Review: the Zeiss 1.4/28 Otus APO-Distagon

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28, 55, 85. A pretty versatile core set for pretty much any purposes. And now fully filled out by the latest in the Otus series, the recently-announced 1.4/28 APO-Distagon. Advance warning: this is not a general purpose lens, nor is it the kind of thing you can deploy casually. That is merely the nature of steeply diminishing returns; there are no gains without significant incremental effort. And we’re really talking about pushing the last 1% here. If you’ve not felt anything lacking in your images, then I suggest you stop reading here and save yourself a lot of money, because chasing perfection isn’t cheap…

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A visit to Zeiss and thoughts on the Milvus line

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The mothership

I was fortunate enough to spend the last three days at Zeiss with Lloyd Chambers (update: his blog entry is here) – with a level of access that I suspect that has never been granted before to independent external parties. They were gracious and first class hosts – I don’t think I’ve had that many types of non-alcohlic beer before. We asked every question we could think of and more, and received answers which we had never expected and at a level of depth that has left me deeply, deeply impressed with what the lens team is doing out in Oberkochen. This may seem like a strange way to talk about the new announcement, but bear with me for while; there is method to the madness. :)

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Lens review: The Zeiss ZF.2 1.4/85 Otus APO-Planar

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One year after the 1.4/55 Otus APO-Distagon, Zeiss is back as promised with the second installment in the new line of super-lenses: the 1.4/85 Otus APO-Planar. Announced unofficially on facebook several months back, the lens makes its official debut at Photokina. I’ve had the opportunity to shoot with a final-pre-production prototype for the last two months; in fact, through pure coincidence, I got the email from my contact at Zeiss saying they had a surprise for me on my birthday…

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Photoessay-review: the Nikon AFS 70-200/4 VR and Havana cityscapes, part I

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This will be the first in my new review format for ‘light’ reviews – pieces of equipment that perhaps don’t necessarily need a full blown magnum opus, but benefit from some context in deployment and typical usage. A short piece on the D4 will follow next.

One of the few lenses in the Canon system I’ve long been jealous of is their 70-200/4 IS (in addition to the 17TSE). Until not so long ago, Nikon users have been missing a light/ compact high quality telephoto option. Sure, there’s been the 70-300/4.5-5.6 VR, but that was only a decent performer up to 200mm; anything else was emergency territory. And it simply wasn’t that good on the D800E, nor a pro build. Finally, we have the AF-S 70-200mm f4 G VR ED IF (what a mouthful). I’m going to address two questions in this review: firstly, is it any good, and secondly, f2.8* or f4? I suspect the latter question is going to be of interest to many still sitting on the fence.

*It’s important to note there are two versions of the 70-200/2.8 G VR. I’ll go into the differences in more detail later.

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Lens review: The Olympus 12-40/2.8 M.Zuiko PRO

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Announced and available together with the new OM-D E-M1 (reviewed here), the 12-40/2.8 M.Zuiko Digital PRO (24-80mm equivalent) is the first in a new line of M.Zuiko Digital PRO lenses. Development of an equivalent-grade f2.8 fast telephoto zoom was also announced, with a 2014 release. Thanks to the folks at Olympus Malaysia, I’ve had the opportunity to use this lens together with the new camera for some time now. Read on for my review.

Advanced warning: Flickr will apparently be down for maintenance for a little while on Friday 13/9, so if some images don’t appear, it’s because they’re hosted there…

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Lens review: The Panasonic Lumix Vario PZ 14-42/3.5-5.6 X G

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14-42 X on OM-D, collapsed and extended. If you’re wondering why I got a silver one, it’s because the black ones were out of stock at the time I needed it. Would I have preferred black? Obviously.

I don’t normally review ‘consumer’ grade gear for the simple reason that it’s usually built to a price, rather than built to deliver a certain grade of result (or perhaps it is, only the accountants and engineers know for sure). However, sometimes you come across a piece of equipment that fills a need much better than you imagined; this lens is one such example. The Panasonic Lumix Vario PZ 14-42/3.5-5.6 X G (what a mouthful, hereafter known as the 14-42X) is a very small – about the size of the 20/1.7 pancake when collapsed – zoom for Micro Four Thirds. It was the kit lens for the GX1 and a couple of other cameras for a while, and fortunately also available separately.

