#757. It’s not the camera, it’s the lenses, stupid! Or is it?

#757. It’s not the camera, it’s the lenses, stupid! Or is it?

Long a once upon ago, film was the great equalizer. Your colour fidelity – or deliberate lack of -, your grain, your sensitivity to photonic vibes, your monochrome coolness … all of it came from film. It was a simpler time when larger was unequivocally better. Real men did it in Medium Format. Jedi did it in large format. And the film APS smaller-is-better initiative received the slap in the face it rightfully deserved.

Good times.

Back then, negatives or slides that didn’t make it to the print stage still provided much enjoyment via an instrument now relegated to the wall of your proctologist’s office : the light table. And being deprived had its blessings. Anyone whose whole creative life had been contained in the 24x36mm rectangle of Barnack film was in for the treat of their life when their loupe suddenly fell on the silky surface of a significantly larger negative.

 

Hommage to Saint Ansel

 

This happened to me at a turning point in my PhD. I was only 25 years old but already as bitterly allergic to office politics as I am today, and had decided to screw academic pursuits and find a job immediately after my dissertation rather than teach and do research, two occupations at which I was significantly better than anything I’ve ever done since, and than most others among my compadres of the time. But my tiny patience for fools and their court was always my nemesis. That big Fuck You step into penniless manhood also lead me to purchase a used Mamiya 7 and a couple of lenses, because if I was going to be broke, it might as well be in style. A Linhof Master Technika and a 150mm Schneider lens soon followed.

The fact that I couldn’t afford the film and processing was easily compensated by the mesmerizing beauty of the negatives from these two gems under a 10x loupe. I would stay up at night when the rest of the home had fallen asleep and peer through my Rodenstock loupe at the infinite amount of details, hues and shadings of my very limited collection of processed film. No movie was as exciting to me. I was also lucky that the microelectronics lab had recently purchased an electron-beam microscope and had given me unlimited access to their now redundant medium format chemical photo lab. So a few prints were made from these gorgeous monochrome jewels. Oh the perks …

 

 

What this did to me, near-bankruptcy aside, was to engrave very deeply into my mind a special appreciation for quality over quantity. It didn’t matter if only one good photo was made in a month, so long as it was really good. It didn’t matter that the resolution of my Schneider lens wasn’t all that good, given the huge surface over which it distilled its goodness. Anyone who’s seen a masterfully produced 8×10 contact print knows what I mean. There’s just nothing like it.

It also gave me a lasting appreciation for ergonomics and an unhealthy lusting for soul in images.

Selling this to buy my first serious digital gear (Canon D60 with two white pro zooms, what was I thinking ?) brought me the closest I’ve ever been to full-on depression. Man, I hated that thing. And myself, for falling into that digital trap of free quantity over quality and for trading noble glass for those white utilitarian soulless pieces of junk (a point of view that’s made me few friends in Canon-centric fandom). Time moved on. Minolta, Olympus (especially Olympus), Nikon and Sony slowly rekindled my love of photography, although my constant brand switching was, and still is, proof that my fall from photographic Eden still hadn’t taken me to the Promised Land of digital.

Still, as meaningless bodies came and left Casa DS (if that sounds like a season of Californication, I have very much misled you), a few lenses stuck around, becoming the pivotal elements around which all my GAS hinged. A new body could not be elected if it didn’t work with my lenses of choice. At that particular game, the Sony A7 range soon became a fave. Some buy if for its megapixels, frame rate, high ISO sensitivity, codecs (I believe that’s a word) … I favour it for its short flange distance, which enables me to pick and choose the most fruity lenses from more or less any stable in the history of photography, with a particularly soft penchant for Mandler-era Leica and more recent Zeiss offerings (peaking with the very lovely Distagon 1.4/35 ZM). Sometimes, short is beautiful.

 

 

It makes perfect sense, to one in love with rendering and still reeling from the shock of film cost, to consider a camera as a sensor with a mechanical attachment for a lens. And nothing more.

Sensors strive for neutrality and, while we know some are larger than others, are divided into more pixels and exhibit generational differences in their technical prowess in low light and ability to follow puppies and kids with ADD, it’s fair to say that there isn’t a bad sensor on the market today (unless you insist on buying a crappy compact with sensor technology from ye ol’ long ago).

