digital underwater photography
~for the beginner~
Since the introduction of the digital camera to consumers, the technology of digital cameras has improved and the prices for these cameras have come down a great deal. Many of the entry-level digital cameras are capable of producing an eight-by-ten photograph at the same quality or better of that of a film camera. And camera makers like Nikon, Canon, and Olympus have devoted quite a lot of attention to making underwater housings for their respective cameras, allowing consumers to take their digital cameras underwater with them at a very reasonable price.
In the past, underwater photography was for the very experienced photographer with a rather large budget since it was such an obscure hobby. Up until the 1990’s the only major camera company that had an underwater line was Nikon, and it was very expensive and extremely complicated.
But now, most of the digital cameras that are available have an underwater housing dedicated to that specific camera at a very reasonable price. And scuba diving is becoming very popular as well. This means that more and more consumers will begin taking underwater photographs with their digital cameras. But taking good digital underwater photographs is a lot different than taking good above-water photographs. I hope this manual will help you understand what you need to do in order to take great digital underwater photographs.
The underwater environment presents some major obstacles for the digital underwater photographer.
Visibility is a major part of digital underwater photography. Water is 800 times denser than air, and this creates some major problems when capturing images underwater.
The first major obstacle that one must overcome to be able to photograph marine life is the tendency of water to suspend small particles. As more of these small particles accumulate, getting in between the viewer and the object being viewed, the visibility of the water deteriorates. Many times these particles show up in underwater photographs effectively ruining a great shot. This is known as backscatter. Backscatter in underwater photographs becomes much more visible when a flash is used, but it can be minimized by placing the flash away from the lens (assuming you have an off-camera flash).
Because the on-camera flash is so close to the lens of the camera, you will achieve far better results if you have an off-camera flash. The flash, or strobe, illuminates the particles and in the photo they show up as white dots or speckles (see photo at left). The closer the strobe is placed to the lens of the camera the worse the backscatter is. This is because the particles reflect the light of the strobe back in the general direction of the strobe. So if the strobe is above and to the left of the camera’s lens the light bouncing off the particles will be reflected more toward the strobe and less toward the lens. Another factor that influences the amount of backscatter is the amount of water in between the strobe and the subject. At a far distance from the subject, there will be more water, and thus more particles. The closer you are to your subject, the less backscatter there will be. If the water is particularly turbid, you will want to shoot at a very close range (known as macro), or use only ambient light.
Another issue with visibility is the presence of thermoclines. A thermocline occurs the surface water, being much warmer from the sun, touches the colder, deeper water. The result is a very hazy effect which can turn your photos blurry. It can have a cool “artsy” effect, but for the most part, you will want to avoid them by being above or below the hazy water.
Light behaves a lot different underwater than it does above water. In order to take good underwater photographs, the different properties of light must be understood as they relate to water.
Quality and Quality of Light
When sunlight hits the surface of the water, all of the colors of the spectrum are present. But as you go deeper, the visible colors start to drop off one by one. The first colors to go are the reds and oranges. This effect is noticeable even as shallow as 15 feet in crystal-clear water. The water absorbs the reds and oranges first eventually leaving only the blues and greens. It is for this reason the ocean appears blue (you may have learned that the ocean was blue due to the reflection of the sky, but that accounts for a very little of the blue color and only if you are standing at certain angles).
In order to compensate for the loss of these warm colors you have a few different options. You can introduce artificial lights in the form of a strobe or on-camera flash, thus restoring the full spectrum of light. This is the option that most underwater photographers use since it not only restores the warmer colors, but it allows you to shoot under darker conditions without using long shutter speeds.
You can also use color-correcting filters. I have not had much experience with these, but if you are on a limited budget and stay relatively shallow it may be a good option. Filters also will reduce the amount of light going into your lens, and without a strobe or on-camera flash, that may result in having to use long shutter speeds that may result in a blurred picture. Popular new filters called Magic Filters seem to provide very good results and can be found at: <http://www.magic-filters.com>.
Your third option is to go without a filter and shoot using just ambient light. Sometimes the warmer colors can be accentuated later in the editing process, but remember, they can only be accentuated; you cannot add color that was never there. Other shots look very good using only ambient light, but I find that those are hard to come by, and you severely limit yourself without a strobe or at least a color-correcting filter. er.