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Lens review: The Nikon AF-S 80-400/4.5-5.6 G ED VR II N

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Nikon’s 80-400mm received a long-deserved update earlier in the year; it’s in fact had a complete overhaul and optical redesign. The original lens was Nikon’s very first VR lens, and body-driven to boot – the large front element had a reputation for pinching fingers between the protruding filter ring flange and the zoom ring (I fell victim to this on my first outing with it). It’s gone from being a 17/11 design to a more complex 20/12, gained Nano-Crystal coating, a shorter minimum focus distance (1.75m in AF and 1.5m in MF vs 2.3m), a silent wave motor and internal focusing, second-generation VR, and plethora of additional switches. Gone is the aperture ring, so you’re not going to be using this on a pre-command dial film body. The hood is also now a petal-type design with the same kind of locking catch as the 17-55, 24-70 and 70-200 hoods. It reverses for storage. Unlike the old lens, it’s also fully gasketed and weather sealed. It’s also more expensive; about $800 more, to be precise.

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Lens review: The Leica 35/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH FLE

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I couldn’t find a product shot in my archive, so you’re going to have to settle for one of me using it instead.

Not long after this lens was initially released and generally available – early 2012 – I published a guest post review here on the Leica Blog. At that point, I’d had no more than a couple of weeks to shoot with the lens, and certainly not under any kind of duress or pressure. Since then, I’ve both encountered many situations with the lens and used it as pretty much the go-to on my M9-P in the hopes of making 35mm one of the intuitive focal lengths in my repertoire. It didn’t stick, and somewhere in the middle of last year, I landed up selling it to one of my students.

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Diner. All images in this review shot with the Leica M9-P except where otherwise noted.

I’ve been meaning to do a full review for some time now, but the reality is that there have been many other things which have gotten in the way – or perhaps I should stop making excuses for being lazy.

The 35mm f1.4 Summilux-M ASPH FLE is version seven in a long and distinguished line of lenses – some may even think of them as legendary and quintessentially Leica. They’ve grown larger, heavier and more expensive as time moved on – earlier versions were practically pancakes compared to the 35 FLE, but admittedly they were also relatively poor performers at maximum aperture. The previous version (VI) featured a single aspherical element (there was a very rare double aspherical version produced too, relatively early on in the life of this lens) and was known for being both an excellent optic, but hamstrung by one huge flaw: focus shift.

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Lens review: The Nikon AFS 60/2.8 G Micro

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In what appears to be a hideously enormous oversight on my part, I seem to have neglected to review what is ostensibly my most used lens: the Nikon AFS 60mm f2.8 G Micro-Nikkor. As you might expect, I use this lens for the majority of my commercial watch photography. I prefer it over the 85 PCE for images that require high magnification, as this lens natively reaches 1:1 magnification on its own; thus requiring fewer extension tubes to reach even smaller levels of frame coverage.

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Nitro Experiment One

Before we start talking about the lens specifically, I would like to debunk some myths about macro vs micro photography: both have to do with the reproduction ratio created by the lens on the imaging medium; it is format independent. Simply, macro refers to 1:1 or greater magnification (i.e. a 20mm wide object in reality would be 20mm or wider when projected on the sensor plane); whereas micro refers to magnification slightly less than this but more than would be encountered during normal photography – ‘close focus’ might perhaps be a more accurate term. Almost nobody seems to get this right online, even the manufacturers; ‘macro’ mode almost never yields 1:1 magnification, and there aren’t that many lenses that achieve this natively. (I suppose Carl Zeiss gets away with it by sounding German and putting a ‘k’ in Makro-Planar – these are 1:2 lenses.)

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Water on slate

The 60/2.8 G replaces its predecessor, the 60/2.8 D, both of which are 1:1 lenses; unlike its predecessor, it reaches 1:1 through internal focusing alone, and the lens doesn’t extend – the front element on the G is a lot closer to the front of the barrel, and as a result, offers greater working distance at a given magnification than the D (which has a very heavily recessed front element). The lens has been completely redesigned with a new optical formula; it’s a 12/9 design with aspherical and ED elements, as well as Nikon’s Nano Crystal Coating. It also has a silent wave motor, but no focus distance limiter (oddly, the older version did have this). Focusing is fast and silent, but occasionally the lens does get ‘lost’ – if you’re say at the near focus limit and point it a subject at infinity, then sometimes it can hunt and fail to find focus. A quick tweak of the focusing ring solves this. One thing I have noticed with all of the Nikon SWM macro lenses is that they appear to be very ‘nervous’ when focusing at close distances; they’ll chatter and hunt and rack back and forth slightly. This could be because I’ve got the camera in AF-C most of the time, but it doesn’t really make sense given that everything is static – camera on tripod, inanimate subject. Still, I haven’t noticed any focusing errors, even on the D800E; in fact, this lens is the only one I’ve got that doesn’t require AF fine tune correction on any of my cameras.

