Phase One Hands-On Event in Seattle – April 2014

April 28, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

Phase One IQ260 Achromatic - BulbPhase One IQ260 Achromatic - BulbPhase One IQ260 Achromatic - Pike Place, Seattle, WA

Since I started using Capture One Pro 7 I’ve signed up for the Phase One email newsletters, mainly to keep up with what some of the wonderful photographers are doing out there with Capture One and the Phase One medium format digital camera backs, and to get tips on how to better use the Capture One software. In early April on one of those newsletters I noticed that Phase One, in cooperation with Bear Images of Palo Alto, CA, were going to have free day-long workshops in both Portland and Seattle, on a weekend, where attendees could get their hands on Phase One cameras, digital backs, and lenses. The fact that attendees could bring their own CF card and return home with RAW images from the cameras, and that Bear was giving demonstrations on Capture One, was icing on the cake. I’ve always been interested in using medium format gear, and here was my chance to play with some of the best in the business for a few hours.

I jumped at the chance.

What follows is my experience with the various backs and lenses I used during this event. Note that this was a free event, open to anyone who registered, and I was not paid in any way by Phase One or Bear Images, nor did I receive anything other than the images I took with the cameras and the opportunity to get my greedy hands on some high-end gear. I’d like to extend my thanks to Phase One and Bear Images for this opportunity – they were great hosts, very informative, helpful and encouraging, and obviously passionate about the Phase One gear and software on hand.

Phase One IQ260 Achromatic - AlleyPhase One IQ260 Achromatic - AlleyPhase One IQ260 Achromatic, Pike Place, Seattle, WA

Pike Place

The event took place in a classroom above Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle. Anyone who has been to the market knows it is a bustling hive of activity, and offers a wealth of creative photographic opportunities. I would have been even more excited to try the gear up on Mt Rainier, for example, but Pike Place ended up working well. I arrived over an hour early on a clear Sunday morning and wandered around before the event with my Olympus OM-D E-M1, taking photos in the early morning light.

When I wandered up to the classroom just before the posted start time, I was surprised that the room itself was smaller than I expected; indeed, there were fewer attendees than I was anticipating as well, even after we gained a few who were wandering around lost and spotted us in a group moving throughout the market later in the day. I’d have thought there would be dozens of photographers in the Greater Seattle area, at least, who would have done just about anything to check out the Phase One gear. As it happens, though, fewer attendees meant more opportunities for those of us who did attend to use the gear we were most interested in.

We made introductions and laid out a rough plan for the day. Then we broke up into groups based on our general interest, distributing gear to go out and shoot (with a chaperon to keep an eye on the $40,000+ camera systems we were each holding). A few people went with a representative from Bear to work with a technical camera, set up on a tripod and carefully focused and shot for maximum detail. I elected to try the Phase One 645DF+ digital camera with a Schneider Kreuznach 55mm f/2.8 lens, using the IQ260 Achromaticic digital back.

Phase One IQ260 Achromatic - FlowersPhase One IQ260 Achromatic - FlowersPhase One IQ260 Achromatic - Pike Place, Seattle, WA

IQ260 Achromatic

Why the Achromatic? I’m a fan of black and white photography, for one, and I’ve also been very interested in the effective resolution bump you receive when the Bayer filter is stripped away and every single pixel is used to capture pure luminance information. In brief, almost all modern cameras use a Bayer filter or variation thereof in order to derive color information (an exception is Foveon sensors used by Sigma DP cameras, which record color information at every pixel by measuring the depth various wavelengths penetrate the silicon of the pixel); the Bayer filter, which puts alternating green, red and blue filters over individual pixels, prevents certain wavelengths from hitting certain pixels, thus providing the information the camera needs to ‘build’ (interpolate) the color of the image. Without the Bayer filter the pixels capture pure luminance information, and without the image-degrading process of interpolation to create the colors, the resulting effective resolution/perceive acutance increases.

The Leica MM is perhaps the most well-known camera to do this on the market, but Phase One actually did this before with an earlier Achromatic medium format digital back. The IQ260 Achromatic is their latest and most advance model, basically the same as the color IQ260 60-megapixel color back but without the Bayer filter. The Phase One representative on hand estimated that the per-pixel acutance that results from stripping off the Bayer filter is up to 4 times higher than the color back. I’ve seen online estimates – specific to the Leica MM – that the effective resolution bump is more like 20%. In either case, it’s significant enough to notice.

