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Wednesday, 14 January 2015


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I've done enough work as a professional photography to know that I much prefer being a professional writer. Not only is it just as gratifying (for me), the pay much better, there is less overhead, less capital expenditure, less price competition, and no need to lug heavy equipment. I still practice photography and produce pro-quality results, but would hate having to try to make a living at it.

My all time favorite political quote: "I won't rest until EVERYONE is earning above the median salary!"

Well, no one should really be surprised by this.

Basic economics - there are very low barriers to entry to becoming a 'professional' photographer. There are no education, training, or licensing requirements, and there are very low startup costs compared to most businesses (few thousand dollars).

Combine that with the vast amount of free education on the web, the ability to take additional digital photos at almost no cost, the high quality of modern in-camera metering, the high flexibility of modern raw files -- well, teaching oneself to be a 'professional' photographer is not too difficult these days.

Unless a photographer can really succeed in differentiating oneself from the competition (and few do), they must endure near-commodity pricing for their services. So says the invisible hand!

As with many creative fields, the scope of possibilities is ridiculously wide. Host a conference of random photographers and you will see the extremes of feast and famine.

True story: a friend was recently approached to submit a bid to a very high profile "prestige" company to do a portrait for a very high profile ad campaign. His bid was rejected (even though they approached him first) because it was too low. The rejection said (I’m paraphrasing) “we don’t work with people who charge less than $5000 a day.”

Also useful but impossible to know is what photographers are getting paid for. Is it image capture, culling, photoshopping, printing? Of course you might say all of them, but consider the case of the photographer with a $2,000 day rate: that's one day in image capture and maybe 3 or 4 days at all the rest, so in reality the two grand is split over five days at around $50/hour. The question is especially relevant for photographers that want to specialize, becoming (for example) full time photoshop artists or printers.

Photoshelter does a survey every year on all aspects being a photographer, including compensation. It can be downloaded here:

Also, this there's a tumblr blog devoted to sharing photographer's compensation called "Who Pays Photographers?"

I sometimes quote a consulting rate of $10,000 per hour. So far nobody's been daft enough to pay it (they go away.)

And why do you think any of the $2K per day crowd is actually billing for 6 days a week?
If they have enough work for 2 days a week they're likely doing relatively well.

The biggest problem for career minded or self employed photographers is the enormous surge of the 'semi-professional' on the digital wave. 'Semi-professional' is a rather euphemistic phrase bandied about that denotes a lack of professionalism and a means of topping up earnings by undercutting a professional, or, at least a serious self employed photographer. This group, I have no axe to grind, you understand, is the reason I stopped trying to make a living from photography. How do you earn £60 an hour with a skill you have developed, trained on and crafted when some chancing snapper whips away the jobs at half the rate. The very saddest thing is that half of the customers have no clue that the results they end up with are less than half as well produced as if they had paid a crafts persons rate. I know this because in my present employment I 'fix' the crap results almost on a daily basis.
I realise that there has always been a tier of prices to suit different pockets from different photographers. I tailored budgets myself, but that never meant a wavering of standards. This is the most significant issue: standards. Most semi-professional photographers I know of couldn't tell you how they make their shots with any insight into the craft, heck, we (in the shop)have given half hour lessons to people about to do a paid shoot a few days in advance of it.
There are gifted types who almost don't need to be aware of technical matters and that's fine, their work stands out and it's special, unfortunately, knowledge for a significant number has been superseded by a reliance on automation (gosh, who'd have thought ?). Only the other week I was conversing with a semi-pro who had a Nikon D4 when I realised they didn't understand my referring to 'aperture'.
Nuff said, sorry for rant.

The best way to make a million dollars in the photography business is to start with 2 million dollars.

I am so grateful to be a photographer making $0 per hour, and year.

To be in a position to do so is one of the great blessings of my life.

My boss is both a quite tough critic and a great appreciator of the stuff I get right.

Sunset over the Channel Islands as we approached and landed at LAX yesterday, coming up from Cabo, was mind bogglingly gorgeous. Before the sun dropped into the clouds, it was very bright, so almost everyone had their blinds closed.

Tough shots, through not so clean multi-layer windows with what looked like slight condensation inside. But even if they didn't come out (and, oh, yes, many did), I SAW it all, and sat in awe as the rest of the little world around me sat engrossed in their books or electronic devices.

I don't know about others, but being a photographer has helped me to really see the world around me.