Another odd property of water is the refraction, or bending of light. If you have ever stuck a pencil in a glass of water (think back to elementary school), you would have noticed that the pencil appears to be bent when it meets the water. This refraction of light occurs when viewing objects through an air/water interface. Looking through a mask underwater (another air/water interface), everything appears to be 25 percent bigger. The same air/water interface occurs where the window for the camera lens meets the water, or lens port, resulting in objects appearing 25 percent bigger. This, actually, is not that big of a problem (and even can be advantageous in some cases) since with digital cameras you can view the image on the LCD screen. But it becomes a problem when shooting at wide angles because the image can appear distorted around the edges. To avoid distorted edges when shooting wide angle, a curved or dome port is used in front of the lens. These lens ports will be discussed later.
Various other difficulties arise when photographing in an underwater environment. These obstacles include pressure, condensation and buoyancy.
Since water is 800 times denser than air, it can create tremendous pressure even at shallow depth. If you will recall from your Scuba diving certification, every 33 feet you descend, another atmosphere of pressure is added. This pressure affects your body, and also the camera that you have in the water-proof housing. If you take an inflatable ball down to 33 feet (one additional atmosphere) it will be half the size, and for every 33 feet more the size of the ball will halve. The same thing is occurring inside your camera housing. The pressure outside the camera is exerting a lot of force on the housing. So your housing has to be very strong, and you have to be sure there are no places where water can seep in and destroy your camera.
Another problem that underwater photographers have is condensation on the inside of the camera housing where the digital camera is. To avoid this, try to put your camera inside the housing in an air-conditioned room, or a place that has little moisture in the air. Another thing you can do is insert a silica packet or two inside the camera housing at a place where they are not blocking any buttons or the lens and flash (like on the bottom).
Silica packets are the little white packets that they put in leather products, food products, electronics and other products to absorb moisture. They can be bought specifically for underwater photographers, but the ones you get at the store work just as well and are free. After a few uses of the silica packets, they become full, and cannot de-humidify any more. Do not throw them away; just place them in the oven at 200˚ F for about 1-1.5 hours, and they will be ready to use again. Be sure to store them in a plastic bag so they are ready to de-humidify when you need them.As an alternative to silica packets, you can buy packets made especially for underwater photography to control condensation as well as buy time should you find that water is leaking into the housing. Check them out at: Leak Insure. Also, some housings come with anti-fog solution that you rub on the inside of the lens port to reduce the effects of condensation.
Digital underwater photography is a very equipment-intense hobby. Along with the expense of all the equipment also comes the maintenance. Below, I have discussed the various types of digital underwater photography equipment and their basic maintenance.
Digital SLRs or D-SLRs are by far the best choice when it comes to digital underwater photography. The D-SLR allows the user much more control over the photograph than a digital compact camera, but a D-SLRs, and their accessories are more expensive than the digital compact camera. It is good to buy a camera system that you can grow into instead of saving a little money and limiting your potential as an underwater photographer.
D-SLR Housing System
Once you decide on a D-SLR, you need a housing system. There are a growing number of manufacturers that provide good D-SLR housing systems. Here are a few of the more popular housing systems and their websites:
· Aquatica http://aquatica.ca/
· Epoque http://www.epoque-japan.com/e-index.htm
· Ikelite http://www.ikelite.com/
· Sea & Sea http://www.seaandsea.com/
· SeaCam http://www.seacam.com/en/profil/secam_heute.htm
· Subal http://www.subal.com/index_en.php
D-SLR lenses come in many shapes and sizes. Underwater, a 35mm lens is approximately is the focal length that is closest to that of your vision. But the majority of D-SLR use a 20mm or less because with those lenses, it is especially easy to get very close to your subject and minimize the amount of water that is in-between the camera and the subject.
The other useful lens in digital underwater photography is the macro lens. The macro lens allows the camera to focus on extremely small and close subjects, of which the marine environment has no shortage of. Macro and wide angle photography will be discussed in greater depth in following sections.
A lens port is essential for digital underwater photography in that it covers the lens and corrects for refraction. There are two types of lens ports: a flat port, and a curved or dome port. The flat port is primarily for lenses over 28mm focal length. There is no need to correct the refraction effect on these lenses because no distortion will occur, because they are not wide-angle. Plus, because things will appear 25% larger through the air/water interface, it can be helpful for macro photography.