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I also owned the previous version of this lens, and the difference mechanically is night and day; optically, somewhat less so, but the newer version is clearly better. (I suspect part of the reason why the G appears sharper is simply because it can focus more accurately without any of the backlash inherent to screwdriver-focusing lenses.) The biggest difference in optics between the two version are seen in off-center performance – specifically to do with CA – and bokeh. The new lens has very little lateral chromatic aberration; you have to be shooting something very, very contrasty and bright to excite it. For most subjects and shooting conditions, you probably won’t see any lateral CA at all. Longitudinal CA is a different matter – whilst again better than the old lens (and much better than the 105/2.8 VR), longitudinal chromatic aberration is still visible, as are traces of spherochromatism. It’s not a disaster, but it does mean that some work has to be done in postprocessing to remove traces of this – especially on say, white metal watches. On the bokeh front, the new lens has a 9-bladed, perfectly round aperture diaphragm that makes for very smooth out of focus areas; amongst the best I’ve seen, actually – though at normal distances, a 60/2.8 will not yield a huge amount of separation.

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Alphabet pasta

It’s worth noting that the lens’ maximum effective aperture at 1:1 is about f4.8; this isn’t because it’s a variable-aperture lens, but rather because additional magnification always results in some light loss. The Nikon lenses and bodies are the only combination that reports this correctly – not that it matters, because the meter takes care of any necessary exposure adjustments anyway. I suppose it might be important if you were to calculate flash exposure with guide numbers, but I can’t think of anybody who still does that.

On the subject of flash, shooting into the light yields no problems at all; the Nano-coated element is clearly doing its job when it comes to suppressing flare. (I use partial backlight quite often to clean out backgrounds or help define the texture in watch dials.) Macro-and micro-contrast are both very good, improving slightly on stopping down. I feel this lens has a bit more microcontrast ‘bite’ than overall global macro-contrast; this isn’t a bad thing at all as it helps to extend dynamic range somewhat.

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Breguet La Tradition

I actually don’t have much to say about resolution and optics: what do you expect? It’s a macro lens. There’s almost zero distortion or field curvature, and nothing funny going on with the focal plane. Sharpness is already excellent at f2.8, though with the D800E you’ll probably have to go to f4 or f5.6 to hit peak resolving power across the frame. Note that diffraction softening will set in by around f13 or so with the D800E; I try not to go past f16 unless I absolutely have no choice. That said, you can get away with f22 on the 12MP FX cameras if you need to.

Something I’ve been asked in the past is why I don’t use the 105/2.8 VR instead for greater working distance; the answer is that for the kind of work I do, the 60 actually holds several advantages. Firstly, I don’t need as many extension tubes to achieve higher magnifications*; secondly, the lens itself has much lower chromatic aberration than the 105 – lateral is fairly well controlled on both, but longitudinal is ugly on the 105 – and requires a lot of work to fix afterwards. Finally, there’s the issue of depth of field: for any given aperture, you’ll get more with the shorter focal length**. And given that you’re already challenged to find enough as it is, I’ll take any advantage I can get.

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Who could resist a steak like that?

*The more mounts you put between your optics and your camera, the higher the chance of something going out of plane.

**A longer focal length does not mean that you can stop down more before diffraction sets in; that’s a property of the sensor’s pixel pitch, not the lens.

Of course, for those situations when I really need to manipulate depth of field, there’s the 85/2.8 PCE Micro – note it’s a Micro lens, because it only reaches 1:2 – and its full array of movements. That – and an accompanying piece on the Scheimpflug effect and how to properly use a tilt-shift lens – will be the subject of another article.

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Girard-Perregaux F1-047

For the work I typically do with macro lenses – watches and food – the pairing of 60/2.8 G and 85/2.8 PCE is usually more than sufficient to deal with any possible scenario. If you shoot bugs, or want the lens to do double-duty for portraits, the 105 is probably a better choice; that’s not to say that the 60 can’t do the job; it just won’t give you the working distance or depth of field control you’d like to have. (The optics remain similarly excellent at longer distances – you could quite happily use this as a long normal lens if you didn’t mind the slowish f2.8 aperture; it out resolves all of the ‘regular’ 50 1.4s and 1.8s I’ve used, especially in the corners.) Perhaps the most telling fact I can leave you with is that of all of the lenses I own, it’s the one that’s been with me the longest. MT

The Nikon AFS 60/2.8 G Micro is available here from B&H and Amazon.


