A Swing and a Miss

When it comes to nature photography, there’s a large component of luck — of waiting for the right moment. In the studio you can make the photo happen the way you want, but outside you just have to be ready when it happens.

I was walking in Minnehaha park last weekend. I was technically taking a summer stroll with the girlfriend and not there to take pictures, so I left the tripod in the car, but still brought my camera. We walked down to the Mississippi and on the way back the girlfriend pointed out an egret walking in the creek.

I whipped off the lens cap, framed the shot, and realized the darned bird was standing in a shadow. I stood and waited, calculating where he’d have to move for a decent shot, watching the random bits of dandelion fluff or whatever that stuff was floating over the creek. Finally the bird starting walking in the right direction, stepped into the sunlight, and I took the shot…

1/60th at f8, ISO400, 200mm

… and screwed it up. Sadly, I didn’t pay enough attention to the shutter speed, and was at a lousy 1./60th of a second — far too slow for a handheld shot, especially at 200mm. Sadly, I was at f8, so I could have bought myself a fast shutter if I had been paying attention (though admittedly, probably still not fast enough.

The sad thing is that if it wasn’t for the camera shake blurring it, this would have been a really cool shot.

Win some and lose some, and lesson learned — the foundation of photography is always the technology. You have to know the technology to make anything else work, and you screw that up, and you lost your chance.

D&D Dice Stop Motion

I had an idea for an image I wanted to use for the header of the online Awesome Dice store. Rather than just a standard macro picture of dice sitting up at the top of the page, I wanted something more interesting, but still dice-related. I had the idea of an action shot — a picture of a 20-sided die splashing into water, captured at just the moment of dice impact.

Dice Splash

For this kind of shot, shutter speed is never fast enough. Instead I needed a fast flash to stop the motion of the water as the die splashed into the surface. For this kind of shot I had a dark room so I could set the shutter to bulb, open it up, and let the flash fire at the right time. But even a flash isn’t enough — I need something faster than human reflexes (and more reliable than luck) to get the flash to trigger just at the right moment.

This was the perfect time to test out the flash trigger. This is a device my father made, with a tiny microphone with adjustable sensitivity and an adjustable delay. The moment any kind of sound is picked up, it triggers the flash. In this case, the sound of dice hitting the water.

While the flash trigger worked admirably to pick up the sound of awesome D&D dice splashing, there were some complications. The sound of the camera shutter triggering was also enough to set of the flash. The workaround for that — for me anyway — was just to snap my fingers, set off the flash, then open the shutter while the flash recharged.

D&D Dice Splash

The other, less anticipated problem was the difficulty of standing in a pitch black room holding dice several feet above the water pan (a cake pan with a black t-shirt in it) and trying to get it to land within just the right four inch area. For that one anyway, I relied on luck.

But happily, I got some pretty cool shots out of it.

Best Laid Plans

Sometimes you can plan for a shoot and have everything fall a part, totally lose what you were going for… and still end up with good shots.

Over the 4th of July I was planning on getting some Fireworks shots and I went down to the St. Anthony Falls area for the fireworks show there. I go there hours early to stake out a good spot on the banks of the river, set up my tripod, did focus tests, and was as ready as could be.

Well, come fireworks time, I realized that I was on the wrong side of the bridge from the fireworks. And by then every square foot was packed solid with the press of bodies. I was unable to get a single decent shot of the fireworks.

But, over on my side of the bridge and across the river was a little chunk of downtown Minneapolis and I spent some time taking a shot of the city across the water with the big stone bridge that was blocking my fireworks featured prominently in the shot.

So despite losing the fireworks shoot, I still walked away with a shot that I was very happy with. Actually, there’s probably a moral in there somewhere. Like “learn where the fireworks will be, stupid.”

Too Late for Autumn

I shoot at the Minnehaha falls area a decent amount — having a nice mile of woodland creek trail from the falls all the way down to the Mississippi river right in the heart of Minneapolis is just too good to avoid. My father, however, had never been and wanted to check it out. So this week we met up and went down to the park in hopes of catching some shots before all of the leaves were gone.

Alas, we were too late. Even the oaks had shed every last leaf, and the leaves on the ground had browned, dried up, and blown away. It was a bleak landscape of browns and grays. To make matters worse the day we went on was cloudless and sunny, crummy photography weather.

