Dealing with High ISO Shooting on Olympus OM-D Cameras

One of the most frustrating things to see at online forums or any other photography discussions is how poor the high ISO performance is for Micro Four Thirds system. I do not challenge the physics that larger image sensor size will yield cleaner and better results when it comes to high ISO scenario, but I have never encountered a situation in both my professional and personal shooting environment where the low light capability of my OM-D camera is insufficient. Therefore, I thought it would be great to share some of the tips on dealing with high ISO shooting, some dos and don'ts when using the Olympus OM-D camera system. 


Before we dive too deep, let me remind you that we should not obsess with high ISO shooting, especially when it comes to personal shooting.  I can totally understand if you shoot commercially and you have to deliver shots to clients. For personal projects, don't let high ISO noise get in the way of your photography process. Noise or no noise, a great image is still a great image. Good photography has no correlation to high ISO noise. Focus more on the idea or emotion you are expressing in your photographs, the visual story-telling component. 

With that out of the way, let's begin!


DO NOT USE SILENT SHUTTER

When shooting at high ISO, silent shutter will amplify the visible noise in the images. I am not entirely sure why this is the case, but when silent shutter, or electronic shutter is engaged, the resulting image suffers more  degradation, with higher amount of noise grains and artifacts in comparison to normal mechanical shutter use. Furthermore,  in the shadow area of the image, there are ugly green color cast that appear as patches and blotches which are very difficult to correct or remove in post-processing. These ugly green blotches are not present when normal mechanical shutter is being used. I'd only advice to use the silent shutter when absolutely necessary - shooting a piano recital for example. In other cases when shutter sound is not a concern, using the normal mechanical  shutter will ensure you better high ISO results. 

ISO6400 image, intentionally underexposed to exaggerate noise bahaviour

Crops from previous image.
Left: Normal Shutter, Right: Silent Shutter

ISO6400, intentionally underexposed to exaggerate noise pattern

Crops from previous image.
Left: Normal Shutter, Right:Silent Shutter. Notice the ugly green cast/patches in the shadow area.

HAND-HELD STARLIGHT SCENE  MODE

For JPEG shooters, there is an interesting multi-shot noise reduction mode built into the camera that can be used to help reduce high ISO noise significantly. You can find this feature "Hand-Held Starlight" under scene mode.Unfortunately, E-M1X and E-M1 Mark II do not have scene modes, Olympus decided to exclude them in these cameras. For all other OM-D cameras, such as E-M10 Mark III, E-M1, E-M5 Mark II, you can make use of this mode to get much cleaner results. Once engaged, the hand-held starlight mode will capture 8 separate images consecutively and then merge them all into one composite image to significantly reduce the noise in the image. This works because high ISO noise pattern is random,  and same noise grain does not exist in the same pixel location in every image captured. Sampling 8 different images, there is a high chance to selectively merge areas with clean pixels, hence resulting in a better image. Do take note that this method, like any other in camera composite modes, only works with static subjects. 

ISO3200, underexposed 

ISO3200,normal shot

ISO3200 crop, Hand-Held Starlight mode


DO NOT UNDEREXPOSE

This is a general rule of thumb when it comes  to low light shooting, not just for Olympus cameras, but also applicable for all cameras. Underexposure leads to less information captured in the shadow region, lifting the shadows in post-processing will amplify the noise in the image. It is very crucial to get the exposure right during shooting especially when shooting high ISO.  It is also recommended to slightly overexpose the image to get cleaner shadows, but do be careful not to clip the highlights, as highlights may be difficult to recover at high ISO shooting as well. Shooting discipline is crucial. 

SHOOT IN RAW

If you do not shoot RAW, you should definitely start considering RAW if you have to deal with a lot of low light situations. Shooting in RAW allows the camera to capture as much information as possible in a single image, and these data can be stretched and recovered in post-processing. JPEG information is limited, and camera does internal noise reduction process which does a good job at minimizing noise, but at the expense of useful detail as well, resulting in often painterly, mushy look. Another important aspect of shooting in RAW is the ability to correct the white balance with no consequence to the image noise. Shooting JPEG with the wrong white balance setting will be disastrous when correcting the colors, introducing ugly noise in the mage.  Shooting RAW and doing effective post-processing will almost guarantee better high ISO images. 