Cameras vary in vibe (rangefinder Leica M, rangefinder like and much more fun Fujis, do it all Sony, E.V.I.L are evil Canikon …) but they essentially all attach a lens to a device able to transform photons into computer files. And that’s the end of it. As is engraved in the caves of the photographic wisdom of the ages, you chose lenses, the rest follows.

 

 

Well, no. And it was stupid of me to let my formative years in the film era cloud my judgement in digital times.

While a camera of old was a mechanical device placed between a sheet of film and an optical contraption, a digital camera is a signal processing unit above all else. Let me gloss over the whole ergonomic debacle that irks me far too often for my mental health. For now, at least. I promise to rant profusely about that in the future. As soon as someone releases a 65Mpix 30fps content-producing technological device (it’s a bit reductive to call it a camera, right?) that’s both colour-blind and incapable of putting a loupe icon on its magnification button, for example.

For now, lets just focus on the signal processing aspect of it all. This is where the real positioning game is being played today. And it’s more or less the only thing that matters :

  • We’ve long had sensors that deliver too much resolution, see too far into the night, catch movement that the eye doesn’t (is that still creativity, he crowed, bent on his stick) … so let’s take the sensor out of the equation. New ones will simply be more of the same. Litterally more. More pixels, more ISO, more AF speed. More video goodness whatever form that takes. More frames per second. More dynamic range. Forgive me if I forget something (un)important.
  • Lenses really don’t matter all that much. On film, and on dumb “passive” sensors, a better lens gave a better image. These days, it’s quite easy to correct some optical defects in software (distortion being the most obvious example) and, why not, add others. This opens up a whole new and fascinating range of lens design options using less glass and leaving the camera to do the work that would have been sitting on the optical designer’s lap, in previous generations.

Not only does the camera transform photons into electrons and into files, it has the liberty to use artistic license in that process.

 

 

Today, this encourages a systems approach to GAS. While I’ve always refused to keep lenses that lock me into a particular system, preferring to buy what my eyes liked best and port that onto whatever compatible body caught my fancy, I now find myself forced to reconsider in favour of a deliberate adherence to a system based on how the signal processing part of the value proposition is being handled.

Sony, for example, take a very “technically enabling” approach to this body + lens pairing, but don’t seem to be using it for rendering purposes. I see no aesthetic advantage to buying a Sony lens over a third-party lens. In fact I prefer the rendering of my fave legacy lenses to any Sony lens I’ve tried and can think of, in any focal length, at any price point. And the technical advantages of faster AF, exif, improved IBIS of those native lenses leaves me as cold as the heart of whoever designed their ergonomics. Your mileage will of course vary based on what your psyche carries over from your own formative years. And by the looks of Sony’s results compared to the rest of the business, my mileage is distinctly outnumbered. Ah well, what else is new?

Hasselblad. Aahhh. I wrote about the X1D that digital photography was finally home. And I stand by those words. It was quite a surprise to me to open files created with the XCD 30/3.5 in LightRoom and witness the amount of work done by the digital profile of that lens. Distortion and vignetting were the 2 most obvious corrections. So “digital optics” are abvioulsy a big part of the Hassy design process, these days. It was also almost erotic to learn that Hasselblad calibrate each camera to near colour perfection, loading it with as much as half a gig of calibration data. And to say that shows in the quality of the files is a big understatement. Also noteworthy was the X1D’s file friendliness with third party editing software, so whatever digital magic is being injected into the design is obviously quite universal in its application and not restricted to the official software suite. To say that is not the case of all manufacturers is again a major understatement.

Other systems. It’s been far too long for me to comment on them. But I’d really love your input on how you feel your brand of preference is dealing with this potentially blissful camera + lens bonding.

 

Hasselblad X1D Pano in Lightroom. 3 vertical frames with the XCD 30/3.5 lens

 

Of course, I’ll always treasure my current lenses because a great lens cannot be spoiled by in-software signal processing (Oh wait, they wouldn’t! Would they ?) But my fetishism for them has severely dwindelled and I do look forward to “system lenses” that rely less on complex formulas to produce impeccable imaging on the sensor and focus a little more on being natural and “true to light” by letting the camera and PP software handle the rectitude and good table manners.

