How to Photograph the Images Needed For Focus Stacking


This tutorial will help make it much easier for you to take the photographs needed for focus stacking. This is the best and the easiest way to achieve the results you want. There are a few details along the way, but the bonus is that there are also other photographic situations where you will be able to apply the same technique.

How to Photograph the Images Needed For Focus Stacking

What is focus stacking and why is it needed?

When your camera is really close to the subject, depth of field will be very shallow. For example, if you are using a 100mm lens, at a distance of 50cm (nearly 10 inches from your subject) with an aperture as small as f/16, the area which is acceptably sharp is just 1.9 cm (about 3/4 of an inch). Reduce the distance to subject to only 25cm (less than 5 inches) and the depth of field reduces to only 0.36 cm (1/6th of an inch).

How to Photograph the Images Needed For Focus Stacking
The only way to conquer this issue in order to get a greater depth of acceptable sharpness in a final photograph is with computational photography. That means using software to blend together a number of photographs which have been taken with different points of focus. This computational process is called focus stacking.


The recommendation made in this article is an application of the old computer acronym of GIGO. Garbage In, Garbage Out. If you input rubbish, the output will be rubbish. To achieve the best results with focus stacking, you need to produce the photographs which are technically the most suitable for the focus stacking process.

How to Photograph the Images Needed For Focus Stacking


A while back, I decided that I wanted to make some images that would look good in a home or workplace, which would reflect the Filipino environment. With various adjustments, the five photographs shown in color above were combined to produce the image below (and a lot more like it!).

How to Photograph the Images Needed For Focus Stacking

If you like the idea of producing something like this, with sharp focus through the whole frame, it needs a little attention to start. This soon becomes quite easy, and you may find that it is actually a lot of fun. Find your own subject, then follow along with this method for producing your focus stacking images.

The actual processing of the images is a sequence of steps, and I would be happy to go through my approach for you at another time. Although there are other specialist programs for producing a focus stacked image, you will most likely use Photoshop. Of course, there are tutorials on how to do this here on dPS; A Beginner’s Guide to Focus Stacking.

How to Photograph the Images Needed For Focus Stacking

The Method – Part One – It is a Surprise

At this point in most focus stacking tutorials, you will see somebody holding a set of focusing rails. Forget it! No further expense is required here. They might then talk to you about focusing manually. Forget that too! No need for any delicate touch with this method. You do not even need a cable release. This is absolutely all you need.

How to Photograph the Images Needed For Focus Stacking
In the past, I had not even bothered to install Canon’s software offerings. Yes, the surprise news might just be that it is Canon EOS Utility which will serve you best for shooting focus stacking images.

As far as I have been able to determine, Nikon users will find that Nikon Capture includes a Camera Control component. I do not have the facility to put that to the test, but I imagine it works just as well. If you shoot Nikon and give this a try, do tell us how it worked for you in the comments section below.

The magic trick – the secret sauce – the silver bullet, for making images for focus stacking is the Canon EOS Utility program. It allows total remote control of the settings of your camera when shooting tethered to your computer.

How to Photograph the Images Needed For Focus Stacking

Plug and play!

Once you have your shot set up, you can control everything from your computer. If that happens to be an adjacent laptop, that will work the best. However, the photographs which follow below were produced with everything controlled from a computer in another room, fully 10 meters, more than 30 feet away from the set.

The Method – Part Two – The Mechanics

This type of photography, which I think of as “constructed photography”, does take a little while to set up. Follow these steps:

  • Put your camera on a tripod.
  • Compose your shot.
How to Photograph the Images Needed For Focus Stacking

You need to make two measurements.

  • Measure from the focal plane of the camera (the mark indicated above) to the front of the object which you are photographing (A), as shown above.
How to Photograph the Images Needed For Focus Stacking

The circle with a line through it indicates the focus plane – this is where your lens focuses the image onto the sensor.

  • Measure the depth of the object, from the point which is nearest to the camera, to the point farthest away. I have found that a steel rule or tape measure works well enough for these tasks.

Standard issue.