Phase One IQ260 Achromatic - News StandPhase One IQ260 Achromatic - News StandPhase One IQ260 Achromatic, Pike Place, Seattle WA

There is no IR filter on the Achromatic back, so the reps set me up with a 72mm screw-on IR filter that attached to the Schneider 55mm f/2.8 lens, which allowed me and the camera to be on the same page with regard to what it was seeing vs what I was seeing (for metering and exposure, etc). Both the lens and the back attached to the Phase One 645DF+ camera body, which is essentially a near-universal mount for various medium format backs and lenses, not just those manufactured by Phase One. This means that, like many medium format setups, the gear in my hand consisted of three-parts: lens; camera body with the controls, viewfinder and mirror/shutter assembly; and digital back with sensor and display (exceptions to this three-part setup in the medium format digital world include the Leica S system and the Pentaz 645D/Z, which are a bit more like traditional DSLRs with a camera body that houses the sensor/mirror/shutter and just has separate lenses, for a two-part setup).

We set out as a group – others using color backs with various lenses – to capture Pike’s Place.

My first impressions were that the entire three-part combination is large, but not unwieldy – with the lens and the back, the entire camera is well balanced, and the deep grip on the 645DF+ body was a pleasure to hold, with a nice, slightly tacky rubber skin. The main command dial to pick the modes – aperture priority, manual, etc – was straightforward, similar to most other professional cameras, and it was easy to use the front and rear dials, which changed aperture and shutter speed when in manual mode.

Phase One IQ260 Achromatic - No LoiteringPhase One IQ260 Achromatic - No LoiteringPhase One IQ260 Achromatic, Pike Place, Seattle, WA

However, to change ISO you have to dive into the menus using the touch-sensitive rear screen, which I did not find intuitive. There is definitely a learning curve there. Among the group we ended up swapping cameras a few times (popping out our CF cards and putting them in the new cameras) and the person who used the Achromatic before giving it back to me set the ISO to 3200. There was no visual indication of this in the viewfinder, and I didn’t check it, leading me to take several outdoor shots at 3200 when I should have been at the base ISO of 200. This wasn’t the end of the world – the photos are still usable, the quality at 3200 pretty good – but when viewed at 100% you can certainly tell the CCD at 3200 lost a fair amount of detail vs shots taken at ISO 200. Basically, as with most things in the Medium Format world, you just need to be more careful and deliberate when taking photos – check all your settings, make sure everything makes sense, before you push down on the shutter button.

The viewfinder is big and pretty. You’d expect it to be with the giant mirror and the large size of the lenses and imaging sensor. I wasn’t blow away, however – it didn’t seem that much larger than the optical viewfinder on the D800E, although of course I didn’t have the D800E on hand to directly compare (I probably, in retrospect, should have, for a number of reasons, including to more directly compare image quality results).

What I found with the Achromatic back is it really delivers the goods, especially at base ISO. Looking at the images that come out of Capture One Pro 7, the detail – when you nail focus and have a high enough shutter speed for hand-holding, as I was – is amazing. Crisp, highly delineated edges, deep shadows (once you adjust contrast and clarity in Capture One), and resolution to spare, showing things in the image that I certainly didn’t notice when I was there in person. Not having to interpolate the image means two adjacent pixels can theoretically be at completely different luminance values (if the scene demands), from 0 to 255, meaning the micro contrast can be very, very high. In short, I could really get used to this level of resolution and acutance.

Phase One IQ260 Achromatic - Places to GoPhase One IQ260 Achromatic - Places to GoPhase One IQ260 Achromatic, Pike Place, Seattle, WA

I found the 55mm f/2.8 to be up to the task of delivering pin sharp results even on this demanding sensor (with some mild smearing in detail at the corners at f/2.8). That said, I did find the camera missed focus a few times, even though it looked correct in the viewfinder – I’m not sure if that’s the lens or the 645 body or a combination thereof, but I definitely had a few occasions where I had the AF point square on my intended subject, got confirmation, fired, and found the actual focus was in front or behind the subject I wanted. Frustrating. Given the extremely thin depth of field possible with medium format, this can be a critical mistake, so I’d highly recommend checking focus on the rear display (yes, chimping, and zooming in to 100%) after critical shots. This aspect might make me hesitant to recommend the entire Phase One system without hesitation to, for example, wedding photographers, who need to have critical focus nailed during the decisive moment.