So, what I’m saying is that my new photographic mantra for the second third of my life goes “It’s not the lenses, it’s the signal processing, stupid!” Almost 20 years into digital, it’s about time I got the memo, right? … I’ll update you on my third and final attempt at photographic wisdom in 50 years.

 


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16 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Sean August 14, 2018

    Hi Pascal,
    An interesting article.
    I have noticed, over time, that each iteration of updated image editing software gets better, and so, could translate into helping, or hindering, the photographer craft a better image, but not be a good photographer; even from a digital file that was crated some time back.
    Image editing software still does not replace a persons capacities and abilities, or understanding and application of the basics of being a good photographer. It also doesn’t replace good glass; glass that character and helps realise ones vision – not glass that simply feeds and creates gas.
    Regards
    Sean

  2. Avatar
    pascaljappy August 14, 2018

    Hi Sean,

    over the years the photography world has only been able to find one marketing trick: greater performance, at the expense of greater complexity. It’s not uncommon to see lenses with almost 20 elements in them. They are sharp corner to corner and dull as a washed up bottle. What I’m hoping, if software correction of aberration gets perfected, is that we can return to simpler lens designs with fewer aspherics (or none at all, like the fab Milvus 85) and fewer elements. This would give us more transparency, more life, more natural rendering, more natural bokeh … I can’t think of another industry that has been so bad at seeking alternatives. Today you can buy a Jeep Wrangler, a Porsche Cayman, a Dodge Charger, a Tesla Model 3, a tiny city car … and get cars with completely different purposes and vibes. But in the photo world, all we are fed is stuff that’s supposed to do it all, get the shot at all costs whatever the scenario and the situation. Stuff that gets more complex and less pleasant to use at every iteration. That’s fine for some people, but it would be nice if digital wizardy made it possible for others to get simple stuff as well. Like the iPad. If the history of business is anything to go buy, that also make the manufacturer a fortune …

    All the best,
    Pascal

    • Avatar
      Sean August 18, 2018

      Hi Pascal,

      In a previous Dear Susan post, located in the Loxia 21 discussion text, the author stated “… The legendary Mandler probably bristles in his grave and growls: “haven’t they learned anything from me?”, because he imbued his fantastic Leica designs with such awesome charm and personality… but at the expense of transparency and neutrality…”; so, by extension, are these Dear Susan words a way of pointing a finger at what you allude to in your response, above? Just a thought …

      Regards
      Sean

  3. Avatar
    jean pierre (pete) guaron August 14, 2018

    Hmm – my “f u” phase was simple – I grew up in a city divided into two classes, “thems” and “us’s” – if you were an “us”, live was a bed of roses – if not, you were relegated to “thems”. It didn’t worry me as a kid, but on attaining a similar age (25), I fled. Far away from the revolting prospect of spending an entire lifetime in such company.

    And another parallel was your choice of cameras. OK – I confess to having had a Zeiss Contarex with heaps of accessories, and adored it. I also had a Linhof tripod (still have it – it’s sitting on the other side of this room as I type), a Zenza Bronica (because I couldn’t afford a Hasselblad) and a Linhof 5×4 studio camera – as well as a Graflex flash (like the ones press photographers used) and a huge box full of bulbs for it, which illuminated half the world whenever I wanted a night shot (before anyone invented 512,000 ISO cameras).

    But I had (on indefinite loan) a hugely expensive enlarger, to go with all my photo lab gear, so I could easily produce B&W prints any size I liked – so no need of a light table. Along with a collection of cameras I picked up, for amusement – such as a roll film camera made before the Great War, fuelled by postcard size negatives.

    That kept me amused for the best part of half a century – but has ow been replaced by Canikon offerings, so that I can do my own colour processing at last. Completely mystified by claims that 99% of “photographs” are never printed, since the meaning of the word DEMANDS a print, in order to BE a “photograph”. Never mind – each to his own!

    So – for me (at the moment) the paramount issue is the colour of the image. And I am finding serious failings. I’m with the Impressionists, on “blue” shadows – but violet or purple ones? Blues often turn out completely weird – a swimming pool in my friend’s backyard is a medium deep cyan, but the process translates that into a deep blue and any attempt to rectify that issue destroys the subject of the photo. Photographing my friend with her dog, I could either get the colour of the dog’s fur or an acceptable colour for her complexion, but not both. No it’s not my ignorance, I’ve printed or post processed a huge number of digital images – for myself and others.