  • Now take a test shot.
  • Use a small aperture, like f/10, then check the exposure. I tend to look at the LCD screen which gives the RGB histograms. This allows you to judge the exposure, exposing to the right if you like, but also to check that none of the individual colour channels is overloaded. That is prone to happen in photographs which have one subject filling the major part of the screen. At this stage, exposure is not critical, you are only trying to achieve a guide shot.
  • Make a note of the settings which have given a reasonable exposure.
  • Cover the viewfinder to prevent possible light leakage.
  • Switch off image stabilization, it is always the best practice to do so when your camera is on a tripod.
  • It is not essential, but you might choose to put your camera into manual focus.
How to Photograph the Images Needed For Focus Stacking

Manual focus, stabilizer off.

  • Again, not essential, but you might choose to put your camera in Manual shooting mode.
How to Photograph the Images Needed For Focus Stacking

Switch to Manual Mode

Now the magic begins, the bit which makes me smile at how brilliant and easy it is.

The Method – Part Three – Computing

Connect your camera to your personal computer using Wi-Fi, a USB or Ethernet cable, whatever works best for your setup. I like cables, so I use a USB cord.

Run the EOS Utility software. Your camera should be discovered quite easily.

How to Photograph the Images Needed For Focus Stacking

The EOS Utility dashboard.

Choose “Remote shooting” and the screen below will appear.

How to Photograph the Images Needed For Focus Stacking

You are in control

From the comfort of your computer, you can release the shutter, the ultimate cable release, and do pretty much whatever else you like. As advised, you can switch off autofocus, and switch to Manual Mode without even touching the camera. In fact, adjustments can be made to all the usual camera settings for shooting. Most importantly for this exercise, you can switch to Live View shooting. Do so, and you will see a screen like this.

How to Photograph the Images Needed For Focus Stacking

The Remote Live View window. This is where the fine focusing happens.

The first thing to do is to fine tune the exposure. Controlling your camera from EOS Utility soon becomes quite easy, and intuitive. You can actually learn a lot about exposure by experimenting with the exposure triangle of ISO, shutter speed, and aperture all from your computer, with the benefit of Live View in grand scale.

One extra benefit of shooting in Live View is that you will have locked the mirror up, and removed any chance of vibrations from that source.

How to Photograph the Images Needed For Focus Stacking

You can click on the screen arrows, even use the scroll wheel on your mouse to make adjustments.

Take a shot and it will soon appear on your screen. This is not an article on ETTR (Exposing To The Right), but there is a good one here; Exposing to the Right. You can now adjust the exposure to try and get as much data onto your sensor as possible (the premise of ETTR). Take your time and take as many shots as you like. Check the histogram, check what you can see on the screen, and get the exposure exactly to your liking.

I do tend to prefer a shorter exposure. In the interests of sharpness, if I can get a compromise between ISO, and aperture which gives me an exposure of less than 1-second, I believe that is a good step in the direction of sharper photographs.

For this particular exercise, there are all sorts of detailed decisions, but the most important part of this screen is the Focus Adjustment and the Zoom View.

How to Photograph the Images Needed For Focus Stacking

Double clicking on the area highlighted, shown towards the bottom of the screen capture of the Remote Zoom View window (shown above), will bring you to this window below.

How to Photograph the Images Needed For Focus Stacking

Zoom View – allow you to easily get the nearest point of the image sharp as possible.

You now have turbocharged, hyper control of your focus. Not until you take the plunge and try this method, and find out that you can focus to the width of a hair, will you realize how brilliant it is. There is even the facility to zoom in further still.

I believe you will find the focus adjustment intuitive. There are three different levels for adjusting focus in either direction, “<<< / << / <” and “> / >> / >>>”. This is very useful in a way that no focus rails or manual adjustment could ever be. The bonus is that you will have no physical contact with the camera whatsoever.

The Method – Part Four – Finally

Martin Bailey is a photographer who goes into admirable detail. He is of the opinion that if you start photographing to the rear of the object, and work forward, Photoshop handles the process better. I do not see the evidence so clearly but, experience tells me, he is very likely right.

Another piece of advice would be to shoot a little wider, do not frame as tightly as you might usually. It gives you a little more room for maneuvering if you need to make adjustments.

How to Photograph the Images Needed For Focus Stacking

You now need a Depth of Field (DoF) calculator. There’s a wide choice, there are many that are readily available for your computer, phone, and for use online. I happen to use, Simple DoF (iOS only, see Android options here), as shown in the screenshots. Let’s apply it to a situation.