How times change. In London in the '80s and '90s, just a reasonably competent, run-of-the-mill photographer could charge £1000-£1500 per day (in 1990, £1 = $1.6); "good" photographers £1600-£2000, and "name" photographers £2500 upwards. And most of the time there was plenty of work.

I feel so, so lucky that I had my working years then, and not now, and I feel for today's photographers - especially the younger ones, trying to get established; it must be very hard.

It's sometimes not easy, living on a small pension and a few print sales, as I do now, but I'm sure it's far better than being "out there".

Just to clarify - I was talking about independent, freelance, commercial photographers working for ad agencies and design consultants.

The sane photographers would often work for the top Sunday magazines for a lot, lot less. But that type of exposure gave you the kind of publicity that money couldn't buy.

I read this and thought about your blog post from two days ago linking to the film about Ansel Adams. The film shows very clearly the work involved for Mr. Adams to produce one photograph. I'm sure variations of that same workflow were required for every magazine photo, advertising campaign and portrait shot on the days before digital.

It is, in a sense, too easy now when compared to the work required in Mr. Adams day.

I have no idea what photographers earned in the pre-digital days but if a corporation wanted professional results for their ads or annual reports or whatever they had to hire a professional. If a bride and groom wanted a nice album of photos to remember their special day, they really had to hire a professional. The examples could go on and on. Digital image capture and distribution has killed pro photography for all but a few super stars.

Sorry Sven Erikson, but not necessarily the case. Cheap digital photography has whetted the appetite for all photo service purchasers for cheaper and cheaper pictures. Plenty of really good, highly talented professionals that are differentiated by their work that run into situations where buyers say: "...yeah, we get it, and can see that your work is superior, but we still have $500.00 for the job, so if you want it..." The jobs are being priced for the amateur or hobby photographer, and you can't live, work, replace equipment, or save for med insurance or retirement on those job rates, nor should you have to if your work is superior. But alas, the buyers are intractable...

Unfortunately the economic crisis has, at least here in Europe, led to unprecedented levels of unemployment in all areas, thus forcing people to accept low-paid jobs because it's better than having no job at all; hence this sounds pretty normal to me. (Which doesn't mean I condone it, mind you.)
On the other hand, there is a fast-growing tendency to ditch professional photographers. Stealing pictures from the internet or buying them from amateurs for ridiculous prices is seen by companies as a sane way to save some money.
The current glorification of the iPhone as a capable camera isn't helping either. A small-sized picture taken with a smartphone is virtually undistinguishable from one made with a Nikon D4 when seen on the computer, tablet or smartphone's screens. No one will notice the difference.
I'm sorry to say this, but professional photographers are on borrowed time. It won't be long before there's no need for them. No wonder, then, that they feel compelled to accept such low wages. It's a matter of take it or leave it.

A good friend of mine shoots for Vogue and Elle in Paris and his budget is 300,000 Euro per day!
But, these plums are rapidly disappearing, as well.
300,000?! Yikes.

Interesting post, Mike. Jives with some research I did about 10 years ago when I was considering starting a professional photography business. What I learned was that the average income for a professional photographer in the United States was about $30,000/year.

"Photographer" encompasses such an enormous range of actual applications and occupations, Mike, that such surveys aren't worth noting.

If one wants to know why there's a malaise in the U.S., just look to the fact that almost anything truly interesting can no longer provide a living wage. So many Americans (the ones who need to be interested in what they're doing) are stuck in boring (to them) jobs that do provide a living wage. Or stuck in jobs that don't.

Then there are those who care more about money. Most of them are in the financial services industry and they probably think life is grand. There are certainly exceptions to both scenarios (technology entrepreneurs, etc). But those exceptions generally prove the rule.

Most of us would be far better off working in McDonalds, except access to TOP during working hours would be pretty poor.......

Gah, I'd love to earn that much. If it were to do photography, I'd be ecstatic.

Right now I have two jobs - one part time making pizza for minimum wage & one full time for $8 an hour working the night shift on the front desk of a hotel. Between them I almost have enough money to cover the bills and almost no time for photography. :( But here in far northern Wisconsin, jobs are few and far between (thanks, Walker!) so I do what I can and hope I survive till better times.

I always liked the old actors bromide "Don't give up your day job."