    Part of it stems from the signal processing and sensors involved. There are clear differences between brand names – Sony, Canon, Nikon, Fuji, Olympus and Hasselblad, to name but a few.

    And part stems from the complete idiocy of attempting to replicate trillions of colours, tints and tonings by capturing them with three colours (red, green and blue), and then transferring them onto paper using three quite different colours (yellow, magenta and cyan), and trusting to Karma or a good stiff swig of brandy that the colour gamut will hold. Sometimes it does – sometimes it doesn’t.

    Which is when you remember there’s a “switch” – you can print the damn thing in black & white, like in the olden days, and head off to watch the TV with the rest of the family before bed time.

    Lenses? No – sorry – we have to agree to disagree. I have three that I adore. And others that I have issues with. Further – I WANT a super tele, for specific purposes, but cannot so far find ANYTHING that suits. They are NOT all equally or sufficiently sharp, or anything else. Example – one that was suggested was a 100-400 zoom – when I started to look into it, the zoom function reared up and resembled a vacuum cleaner, sucking air (and filth) in from the atmosphere and filling the lens and camera with it, which was a complete turn off – and as if that wasn’t bad enough, I found the “sweet spot” wasn’t F/8 (or F/anything-at-all, that you could mention in polite company) – no – instead, the sweet spot was 300mm and the reviewer announced that it wasn’t all that sharp at 400mm. Phooey!

    So now I’m left hoping to win Lotto and buy a $15 grand 800mm super tele with a fixed focal length, a top of the range RRS tripod to put it on, servants to carry everything and a bottle of my favourite champagne to drink as I set the remote shutter release into action. 🙂

    Where we converge is the rot that’s flung at the problem. Someone produces a cam with a 24MP sensor – the rival announces 36MP – retaliation is 42MP – then it’s 45MP. But WHY? If – as Pascal has told us – 99% of all photos never emerge from the digital world, then the viewing platform has to be a screen, and the best pixel rating I’ve come across so far, for such screens, is a70 or 80 inch TV with a paltry 32MP rating. And if you print the photos, you’re stuck with the technical limitations of the ink jet dot printer of your choice. We can all wallow in 100% crop images by enlarging our photos enormously on our own monitors – but even if they can, our audiences generally don’t do that.

    Someone else wants video specs – I don’t, and it’s a waste of my money to provide that and charge me for it.

    Another tog wants mirrorless instead of DSLR. Or a rear screen that tilts in all directions. Image stabilisation in the lenses. Or stabilisation in the camera body. Different versions of AF. On and on.

    And the result? To a visitor from Mars, the main difference between all these offerings is the label – the name of the manufacturer. Product differentiation seems to scare the pants off the competitors in the market place – takes them outside their “safe place”.

    All of a sudden I can understand why someone would buy a Leica M that takes only B&W images.

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy August 14, 2018

      Oh ! We DO NOT mention monochrome Leicas. This sends my heart into an unhealthy race. I know I would love the B&W and really don’t want to get into yet another system 😉

      Lenses : in the old days when computer modelling was difficult, as designer had a style. Today, the benchmark for quality is MTF, just like the benchmark for car quality if the Nurburgring, even for a Jeep Wrangler. It’s ridiculous and depressing. Yes, it’s easier to market a resolution than a style but when has “easier” equated with “better” ? So I stick to past lenses that have a gorgeous look and pray for mordern lenses that can be allowed to be less complex by a healthy does of digital correction of their aberration and, therefore, produce a more natural and pleasing look. A man can dream. I don’t think the megapixel race will end before we get to 100Mpx in FF. So the populace will have to sell off lovely lenses to buy soulless junk that can match that resolution.

      Have you ever thought of digiscoping instead of using a super long tele ? It’s often done with a phone but doesn’t have, I hasten to add 😉 Basically, you set your camera at infinity to photograph the picture created by a scope and its eyepiece. In a conventional setup, your camera goes at the back of the long lens and the resulting magnification is roughly the focal length divided by the diagonal of the sensor. So about 20x for an 800mm. In digiscoping, if the eyepiece gives 15x, your photograph the scene enlarged 15x. If the eyepiece gives 70x, you photograph the scene at 70x. You need a very good scope and a very good eyepiece for that. And it’s not as stable as conventional photography. But it’s a lot more affordable (I didn’t write cheaper). You can probably get going for a couple of grand. Definitely worth investigation.