How to Photograph the Images Needed For Focus Stacking

The depth of field required for this scene is about 20cm (8 inches) To determine what you need, measure from the part of the object nearest the camera to the point furthest away. Divide that by the Depth of Field of 3.39cm (let’s call it 3.4cm), which tells us we will need 5.88 images. That means that we will need to take six evenly spaced images from the back to the front, in order to get every part of the image in focus. Here they are!

How to Photograph the Images Needed For Focus Stacking

Focused at the rear, on the plastic case of the ruler.

How to Photograph the Images Needed For Focus Stacking

Moving forward, picking a point about 3cms (just over an inch) closer each time.

How to Photograph the Images Needed For Focus Stacking

Focused between 6 and 7 inches.

How to Photograph the Images Needed For Focus Stacking

Shot 4.

How to Photograph the Images Needed For Focus Stacking

Coming forward.

How to Photograph the Images Needed For Focus Stacking

Focus closer 3cm, about an 1 inch, each time.

How to Photograph the Images Needed For Focus Stacking

Finally, focused sharply on the front edge of the ruler.

You can go to whatever lengths of precision you like. Experience allows me to trust my judgment of distance, and I am happy to err on the side of taking too many shots. If I reached the front edge of the saucer and found that I had taken eight shots I would be perfectly happy with that. As it happens, it seems that I took seven.

Here is the image produced from all the above by following the focus stacking processing routine in Photoshop.

How to Photograph the Images Needed For Focus Stacking

The final focus stacked image.

You should always be looking for ways to improve. As I have said, better results from less effort is a good thing.


I think that to be certain of producing the highest quality product, the next time I do a project like this, I would refine my technique a little further.

I would actually put a rule next to the object but, unlike this time, do so temporarily. In this specific example, I would decide to take 3cm as my Depth of Field. I would then focus a shot on the 0cm mark of the ruler. I would then use the focus controls in EOS Utility to nudge the focus to 3cm and see how many clicks of the “>”, “>>” or “>>>” buttons it took to move the point of focus 3cm. It might, for example, be three clicks of the “>>>” button. Again, sticking with this example, I would then know that I needed to take seven shots. I would then take a shot focused on the back edge, click “>>>” three times, take another shot, click “>>>” three times again … and so on. As I said at the start, what could be easier?


This leaf was 10cm, that is 4 inches from front to rear. I do not think there is a way to produce this final image without using the technique of focus stacking. What you have read above is the best, and the easiest way to produce the shots.

How to Photograph the Images Needed For Focus Stacking

Waving goodbye?

I am all for spontaneous, shooting on the run, shots. However, if you want to shoot in a more controlled way, I think you might find the control offered by Canon EOS Utility to be a lot of fun. I do!

Once you have been introduced to it and learn some of the power of the software, you may well find yourself using it for other projects. This last week, I have used Canon’s EOS Utility to produce some product shots. The proof is in using it, and I hope you can see that it is something you can try if you want to do focus stacking.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Richard Messsenger is from Nottingham, England, and is currently based just north of Manila in The Philippines. Photographic opportunities of all hues present themselves daily. However, he like projects with parameters to work towards, targets to aim for. Older, hair too thin, belly too fat, knees wobbling, but he still enjoys using his talents and enthusiasm to make photographs.

  • SSRajan

    nice write up… for canon users… what about others?

  • ceophoetography

    I haven’t tried it, but the Promote Control has a focus stacking mode. It may help when shooting tethered is not viable.

  • Keith Myers

    “As far as I have been able to determine, Nikon users will find that Nikon Capture includes a Camera Control component. I do not have the facility to put that to the test, but I imagine it works just as well. If you shoot Nikon and give this a try, do tell us how it worked for you in the comments section below.”

  • Sai Pradeep Dandem

    Awesome !!. I am a Nikon guy and this blog relates no where near to me. But definetly this has helped me to get out of my traditional way of using focus rail for stacking. It used to be a nightmare for me to get entire focus range in focus.

    After reading this blog, I googled for tethering softwares for Nikon and choosed the free ‘digiCamControl’ software. I did a trail of focus stacking using the software and you cant believe it… It was very very simple process with almost accurate results.

  • Richard Messenger

    Brilliant! What else can I say?