A dome or curved port is needed when a wide-angle lens is used. This will eliminate distortion due to refraction, and will maintain the viewing angle of the lens that you are using.
Digital Point & Shoot
A cheaper alternative to a D-SLR is to use a digital compact camera (also known as a point and shoot digital camera or a prosumer digital camera. These cameras are entry level cameras and they do not provide as much flexibility or control over your images as the D-SLR provide. But excellent pictures can be taken using these digital compact cameras.
Housings for these digital compacts are usually made by the camera manufacturer and are relatively good quality as well as a good price. The housing that is developed by the manufacturer usually can accommodate the on-camera flash. But the flash is very close to the lens and when there is a lot of particulate in the water this can result in backscatter. These flashes are usually not very powerful underwater and need to be pretty close to the subject to restore all of the lost color.
With both a D-SLR and a digital compact camera, a strobe is almost always a necessity. Choosing the right strobe for your system is vital to creating good photographs. These are a few things that you should think about when choosing a strobe for your digital underwater system.
Angle of Coverage
If you are shooting with a 20mm lens and the strobe can only illuminate a 28mm lens angle, then your photo will appear dark in some parts. A way around this is to add a diffuser. A diffuser is a piece of white plastic that is placed over the strobe that difuses the light out in order to cover a wider area. This works well, but it takes away some of the power of your strobe.
Strobe power is another important factor in selecting your strobe. You do not want a strobe that is not powerful enough. You can tell how powerful a strobe is by the manufacturer’s guide number. A guide number tells the user the relative output of the strobe for comparisons with other strobes. Generally, guide numbers are between 15-52. Make sure that the guide number is an underwater guide number and not an above-water number. If only an above-water guide number is given, divide by three.
Another thing to take into consideration is the size of the strobe. One that is too bulky might be powerful, but it can also be a hassle to travel with and may just wind up illuminating too much backscatter for good photos to be created.
Using a strobe with a digital camera is a very complicated situation. Before digital, film users could attach a strobe to their camera and use what is called TTL exposure. This ensured an almost perfect exposure all the time. But digital cameras use different technology to judge exposures, and different manufactures use different technology, thus creating a real problem for strobe manufactures. To correct the problem, many digital underwater photographers use strobes that have various power settings and, based on the shot, adjust them to what they think would be appropriate. My strobe, the Sea & Sea YS90, Auto has 12 power settings that let me adjust the amount of light coming out of it. After a few dives, it is pretty easy to guess which power setting to use for which shot. The good thing about digital is if you guess wrong, you can see it in the LCD screen, and adjust the settings and re-shoot; whereas with digital, you figure out what you did wrong only after you get the film developed.
There are always technical advances being made, and I am sure that eventually there will be systems that can use TTL techniques or better to obtain a nearly perfect exposure, but until then, using a strobe that has many different power settings is what digital underwater photographers have to do.
Ah, o-rings. They can be your best friend or your worst enemy in digital underwater photography. O-rings are rubber rings that prevent water seeping into your electrical equipment. They sit inside grooves around the various openings of your camera. If a leak or flood occurs, nine times out of ten it will happen because of a faulty o-ring or bad o-ring maintenance.
A flood is an underwater photographer’s worst nightmare. For film shooters, floods were serious, but many times the equipment could be salvaged. With digital this is not the case. If water gets into your digital camera, chances are, it will be destroyed and the experience should be chalked up as one very expensive lesson learned. But, with the proper o-ring maintenance and care, the event of a flood can be severely reduced.
In order to work properly, o-rings must not dry out. They are kept lubricated by o-ring grease supplied by the manufacturer. First, take the o-ring out of the groove gently and inspect for any cracks, pieces of sand or dust, or any abnormalities such as places that were pinched by the housing. Apply a small amount (rice or pea size depending on the size of your o-ring) to the o-ring and spread all over the ring with your fingers. Be sure to cover all areas of the ring. If you do not keep your o-ring moist, cracks can occur. Also, do not apply too much grease because an over-greased o-ring can attract dirt, sand and hair creating a place for water to seep into your camera. Before placing the o-ring back into the groove, examine both sides of the groove to be sure there is nothing that would disrupt the integrity of the tight seal made by the o-ring. Some o-rings can only have certain types of grease applied to them, so be sure not to lose the tube, and do not mix and match greases.