      I’ve come to understand that proper tonal/colour calibration needs to be done in a lab and for each camera. Usually calibration, if any, is done for every model, not camera. It’s an expensive process. But one I’d happily pay for rather than pay for codecs I will never use. That makes two of us but it looks like the whole wide world thinks otherwise and has that dire need for video ability that matches Peter Jackson’s for the family birthday parties.

      • Avatar
        jean pierre (pete) guaron August 15, 2018

        What I detest most is the garishness their technology produces for the greater masses’ photographs. Back in the 1960s I discovered to my great joy that colour photography was not confined to Kodacolor slide evenings – the culprit also maufactured “Ektacolor” negative film, for professionals. Of course that meant no more trips to the local chemist/pharmacy/drug store/whatever, to hand your films in for processing. But the difference in the colours was AMAZING. Trees, people, water etc looked like trees, people, water etc – instead of something alien. And I’ve had a very bad fortnight wrestling with this, over several batches of shots, so I am very annoyed at the moment.

        Sigh – you cannot wean me off Zeiss glass – I have had a lifelong love affair with it! And it’s a thrill to use the Otus lenses! Putting my obsessions in the cupboard momentarily, what you are saying reminds me of the day I found out that portrait photographers 60-100 years ago used to smear vaseline on the front of the lens, to get a nice “soft focus” to enhance their portrait shots. Try getting a lab test on THAT lens combination!

        And Ming often mentions a fondness for a particular lens, in his blog. I seem to recall Ken Rockwell doing it, too. Those guys can have anything they want – but what they do want ain’t always the stuff the victims of GAS attacks queue up for in the camera shops! – the “latest”, the “greatest” or the “most expensive”! Instead, it’s what WORKS! Now THERE’S a novel concept for you! Something the screaming hordes will probably NEVER understand!

        My equivalent of it is that all my life (well at least since I scraped up the money for the Contarex, with its Planar) I’ve had “the best” – but always, at the same time, I’ve had other cams running too, and derived enormous pleasure and satisfaction from the images they gave me.

        I’m afraid I see shoving in other people’s faces the fact that you shoot with a brand X camera, or a brand Y lens, as a form of snobbery. And snobbery is not my long suit – I fled the city of my birth to escape the net, because I refused to play their silly game – for better or for worse, I’d rather just be “me” – and do whatever I like. For me, it’s a philosophy – a way of life – a “value system” reflecting everything I think and believe – a product of a jolt I received at the tender age of 8, which forever changed how I would live out the rest of my life. I have one remaining sibling (at least I think he’s still around somewhere – not that I care, we don’t speak to one another) and he’s always been a “Leica junky for the wrong reasons”. But it reminds me of the idiot who lived across the road from me, 20 years back, who had a midlife crisis and bought a Porsche Boxter. In his 20s, that might have been fun – in his 50s, he just looked ridiculous – and he was, because he couldn’t drive the thing for nuts! And I’d rather buy a whatever, cheap, and second hand, that I knew what to do with and how to use, than be something like the family’s “Leica junky”, and have everyone laughing at me.

  4. Avatar
    jean pierre (pete) guaron August 15, 2018

    PS – I do understand why action, sport & wildlife photographers, and perhaps some of the pros, benefit from a video function in their cameras. Not that their ancestors did. But still – I can understand it. That said – if I ever wanted to shoot video, I’d buy a video camera to do it with. Just as I use a knife and fork to eat my dinner – not a Swiss Army knife.

  5. Avatar
    philberphoto August 15, 2018

    No amount of signal processing wizardry can restore what data the lens has failed to transmit without loss. So, while signal processing means that digital cameras matter a whole lot more to the end result than film cameras did, it (alas) in no way reduces the need to have first-class glass.
    I know it. You know it. I know that you know it. Else, even though you covet, lust for and hanker for a Hassy X1-D, why do you hang on to your 35mm glass? You will answer that 2 of your 3 lenses will cover the Hassy image circle, but that justification only flies partly, because what you love in the Hassy will not be available to you, the moment you adapt non-native lenses.
    So, yes, Yay! for signal processing! But knocking the importance of lenses is altogether premature. If ever.

