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Latest portfolio: Western Sichuan, China, October 2014

8 August 2015 » Camera conundrums—update

Photographically, I spent the last couple of months researching any and all camera options that would give me a combination of at least medium format film image quality and decent camera movements. I am happy to report that this process is now over—or, rather, that an entirely new process of building a new camera system has begun. I thought I would share with you my experience and thoughts thus far.

I began the process with pulling out some of the slides I shot with Mamiya 7II about ten years ago. I re–examined them carefully and felt content that 6X7 film would be perfectly satisfactory for my needs. This pointed me in the direction of 6X9 view cameras, and I narrowed the possibilities down to Linhof Techno and Ebony 23S. As I tend to hike for photography, weight has always been a primary consideration for me. In this respect, I was hoping that a 6X9 view camera would not only give me superb image quality and plentiful camera movements, but also allow cutting a couple of kilograms from when I carried a complete Hasselblad V–series kit. Considering that I would only need one camera body instead of two, as well as that large format lenses tend to be quite a bit smaller and lighter, this seemed to be a reasonable expectation. When I looked at the cameras and accessories in person, however, I was quite surprised that they are far from small and light: although they are smaller than 4X5 cameras, the difference is far from drastic. Considering the notable image quality improvement as you step up to 4X5 format, the extra weight and bulk of the larger format was justifiable. Thus, I ditched the idea of 6X9 format and turned my attention to 4X5 cameras again.

In the meantime, I had an opportunity to try out a friend's medium format digital rig based on an Alpa camera. Immaculately built, smooth as butter, and delivering incredible image quality to boot—very impressive to say the least. However, the system is far from light and costs an arm and a leg. As much as I enjoyed using it, I had to come back down to earth and continue looking at viable options in the realm of large format film.

Shortly after that another friend was kind enough to lend me his complete large format kit centred around a Chamonix 4X5 camera. Although his system is quite extensive, I only took a basic setup with one lens and three film holders. I then bought a box of Velvia 50 4X5 film, packed it all in my ThinkTank Airport Commuter backpack, and took it for a spin around Shanghai.

Somewhat to my surprise, using a large format camera turned out to be nowhere nearly as difficult as you will read on the Web. Granted, this may be due to my extensive experience of using the Hasselblad Flexbody, but, nonetheless. On the first day out I exposed six sheets of film—just for fun and because I could do it in a fairly fluent manner. The only two areas I find I need more experience in and get used to are loading sheet film into film holders and focusing when camera movements are involved. Other than that, I felt at home with what many perceive as unyielding beast right from the first shot.

At the same time, I truly enjoyed the slow, contemplative shooting approach imposed by the tortoise–like operation of large format cameras. It felt like practicing Zen (not that I have ever practiced Zen, but I imagine it would feel similar). And that state of mind clearly translates into the final image, partially due to the simple fact that you took your time taking care of image geometry and composition.

Lily Pond, 2015

Lily Pond, 2015

Image quality produced from large format film scans is absolutely stunning. This is largely common knowledge in photography, but there is a huge difference between abstractly knowing the fact and experiencing it in person. I scanned the above image, which is one of my first test shots, with my now old–and–lowly Epson 4990 scanner at 2400dpi, made some basic adjustments in Photoshop, down–sampled the file to print at the maximum print size that my Epson 4990 allows, and made a test print. Long story short, the print looks gorgeous—to the point that my mother–in–low, who photographically is a "civilian", mentioned that it felt as if looking at the real scene, not a photograph. And of course, the slide can be scanned with a much better scanner at a considerably higher resolution and then printed at a larger size. Some day I will do this exercise just for the heck of it.

As you may have gathered, it did not take me long to make up my mind to go down the large format path full speed. In fact, after exposing first several sheets of film and looking at the test print of the above image, I realised that I should have switched to large format much earlier—and even wished my Flexbody had broken down a year or two ago!