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Lens review: The Nikon AF-S 85/1.8 G

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The Nikon AFS 85/1.8 G (released at the start of this year) is a slightly odd product. Unusually for Nikon, the new version doesn’t cost a lot more ($50, give or take a bit) than the old one; doubly unusually, it isn’t a warmed-over cosmetically-modified version, either. (It’s also now made in China, which might have something to do with it. The old lens was made first in Japan, and then Thailand since 2010.) The 85/1.8 D was a simple double Gauss design with 6 elements in 6 groups; the new one uses a 9/9 optical formula. The elements in front of the iris ostensibly retain the double Gauss formula, but everything afterwards is new. As far as I can tell, the same basic optical principles apply, except every single element in the rear group has been replaced with an achromatic doublet of sorts; not a true achromatic doublet because there’s an air gap between neighbouring elements.

Images from Nikon USA. The D is on the left, the G is on the right. Note far more complex rear group; the pairs of lenses do effectively the same thing as the single lenses in the earlier design. The images are to scale, too – note increase in size. It doesn’t seem to be any heavier, though – and noticeably lighter than the 85/1.4 G.

This complex formula has two benefits: firstly, lower chromatic aberration because there’s that extra element there for correction; secondly, internal focusing is now possible (the previous design focused by moving the entire optical assembly back and forth, like all double-Gauss designs). As far as I can tell, the front and rear elements (possibly more than one) are fixed, and the rest move back and forth. At this point, it’s worth noting that unlike Nikon’s newer optical designs, it’s remarkably free of any exotic technology – whilst the bottom of most lenses now play host to entire essays in abbreviations about Nikon’s lensmaking prowess, the 85/1.8G is remarkably clean. All it has is internal focusing and the silent wave motor – that’s it. There’s no Nano-crystal coating, no ED glass (let alone Super ED glass) and no aspherical elements. Even the new 50/1.8 G employs asphericals!

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Untitled. Nikon D800E

Regular readers of my site will know that I was originally a huge fan of the 85/1.4 G, especially on the D700 for it’s sharpness, quality of bokeh and incredible ability to shoot into direct light sources with minimal to no flare. You’ll also know that despite trying multiple samples, I was never quite happy with the performance of this lens on the D800E; mainly due to lateral chromatic aberration wide open, and so-so edge performance. It’s therefore logical to assume that there are optical quality reasons as to why I’m now using the 85/1.8 G instead. You’d be right.

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Caution. Nikon D800E

In all of my A-B testing with similar subjects, several samples of both lenses – the 85/1.8 G was consistently sharper in the center at f1.8, let alone f1.4. it’s possible that real resolution was identical, however, the 85/1.4 G showed so much lateral chromatic aberration that it robbed the images of perceptual acuity. It was also sharper at the edges – markedly so, especially on the D800E. It’s worth remembering that at f1.8, the 85/1.8 G is wide open, and the 85/1.4 G is 2/3rds of a stop down. Granted, it’s easier to design a good slower lens than a faster one, but then again, the 85/1.4 G has a huge amount of technology in it – ED elements and Nano-crystal coating, for starters. Interestingly, the optical formulae for both lenses are nearly identical.

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Apprehension. Nikon D800E

Bottom line: the 85/1.8 G is sharp at every aperture, across the frame, even on the D800E – providing you nail the focus, of course. There is remarkably little falloff in sharpness from center to edge; consistency and microcontrast improve marginally to f4, but it’s already outstanding by f2.8. I only shoot this lens wide open, which should give you some indication of how I feel about the optics. Chromatic aberration under normal situations is almost non-existent; a remarkable performance. Even though this lens has 7 blades instead of the 9 of its predecessor (and 85/1.4 G), bokeh remains pleasing, neutral and smooth. I’ve yet to see any odd artefacts like double imaging or nervousness, but there is a tiny bit of spherochromatism (color fringing) in the out of focus areas. In fact, it’s one of the better-rendering lenses I’ve used in this regard. Color transmission is neutral, per the current crop of Nikon lenses; though the saturation is unsurprisingly not as high as the Nano-crystal equipped optics.