IQ280

The other back I was really interested in was the high-resolution color monster, the class leading 80 megapixel IQ280. This is a CCD back, but has a few upgrades from the first generation IQ180 CCD back that was, previously, the flagship of the Phase One line. The key spec is, of course, that 80 megapixel full-medium-format-frame CCD-supplied resolution.

Phase One IQ280 - WindowsPhase One IQ280 - WindowsPhase One IQ280, Pike Place, Seattle, WA (note: desaturated the colors in post)

I didn’t get to spend as much time with the IQ280 as I would have liked. I did find that it is a demanding sensor – of all the backs I used that day, it was the one with the least amount of leeway to any kind of poor technique, which makes sense given how small the pixels are and how high the resolution is. As I mention below the Post Processing section, I found quite a few shots that I took and others took with this and the IQ260 color back missed white balance almost completely, requiring correction in Capture One afterward.

Phase One IQ280 - Taking the ShotPhase One IQ280 - Taking the ShotPhase One IQ280, Pike Place, Seattle, WA

With proper technique, a tripod, and, say, the 80mm f/2.8 lens, this back has the highest potential image quality of any that Phase One currently offers. It really is their flagship or ‘halo’ back, and for good reason. But I think many prospective buyers, professional and otherwise, might find they like the IQ260 Color better (with its ability to take 1 hour long exposures) or the IQ260 Achromatic (for its unique output and ultra-high per pixel acutance).

IQ250

This one has lots of people excited. The first CMOS medium format back, this 50 megapixel sensor is manufactured by Sony and will be used in the upcoming Hassleblad and Pentax 645Z medium format cameras. The advantages of CMOS include superior high ISO performance, viable live view (great for landscape shooters, especially on, say, a technical camera), and even video shooting, as well as a very high listed dynamic range (14 stops, per Sony). CCD still has its passionate adherents, mainly because of the smoother, more film-like way it can render some scenes in terms of both color and luminosity, but CMOS seems to be the way of the future.

Phase One IQ250 - WidePhase One IQ250 - WidePhase One IQ250, Pike Place, Seattle, WA

I didn’t use the IQ250 as much. A cropped sensor, you really need to use a 645DF+ camera that has a focusing screen that shows the crop lines in the viewfinder, and (of course) remember to frame inside those lines! I did try it out, and although I enjoyed my time with it, if I were to purchase a back I’d personally go after the IQ260 (for CCd rendering, color and extremely long exposures), IQ260 Achromatic (for all that lovely black and white acutance), or resolution leader IQ280 (for 80 megapixels of color). But I can see where the CMOS advantages of the IQ250 would be a big deal for many shooters, especially anyone who strongly needs a good live view and/or shoots at high ISOs.

Handling and Shooting Experience

Medium format places entirely new demands on you as a photographer. That said, it isn’t necessarily true that you must use a tripod with mirror lock up to achieve sharp shots, any more than it is with the Nikon D800E. Yes, doing so will get you the best results, and more consistently. But with sufficient shutter speed (and, especially with the IQ250, bumping up your ISO), you can hand hold and get tack-sharp results. I’d generally be comfortable recommending about 1/2x the medium format focal length as your recommended shutter speed. So for the 55mm lens, you can get great results, consistently, at 1/110 second shutter speed. It also helps that the big body dampens vibrations and helps you keep it braced and still against your body.

Phase One IQ260 Achromatic - ChainsPhase One IQ260 Achromatic - ChainsPhase One IQ260 Achromatic, Pike Place, Seattle, WA

It is a big body. It’s heavy, and you’ll feel it after a while, but I didn’t feel like it was significantly worse than the D800E. The shutter and mirror flip-up sounds are about what you expect, not too loud but certainly not RX1R leaf-shutter quiet – again, about on par with the D800E. The camera feels solid in your hands – and fit someone with big hands like me quite well – and with a lens and digital back attached it achieves good balance. The shutter button felt a little odd to me on all the bodies I tried during the event: I appreciated that it has a threaded hole for soft shutter releases or wired remotes, but the button itself seemed to have some play in it, moving slightly from side to side within the surrounding housing. This is a bit of a nitpick but, well, you’re paying a heck of a lot so you expect the best in all aspects of the system, and not something that feels in any way cheap.