  Ebony 45SU camera  

Ebony 45SU camera (image courtesy of www.ebonycamera.com)

Once the decision was made, the next big topic was which camera, lenses and accessories to buy. Naturally, by that time I had already spent considerable amount of time reading about large format equipment. Essentially, I narrowed my options down to Linhof and Ebony field cameras—and went as far as trying out both in person. Linhof is immaculately built and exudes the feeling of a very well thought out and mature product. However, its camera movements are fairly limited; my major gripe is that it has no front standard fall (yes, there is a workaround—using the camera upside–down—but it is too awkward a solution for something that I envision using often). Thus, I decided to go with a non–folding Ebony. After a long and torturous contemplation on the subject of 45S vs. 45SU model, I settled on the latter, mostly due to the longer bellows and asymmetrical rear standard movements. The camera has been ordered, and I am eagerly awaiting its arrival.

Come to think of it, this is only the third time in my entire photographic life thus far when I expect arrival of a new camera with awe. The first time was when I bought the Nikon F100 back in 2000, and the second when I became a proud owner of the Hasselblad 503CW in 2005. I cherished the cameras, used them with admiration, and they inspired me. The rest of the cameras I have gone through over the years felt more like here–today–gone–tomorrow consumable products that were used without much passion or reverence. It is a real treasure to buy an awe–inspiring camera again.

24 May 2015 » Recent favourite images (with a grudge)

Bali Island

Bali Island, Indonesia, #1


Bali Island

Bali Island, Indonesia, #2


Bali Island

Bali Island, Indonesia, #3

The images above were taken with the iPhone 6 camera (do not ask me why—it is a long story). It is always with you, it is easy to use, and pictures on its screen look just lovely. But then you open them on your computer, look at featureless blown highlights, weird HDR colours, digital artefacts, noise—and you shake your head. Realising that you cannot do much about or with it, you totally hate it. One may argue that vast majority of images are now consumed on mobile devices, which may be largely true, and that consequently none of this matters. I would argue, however, that some of us still have aspirations that go beyond mobile consumption where pervasive narcissism, desire for instant gratification and short attention span have come to prevail.

30 April 2015 » Camera conundrums

As I was looking at some recent photographs taken with the Hasselblad Flexbody camera my attention was drawn to uneven sharpness of subjects at the same distance across the frame: essentially, one third of the left–hand side was notably soft. After doing some extensive testing, my suspicion was confirmed: somewhere along the way something has gone awry with the camera that I have used for about seven years and that, just recently, became my main tool.

  Hasselblad Flexbody camera  

Bye bye blackbird

Naturally, my first thought was to repair the camera. However, the Flexbody has been out of production for so many years that sorting out what seems to be a structural deformation is most likely an exercise in futility. I also considered buying another Flexbody camera, but the risk is too high to entertain the idea: these cameras have been around for so long that the probability of buying a lemon is high. As sad as it may be, the time has come to part with the Flexbody.

Needless to say, this is a major disaster to me: without the Flexbody my entire Hasselblad system and the shooting approaches I gradually developed over the years inevitably fall apart. I have grown used to camera movements to the extent that I cannot imagine doing without them. Although I plan to keep and use the 503CW camera body, once the Flexbody is out of the picture I start asking myself torturous questions along the lines of, "Do I need two film backs?", "Is keeping four lenses justified?", "How often will I use what remains?", you name it. Very quickly, the kit becomes something that cannot be called a complete main system and, essentially, a thing of the past.

In the meantime, my Ricoh GR has broken down, too. I have had dust on the sensor for quite some time now, but it was sort of tolerable as it was not excessive. Now, however, focusing has failed: the lens makes strange, grinding noise and the camera will not lock focus. Which could not be worse in terms of timing: I recently bought an optical finder and planned to use the camera for a couple of years more*. As they say, oh well. And while on the subject, I have now used four compact cameras and each of them failed within two years of use or so. Although the sample is not statistically significant, my long–lasting suspicion that compact cameras are not designed to last more than three years has hardened further.

All of this has me scratching my head big time. Where do I go from here? Suddenly, all options seem open and anything appears possible. 35mm full–frame digital with tilt/shift lenses? Medium format digital? Small–size, light–weight mirrorless system? While choices are truly abundant, deep down inside I am still gravitating towards... large format film. You are lucky if do not know this yet, but, once you reach a certain age, anything that tickles your fancy should be treasured and nurtured, so I am seriously thinking about taking this notion into consideration and going down the large format path.