One of the tricky things about photographing at Minnehaha is that the creek runs along a deep ravine. So if you go at traditionally good photographic hours — sunrise and sunset, everything along the creek is lost in shadow. The best bet is those magical slightly overcast but still bright days, and this was not one.

We wandered perhaps halfway to the river before giving up and turning back. I spent a lot more time than usual desperately looking for shots — I can’t stand going on a trip and not even trying.

3 sec at f25 on ISO 200 with 32mm focal length using a NDx6 filter

Finally I went with the old standby and spent a chunk of time trying to get a shot of the creek water flowing underneath one of the stone footbridges. Fortunately the creek level was very high — especially for so late in the year — and the water was really flowing. I was perched on some rocks with the tripod in the water, trying to get a shot of just the water in the slight shadows there were, since the difference from bright sun to shadow was too high of a range to capture.

The speed of the creek really lent a surreal quality to the water with the long exposure. I left happy to avoid being entirely skunked for the trip.

Anime Ninja Shoot

When my friend and model Patrice Laren asked me if I’d do a shoot with her to get photos of  a new costume she was working on, I of course jumped at the chance. She also had a couple other friends who wanted to come to see how I set up shoots — a very odd experience I have to say, but the fun part was to come next.

Patrice also wanted to have some gun props, so she asked a mutual friend of ours if he could lend her some guns for the shoot — we’re talking real guns here, the kind that shoot things dead. Come shoot time we meet up and it’s like some kind of post-apocalyptic dinner party. Her two observing friends are there asking me questions about cameras and lighting, sitting around the dining room table which is absolutely covered with over a dozen different kinds of firearms. Handguns, rifles, shotguns, and then various combat knives sprinkled here and there like some kind of garnish.

Our gun friend is there enthusiastically explaining each weapon to the group, its history, when it was created and by whom, what its advantages and disadvantages are. Patrice, meanwhile, is spending over an hour in and out of the bathroom doing all manner of complicated make-up things, flitting out from time to time to debate over which guns she wants to use.

Incidentally I should point out that as a photographer, I understand — in some vague ill-defined way — that all that make-up and hair stuff makes for some kind of difference in the end. But as a guy, I don’t understand the process at all. She looked about the same to me a half hour into the process as an hour in.

1/80th at f4.2 on ISO 400 with 35mm focal length

I finally attempted to conclude at least the firearm discussion:

WoodJr: Don’t worry about what they’re used for. Just pick the one you think looks cool. That’s all that matters.

Patrice: Well, I like this one. And these are awesome. And this is huge. Maybe we should just bring them all.

WoodJr: No, no, no, we are not bringing all of these. There is no way we’re doing these shots with every single one of these guns.

Patrice: Well… I don’t know. Which of these looks better?

WoodJr: Okay, you know what, let’s just go with two handguns. These two look fine, that’s all we need.

Patrice: I like this one better, it’s shiny.

WoodJr: Fair enough. Those two then.

Patrice: And one of these big ones.

WoodJr: Okay, fine, and one rifle. But that’s it! Are we ready now? Let’s get started.

Patrice: No, I have to finish my make-up obviously.

When everything was finally decided, the party trooped downstairs to the studio where I had the lights set up. This was before I had strobes, so these were continuous lights. A 750 watt Tota and a pair of Impact 500 watt floodlights. The temperature in the room was reminiscent of the surface of the sun. I saw the dessicated husks of spiders falling dead from the ceiling, killed and shriveled by the heat, the telltale shimmer of heat waves blasting out the windows and setting a neighborhood cat ablaze.

It was a shoot we’d have to do quickly or all that vinyl Patrice was wearing was going to melt and suffocate her.

1/160th at f4.2 on ISO 800 with 35mm focal length

There are a handful of important safety tips to keep in mind when shooting with actual firearms: First off, the owner — the one with an actual license for them — should be present. Obviously and most importantly they must not be loaded. Every single time you pick one up, you should check to make sure it’s not loaded, including checking the chamber, and then make sure the safety is on. If you set a gun down for 10 seconds to stamp out a small fire the heat of your lights just created in the carpet, when you pick that gun up again you check it all over again. Every single time you pick it up. And finally, even with these precautions, you never, ever, actually point the gun at anyone.