GRADATION NORMAL

I generally recommend setting the camera's gradation setting to normal, because the "auto" setting will lift shadow areas, and this is not really helpful when our goal is to minimize noise in the image. I did suggest using "Auto" gradation in my optimizing dynamic range article/video lately, and that is strictly applicable when shooting at ISO200 and for the sole reason of boosting dynamic range shooting in JPEG only. When shooting at higher ISO numbers, 800 or beyond, using gradation auto will severely affect the noise in the image. 

I hope you have found these tips useful! If you have more to share, leave them in the comments below, sharing is caring!


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Olympus M.Zuiko 12-200mm F3.5-6.3 at KL Bird Park

Olympus released a lens with the longest zoom range for Micro Four Thirds earlier this year, the M.Zuiko 12-200mm F3.5-6.3. I have written an article about that on Ming Thein's site (click) and I won't repeat my findings here in this particular blog entry. Instead, I made a video of me discussing the important points from that article, and of course, showcasing an entirely new set of photographs. In short, the Olympus 12-200mm may not excel in any departments (certainly not a low light lens, not the sharpest, longest or widest) but it does own the title of the most versatile Olympus lens up to date!


Kuala Lumpur is currently blanketed by thick haze, as a result of forest and plantation burning in a neighbor country. The haze pollution got so bad that I could not shoot a building across the road without looking somewhat a bit out of focus. This is not the best scenario to test a lens, or take sample photographs for the Olympus M.Zuiko 12-200mm lens, hence the lack of wide angle shots. However, I did have a lot more wide angle sample in my article on Ming Thein's site, so in this particular session I emphasized more on getting longer shots. KL Bird Park was a good choice, as it was a small garden/park setting, and all subjects were shot within a near distance, negating the need to deal with hazy air.

My verdict on Olympus 12-200mm stays the same, image quality is on par with all other standard zoom Olympus lenses (14-42mm, 40-150mm R, 14-150mm) but longer range of zoom from 100mm and further does suffer a little loss of sharpness, which was to be expected from a super zoom lens. The images are still perfectly acceptable and usable, just manage your expectation and not expect a PRO grade lens sharpness (eg 40-150mm PRO or 12-100mm PRO).

All images were shot in RAW and post-processed in Capture One Pro.















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Optimizing Dynamic Range for Olympus OM-D Cameras

It is not uncommon to hear people belittle the dynamic range capability of Olympus OM-D cameras, using smaller Micro Four Thirds image sensor, but you know what? I never had much issue with dynamic range captured by Olympus OM-D shooting with the system all these years professionally as well as for my personal projects. I admit Full Frame or any larger sensor will have better dynamic range, we can't deny the rules of physics, and surely Olympus has not broken those rules yet. According to DXOMark site, the E-M1 Mark II's  image sensor has 12.8 EV stops of dynamic range, which is respectable considering how much smaller the image sensor is. You can do a LOT wth 12.8EV, and I am doing this article (and a video of course) to share some important tips to squeeze the most out of your Olympus OM-D's dynamic range, whether you are a JPEG or RAW shooter. 


1. USE ISO200
ISO200 is the base ISO for all current Olympus OM-D models. Moving away from ISO200, either lower or higher, will result in loss of dynamic range. There are ISO L100 and L64, both artificial ISO numbers, faked by overexposing images shot with ISO200 and software processed to emulate the look or equivalent ISO100 and 64. Since they were overexposed by more than a stop in the first place, we already lose that much dynamic range advantage. Similarly, the higher the ISO number, the more dynamic range we lose. For optimum results, just stick to ISO200 or as close to it as possible. 

2. SHOOT RAW
This is quite an obvious recommendation, the RAW file contains a lot more data compared to compressed JPEG. Therefore, the information from the bright and dark regions can be recovered more effectively from a RAW file, resulting in a more balanced outcome. 