The same is true in other "artistic" industries, and it's all because of the computer revolution. I have some acquaintance with high-end sound recording. At one time, a number of studios ("Ocean Way" "Muscle Shoals") were famous for the bands they recorded, the records they made. Now, most rock records are made in what amount to home studios, because with certain kinds of music -- rock is generally one -- you don't need audiophile sound. You're gonna use your $25,000 stereo system to listen to Motorhead? Really? You can, in fact, with a little equipment, make a fairly credible CD with Garage Band, which comes *free* with Macs. ( I just read recently that Eric Clapton, who *did* record in high-end studios, often put his sound through a Fender amp that cost a couple hundred dollars. Now the cost of recording equipment has come down in cost to meet that.) In other words, what once took a million dollar Neve console and and a rank of high-paid sound engineers to do, can now be done (not as well, but well enough) in your basement. If photographers were required to shoot film, develop it to professional standards, print it to professional standards, then the average pay level would be much higher. Right now, a guy could buy perhaps $2,000 or $3,000 worth of photo equipment, take a week-long portrait lighting course at Santa Fe Workshops, and do a credible job as a portrait photographer...as long as you didn't need exceptional work. And how many people really do?

People get paid by power. Little power - little pay. Management and finance will yield most, but of course the positions are hard to get and it's extremely stressful to stay in the game.

A photographer is low in the food chain, his services can easily be duplicated and there are plenty. The money is higher up the food chain, the ones who resell photos, or broker them: agencies, editors etc.

As a photographer, you are similar to a coffee farmer. There's a lot of money in coffee, but the farmer is the least powerful and gets a tiny fraction of what e.g. starbucks or the nespresso guys cash in - yet he's the one who provides the only essential part of your cup of coffee.

To earn more with photography, you need to move up from farmer to nespresso and own as much of the food chain as possible: the client relationship, your own brand, etc.

Then again, photography can supply you with something of great value: doing something you enjoy.

Once you realise that you've spent the best years of your life agonising in a Dilbert cartoon, countless hours in mind numbing meetings, shuffling around slide decks, enduring random management interventions.. you get the idea.

(if you are a freelance photographer, you might be unaware of the career path in corporate cubicle farms. Check dilbert.com - might soothe any frustration caused by disappointing earnings!

In terms of quantity, I think you're misunderstanding where most "photographers" are employed. If you look at yearbook companies, zoos and other amusements (the San Diego Zoo has probably 15 "photographers" on staff), and mall studios, those constitute the majority of photographers. These positions require little to no experience, and can usually be trained in a few days at most. (Here's the camera, here's your settings, here's the pose, repeat this all day.) They're like McDonalds. And they tend to pay a very generous $9-$10 an hour to start for work that is usually seasonal. There are thousands of people who love photography, doing these jobs. It's painful.

A former co-worker became an architect even though he wanted to follow in his father's footsteps and become a photographer. His father absolutely refused to pay for any such education because it was too hard to make a living in photography. That was in the early 90s in Tokyo.

This is not much of a surprise as photography has never been, on average, a lucrative field. Jay Maisel has a quote, which I shall butcher, but is something like, If you want to become a photographer, make sure you have wealthy parents, because there is no money in it.

$13.70/hr would improve my standard of living. (As they call us in England, I am an Old-Age Pensioner.)

Q: How do you make a small fortune in photography?
A: Start with a large one.

There is a huge oversupply of cheap or free 'good-enough' photographs/photography/photographers and unfortunately for professional photographers that is enough to meet the demands of most photo-buyers.
Consequently, most of the photo-credits in the current affairs/lifestyle magazines that have been my traditional marketplace are to that Getty guy.
And not real photos either, just stock photos that seldom rise above cliché.
I've been holding out that eventually demand will swing the pendulum back from vapid, cheap, meaningless images to real photographs about real people in real places, telling real stories about us and not about a generic retouched stereotype.

I'm seeing it begin to happen, but the last 10 years has decimated the ranks of professional, committed, passionate photographers and lowered price expectations to ludicrously low levels.

I think we go through this exercise every year. A post suggesting that there is no money and no future in professional photography. Everyone who agrees with the sentiment piles on and those who disagree stay on the sidelines - maybe for fear of gloating? Mike, didn't you do a follow-up last year that was actually quite optimistic?

John Gillooly

I've worked for less than $15 an hr for the past 10 yrs. And as I soon say goodbye to my fifties- the chances of that realistically increasing is not very... realistic.

As much as I would like photographers to get a decent wage for a job well done, for a profession that deserves decent pay as any other, my greatest concerns are for families with growing children where individuals are forced to work two and sometimes even three jobs just to make ends (barely) meet.

For decades, corporate CEO salaries have burst through ceilings even they could not have imagined in their wildest greed; and as a result of all this new found wealth- worker compensation has dwindled (despite repeated increases in worker productivity), income inequality has expanded exponentially, living wage jobs have been summarily outsourced.