This last bit was the part that Patrice had some troubles getting used to.

As we were switching between setups she’d inevitably be pointing the gun at someone — one of her observers, quietly melting behind the lights, the owner of the guns, or at me. When she talked she’d gesticulate with a gun, pointing it wildly every which way. There was a lot of ducking out of the line of fire with “Hey, don’t point that at me!”

In the end we got several good shots. I added a sword to the getup, which seemed appropriate (and let’s admit here, is far cooler than a gun anyway) and despite the hours of setup and wading through cases of guns, and the sweltering heat of the lights, it was a good shoot, and great fun.

I think it was during this shoot, in fact, that I finally decided that I had to have some strobes. I could not go on with those hot lights and crummy shutter speeds.

1/100 at f3.5 on ISO 800 -- background just manufactured in Photoshop since the ugly floor was in the shot.

How to Make a Soft Focus Effect

This guide will explain how to quickly and easily apply a soft focus effect to your photographs using Photoshop. Note that this soft focus technique works with any version of Photoshop, including CS3, CS4, Cs5, and even very old versions from long before the CSx days.

To get an idea of the effect, here is the photo that we’ll be using before the soft focus Photoshop effect is applied (we increased the contrast of the original, since the soft focus effect reduces contrast):

Image before the soft focus effect

And here is the same photo after applying the soft focus effect:

Image after the Photoshop soft focus effect is applied

To apply this soft focus effect in Photoshop, you just need to follow these 4 steps:

  1. Make a duplicate layer of your photo
  2. Use the Gaussian Blur filter on the new layer
  3. Reduce the opacity of the new layer
  4. Use the eraser tool (or mask) on areas you want to be sharp

1.) Make a duplicate layer of your photograph

Open your photo in Photoshop and make a duplicate layer. You can do this via the Layer > Duplicate Layer on the menu, or by just hitting Ctrl+J (windows) or Cmd+J (mac).

Photoshop - duplicate layer

2.) Use the Gaussian Blur filter on the new layer

The soft focus effect actually comes from a blurring of the image. So what we do is select the new layer, then apply a Gaussian Blur filter. We do this by going to the menu and selecting Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur.

Photoshop - gaussian blur filter

In the Gaussian Blur settings we’ll have a slider bar that controls how blurry the filter will make our image. Because this is based on pixels, there is no single right number. The amount that you’ll need to blur your image depends not just on how soft you want your focus, but also on how many megapixels your image is. The general rule of thumb is you want the image to be “very blurry” so that the details are entirely lost. You’ll probably want to play around with different blur levels until you get a feel for what works at your mexapixels, and your preferences.

3.) Reduce the opacity of the new layer

Photoshop - setting opacityHere’s the step where the soft focus magic happens. In your layers palette select the blurred layer. In the top of the palette you’ll see the Opacity setting. When you click on it you will get a slider that lets you adjust the opacity from 0% to 100%.

You’ll usually want to set the opacity somewhere from 40% – 60% — the ideal amount varies from photo to photo. Once you have the opacity in that range though, you’re picture will suddenly transform on your screen from a blurry mass of blobs into magical soft focus.

4.) Use the eraser tool on areas you want sharp

The final touch is to grab the eraser tool, set it to around 60% opacity, and carefully erase any areas of your blurry layer that you actually want to keep sharp. On pictures of faces, like our example, this will almost always be the eye. On wider pictures you’ll often want the entire faces to be sharp (or at least less blurry) or other main focal points.

Photoshop - erasing areas to be kept sharper

Keep in mind that the eye will automatically look at the sharpest areas of your photo first (and the lightest, by the way).

This step can also be done by using a layer mask and masking the area that you want sharper, but simply using the eraser is faster and simpler.

5.) Voila!

And here we have our new soft focus picture, complete with a sharper point of focus in the eye. This soft focus technique does have a tendency to reduce contrast in your picture, so it’s often a good idea to make the contrast on your original image a bit higher than you normally would.

Image after the Photoshop soft focus effect is applied

Macro Photography: Almost Cheating

I have a lovely, fantastic macro lens for my camera. While it’s not something that I use in most situations, and I certainly don’t carry it around with me backpacking, when I do want to get really close to something I can.

It’s so awesome that it sometimes feels like cheating.