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy August 16, 2018

      Well, that’s not exactly what I’m saying 😉 If digital can take care of several aberrations (at least the geometric ones) then lenses can be made smaller, cheaper and – most important to me – more natural looking.

      That advocates for a systems approach, in which lenses are optimsed to the sensor AND the digital drivetrain of the camera. But I’m not sure who’s making full use of it, among manufacturers. Sony and Hasselblad are, although from different angles. And I’d like to know who else and how.

  6. Avatar
    The anonymous admirer August 15, 2018

    Dear Pascal,

    thanks for another great blogpost.

    Starting off analogue on a tight budget, I also collected 2nd hand gear. 35 mm Japanese stuff as Leica did not fit my budget.

    Having to travel a lot for business, I always had to think about which gear I could cram into my luggage. Many times I ended up with a camera body in one pocket of my jacket and a 2.8/28 mm in the other pocket of the jacket. 100 ASA slide films and lots of footwork, later accompanied by a collection of lenses from Fisheye to super tele, only to find out that this didn’t boost my creativity, just the weight.

    Then digital ‘pro’ stuff, upgrading cycles and inevitably with rising income the GAS trap, which came to a screetching halt during the last months through

    1) a contact with Zeiss (not at all happy with their snobbish reaction)
    2) my wife discovering her old Minolta film SLR with a cheap Tokina 35-70 mm zoom.

    What happened ? I adapted the Tokina zoom to a previous generation 42 Mpix lens holder and compared it with a top macro lens at 50 mm. Yes, there is less microcontrast, but C1 takes care of that. Center sharpness almost as good as Zeiss and the (not bad) edge sharpness is just an issue for brick wall togs. Furthermore I often crop the images slighly when correcting level or to cut off vignetting. Colour science is a PP issue, nowadays, so lens/lens holder are just producing RAW material.

    … to make a long story short, I got back to my initial setup of the 80s/90s – apart from having a digital lens holder rather than an analogue one. IQ is amazingly good with my old primes, but not only. GAS was cured, I carry a few light lenses instead of heavy Zeiss Milvus glass and I draw much less attention on the street.

    The sooner one realises how little you really need, the quicker one is back on the pursuit of happiness, focusing on how to nail the shot with a minimalistic setup. A word to young starters: get a used Sony Nex, an adapter, some good vintage glass & enjoy !

    If I ever get another GAS syndrome, I think it will be for Leica only …

    Happy shooting !

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy August 16, 2018

      That’s very Zen ! Thanks for this account and very sorry to hear about your bad experience with Zeiss. That’s a real shame and untypical of my dealings with them. You should contact the mothership to let them know.

      I’m hoping digital will bring simplicity and size of old lenses back into the game !

      Happy shooting 🙂

      • Avatar
        jean pierre (pete) guaron August 17, 2018

        And quite the opposite of my contacts with them over the past 60 years. I couldn’t praise how they’ve treated me, highly enough! 🙂

        [GRR – unlike at least one of their competitors!]

  7. Avatar
    NMc August 16, 2018

    Pascal
    Judging by the number of people who actually take photos, curate and present on line Fuji, Olympus and Panasonic cropped sensor cameras are way over represented compared to Canikon APSC. This is quite remarkable when considering the market share for camera sales. What do these cameras have that Canikon apsc cameras do not? Lens choices, even without adapting lenses.

    So your post title is correct but not just for the reasons you presented. It’s a pity that the market has not rewarded the systemically more accommodating and diverse products.
    Regards Noel

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy August 16, 2018

      “Accomodating and diverse” … how true. The market seems bent on pushing a universal product down our throats …

      • Avatar
        jean pierre {pete} guaron August 17, 2018

        I don’t have any Fuji or Olympus stuff – but over the past 10-15 years I’ve been getting the impression they are both good at providing what their customers want. Rather than attempting to define what that should be, and trying to sell that, instead. And Pascal you and I have both commented on this aspect before, in the context of other products.

        • Avatar
          pascaljappy August 17, 2018

          Indeed. A recurring topic. So few companies actually listen, it’s refreshing that some do 🙂

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