O-rings are on the camera housing, strobe and connections and the manual should be read on your equipment for further, detailed instructions regarding their o-ring maintenance. Remember, floods do occur even if your o-ring maintenance is impeccable, so plan for the worst and hope for the best. And if you are very accident prone, many diving insurance companies such as DAN provide quality flood insurance.
Other Equipment Maintenance
Salt water and sun are very corrosive to underwater photography equipment. Unfortunately, underwater photography is almost exclusively done in the ocean under the hot sun, so some basic preventative maintenance needs to be done to minimize corrosion. Here are some basic rules:
· Keep and service equipment inside in an air conditioned room if available
· When in the sun, keep your camera in the shade or wrapped in a damp towel
· Avoid excessive opening and closing of your camera housing and strobe, this minimizes the amount of debris that can collect on your o-rings
· If convenient, bring just the camera housing on a dive before you put the camera in it. This way you can detect any leaks before you put the camera in the housing.
· Put your setup in a bucket of fresh water before and in-between dives.
· Thoroughly rinse all equipment when you are done diving. This means pressing all of the buttons and twisting the knobs in fresh water to make sure all of the salt is out. Soaking equipment for extended periods is also a good idea.
If you are lucky enough to live close to good underwater photography spots, than more power to you. But the majority of people have to travel long distances to practice their newfound hobby.
Where to go
There are literally thousands of places to scuba dive. Some close to home and some not so close. Do not rule out those freshwater lakes, streams or dams that are close to home. They can be easy to get to and provide good photo opportunities as well. Here are some other ideas.
Scuba diving liveaboards are a great option to see a lot of places in a small amount of time. Liveaboards are boats that take scuba divers to various destinations usually staying one to two days at each destination. Sometimes the destination is out in the middle of an ocean with a reef below. While at the destination, you dive the reef anywhere from one to five times. The liveaboards have a crew that cooks and cleans for you and provides a fun atmosphere. There are expensive liveaboards that provide many amenities and fancy meals, and there are those liveaboards that are a small sailboat, with no freshwater to shower in for the more adventurous.
Another option is to fly to one destination and dive the various reefs around the destination. You will need to find a dive agency at that destination that can supply you with equipment and preferably take you out on a boat, because most reef sites are not accessible from the shore. Find a dive shop that has a good reputation. Ask around your hotel and do some research on the internet about various companies.
A great spot to start (if you live in the United States) are places around the Caribbean or Florida. They are relatively cheep to get to, and have some of the best diving in the world.
Traveling both domestically and internationally can be a real hassle especially if you have a lot of equipment to lug around. Here are some tips to help stay safe and hopefully avoid any bad experiences.
If you go to any exotic destination that is new to you be sure do your research on it so that you have no big surprises when you get there. An excellent safety and travel website is the US Department of State’s travel page located at <http://travel.state.gov/index.html>. It will inform you of any travel restrictions, safety issues and health issues that may arise at your destination.
If you are new to digital underwater photography, it may be tempting to flash your new hobby around by putting manufacturer’s stickers on your luggage or buying expensive scuba gear bags to carry your equipment. Don’t. It lets everybody know that you have very expensive things in that luggage. While it might start up a conversation or two, it will not be worth it if your luggage gets stolen or broken into. Try to pack in very inconspicuous bags. It is also helpful if you tie a bright colored rope or tape around your luggage so you can spot it easily on the luggage carousel. Also, instead of buying a very expensive hard-shelled carrying case for your photography equipment, experiment with an old Igloo cooler. They can be just as indestructible, and if you wrap your equipment up in clothes for cushion, they accomplish the exact same thing.
The possibilities for subject matter underwater are endless. Good subjects are everywhere underwater, but the key to a good photograph is composition. Here are some basic rules for composition.
Rule of Thirds
A very basic rule of composition that results in eye-pleasing images is the rule of thirds. Photographs are not very interesting if the subject matter falls smack-dab in the middle of the frame. Imagine your picture space divided up like a tic-tac-toe board.
If you put your subject at a place where two lines intersect, the image will have a greater composition and impact on the viewer. This creates a focal point for the viewer. The viewer’s eyes immediately fall on that point and then explore the rest of the image. If you can get your focal point at the intersection of these lines, than you should make an effort to do so. If you have two subjects try to place them both at one of these compositionally strong points. A subject that goes diagonally through the picture intersecting two of the points, is also a very pleasing image.