This, however, will take some time. Large format photography is a huge, scary world with infinite choices and possibilities. I have had a hard, long look at Ebony cameras, but after handling one in person I find their movements are not precise enough for my liking. I am now looking at the Linhof Master Technika classic instead, but, given the magnitude of the field, I am not sure it will be the final choice. And on the digital side, Fujifilm XT–1 still remains my prime candidate, with the caveat that the camera has been around for long enough to make sense to wait for Mark II**.

Interesting, albeit admittedly somewhat disturbing, times for me indeed. I will keep you posted as to how this all unfolds and where it leads.

*I have always had the feeling that Ricoh GR suffers from the multiple personality disorder. On the one hand, it pretends to be and entices to be used as a point–a–shoot camera: your only way of interacting with what unfolds before your eyes is through the tiny LCD screen on the back of the camera. On the other hand, both the lens and the sensor do not stop surprising me with just how good they are in terms of all performance factors. The camera is a queen in terms of image quality, but it begs to be treated as a whore with respect to shooting approaches. The optical viewfinder has now reconciled the shooting experience with image quality, bringing the package to what it was meant to be in the first place.

**Camera makers have fallen into the trap they themselves created: they wanted to keep us on the frequent upgrade needle so that we change cameras as often as possible generating more revenue for them, but this has grown into photographers' perception that if a camera was announced more than a year ago it is already ancient.

28 March 2015 » Recent favourite image (2015 #2)

Clouds 2015 #1

Clouds 2015, #1

Ricoh GR camera

22 March 2015 » Recent favourite image (2015 #1)

Image: Afternoon in Bangkook

The Grand Palace of Bangkok

Ricoh GR camera

16 March 2015 » Guest article by Edwin Leong: 2015 computer upgrades

Old–time readers of this site may recall that in the past I posted photography newsletters produced by my friend Edwin Leong; Edwin previously ran the CameraHobby Web site and is a veteran blogger. Although he has sort of left—temporarily, I still hope—the online publishing scene, he has remained active photographically.

As reported in a post below, I recently maxed out my Mac Pro; coincidentally, Edwin has just upgraded his computer, too. Unlike me, though, instead of making an incremental hardware upgrade he has made the leap to the newest Mac Pro. Edwin shares his experience in the latest article that you can download after this link.

As mentioned in the article, Edwin is now primarily shooting with a Canon 7D2. He will be sharing his thoughts on using the camera—and other photographic tools—in the next article that can be expected in a month or so. Stay tuned!

4 March 2015 » Roaming Western China: final gallery (and rambling thoughts)

I have now lived with the images from Western Sichuan long enough to finally make up my mind as to which are wheat and which are chaff. This is always a difficult and painful process, because it is hard to look at one's own recent work and evaluate it at least half–objectively disregarding the efforts that were put into producing it. And even if you know at the back of your mind which images are keepers, it is tough to let go of those that are not.

I think part of the reason for this conundrum is how our mind is inclined to work: we tend to value things on the basis of what they have meant to us, as opposed to their objective value—if there is such a thing—or potential utility. To illustrate, I once had to dispose of a considerable part of the books that I had accumulated as I was moving to a new place. I went through the process quickly and effortlessly, instinctively dividing my fairly small library into two heaps. When I paused and looked at the selection I had made, I realised it was highly peculiar: I kept the books that I technically no longer needed, while parting with some that potentially could be of use. For example, there were books I knew I would never read again, or had not even read, but I kept them because they were given to me by someone I held dear, or because they accompanied me through certain periods of my life; at the same time, I gave away guidebooks to places I had not visited yet or dictionaries. It seems to me that the same logic is often at work when we evaluate images: emotional attachment and embodiment of our experiences are an inseparable part of the equation.

The final gallery from the Sichuan trip now contains... only eight images, which I invite you to look at after this link. You may have already seen some or all of them, but what I would like you to pay attention to is how disposing of weaker images makes the remaining ones stronger. I do this exercise after each major expedition, and it never fails to fascinate me. And speaking of retaining "only" eight images, if I am not mistaken it was Ansel Adams who said that you are doing quite well if you can produce ten portfolio–grade photographs in a year; from this perspective, eight images is not half bad.

As I look back at the expedition, now without the excitement of the immediate experience of roaming through the distant lands, two more things stand out to me that will likely change how I photograph in the future.