If our standard for minimum wages had kept pace with overall income growth in the American economy, it would now be $21.16 per hour.


Stock photographers with an established portfolio are in the happy position that by stopping work they can increase their hourly rate to $infinity (any meagre archive sale divided by zero hours equals...)

When I've had students tell me they want to become professional photographers I always say sure, try for it. Just plan to accompany it with one or two related occupations, like writing or graphic design or website construction. Not only will that greatly increase your odds of making a decent living, but you'll enjoy the variety.

I've never earned that gross let alone net, so yes I would. I try to imagine myself instructing a grumpy kid to jump on his dads bad back in front of a white backdrop, but I just can't picture it.

Supply and demand. Sometimes it works in your favour, other times it doesn't.

Perhaps people are looking at this back-to-front. To my mind, since 2008 (say), photography has become a hobby except for the top 1% of assignments.

Why 2008? The GFC, web dominating print, and digital cameras being more than good enough for an amateur to obtain good results.

Steve Brio, your premise is very interesting, and something I've thought about for a while. The unfortunate problem with photography and all the visual "black arts" is that there were and are people that have been 'guided' into these visual professions, by teachers, and the school systems, because they don't function well in others areas of adult employment.

There are a lot of doctors, lawyers, MWAC's, and for some reason computer and IT people that may not like the way they have to make a living, and the people they have to deal with, but they are good at what they do and can make a house-buying survivable living at it. Why they flood into photography, use their incomes to support themselves in my field, and give away their work, thus wrecking my ability to make a living, is a puzzlement. I might be great at replacing a water heater, but I don't call up people I know on the weekends and offer to do a professional job of it, for nothing, because I like replacing water heaters, thereby killing the plumbing business.

There were craftspeople that were in photography because they melded with the chemical/physical aspects of shooting film, and they were driven out by the digitization of it, because they didn't want to work with computers, or didn't have the skills to do it. They were NOT replaced by visual geniuses that know everything they did about lighting and composition and were just doing it in digital.

I recently had a discussion at a college class with a group of students in the visual arts, and we went through magazines looking at photography that was NOT sharp (due mostly to improper focus), and not exposed well (mostly over exposed with washed out skin tones), and I could not understand that regardless of price, why this is the new standard.

When the people who buy the stuff lower the prices so that no one can make a living at it, then only the amateurs that are making a living at something else will be doing it.

To answer the question, yes and I probably do. I haven't averaged out what I've made in the last year in a half since I've gone full time photo but it might be a little less than that. I charge roughly $100 per hour but I obviously don't shoot everyday. How can I do it? 1. My wife works too and her paycheck is steady(salary). 2. I live in Akron, OH(cheap cost of living). 3. We don't have and aren't going to have children.
Its worth it to me to do what I love - even if it means I'll probably never own a new car or travel as much as I would like.

Hmmm. It would be more interesting to break the whole pie down by metrics like: level of education, time in the market, the health of the surrounding market, other skills bundled with photography services, etc. In my own informal surveys as both a former ASMP chapter pres. a member of an advisory board for a very large, public community college and a reckless blogger I've seen a direct correlation between education levels and incomes of photographers; at least where corporate work and advertising work is concerned. Several photographers I know who do quite well are refugees from engineering. Another is a former architect and three have masters degrees in English.

They bring a comfortable social bearing and a peer to peer mentality to working with equally well educated executives. The English masters add to their photo income with conjoined writing assignments and they differentiate themselves at every level of proposing and bidding for photo projects with smart, engaging writing.

There are many, many levels and specialties to photography. In weddings there are photographers who have positioned themselves in the right zip codes and who live the same lifestyles as their upscale clientele and then there are the hand to mouth wedding photographers who haven't figured out how to climb the social and economic ladders required to service the trade they'd like to invoice.

Our business took hits during the big recession but last year was as successful as the banner years of the go-go 90's. But with a kid in a private $$$$ college and the ever rising costs of living in a boom city like Austin I'm happy to supplement my photography income with book income, on-line education income and marketing consultation. It's always good to have back up plans for your back up plans.

The market ranges from people who will work for lunch at McDonalds to people who can pull down $200,000 or more in fees from clients who are paying not only for the skills at camera handling but the skills at managing important people with tact and intelligence. You can hardly separate the skill sets in the most successful practitioners. There is tremendous value in knowing when to show up in a suit and tie and what NOT to say in the board rooms... I guess it's really never about the gear...