I noticed the digital backs and the camera appeared to have some small space between them when they were attached, but the attachment itself is very secure, with thick metal pieces that, when you figure out how they work, slide into place and hold the back securely to the body. The digital backs themselves are little bricks of smooth metal that feel like they could survive being driven on by a truck.

The Lenses

I had read some so-so reviews of the Schneider Kreuznach lenses that are designed and manufactured for Phase One. The most prevalent theme was that they just couldn’t measure up to some of the medium format offerings from Hassleblad or Zeiss, and certainly didn’t hold a candle to Leica S glass. Unfortunately I can’t offer conclusive comparisons vs other medium format glass here, because this is the first medium format gear I’ve used. Instead I have to go by top notch lenses I’ve used for smaller format sensors, such as the better Nikkor and Zeiss ZF lenses for Nikon 135 full frame, the Panasonic Leica 42.5mm f/1.2 for micro four thirds, the Zeiss 35mm f/2 on the Sony RX1R, etc.

Phase One IQ280 - Flower ShoppingPhase One IQ280 - Flower ShoppingPhase One IQ280, Pike Place, Seattle, WA

From that perspective the Schneider lenses I used performed, generally, quite well. As mentioned above I could see some detail smearing on the edges and corners of the frame using the 55mm when shot at f2.8. From f/5.6 to f/11 it is blisteringly sharp.

They were all heavy, solid, and well built. They generally focused fast – not lightning quick, probably a little slower than the OM-D E-M1 in most circumstances. Primarily their focus is on optical superiority, being intended to match or exceed the 80 megapixel resolution of the IQ280, and from what I can tell they largely succeed at doing that, especially in the center 75% or so of the image.

The 55mm f/2.8, despite some weakness in the corners, was my favorite, probably because it is approximately equal to a 35mm lens on a 135mm full frame like the D800E, and I ‘see’ in that focal range quite well. I enjoyed using it on the Achromatic, and it delivered good results. Whether due to the sensor or that lens, or both, I had by far the highest number and largest percentage of “keepers” using the 55mm with the IQ260 Achromatic. That said, I did find one fault with this lens: when the sun (or any very strong light source) is in or even near the imaging circle, the lens suffers from very strong veiling flare that will wreck the image. Basically you have to be extra vigilant when shooting toward a strong light source, as the coatings don't appear to be as effective as, say, Nikon's Nano Coatings or Zeiss T* coatings in reducing haze and flare.

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Phase One IQ260 Achromatic - WaitingPhase One IQ260 Achromatic - WaitingPhase One IQ260 Achromatic, Seattle, WA

The 28mm f/4.5 lens was fun to use as an ultra-wide (remember it’s significantly wider than a 28mm lens on a 135 ‘full frame’ camera like the D800E – more like 17mm), and it seemed to deliver great results when stopped down to f/8 or f/11. At f/4.5 to f/5.6 there is significant vignetting present (you can correct this quickly in Capture One), and definite smearing of details at the edges and corners, to a greater degree than the 55mm. Pixel peepers would not be pleased on this score. The lens also has some definite distortion at all apertures (also correctable in Capture One), with elements near the edges getting stretched in appearance. None of these things are particularly surprising – ultra wide angle lenses are hard to design and tend to have vignetting and distortion, and the size of a medium format sensor just makes the design that much more difficult. That said, you are still paying a lot for the 28mm (over $4000 new) and at a maximum aperture of only f/4.5, I think it’s fair to expect a bit better performance.

Phase One IQ260 - Out of the WindowPhase One IQ260 - Out of the WindowPhase One IQ260, Seattle, WA

The 80mm f/2.8 (approximately 50mm equivalent on a 135 camera) was probably the strongest lens optically of the bunch, when used with proper technique and/or a bracing against something. I found this lens – especially coupled with the IQ280 – very difficult to keep sufficiently steady, with blurring occurring for me even at shutter speeds of 1/100 sec. That is probably a combination of the longer focal length with the higher, more demanding resolution of the IQ280 back, but the fact remains I had many more keepers – tack sharp – with the 55mm f/2.8 and the IQ260 Achromatic, even with shutter speeds down to 1/50 sec. Hence my general recommendation to use 1/2x the medium format focal length when hand holding to get the best results. However, when I nailed everything with the 80mm f/2.8 and the IQ280 back, the details are incredible, sharp edge to edge, and it really provides that “medium format look” with great subject separation from the background and lovely rendering of color and bokeh.