Another composition technique is the use of negative space. Negative space is the space around your subject. Avoid having a very busy negative space. A lot of negative space can be used resulting in a very dramatic photo. Usually, to isolate your subject, your negative space will be the open water, darkness, or the reef.
Many new digital underwater photographers forget that their pictures do not have to be all horizontal in orientation. Many times photographs will be much more pleasing if you turn your camera on its side. This may require an adjustment of the strobe. Vertical shots are very good for getting the subject at the bottom of your frame and the sun shining through the water at the top of the frame. Since both the sun and the subject can be placed at a point using the rule of thirds, this can be a very good composition.
Break the Rules
These composition techniques are to just get you started. They do not have to be (and should not be) followed religiously, they are only recommendations to get you started. Experiment on your own to find what kind of composition pleases you. Some of the best photographs created break every compositional rule in the books.
Here the various types of underwater photography are discussed.
Many books will tell you that the key to underwater photography is to get extremely close, and when you think your close enough, get closer. Wide angle allows just that. Wide angel is the main type of photography that is used underwater. Wide angle photography uses a 28mm focal length or wider. This allows the photographer to get really close to his subject minimizing the amount of water that is in between them. Wide angle lenses also offer the greatest depth of field.
Wide angle is used generally for bigger subjects such as whales, dolphins, turtles or reef scenes. When using wide angle lenses, a good compositional technique to keep in mind is get low, and close. It is a good idea to shoot wide angle when there is relatively little turbidity so there is no backscatter.
When using a strobe and shooting wide angle, it is a good idea to use a diffuser on your strobe so that the angle of coverage for the strobe is greater than the angle of coverage for the lens.
If the seas or rough, or you hear that there is bad visibility, macro is an excellent option. Macro is used for small, very close subjects. The ocean is full of tiny critters that make excellent photo opportunities. Backscatter is usually not a problem because you are very close to the subject, thus minimizing the particle in between.
Many new scuba divers and underwater photographers will miss a lot of the small interesting things on a dive because they are scanning the horizon for the big things: sharks, turtles, whales and the like. While those are not always a guarantee on a dive, the small things are. I make it a point to look and try to find the small creatures, while not worrying about the big ones because somebody in your group or your buddy will see the big creatures and (hopefully) point them out to you.
Since the underwater environment is extremely colorful, many underwater photographers only shoot in color. If you want to really explore your creativity, try creating black and white images. This has become easier for digital photographers than it was in the film era. Digital allows us to shoot everything in color, and later on take the color out on a computer with a editing program. This can create some very striking images. Black and white really looks good with photos of shipwrecks because it creates a very eerie feeling for the viewer.
Ambient light photographs are another favorite among photographers. Ambient light photos are created without the use of your strobe and instead, using the sun’s light. Generally you have to be pretty shallow to get the most out of the sunlight. The resulting photo will be very bluish green and it can create a very interesting feeling to the photograph.
So you have just got back home with a bunch of digital underwater photos. The next step is editing the photos.
A benchmark in digital photo editing software is Adobe Photoshop. It is a very comprehensive program and is what the vast majority of photographers use to edit their photographs. If you do not want to spend a large amount of money on a photo editing program like Adobe Photoshop, there are many other programs available to use. It is very helpful if your program includes a clone tool, a levels option, saturation, and contrast controls.
There are many different tips, tricks and techniques in editing underwater photographs. These are just some of the basic techniques. To find out what works best for you and your photo editing software, play around with all of the options and tools that come with it.
Backscatter ruins many good photos. Fortunately with digital, we can reduce the effect that backscatter has on our photographs by taking it out in the editing process. The most helpful tool in eliminating the illuminated particles is the clone tool. The is a circular tool that takes a part of the picture that you select and copies it to another place that you choose. This technique can only be used if the photo has only a little bit of backscatter. If the image is full of little white particles, there is not much chance of salvaging it.
To eliminate backscatter using the clone tool find the particle that you would like to eliminate first and zoom in on it. Select part of the image next to it (usually by holding the ALT key and clicking). Now you are ready to cover the backscatter particle by placing over it the part of the image you just selected. Now just click on the backscatter particle and it should be replaced by whatever you selected before. I wish there was an easier way, but now you need to do that for all of the particles that showed up in your photograph.