3. ENSURE ACCURATE EXPOSURE
Get your exposure right during the shooting process, this is crucial to ensure as much information is captured in both the shadow and highlight regions within an image. Severely overexposing or underexposing an image will have dire consequences. Highlight burns are almost impossible to recover, and lifting shadows will increase amount of ugly noise visible in the dark parts of the image. I find that slight over or under exposure can be tolerated, I have underexposed and overexposed my images by about 3 stops and can still successfully recover details during post-processing on RAW files. If you are shooting 5 stops underexposed... something is definitely not right with your shooting methods. 

4. ENABLE HIGHLIGHT & SHADOW WARNINGS
The camera is smart enough to be able to warn you while you are shooting - showing you areas that will be clipped in both highlight and shadow regions, all during live view either on LCD screen or through EVF. To enable this warning feature, go to: 
Menu --> Cogs --> D1 --> Info Settings --> LV Info --> Custom 1 --> Highlight & Shadow


HIGHLIGHT & SHADOW OFF

HIGHLIIGHT & SHADOW ON

GRADATION NORMAL

GRADATION AUTO

GRADATION NORMAL

GRADATION AUTO

The tips 5, 6 and 7 are applicable for JPEG shooting only, and do not affect RAW files. 

5. HIGHLIGHT & SHADOW CONTROL
This feature was first introduced in Olympus OM-D E-M5 back in 2012, and has become one of the popularly used and useful feature on all Olympus OM-D cameras. To enable this, go to FN2 button on your OM-D camera (if you have not reassigned the button to something else) and you will see the highlight and shadow graph appear on your screen.  Use the command dials to control it, the front dial controls the highlight while the back dial controls the shadow. Highlight can be controlled separately from the shadow, and they won't affect each other. For Olympus PEN-F and newer, you can also control the midtones, while the highlight and shadow feature is activated, press the "info" button to switch to midtones. To reset the curves to straight default/neutral, just press and hold the "OK"  button. 

6. IN CAMERA HDR MODE
The previous tip 5, highlight & shadow was stretching the dynamic range of a single photograph, recovering as much details as possible . Sometimes, in very harsh conditions, this is not sufficient. The OM-D cameras have built in HDR mode, which takes 4 images successively from underexposed to overexposed images to capture a huge range of information from shadow to highlight region, then compositing these images into a single, high dynamic range image. All this can be done in one click of the shutter button, but the camera does take several seconds to fully capture all four shots and compositing into the final image. I find this very useful for JPEG shooting. 

7. GRADATION AUTO
This is a setting activated from the Super Control Panel, to lift shadows in the image. It is also called "shadow adjust", and can make a big difference in producing a more balanced looking image in a harsh environment. 

HDR OFF

HDR ON

HDR OFF

HDR ON

Do you have other tips to share on maximizing dynamic range when shooting with OM-D cameras? I have heard some reports suggesting that using the high resolution mode (50MP high res) can expand the dynamic range captured by the OM-D. I have not tried this, hence I cannot claim it to be true. If you have tried this yourself, do share your experience!

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5 + 5 Street Photography Tips by Matti Sulanto & Robin Wong

Recently a dear friend Matti Sulanto made a visit to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and I had the privilege to make a guest appearance in one of his YouTube videos about street photography. He asked if I could share 5 tips on street photography, I immediately jumped and said yes! I can talk about street photography for hours and hours long and you may probably have to stop me. We did a short walk around the central city area of Kuala Lumpur, stopping from time to time  to film the contents for his video. I thought the video came out quite well! One of my first few efforts to collaborate with another photographer on a video. As you all know, I am still terribly new to YouTube, so this is quite exciting for me! In case you do not know who Matti is, do check out his YouTube channel, he is an amazingly talented photographer from Finland and is now an active Lumix Ambassador. So there you go, a video with an Olympus Visionary and a Lumix Ambassador together, not discussing gear, but sharing photography tips and heaps of photographs! How about that?


Here are the 5 + 5 tips from me and Matti in no particular order.  If you want the full description, and also lots of sample street photos, please watch the video! This is Matti's  video, so it would be wrong for me to summarize everything in detail here.

1. Use simple gear
2. One camera one lens setup
3. Know your camera
4. Slow down your shutter speed for creative effect
5. Be alert and observe your surroundings
6. It is OK to miss shots, you cannot capture everything
7. Shoot first think later
8. Do not obsess over technical perfection
9. Street photography is not just about shooting people, it can be about other things too
10. Remember to have fun doing street shooting!