It seems like if you get close enough to almost anything, the photo is automatically interesting. I was testing this theory a while back with a needle and thread. With the lens just a few centimeters from the subject the thread looked almost like some kind of nylon rope, with tiny wisps of smaller threads extending out from it. The tiny needle hole that I spent so long trying to thread was a massive gaping chasm.

The real question here is why the heck don’t I take a lot more macro shots? They’re big fun.

Flashpoint Monolight 1220a & 1820a Strobe Review

This is a review of the Flashpoint Monolight 1220a strobe, and the Flashpoint Monolight 1820a strobe, available from Adorama. Strobes were tested under a variety of conditions.

Synopsis:

Rating:
The Flashpoint Monolight 1220a and 1820a Strobes are well-made, powerful, and generally excellent strobes for an exceedingly low cost (under $300). One strobe outputs enough light to light a full subject, head to toe. Downsides include lack of umbrella fastener and relatively slow flash duration.

Highly recommended for all studio photographers. The price cannot be beat.

Flashpoint Monolight 1220a & 1820a Overview

I have to say, I am a huge fan of these strobes, and I own two of them. They are not without their downsides, but their incredible price, under $300, coupled with stellar, reliable performance makes them a no-brainer in my book.

Flashpoint is the in-house brand of Adorama, an online photography supplier. Both these strobes are essentially an identical design, with different watt/second output. The fan-cooled strobes are sturdily built with every feature you could want, including built-in modeling light, optical slave, audible recycle alert (that can be turned off), and continuous power adjustment from full to 1/16th (or 1/32) power.

The flash can be triggered either via a sync cord or through the built-in optical slave (sensor mode can be turned off), and in testing the optical slave trigger seems very responsive, working in almost all conditions. From certain angles in very bright conditions however, the optical sensor failed to pick up the camera-mounted flash used in testing.

Specs

Flashpoint 1220a Flashpoint 1820a
Power (in Watt Seconds)
600 900
Flash Duration
1/600 to 1/1,000 1/600 to 1/1,000
Power Control
Full to 1/32 Full to 1/16
Recycling Time
1 to 3 seconds 3 seconds
Fan Cooled
Yes Yes
Modeling Lamp
250 Watt 250 Watt
Voltage 110 volt A/C 110 volts A/C
Built-In Slave
Yes Yes
Weight 5.25 lbs 6 lbs
Color Temperature
5800 K 5800K
Synch Voltage
6 volts 5.6 volts

Color Temperature Consistency

I tested the color temperature consistency by mounting the camera on a tripod and taking a series of identical shots under identical conditions — changing nothing in between. I then reviewed the histogram from shot to shot to determine whether there were any fluctuations in color temperature.

The color temperature was very consistent from shot to shot, with virtually no shift between shots.

Users should note, however, that like all strobes, new bulbs have a breaking in period. A fresh strobe bulb will commonly have color temperature variation for the first several dozen (or more) fires until it settles down to deliver consistent temperatures from flash to flash. Always break in a new bulb, regardless of what strobe you’re using.

Flash Duration

The listed flash duration for these strobes is 1/600 to 1/1000, with 1/1000 as the duration of the flash at full power (strobe flash durations get longer as you decrease the power). This is, however, the T.5 value of the flash, not the T.1. For a full discussion of the quirks of strobe flash duration, see our Strobe Flash Duration Guide.

The T.1 duration at full power tests closer to 1/300th of a second, significantly limiting the strobes motion stopping power. It should be noted that for truly fast flash durations you will need to use flash heads and not strobes.

A 1/600 to 1/1000 T.5 flash duration is on the slow end for monolight strobes, and this appears to be one of the sacrifices made for the extremely low cost of the Flashpoint strobes. You can get full power T.5 flash durations of 1/2000 or 1/3000 fairly commonly, though you should expect to pay twice to three times as much for it.

Ease of Use

The Flashpoint strobes are about at easy to use as you could ask for. All you need to do is set them up, turn on your optical slave switch on the back, and start taking pictures. Personally, I was particularly fond of the audible alert to let you know when the flash was recycled and ready to fire again, and equally pleased that you could flip a switch to turn the option off (last thing I want is every light chirping a second after each shot).