    If someone told me that they didn’t like gin and tonic, I could understand that, but if someone tells me that they think there is an easier way to take images tethered … I would struggle to understand.

    You’ve made me smile Sai Pradeep Dandem.

  • Richard Messenger

    ceophoetography – I am a bit confused … ‘Promote Control’? Is that a mistype an autocorrect? Is it ‘remote control’. I’d be interested to know because it may be something very useful.

  • Richard Messenger

    My goodness! Thank you for the question SSRajan, but thank you even more for the answer Keith Myers.

    Does anyone know more about the Nikon offering?

  • esoteric2000

    Great article – thank you.

  • Richard Messenger

    Nice one esoteric … thank YOU!

  • ceophoetography The Promote Control is an “advanced DSLR remote control.” Mainly it facilitates exposure bracketing, but it has several functions.

  • Richard Messenger

    Nice one ceophotography! It is very clear what you meant now I read it again.

    It is a cliche, but you do learn something every day, thank you.

    It does look like an interesting device. I would need to understand exactly how the focus stacking mode works, but the offered settings of ‘small, medium, large’ do not immediately fill me with confidence. What do you think?

  • ceophoetography

    I haven’t tried it. Most settings can be adjusted. I suspect it would be possible to set the Promote to “small” for close objects and take several captures and then you could select those that you want to use for your focus-stacked image.

  • Richard Messenger

    Did you buy the Promote? I’d be interested to know what they consider small. If you get even quite close, the depth of field can be so small that precision is required. The idea of a focus stacked, HDR image is very interesting.

  • ceophoetography

    I do have a Promote Control. I have used it to set long exposure times and to assist me with exposure bracketing for HDR images. I have yet to try it for focus stacking. The focus-stacking function requires the use of live view; I presume you use LV to set or review focus points.

    I wouldn’t mind trying the focus-stacking mode, now that I have a camera equipped with LV, but we’ll see when I might have the opportunity. I shoot outdoors, primarily, and I would need the breeze to be not existent to ensure enough stillness to get good captures for focus stacking.

    I’m unsure if it’s possible to use both focus-stacking and HDR modes simultaneously.

    Attached is an HDR image I used the Promote to assist with the bracket sequence for.

  • Richard Messenger

    Looks like a good natural HDR to me. The type which I try to do, and sometimes succeed. Seems like the Promote offers an enormous amount of bracketed shots. What did you do for this one?

    I’m fairly sure that, following up on what you said, I read that the Promote will do combined HDR, focus stacked image. I do think that could be interesting.

    Mind you, like you’re saying, the vast majority of my shots are in natural light.

    Yes, it does sound as if you’d have to, at the very least, find a spot sheltered from breeze. One thing that has occurred to me, and might help you, is that you do not have to aim for full depth of field. You could take a few stacked images to simply extend the DoF beyond what is normal. I like the idea of a tight, close portrait with greater DoF. Does that make sense? One of those where you’ll either be with me straight away, or I’ll possibly need to expand at great length.

    If you wanted to experiment with tethered shooting, that is effectively the best Live View. You can do a lot with just window light.

  • pete guaron

    Hi RIchard – like some of your other readers, I shoot Nikon so whatever Canon produces is of no use to me.

    A couple of thoughts I can share might be helpful, though. Shooting with a Cognisys stackshot system (yeah, I know, it has rails) produced some outstanding results for me, when I was producing a set of about a hundred shots of jewellery for a catalogue production.

    But when I tried using the same techniques and software (Zerene – to stitch the stackshots) on an orchid, I found the softer edges of the flower’s petals caused some difficulty in selecting the sharp stuff to produce the finished stackshot. The result was a bit of a disappointment.

    So I plugged the w/angle into the cam, and working off DOF tables, and measuring the distances from the line on top of the cam showing where the sensor is, to the front & back of the sections of the flower that I wanted sharply in focus, I tried again. The result was stunning. Of course it’s not a “stackshot”, but it’s a reasonable alternative path to the same destination, in some circumstances.

  • Richard Messenger

    Responding to your first point – as I said in the article “As far as I have been able to determine, Nikon users will find that Nikon Capture includes a Camera Control component. I do not have the facility to put that to the test, but I imagine it works just as well. If you shoot Nikon and give this a try, do tell us how it worked for you in the comments section below”. Do you have this software? Could you investigate it?