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Phonecall. Nikon D800E

You’re probably wondering what the tradeoff is, given the huge gulf in price between the 85/1.4 G and 85/1.8 G; the last line should have given you a clue. It has to do with contrast, saturation, transmission and flare. It seems that the Nano-crystal coating makes an enormous difference to all four; the 85/1.8 G takes a noticeable hit in every area compared to the 85/1.4 G (it still improves on the old lens in every way, however). The problem stems from flare; when you have extraneous light bouncing around inside the lens between elements – a good coating minimizes reverse reflections off air-glass surfaces – everything else suffers. The most obvious manifestation of this is under backlit conditions, of course – especially when there is a bright point light source in the frame. The 85/1.4 G shows almost zero flare; the 85/1.8 G gives an enormously spectacular trail of reflections off what appears to be every single element. This can be pleasingly cinematic for atmosphere or video work, except the lens has no hard infinity stop, which makes focus pulling challenging. For stage/ performance work, it’s a pain in the ass. Unfortunately, the supplied hood makes no difference simply because it can’t block light from entering the front of the lens – and it’s these rays that are causing the problem.

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Ugly flare – and this is after correction by burning and desaturation. Nikon D800E

Internal flare also lowers contrast; macrocontrast especially. Microcontrast is a bit worse, but not by much. By f2.8 both lenses are neck and neck here. The knock on effect is a reduction in overall saturation; no surprises here. Perhaps the least obvious, and most surprising side effect is a huge reduction in transmission (read my article on the difference between T stops and f stops for more detail). At any of the wide apertures, the 85/1.8 G transmits between 1/2 and 2/3 stop less light than the 85/1.4 G; this is to say that if both are set to a physical aperture f2, then you’ll find the 85/1.8 G’s required shutter speed for a given exposure to be noticeably lower than the 85/1.4 G. In other words, if you set 1/100s f2 ISO 200 on both lenses, the 85/1.8 G photo will be underexposed by 1/2-2/3 stop. The reason is because a lot of the light entering the lens isn’t making it to the sensor plane, thanks to suboptimal coatings.

That said, it’s still better than the old lens.

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Less ugly, more cinematic flare – but still flare. Nikon D800E

The new lens gains a silent wave motor and loses an aperture ring; it’s still plastic, but now the crinkle-finish variety to match the modern bodies and lenses. The plastic type appears a lot less brittle than the 85/1.8 G, though admittedly I’ve never had issues with any of the older lenses other than a propensity to pick up scratches easily. The silent wave motor isn’t any faster than the screwdriver method; it’s about the same, actually – especially on a body with a high voltage built in motor like the D3 or D4. The difference is in precision: it’s a lot easier to move a coreless linear motor in the small increments required to adjust for small changes in focusing distance than a geartrain with associated backlash. In practical terms, you’ll find the new lens a lot more precise than the old one. (It still remains useless if you use an older camera that requires an aperture ring.) The lens also gains environmental gaskets, making it a good choice for pairing with a similarly sealed body.

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Solo. Nikon D800E

I thought that it would be easy to write a conclusion to this review; it isn’t quite so straightforward. I’m going to turn it around a bit instead:

Buy the AFS 85/1.8 D if:

  • You shoot with a manual focus camera, or want to use the lens both on your Nikons and other systems via an adaptor – otherwise you’ll have no aperture control.
  • This lens is optically inferior to both of the G versions, and not much cheaper than the AFS 85/1.8 G.

Buy the AFS 85/1.8 G if:

  • Resolution at maximum aperture and CA are important, i.e. you shoot with a D800/ D800E.
  • You want lower contrast because you shoot with an older, lower dynamic range body
  • Size and weight are important; the lens is noticeably lighter and a bit smaller than the 85/1.4 G.
  • Price is important
  • You like cinematic flare.

Buy the AFS 85/1.4 G if:

  • You need as much light gathering ability as possible, or shoot frequently under very low light conditions
  • You shoot into bright point sources a lot
  • You shoot with a lower resolution body
  • Notice I haven’t mentioned bokeh yet: the 85/1.4 G is slightly better than the 85/1.8 G, but it doesn’t justify the increase in cost.

The Nikon AFS 85/1.8 G is available here from B&H and Amazon; the AFS 85/1.4 G is available here from B&H and Amazon.


Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

Don’t forget to like us on Facebook and join the reader Flickr group!


Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved


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