Phase One IQ280 - Back of the SignPhase One IQ280 - Back of the SignPhase One IQ280, Pike Place, Seattle, WA

I only briefly played with the relatively new (and $8000+) 240mm f/4.5 leaf shutter lens, on an IQ260 (color) back. I don’t feel like I used it enough to give much of an evaluation, and since I was hand-holding (even braced against a window sill as best I could) the images I did take show pixel-level blur. Basically it seemed like a lens that demands a tripod.

That was all the lenses I was able to play with – unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to use the 35mm f/3.5 (22mm equivalent), which would have been very interesting to compare vs the 28mm, especially in terms of corner performance and vignetting. It also would have been fun to try out the 120mm f/4.0 Macro, though I would have liked, of course, to have had access to a tripod, mirror lock up, and more time to really use that lens properly.

Files and Post Processing

I use Capture One Pro 7 for all my RAW processing now anyway, so naturally I used it for the files from these Phase One backs. It took a moderate amount of time to load the RAW files from the shoot (about 200 total) into a new session on Capture One, but once loaded the preview generation and editing responsiveness has been just about exactly the same as I’m used to with RAW files from the Nikon D800E (on the same computer), at least for the IQ260 and IQ250 files. The IQ280 files definitely made my computer chug a bit more.

Phase One IQ250 - Street LightPhase One IQ250 - Street LightPhase One IQ250, Pike Place, Seattle, WA

I noticed even during the session when the Phase One reps showed off the capabilities of Capture One using files people had shot from earlier that same day that the white balance seemed to be off with decent regularity. This isn’t an issue with the D800E, or RX1R, or OM-D E-M1, which all tend to be pretty spot-on with white balance (on auto). In fact, with those cameras I usually only adjust white balance for creative reasons. Here, however, on the color files I shot and others shot, it was clear that white balance adjustment on a per-image basis was necessary. Perhaps an issue inherent to the Phase One backs? I’m not sure. Pike Place, especially inside, is a challenging environment in terms of light, with tungsten and neon artificial lights contrasting with sunlight pouring in from outside, but having spent an hour shooting with the E-M1 earlier that same day in the same areas I had far fewer white balance problems.

Outdoor shots generally worked better, but I still had to make drastic white balance adjustments on some shots I took of the surrounding streets and buildings of Seattle to get them to look natural at all (usually the issue was the white balance was far too warm, going into sepia territory for the blue skies).

I’d also point out, again, the occasional missed focus with the autofocus system. Even checking the back display after shooting I still missed some shots where focus is obviously off (noticeable once seen on my computer display).

When everything came together on the day of the shoot, however, Capture One Pro 7 showed its mettle and spit out processed images that are highly detailed and overall lovely to behold.

Overall

Medium format cameras are notoriously pricey, and Phase One camera systems are no exception. Pentax, with their 645D and upcoming 645Z, are trying to shift that paradigm, and I’m all for it. Why? Because I, as a mere mortal with mere mortal funding, would love to own a camera that delivers the image quality of these Phase One backs and Schneider lenses. But at the moment these camera systems are beyond my means.

Phase One IQ260 Achromatic - LightPhase One IQ260 Achromatic - LightPhase One IQ260 Achromatic, Pike Place, Seattle, WA

Are they perfect? No. And for a price that – for back, camera, and one lens – could get you a low end BMW, you have a right to expect close to perfection in your chosen photographic solution. I think focus accuracy and automatic white balance both need some work, based on my admittedly brief hands-on time with the system. I also think having more physical controls on the camera body (particularly ISO and exposure compensation) would go a long way. Having to dive through menus felt clunky and slow – I’m sure you get used to it, but physical controls would just work better. And, again given their expense, some of the lenses could perform better.