I had so much fun making the video, and I hope you guys have enjoyed watching it too. I am a fan of Matti too, and any photographer who willingly shares their knowledge and experience openly.


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5 More Tips On Using Olympus OM-D

Since my last video on sharing tips using Olympus OM-D went quite well, here is a sequel to that, with me sharing 5 more additional tips! I don't think any of these tips are well kept secrets, but I do admit Olympus cameras are not the easiest to navigate with, and certainly not the most user-friendly. I have conducted numerous workshops and photowalks, interacting with Olympus photographers from all levels, beginners to PRO shooters, and I was always surprised to find that there were some things which I shared that they did not know of, and some could potentially changed their shooting workflow!


Here is a quick rundown on what I shared in the video:

TIP 1: OK SHORTCUT BUTTON
The OK button is the much underrated and underused button on OM-D cameras. It is a magical shortcut that works in various situations. When using exposure compensation, by holding down the OK button, the exposure compensation value jumps back to zero. This also is applicable to a few other features, such as AF Target Area selection, moving it around the screen, the OK button being held down can bring it back to the center of the screen! Highlight and shadow control, the tone curves adjusting bright and dark regions in the photo, the OK button makes the curve straight again to the default position. Similarly, this can also be used when adjusting Color Creator.

TIP 2: BREAK SHUTTER SPEED LIMIT WITH SILENT SHUTTER
The mechanical shutter limit for high end OM-D cameras is 1/8000 second, and 1/4000 for E-M10 series. To break this limit, simply select silent shutter (under drive mode, with a "heart" shape symbol). For E-M1 Mark II and E-M1X, you can get up to 1/32,000 second shutter speed, which gives you two more additional stops of exposure advantage over 1/8000 second limit. This will be useful when using bright aperture lenses such as F1.2 PRO lenses under bright sunlight outdoor. The additional 2 stops advantage allows the use of wide open F1.2 to achieve the shallow depth of field effect while preventing the images from being overexposed.



Tip 3: INSTANT 1:1 PREVIEW
This should have been the default setting of OM-D cameras, but quick previewing to 100% view.
MENU --> COGS --> D2 --> PLAYBACK SETTINGS --> "EQUALLY VALUE"
Make sure you Press OK to confirm this setting.
Take note that if you shoot RAW, your 1 to 1 view is 5x magnification since the camera uses a smaller JPEG preview stored within the RAW file. If you shoot full JPEG size, or RAW + JPEG, then you get 7x magnification which is full 100% preview of the actual size of the image the sensor inside your camera can capture.

 TIP 4: C-AF WORKS ONLY WITH SEQUENTIAL L BURST
If you shoot with C-AF or C-AF + Tracking mode, and you are shooting continuous burst mode, make sure you only select L options, either mechanical (10FPS) or silent/electronic (18fps). The C-AF won't work with H sequential option (mechanical 15fps, silent 60fps). If you select H sequential burst and shoot C-AF, you only get the first frame in AF, and the rest of the images will be captured without any AF performed. Basically, S-AF only for H sequential mode.

TIP 5: SMALL AF TARGET AREA
This should be a common knowledge by now, but if you have missed out somehow, you can enable the tiny AF Target Area to achieve more accurate AF precision. At the AF selection screen, just turn the front command dial and cycle through different modes until the smallest one appears. If you are using an older OM-D camera (E-M1, E-M5 Mark II) then at the AF selection screen, press info, then cycle through the different modes.

I hope you guys find these tips useful! If you have more tips to share I would love to hear from you, leave it in the comments so everyone can benefit from you too!

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Everything Wrong With Micro Four Thirds

I have been wanting to write about this for a while now, but never got the chance to, as I have always focused my energy on creating more images during whatever little spare time I can get. However, now that I am focusing my energy and time  a little more on growing my YouTube channel, I thought this topic would make a very interesting video discussion. Disclaimer: I am an Olympus Visionary, I have been shooting exclusively Micro Four Thirds for many years, both professionally and also for personal photography projects. I do have a lot to say when it comes to Micro Four Thirds. This will not be about bashing Micro Four Thirds, or predicting gloom  and doom scenarios for any camera system (like many other sites or YouTubers did). This will be about my observation on the Micro Four Thirds system on the whole and how they (mostly Panasonic and Olympus) got a few things wrong over the years.