Usually the color adjustments that most digital underwater photographers perform on their photographs is accentuating the red and orange color because they appear muted. An easy way to do this is to apply the auto-levels option (if you have one). This option makes the computer analyze the colors of the image, and adjust what it thinks needs to be adjusted. Usually it does a pretty good job, other times it does not. If more adjusting is needed, you may need to play with the color balance or variation options or whatever your photo editing tools your program has. By adding red and taking away some of the bluish green colors, you can obtain some good results. Most programs have automatic options like auto-levels for other effects such as auto-contrast or auto-color. These usually do a good job of fixing the color bias in your picture.
Cropping can really enhance the composition of a photo. You can also get rid of unwanted background by cropping the image. But, you must not use the crop tool as a zoom tool. When taking underwater photographs, you should get as close as you can to your subject to avoid cropping later.
A digital photograph is made up of many pixels. If my photo has 5 million little pixels, and I crop that image to half its size because I wanted the subject to appear closer, it now only has 2.5 million pixels. This results in poor picture quality and should be avoided.
If you do have to crop a photo, hold down the shift key while dragging the crop box and that will crop the picture so that the original dimensions are the same. So when you print or display your photos, they will all have the same dimensions and will not be awkward.
The ocean environment is a very fragile one. There is increasing worry that the ocean life is decreasing at an alarming rate. If we want to create good underwater photos, we must ensure that there will be life in the oceans to photograph.
When photographing marine life you must be in absolute control of your buoyancy. Photographers are notorious for damaging coral when trying to get a good shot. If your shot requires any part of your or your equipment touching coral or other marine life, it is not worth it. Some corals grow at a rate of the width of one dime a year. So you could easily break a 200 year old coral with one kick of your fin.
Another reason why you need to control your buoyancy is to make sure you do not stir up all of the sand particles at the sea floor. These particles can get stuck in the coral polyps and kill the coral, as well as make very poor visibility for other photographers in your group.
Harassing Marine Life
Underwater photographers also have had a bad reputation for harassing the marine life in order to get a good shot. Yes, an inflated puffer fish does make a good photograph, but causing a puffer fish to inflate does damage to the fish and puts great stress on it as well. Most underwater photographers do not like to see pictures of inflated puffers because of this. Those shots are also not allowed in many contests. Any shot that requires the stressing of marine life should be passed up without any hesitation.
Overall Consideration and Learning
The oceans corals are dying at an alarming rate. Scientists attribute much of this to global warming. Global warming has a major impact on our oceans. Just one degree of fluctuation of our ocean’s temperatures kills some coral, and puts major stress on the others.
As underwater photographers, scuba divers and residents on the planet, we must ensure that we take care of our oceans. Things you can do to reduce pollution and harm to our oceans are:
· Stay at eco-friendly hotels, and dive with eco-friendly dive charters. They may cost more, but it is worth it in the long run.
· Ride your bike to close destinations instead of driving. This reduces greenhouse gasses, and in turn reduces stress on corals.
· Do not throw cigarette butts overboard (they take 7 years to disintegrate).
· Do not collect shells or other marine objects.
· Recycle. It will keep more trash out of our oceans.
· Use cloth shopping bags instead of plastic or paper.
· Educate yourself and others about conservation.
· And remember, take only pictures, leave only bubbles.
Digital underwater photography is a very rewarding hobby even for the beginner. It is, literally, another world under the oceans and friends and family that do not have a lot of scuba/snorkeling experience are always amazed at how beautiful the ocean really is. Do not get discouraged if your photographs do not turn out exactly the way you want them to. Learn from your mistakes and you will always be becoming a better underwater photographer.
When I am on a diving trip, I always get overly excited about getting as many good photographs that I can get. Sometimes this can take away from the diving experience as a whole, and I like to do at least one dive without my camera. This makes me fully aware of the dive and makes me realize how utterly beautiful the ocean is, and why I am taking pictures of it. I suggest that you do the same, and leave the camera on the boat at least once a trip.
This manual should give you a good start at bringing the splendor of the underwater world to the surface. And hopefully, underwater photography will be as rewarding to you as it is to me.
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