We all like having complete camera kits on important trips that ideally cover all possible exigencies and situations. A backup camera body is a must, focal lengths should go from ultra–wide to super–telephoto, accessories must be complete with backup options, special gear (panorama kit, tilt–shift lenses, etc.) should not be left at home, both your laptop and iPad must travel with you, you name it. And, oh, all of this should be carried in a sturdy backpack that can withstand falling a few hundred meters from a mountain top.

I did not have that much stuff on the expedition, but I nonetheless carried 10kg of gear in my backpack, plus 3kg in the shape of the tripod. This gets heavy very quickly, and I mean not only on long hikes: just lugging the equipment around all day, every day—remember, you cannot leave it in your hotel room, on the bus, or anywhere else, really—drains your energy. Slowly and almost unnoticeably, but consistently and persistently. This drain builds up over a few days, and you start lacking the energy to make that extra step that may be separating you from a great image.

I used a ThinkTank Airport Commuter backpack on the trip, which is a mid–sized design and does not seem very large at first. Once fully packed and essentially inseparable from you for a couple of weeks, though, its size suddenly seems quite a bit larger than when you checked its dimensions online. A classic example of theory of relativity, if you will.

In the future I think I will lean towards a different approach: instead of using one large camera bag and carrying every single piece of gear with me at all times, I will employ a smaller, lighter backpack putting only one camera body, three lenses (80mm, 150mm, as well as, depending on the photographic destination, 50mm or 250mm lens), one film back and only the very necessary accessories; the rest will be packed in an even smaller, lighter bag that will then go into my main luggage together with clothes, etc. The main luggage will then stay in hotel rooms, on buses, etc.: it is old and worn out enough for no one to be interested in it. And who knows, may be one day I will reach a stage where I will not need the smaller bag at all.


You may be aware of the One camera, One lens, One year exercise proposed by The Online Photographer: as the name suggests, one is enticed into using one camera with one prime (fixed–focal–length) lens for one year; the exercise is suggested to have numerous educational benefits. I have been using the Ricoh GR for a year and half now and, because it is my only digital camera, I now realise that I have performed the task without intending to do so*.

In my experience, there are indeed some educational rewards, but one needs to be aware that some of the lessons may be harsh or even border on rude awakening. Even looking back at it now, Ricoh GR still looks like a perfect camera for the exercise. After a year and a half with the camera, however, I painfully realise two things—they are lessons, too, although I would have preferred to learn them differently.

First, 28mm is not my favourite focal length. It is fine as an only wide angle option in a lens kit, but as the only focal length you use on a daily basis, it is just not my cup of tea. Most of the time it is too wide, and when I really need wide, it is not wide enough. I would have prefered to have, say, 35mm instead. And, to be honest, I sorely miss other focal lengths, particularly short telephoto for portraits.

Second, I am getting seriously tired of looking at the smallish LCD screen and crave composing with a viewfinder, which I am naturally reminded of each time when using the bright, large, beautiful finder of the 503CW. I am thinking about buying an external optical viewfinder for the GR, even though I know it will not be a perfect solution because of the issues related to accuracy of framing, parallax, focusing, you name it. But it may still put a new spin on using the camera, particularly given that it still delivers stellar image quality.

*Well, sort of: I do use the iPhone camera and the Hasselblad, so strictly speaking it does not count; but then again, I do not take iPhonography seriously and I do not use the Hasselblad every day, so it is close enough.

17 February 2015 » Printer head clogging: a possible solution

Those of us who do their own printing know very well that printer head clogging is a major pain–you–know–where. Cleaning printer head clogs wastes a lot of time and, much more crucially, ink. I have grown used to dealing with the issue to the extent that it has essentially become an inseparable part of printing. Unimaginably, that changed in the end of last year when a kind reader wrote to suggest an ingenious solution to the problem (at least for the Epson 4880 printer that the reader and I use).

  Image: Epson 4880 printer  

Epson 4880 printer (image courtesy of Epson)

The solution is very simple: all you have to do is pour about one cup of plain tap water into the maintenance tank every four months or so. Evidently, the print head parks over the maintenance tank and the key to stop clogging is to keep it from drying out. Waste ink was supposed to do that, but in dry environments or with infrequent printing it is insufficient, and clogging quickly becomes a major issue. Adding water into the maintenance tank provides sufficient liquid to continue evaporating over a longer period of time. According to the reader, this was advised by an Epson engineer.