The first problem lies in the name itself: the decision to add the word "Micro" to Four Thirds was hurting the brand and perception in general. A micro of something refers to a millionth fraction, a micro meter means 0.000001 or 1/1,000,000 meter. When Olympus and Panasonic went mirrorless with the Four Thirds format, the new mirrorless cameras still use the exact same Four Thirds sized image sensor. The new Micro Four Thirds did not mean the sensor size became any smaller, it surely did not mean the size was reduced by 0.000001 times! Associating the description micro as the first word of the format, was misleading, and did not really help boost confidence in the system.

I understand that the Micro refers to the overall reduction of size and weight for cameras and lenses. We cannot ignore that we also describe the image sensor as Micro Four Thirds sensor.

You see, men are egoistical species, we can all agree on that. Size matters, or not, that is not the main question, but no man would want to be known to have something tiny or worse, "micro" in size. We cannot ignore the fact that currently photography is a men dominated sports at the moment, and the majority of male insecure users won't subscribe to the notion of having something micro, in or outside their pants.

The fact remains - the size of Four Thirds sensor was not that small, APS-C  sized image sensors were about 20-30% larger, not 2 times larger, not 50% larger, but marginally 20-30% only. Looking at any review sites it is obvious that the performance of modern Micro Four Thirds image sensors come very close to APS-C and even surpassing some when it comes to dynamic range, high ISO, and overall image quality. I acknowledge the best APS-C image sensor still has an edge over Micro Four Thirds, but the difference is not that huge.

We don't hear Canon naming their mirrorless cameras having "Micro APS-C" image sensor.  Sony and Fuji surely did not do so too. Because their mirrorless APS-C cameras have the same sized image sensor as the DSLR counterparts. Perhaps, instead of naming "Micro" Four Thirds, Olympus and Panasonic could have adopted a less harmful name, for example "Mirrorless" Four Thirds.



Panasonic and Olympus demonstrated lack-luster effort in working together. They should have collaborated closer. It was frustrating to notice incompatibility issues across systems. For example, some Panasonic lenses feature aperture control ring which won't work when mounted on Olympus camera bodies. Whose fault was it? Panasonic not allowing Olympus to use that feature so they can sell more of their own cameras, or Olympus intentionally disabling it so Olympus camera users will prefer Olympus lenses? Both companies were to be blamed, they should have worked together to enable full compatibility across the entire Micro Four Thirds system. There are no other (big) players, are there not?

Also both companies have dual image stabilization that maximizes the potential of the lens and body IS working in sync. You cannot enjoy this feature if we use mismatched camera and lens brands. I think this should not have happened, Panasonic and Olympus should have sat down together and ensure all their cameras and lenses can benefit from dual IS technology. Heck, why stop there, they can take a step further, both companies have a lot to bring to the table,  Panasonic being the video expert, and Olympus on their long history of camera-making know-hows, together they could have created products that can lead the industry. 

I don't think my dream of Olympus and Panasonic working together closer will happen anytime soon. Both are very different companies, with different priorities and direction. If only they would put the Micro Four Thirds community first.  
Remember the Olympus PEN E-P1? The first few entries into Micro Four Thirds by Panasonic and Olympus were lack-luster. The E-P1 was small and light, the trademark of being Micro Four Thirds, that end of bargain was met. The other aspects of the camera were less than spectacular, having slow AF (in comparison to any DSLR at that time), image quality trailing behind APS-C DSLR, poor LCD screen, no electronic viewfinder and honestly, nothing much to shout about. It was clear that these cameras were not targeted toward serious photographers, and nothing that professional photographers would use for their commercial shoots. 

It took Olympus another 4 years to get everything right - the release of Olympus OM-D EM5, which was the game-changer not just for Micro Four Thirds, but for mirrorless system overall. The E-M5 was weather-sealed, has EVF, new image sensor with performance rivaling even the best APS-C cameras at that time, blazing fast AF (as fast as 1D series from Canon, many comparisons were done), introduced new 5-Axis Image Stabilization, yet Olympus managed to pack all that in a truly compact form factor. 