    Cognisys is outside of my experience. I am just inclined to think that an approach where you do not have to even touch the camera has got to be a good thing.

    Now then! A wide angle lens for a flower shot. That really does sound interesting. Though you don’t mention the sort of distances involved, I think most people would avoid that route because of the distortion you would get. HOWEVER! I do think it could produce some really interesting images. I like wide angles, and play them for all the distortion they are worth. I’m not sure it is going to to get you to the same destination. Though wide angles do inherently have much greater DoF, they will tend to exaggerate aspects of the subject. Any chance you could show us one of the shots?

  • ceophoetography

    That was 5 shots, 1 step apart, processed in Lightroom and Photomatix Pro. I use the Fusion/Natural settings module.

  • Richard Messenger

    It’s a while since I’ve used Photomatix, but I never managed anything as good as that. Well done.

  • ceophoetography

    Thank you!


    Good stuff but with a error. You need the lens on auto focus to change the focus with the software. In fact it is greyed out when the lens is set on manual. Checked with instructions for canon software and did a test with 5DII and D60. sorry Richard, I am also from Nottinghamshire.

  • Richard Messenger

    You are right! Thank you.

    How very strange though. I have 100% shot with the camera in manual focus before. It struck me as rather strange, but rationalised that you didn’t want the camera trying to focus itself, when you were making remote adjustments. That is VERY strange. I’m not immune to mistakes, but I’ve (obviously!) just checked and as you say focusing is greyed out when, previously, it did not seem to matter one way or the other. I did download the latest version to do the screen shots for the article, but why would that change? Mmmm?

    Thank you my fellow Nottinghamian. Forest or County? Home Ales or Shipstones? Town or country?

  • pete guaron

    Cognisys is incredible, frankly. Work out what you want “in focus”, what you want to blur, have a think about the DOF at that focus distance, do a few quick calculations to divide the total shoot distance into segments for each shot, and then finalise your set up. Press the button, and if you have any sense, you’ll delay the first shot for a few secs so everything settles. Each shot can be time to take effect a short time after the previous one, to settle everything after each move of the cam. And at the end, hand the lot over to a software program like Zerene to stitch all the shots into one.

    It does, of course, involve the camera moving. This upsets purists, because the perspective changes slightly as it moves. The purists argue that the cam should stay put, and you should refocus between each shot. Have fun doing that accurately with a dozen shots!

    The w/angle shot was an experiment, because of the feathery edges on the stackshot of the orchid. At the moment, it’s a crop of about half the original shot – the w/angle, BTW, wouldn’t focus as closely as a Macro. So taking both those comments into account, distortion isn’t an issue in this case, although I take your point.

    I’ve been fooling around with the shot ever since, trying different things – actually not for this shot, but because I’ve been testing different PP software, and used it in the course of doing that. Lord knows which “edition” this copy is!


    Used to be NF until I left school in ’71. Lots of other things to get into when you have a wage packet. Photography, bikes, girls and H/A and S. Live in village in the south, E/L, not to far from Loughborough.


    Another thing I have just remembered, if you set camera to shoot raw and JPEG, you can set software to only download the JPEG to your PC/laptop screen, the full raw takes extra time these days with the increase in mega pixels. After the shoot download the raw.

  • David Drage

    The conversion of measurements in the second paragraph are wrong. 50cm is actual just under 20 inches and 25cm is just under 10 inches.

  • Richard Messenger

    Oops! Thank you.

  • Richard Messenger

    Nice one Brian.

    I haven’t needed to do that as I generally go into possum mode when I taking photographs of this nature, and things seem to happen quick enough, but I can imagine this might be a good approach.

    Were you thinking of any specific software?

  • Richard Messenger

    Sorry Peter, I would have bet a substantial amount that I had replied to this. I know I typed it, perhaps I just didn’t hit the post button! In brief –

    Cognisys does looking amazing. I have not investigated the price, but that surely takes it to a whole other level. Thank you for making me aware of it.

    My immediate thought is that there is no difference between the camera moving on rails, and focusing (as most lenses do) by the front element moving.

    Unless the flower is the size of a melon, and several feet away, I would suggest that there will still be noticeable distortion, with prominent features pushed away from each other. Try taking a portrait of someone with a similar set up.

    Fooling around, having fun, it is all good!