The listed recycling time for the 1820a is 3 seconds; however, I found that most of the time it was closer to 1-2 seconds and only reached 3 seconds at full power. At full power the strobes are easily bright enough to illuminate a full subject from head to toe at f8 – f16.

Both the strobe bulb and the modeling bulb are easily replaceable, and happily the flash bulb does not cost the outrageous amount that is often seen on the most expensive strobes.

The Flashpoint strobes are well built and sturdy. So long as care is taken with the bulbs, these strobes should travel well and safely.

The Umbrella Problem

The only real downside of the Flashpoint strobes that I found was the vexing issue of the umbrella. The strobe shield has a hole for inserting the umbrella, but there is nothing else on the strobe housing to secure the umbrella pole in place. This is an odd oversight in an otherwise stellar design.

Flashpoint 1820a umbrella problem

The solution for the umbrella issue is simple enough: by attaching a one dollar hand clamp to the strobe mount the umbrella pole could easily be kept in place and adjusted as needed. Personally I’m happy to shell out a couple bucks for some clamps rather than several hundred more for a strobe with a built-in umbrella pole mount; however, it’s a truly bizarre thing to leave out of the light. It’s sort of like building a car with no cup holders, and I certainly hope this is something that is corrected in the next generation of Flashpoint strobes.

Flashpoint 1820a umbrella solution

1220a vs 1820a

One of the interesting things about these two Flashpoint strobes is that they are priced identically. Since the 1820a has a significantly higher power output and the same flash duration, I would recommend the 1820a without hesitation.

That said, the 1220a has a slightly faster recycle time at lower power outputs, and has the ability to stop the power down further. So if you want the ability to use your strobe as a very low fill light, the 1220a probably serves that need better.

Flashpoint Monolight Review Summary

Rating:

The Flashpoint 122a and 1820a monolight strobes are an incredible bargain, and I highly recommend them to any photographer for most studio applications. The lights are built well, produce consistent light output, are easy to use, powerful and are just about anything you would want in a strobe at any price.

The downsides of the Flashpoint strobes is a slower flash duration that limits motion-stopping ability and makes it a bit risky to shoot handheld at very long focal lengths (though it’s unlikely you’d be using such a long lens in a studio). The recycle time of 1-3 seconds is not terribly fast. And finally, there is no convenient fastener for the umbrella pole, requiring a hand clamp or other handmade solution. Of these, the first two downsides you will likely never notice in the vast majority of studio lighting situations, and the final one is annoying as heck but also very easily remedied.

At under $300 for a 900 Watt Second light, it’s hard to go wrong with the Flashpoint series.

If you found this review helpful, please help the site by leaving a comment!

Lovely Camping Weather is Bad Photography Weather

I recently wandered up north for the final camping trip of the year along the St. Croix river. As always, I brought along my camera and tripod and hoped to get some nice shots of the fall folliage.

Alas my plans were ruined by lovely weather. The weather had absolutely no right to be that nice — none at all. It was mid-October and for the whole trip temps were in the 80s, with nights in the mid 50s. Perfect. Every day was sunny without a single cloud in the sky, except for one evening where we had the slightest dusting of clouds. This is not what October weather is supposed to be like in Minnesota.

1/640th at f4.0 on ISO 200 with polarizing filter

Of course the result of this uncommonly lovely weather was uncommonly bad photographic conditions. I spent some time tromping through the woods, all sprinkled with a delightful covering of red and orange and yellow leaves, but even there the cruel sun shone brightly through, casting harsh shadows.

I tried taking some shots, of course. Closing in for macro shots in small areas of decent lighting, hunting down shady spots, poking around at sunset. But by the end of the weekend I didn’t get a single good shot. I even got so desperate on the last evening that I took a sunset picture, something I normally scorn and avoid along with flower pictures — and butterflies.

1.6sec at f22.0 on ISO 200

Well, the peak colors are long gone now, but there are still enough leaves floating around that perhaps a final trip down Minnehaha way will yield some decent fall shots.

Elements of Exposure for Digital SLR Cameras

For the most part our digital SLR cameras handle the heavy lifting of determining our photo exposures these days. In a shocking number of day-to-day uses the camera’s auto exposure will handle things just fine. However, when you’re going into a shoot trying to get a very specific photo, it’s vital to understand the basics of exposure.

