While an oversize screwdriver is generally the best tool to correct this problem, a coin gripped between the jaws of your handy Leatherman or other pocket tool will usually do the trick just as well.

Marginally maintained tripods are the source of a couple of other dangerous “Gotchas!” Check for fully functional leg-locks by flipping the tripod upon its head and pressing downward on each extended leg. Making sure that one section isn't going to slowly collapse while you're shooting means one less unwanted surprise. Exercise the pan and tilt drag controls on the head to make sure that they work and are in the detent positions. If set between numbers, these valves will introduce a short range of free-play into an otherwise smooth resistance. Check too that the tilt lock works properly. A camera that “dumps” while your back is turned can--under some conditions--cause the tripod to fall.

We’ll continue this checklist next year.