Now, if only Olympus has introduced that E-M5 as the first Micro Four Thirds camera, instead of the predecessors, the larger photography community would have been more willing to adopt Micro Four Thirds. It also took Olympus and Panasonic a lot of time to release a larger selection of lenses. 



Do not get me wrong, I still firmly believe in Micro Four Thirds. I have used Olympus OM-D for many years now and I foresee myself to continue shooting with the same system for as long as I can. I treasure the smaller footprint and lightweight advantage.  I love the compact and sharp lenses.  I like all the advanced features that Olympus is striving to add into their cameras (5-Axis, IS, Live composite, pro capture mode, high res 50MP shot, etc). But that does not mean I do not have anything to complain either. 

Do you agree with my rants? Do you have more opinion to add? Do you see a future in Micro Four Thirds? I would love to hear from you!

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Lens Talk: Olympus M.Zuiko 12mm F2

Perhaps one of the least used lens from the entire M.Zuiko line up for me was the Olympus M.Zuiko 12mm F2 prime lens.  I have used the kit lens, or even the 9mm F8 bodycap lens more than the 12mm F2 lens. The reason? Was it not obvious, I could get similar field of view from many of Olympus' great standard zoom lenses, from the amazing 12-40mm F2.8 PRO to 12-100mm F4 IS PRO, the 12mm wide angle was well covered by these lenses. I thought, why not give this lens a spin during my recent exploration in the city, shooting some scenes of an interesting residential flat? I also made a video explaining my thoughts and justifications for owning a 12mm F2 lens, which is not a cheap lens to begin with.


The 12mm F2 was one of Olympus' first few mini sized prime lenses, released together with the Olympus PEN E-P3, before the era of OM-D cameras. The idea of compact sized prime lenses was genius, pairing them with smaller sized cameras like the PEN series. However, over the years Olympus has also made incredibly high performing standard zoom lenses, such as the 12-40mm F2.8 PRO. The 12-40mm lens is sharp, even at wide open, and if you were to show me images taken from 12-40mm vs 12mm side by side, I may have difficulty to tell each of them apart. The F2 vs F2.8 advantage is true and present but it is not that significant for wide angle framing, for wider angle lenses do not render shallow depth of field as easily as longer focal lengths, say 25mm or 45mm lenses. The F2 brighter aperture allows capture of more light for dim environment, but it does not make that huge of a difference because wide angle lenses are also less susceptible to camera shake compared to longer lenses. Furthermore the 5-Axis Image Stabilization from current Olympus cameras can sufficiently compensate for the loss of brightness in the PRO zoom lenses.

Having used the M.Zuiko 12mm F2 lens, it is an excellent wide angle prime lens. The optics render pleasing and sharp results from corner to corner, even from wide open F2, and gets better being stopped down to F2.8 and F4. Chromatic abberation, distortion, and any other technical lens flaws were well controlled, partially due to software correction. I really did not find anything to complain about this lens, except perhaps the hefty price tag, which really is difficult to justify since we can get very similar results from the existing beautiful standard zoom lenses. The only reason I can think of anyone getting the 12mm f2 is for the truly compact and light form factor, which I admit, no other 24mm equivalent lens in the world can match, and it does showcase the strength of what Micro Four Thirds and Olympus can do with lens design. It is only 130g in weight, it feels like nothing at all on a larger Olympus OM-D camera body.






I would really like to see more wide angle primes, maybe not at 12mm, but at wider coverage such as 10mm or even wider, make it 8mm if possible (non-fisheye of course). I don't mind if we do not get full F2 or F2.8 advantage, make  it F3.5 or F4, but have the wide angle prime produce excellent output, minimal to no distortion and great contrast/sharpness output. A compact prime with high performing optics, can really make a difference. I believe the demand for ultra wide angle is there, and if priced just right, the lens will surely be a huge hit!

There is nothing wrong with the M.Zuiko 12mm F2, really, and I do enjoy shooting with it, capturing beautiful images that I was happy with. I just could not help but also admit that I could achieve similar results with 12-40mm, or 12-100mm lens.






Do you have the Olympus M.Zuiko 12mm F2 prime lens? Do share your experience using it, I would love to hear from you!

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