The life of the maintenance tank is not shortened by adding water because the chip/computer does not know you did so; also, the water evaporates over time, which is what keeps the print head moist and clog free. Naturally, you need to use judgment when adding water, i.e. you should not overflow it. The worst that can happen, though, is that you create a bit of a mess.

I first poured tap water into the maintenance tank in early November, thinking that I would observe how this would work over a longer period of time. Frankly, I was somewhat skeptical at first and did not see any noticeable changes right away; with hindsight, it apparently took some time for the water to evaporate and start providing a more humid micro environment. After a couple of weeks and a number of head cleaning cycles, however, things decidedly turned for the better: I mostly have not experienced head clogging since then, largely regardless of how often I print and how much printing I do in one go.

This may not necessarily work for other models of printers, nor may it be a panacea for printer head clogging, but the approach is definitely worth exploring.

31 January 2015 » Maxing out my Mac Pro

In the end of December I woke up one morning and, walking into my study room after breakfast, found my early–2008 Mac Pro computer unresponsive, power light blinking at high frequency. A quick online search on the iPhone revealed that some of the memory modules had failed; indeed, swapping and trying different combinations of memory units I found the pair that was no longer usable.

I occasionally monitor memory usage and over the longer period my conclusion has been that 16GB is the sweet spot: it suffices for most tasks, including some heavy lifting in Photoshop, while not requiring a major monetary outlay. Every once in a while, however, I would hit the ceiling seeing memory swap occurring. Rationally speaking, it is not a major impediment and can be easily dealt with by not lazily opening too many large image files in Photoshop; nonetheless, I decided to upgrade to 20GB while replacing the failed memory modules. Given how I use my computer, this should suffice for as long as the Mac Pro will last.

I usually buy memory and other crucial computer hardware from Other World Computing and, while perusing their Web site, my attention was drawn to the notion of PCI–Express Solid State Drives (PCIe SSD). I have been using a regular SATA–based SSD for the past couple of years, which offered an immense increase in speed when I switched from the original Hard Disk Drive (HDD) that came together with my Mac Pro. As the name suggests, PCIe SSDs use PCIe expansion card interface—the one used for, say, graphics cards—thus bypassing the speed–limiting SATA v2 bus interface of my Mac Pro; at least on paper, PCIe SSDs promised to go well beyond the 300MB/s limit of SATA v2. This seemed to offer another major boost in speed, and so I thought I would give it a try.

  OWC Mac Pro PCIe SSD  

Mac Pro PCIe SSD (image courtesy of OWC)

A few days later new memory modules and a 240GB PCIe SSD arrived, and I set out to see how much improvement I could actually get. As expected, extra 4GB of memory is beneficial only when I simultaneously work on several massive files in Photoshop (PSD files with a dozen adjustment layers that are based on 16–bit, 3200dpi scans of my medium format slides tend to be around 450MB; stitched panoramas go well beyond that). The change to PCIe SSD, however, brought about a much more notable impact: start–up time was shorter, applications launched faster, and overall performance felt just perkier. To support this perception with some numbers, I proceeded to do some simple testing.

I first measured computer start–up time: it has improved from 27 to 17 seconds*. Next, I ran Blackmagic Disk Speed Test application to see the difference in read and write speeds of the three types of drives. And here is the result: read speeds of my 2TB HDD that is used for data storage, 128GB SATA SSD and 240GB PCIe SSD tested at around 140MB/s, 250MB/s and 620MB/s, respectively; at the same time, their write speeds averaged at 140MB/s, 240MB/s and 410MB/s in that order. Amazing!

Just for fun and to put things into perspective, I tested the old, 5400rpm, HDD of my wife's ancient MacBook (it actually is not that old, but it certainly felt prehistoric in terms of speed). And guess what? Both read and write speed tested at... 30MB/s! I changed the sluggish HDD to an SSD and the aged notebook is alive and kicking again.

No matter how you slice it, incremental hardware upgrades that can postpone replacing your entire computer for another couple of years are certainly worthwhile (quite crucially, they also tend to go mostly undetected by your better half). I now have plenty of memory, use the hyper–fast PCIe SSD as the boot volume, and store all data on a large capacity HDD. With this setup, I am good to go for another few years, which will extend the service of my Mac Pro beyond ten years (unless I want a new computer, of course).