  • pete guaron

    ?? – got rid of the “distortion” by holding back with the cam – the purpose of using the w/angle was to increase DOF, which it did admirably – not to “get more in”. The ratio of a 28mm to a 55mm isn’t that great, after all.

    You’d be on the money with a smaller flower, I think – but it wasn’t really an issue with that shot of the orchid. BTW – that was an experimental shot, to test the idea. To perfect the experiment, I have to wait till the orchid’s in flower again.

    The observation about movement in the perspective originates from comments from other ‘togs – self-avowed “purists” claiming rails were an invention of the devil, because of this effect – and advising everyone to simply change focus manually. There were even helpful suggestions as to the choice of MF lens, to get one with a focus ring with huge travel, so it was easier to make “accurate” manual adjustments.

    I checked it on some of my stackshots, and yes, there’s an element of truth in it. But it doesn’t seem to affect the outcome with subjects that have more sharply defined edges – things like watches. True, the effect exists – but the outcome is still all good. Which path to choose then remains, as always, a question of personal preference.

  • Richard Messenger

    No, no. Sorry, I responded quickly, and it seems not clearly. After all, it was my second attempt and I was annoyed that the longer answer I had given before seemed to not be posted. Humph!

    Rather than try and answer the whole thing, I’d be interested to break it into parts.

    First, I did not mean that you needed to be further away. Sorry, if I was a little cryptic, but what I meant was that unless the flower is MASSIVE you must have been fairly close. If you wanted to guess at size and distance, I’d be interested to know.

    Yes, I understood that you were benefiting from the greater Depth of Field offered by wide angle. I thought it was a smart, and interesting move. I think I was positive in my first response. I hope I was!

    For now though, can you please help me with the sentence which begins “The ratio of 28 … “. I’m not sure what you mean. Were you using a zoom lens, at 28? Are you saying that there is not much difference between 28 and 55? That you shot at 28?

  • pete guaron

    Sorry Richard – no – something more like this – shooting from 30cm and only using half the image (bearing in mind the incredible sharpness of an Otus on a D810) gives much the same perspective as using a 55mm from the same distance, but with greater DOF. I think. Didn’t do the calcs on that one, just grabbed the w/angle and tried it, to see what would happen. I’m well aware of the distortion you can get with w/angles, but of course you control for that too, when you frame your image.

    I was just exploring for alternatives, when I found that an earlier stackshot of the same subject gave an unacceptable feathered edge on the petals of the flower. Whether it’s a good idea or not, it hit the nail on the head and overcame that problem. Further work is necessary before I’m really happy with it, though. Because I can also play games with the stackshot, to see what alternatives I can get there, and that may prove to be the best of the three approaches.

    Intellectually, I am not attracted to the idea of not using a stackshot – but relying (instead) on personal skill to rotate the focusing ring just the right amount, to imitate the effect of a stackshot, and work onwards from there. I’ve seen successful results from people who’ve done it – but it holds no attraction for me, I’m afraid.

  • Richard Messenger

    Sorry, but we do seem to have a different understanding of how these things work.

    I am going to assume that you shot at 28 and say that at 30 cm, you’re getting a pulling apart, that is a separation of the elements, probably some barrelling … quite a lot of distortion.

    I don’t think the framing will change that. If you make sure that the sensor plane is perpendicular to the subject, that will minimise it, horizons will have less curvature, but I don’t think it will make it go away.

    I do understand why you tried it and, again, I applaud it and think it is an interesting experiment which is proving successful … my criteria for success being that you’re enjoying yourself.

  • pete guaron

    I’m lost with the comments on pulling apart & distortion. From memory, it was about 30cm – with a 28mm lens. And an experiment, to get around the “feathering” with the stackshot. The resulting photo is what it is.

  • Richard Messenger

    We seem to have lost each other a little. That’s why I tried to restrict the topic. It is unfortunate because I was enjoying learning about what you were doing. Let’s keep trying! I think we need to get our heads round lens distortion. There’s some great articles out there. The first one I found is a brief introduction given by our own Darren Rowse.

    I do not think you can avoid a distorted image when shooting at 28 from just 30cm. NOTHING wrong with it at all. I think it is to be played with, and used in the creative process. Please come back if you want to talk more about ‘separation of elements’.

    I was interested to find out more about the feathered edges too.

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