It is interesting to me how the ultra-high-end of electronics like cameras tend to work. In a way it’s similar to high-end audio, which can get much more ridiculous than anything in the still photography world. You can pay $300 now for a little boombox or a pair of bookshelf speakers and a cheap receiver that will give you passable sound quality that, for many people, is totally fine. This might equate to a $150 point-and-shoot camera. Then you can go rapidly up in cost while simultaneously experiencing big gains in sound (photo quality); e.g. you can pay $8000 for great (but hardly top of the line) speakers and a solid receiver that will give you pounding sound for your movies and smooth clarity on your music, and which will generally blow away all your friends. Even people who don’t care a whit about sound quality will be able to tell the difference if you played something on that $300 setup and then on your $8000 setup. That would be, in photograph terms, the jump from the point and shoot to the $5000 for a full frame DSLR and a couple good (“pro”) lenses from Canon or Nikon. The image quality change is apparent even to those who know absolutely nothing about cameras or photography.

Phase One IQ260 Achromatic - WallPhase One IQ260 Achromatic - WallPhase One IQ260 Achromatic, Pike Place, Seattle, WA

Then you go up, and the curve mapping cost to perceived gains starts to get skewed. You have to spend tons more to get incremental gains, until with highest-end audio you can spend $400,000 for two speakers and not even start on the input gear you need to effectively drive those speakers (not to mention pay for the crane you need to get the two-ton speakers into your mansion, cough cough). Will you hear a difference compared to the $8000 set? Of course. In the right room with the right acoustics playing a high quality source through ultra-high end equipment (pre-amp, processor, amps), the $400,000 speakers will blow you away. I’ve heard speakers like that, in person in a decent room playing off a Super Audio CD, and it was incredible.

Phase One cameras are not quite at the extravagance level of $400,000 speakers. But the analogy here is that the difference in image quality between them and, say, the D800E is not as profound as the price difference might initially suggest it should be. Is there a difference? Yes. Put an IQ280 file – shot with impeccable technique – against a D800E file of the same scene shot at the same time by the same photographer, also with a great lens and impeccable technique, and you will see a difference in the level of detail in the IQ280, in the way the CCD sensor renders, in the thin depth of field afforded by the bigger sensor, etc. Even someone who doesn’t care about photography could tell the difference if you showed them the files side by side, especially printed at 36inx24in or larger.

Phase One IQ260 Achromatic - PeppersPhase One IQ260 Achromatic - PeppersPhase One IQ260 Achromatic, Pike Place, Seattle, WA

But – and here the high end audio analogy falls down a bit – the Phase One gear is also more demanding (requiring strong technique, careful preparation, etc) and it is less capable in some ways than that Nikon D800E or Canon 5D Mark III, despite being ten times the price. Both the Nikon and Canon cameras are faster, have more physical controls, are friendlier to use, show more information about each capture to the end user, autofocus more accurately, have more consistent automatic white balance, have far more autofocus points to use, etc, etc.

Maybe the better analogy, then, is the family sedan vs the high end, specially tuned sports car. The sedan gets you there, in comfort, with amenities, and makes things as easy on you as it can, demanding very little from you except safe, careful driving, cheap gas, and the occasional oil change. The sports car might cost twenty times as much and not even have power windows or air conditioning, and demand multi-thousand dollar tune ups on a regular basis and high-octane gas, but that’s because it’s built to do one thing very well: drive fast. Similarly, an OM-D E-M1 or a D800E has the comfort and amenities and tries to make things easier on the photographer – although of course it’s still up to you to compose and manipulate the camera to get the shot you want. Then the Phase One systems come in and are streamlined monsters built to do one thing very well: deliver image quality. Getting there is entirely up to you.

Phase One IQ260 Achromatic - Hanging OutPhase One IQ260 Achromatic - Hanging OutPhase One IQ260 Achromatic, Seattle, WA

I own a Nikon D800E. Do I still want a Phase One system? Of course. Just like I’d love a Nissan GT-R to complement my boring, predictable, dependable Toyota Camry, or a pair of $400,000 speakers to complement my aging but capable Infinity Betas. Personally, if given a choice on a Phase One back, I might even specialize things even further and get the IQ260 Achromatic, because I loved the results that much, despite it “only” shooting in monochrome. But a Nissan GT-R or $400,000 speakers are not in the cards for me, and, most likely, neither is a Phase One system.


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