You know what, even if you’re not trying to do something specific, you should still understand exposure.

Once you know how it works and understand the concept of stops, you can easily adjust your settings to freeze motion, or increase or decrease your depth of field. This exposure guide is written specifically for beginning photographers — more experienced photographers are unlikely to learn anything new.

The Three On-Camera Elements of Exposure

There are three elements on your digital SLR that affect exposure. These are the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. You also have an off-camera element, which is just the amount of light shining on your subject area. Here’s some brief info you should know about each of these elements:

  • Shutter Speed: controls how long the shutter on your digital SLR camera is open, or how long a period it lets light in to the sensor. Your Shutter Speed also controls your ability to freeze motion. A slow shutter speed can make a moving target appear blurred, and slower still shutter speeds can make your whole picture blurred from the minute shaking of your hands. Shuter Speed is measured in seconds, or more often fractions of a second.
  • Aperture: controls how wide the iris of your digital SLR camera opens, or how much light it lets in at once. Your Aperture also controls your depth of field, with lower apertures giving you a shallower depth of field. Extremely high or low apertures can result is a slightly less sharp photo (though these differences are often very difficult to see without very close inspection). Aperture is measured in f-stops.
  • ISO: controls the sensitivity of the imaging sensor on your digital SLR camera, or how sensitive it is to the light hitting it. The higher the ISO, the more noise you will get in your photo, but the less light you need coming in your lens to get a proper exposure. See our Digital SLR ISO Guide for more details.

The Concept of a Stop in Exposure

We refer to stops often in photography, and you’ll hear things like, “I stopped up two stops to compensate for the sky.” This then encourages the sometimes frustrated question, “What is a stop in photography terms?”

In photography, a stop is a doubling or halving of the amount of light on your exposure.

As a simple example, let’s say I’m taking a picture at ISO 200, f16, with a shutter speed of 1 second. If I double the shutter speed to 2 seconds, that’s a 1 stop difference. If I double it again to 4 seconds, that is also a stop. Doubling it again to 8 seconds is again 1 stop. So going from 1 second to 8 seconds is a difference of 3 stops — I doubled the light going in three times.

Now more likely my shutter speed would be maybe 1/125th of a second. Let’s say I’m taking a picture of a dog running around — but at 1/125th the dog is blurry. So I want to get a faster shutter speed. My aperture is still f16 and my ISO is 200.

To get a faster shutter speed I can move 1 stop  to 1/250th of a second (halving the amount of light) and then again to 1/500th of a second (1 stop again). I now have a nice fast shutter speed, but I’m not letting enough light in to expose my shot! I’m 2 stops underexposed.

Since I know that stops are just a doubling or halving, I could move my ISO from 200 2 stops to ISO 800 (200 to 400 is one stop — 400 to 800 is a second stop). But perhaps I’m worried about the noise from shooting at ISO 800, so instead I just stop my ISO 1 stop to ISO 400, then I can stop down my f-stop from f16 down to f11.

I’ve now increased my shutter speed to let 2 stops less light in. I compensated by letting 1 stop more light in via my aperture, and 1 stop increase in my sensor sensitivity via ISO.

It’s worth noting that f-stops are the least intuitive — where ISO and aperture are just a matter of doubling or halving the value, aperture increment by the square root of two, so your stops are f1, f1.4, f2.8, f4, f5.6, f8, f11, f16, f22, etc.

Dynamic Range

The details of dynamic range is a whole separate post, but essentially the dynamic range refers to how many stops your camera is capable of displaying. A common dynamic range for a digital camera is 5 stops. So you start at the darkest shadows with detail in them, and you can double the amount of light coming in 5 times — then you have the brightest clouds with detail in them. If you go any further, everything is just pure white.

This is a particular problem on bright sunny days — it’s very easy to take a shot where the shadows under the trees are pure black, and the sky is pure white. This happens because the dynamic range is larger than your camera is capable of displaying.

At that point your only options are to find a way to brighten the shadows (like with a flash), find a way to darken the bright areas (standing in the shade), or more commonly, finding a better time and conditions in which to shoot.

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PhotoBug Blog

Photo Bug is the home of Brian's very occasionally updated photography journal. Posts are sporadic, and I keep swearing that some day I'll dig through the archives and start filling things up. Some day...


 
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