And speaking of ten years, in my mind it is the threshold that makes something truly, admirably good, both conceptually and otherwise. Indeed, in my experience ten years is a barrier that very few things can pass: in the past decade I went through various digital cameras, camera bags, accessories, mobile phones, pieces of furniture, apartments and jobs; heck, even countries! Among the things that have been with me longer than ten years are my Hasselblad V–series system, Kirk BH–1 ballhead, a wrist watch, a few dozens of CDs, a couple of worn out dictionaries that have been following me since university—and soon enough, the Mac Pro.

In short, before you consider buying a new computer you should pop up the hood of your current machine and look into where the bottleneck(s) may be. Do you have enough memory? Are your hard drives fast enough? Do they have enough capacity? Close examination of these aspects and an inexpensive hardware upgrade may give your computer a new lease of life—and allow you to buy a nice lens with the spared money!

*From start–up chime to user long–in; upon that it is mostly instantaneous.

11 January 2015 » Roaming Western China: Daocheng Yading

The last photographic destination of the Sichuan trip that I undertook in October last year was Yading Nature Reserve in Daocheng County, a national park of incredible beauty: you get to see three distinctive snow mountain and alpine lakes in a valley that is only about ten kilometres long.

I photographed in the reserve previously and brought back a few images that truly speak to me. The timing of this trip, however, was not ideal: it was still about three weeks before autumn colours would peak. Looking at uninspiring colours, I thought I needed to do something more meaningful than repeating myself, photographically, under worse conditions. During the previous trip I did not make it to Milk Lake and Five Colour Lake, the two alpine lakes that sit just behind Mount Chenrezig: on the one hand, I did not have enough time as it was my first visit and there was a lot to see and photograph; on the other hand, getting to the lakes takes a long, strenuous hike, which I was not up to at the time. This time around things naturally fell into place for me to finally visit the lakes.

(A very big) Bird's view of Yading Nature Reserve

I knew it was going to be a very long and difficult hike, so in preparation I removed all non–crucial items from my camera backpack, essentially taking with me only the Flexbody camera, one film back, three lenses (50mm, 80mm and 150mm), filters and a few rolls of film. By leaving 503CW camera, 250mm lens, second film back, panorama kit and other miscellany at the hotel I reduced the weight by some three kilogrammes; this may not sound like a lot, but I felt it would make or break the hike. Surprisingly, I did not miss anything that I left at the hotel.

MapMyWalk App on my iPhone shows that altogether I hiked 32 kilometres on that day. Starting at Chonggu temple (3900 metres above sea level), first ten kilometres took me to the foothills of Mount Jambeyang and were fairly easy; the ascend to Five Colour Lake (4700 metres above sea level) from there on was really tough, though. If first ten kilometres took just over two hours, the remaining six kilometres devoured three hours; the track was covered with mud and stones and quite difficult to hike. By the time I got to Five Colour Lake I was totally exhausted; it was well worth the effort, though: the vistas around the lakes were absolutely spectacular. And when I look at the Milk Lake, Daocheng Yading image now, I do no think of the exhaustion; instead, I invariably wonder where that track behind the lake leads, and what lays beyond that pass.


Image: Mount Chana Dorje and Cloud, Daocheng Yading

Mount Chana Dorje and Cloud, Daocheng Yading

Hasselblad Flexbody camera, CFi 4/150 lens, Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film


Image: Five Colour Lake and Mount Chenrezig, Daocheng Yading

Five Colour Lake and Mount Chenrezig, Daocheng Yading

Hasselblad Flexbody camera, CFi 4/50 lens, Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film


Image: Milk Lake, Daocheng Yading

Milk Lake, Daocheng Yading

Hasselblad Flexbody camera, CFi 4/150 lens, Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film


Image: Five Colour Lake and Mount Chana Dorje, Daocheng Yading

Five Colour Lake and Mount Chana Dorje, Daocheng Yading

Hasselblad Flexbody camera, CFi 4/50 lens, Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film


Image: Forest, Daocheng Yading

Forest, Daocheng Yading

Hasselblad Flexbody camera, CFi 2.8/80 lens, Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film


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