I agree with Josh Hawkins, above. A survey like the one mentioned is almost useless with out some sort of breakdown. Using this data to come to a conclusion about what "Photographers" make is like doing the same for "Writers" and including people with a tumblr, professional bloggers, technical writers, and Stephen King.

I just recently hired pros (my day job is as a Designer/Art Director/Photographer and I had a conflict) for two projects. The first one we hired someone in Washington State and another in Austin TX. They were both solid corporate/editorial shooters. Right about $2500/day for each of them. I think thats pretty solid pay. Bill three full days plus expenses per month, work out of a small office, or your home, and thats a reasonable income for a job that can be a lot of fun - lots more fun than the cubicle farm for certain.

The other one was a corporate event in NYC. We paid about $250/hr.
I'm thinking that, if you ask folks who are all-in trying to make a living as a photographer, they are doing OK. Its hard, but do-able.

The shift in the photography business is part of a much larger technological revolution which is ongoing. There are strong parallels to the industrial revolution of the 1800s. Back then, the whole concept of producing goods shifted from manual work to machine production. The result was, among other things both good and bad, what is called "technological unemployment". People with the "old skills" couldn't get work. Those who could adapt got jobs, but a often lower salary. We have seen a similar process over the last 40 or so years. In the auto industry, for example, many fewer workers are on the assembly line. Robots do the welding (better than most manual welds), much assembly, and testing of the finished product for quality. Now the advent of 3D printing may soon permit making replacement parts at home feasible, making it difficult for auto part stores, unless they join in. In photography we see a similar automation of the image production process via digital. But all is not lost, as the continued production of custom, "hand made" objects (including cars) continues. For the photographer, this means finding a niche where technical competence is not enough, but where artistic and/or other qualities are wanted. So far, at least, even Artificial Intelligence cannot match human performance in creativity (though in 50 years???). And creativity is where the pro photographer can still be successful.

Photographers making $13.70 an hour? No way! That's almost as much as college professors!

$13.70 is the median, so most (more than half, probably a lot more..) will be working for less than that.
So for most photographers $13.70 an hour would constitute a pay raise.

Twice yearly for the past decade I've joined the fashion crowd from NYC to London, then on to Milan and Paris. My company makes videos for cosmetics companies. I know many fashion photographers - some of whom began the whole backstage thing, and a couple who were there at the start of runway photography proper - and everything's changed. With a view to producing a small documentary chronicling the change (Death of The Contract?) we began interviewing a broad cross-section of photographers. A fairly representative (if less-reserved than most) quote: "Fifteen years ago I was drinking champagne with Julia Roberts. Now I'm lucky if I shoot a crack whore on a skateboard."

If you want to succeed you need a niche. Right now analog photography has become quite rare. Specializing in that is a nice niceh, and should result in better than average earnings. I bet the guys shooting large-format film and wet plate are not working for 13 bucks an hour. Sure, the market is smaller than it is for digital. But one only needs a few well-heeled clients, who have taste, to make it pay.

Regarding (the other) Ed's comment that people shooting large format and wet plate are not working for $13 an hour, it's a good point but the problem is (I think) that you pretty much need to be already established in order to make a go of such niches.

I doubt many people step right out of school and start up a successful niche business. In the meantime they have to struggle for 10-20 years, and if they happen to survive that they might narrow the business to a successful niche.

So good for those who are already established, but it's mighty hard for today's young 'uns to survive long enough to make that happen.

Dear Aaron,

You've got your terms confused.

Median is the midpoint-- it means that equal numbers of samples are greater or less than the median. So, just under half the photographers are making less than $13.70/hour ('cause there are no doubt a hadnful who are making exactly that).

If it were the mean you'd be right, as it would be skewed towards the higher side by the small percentage of very well-paid photographers.

pax / Ctein

Looks like Mike has found "energy" in this post! Part of the difficulty here is the variables - not only the type of photography one is doing but also where the photographer is working.

My advice to anyone who asks is that a photographer must gravitate to a niche where they have a competitive advantage. I had previously worked in sports event marketing and when I started my business in 1997 it was targeted at that niche. I could claim to have a competitive advantage as I knew first hand what a marketer was looking to capture.

And whenever we have this discussion, there is also an elephant in the room - a photographer's general likability factor. In a way, I think Kirk Tuck approached this from a different angle - education level. The more you have in common with your clients, the better you will do. If the client likes the photographer, they will most likely like his or her photographs.

Kirk mentions the education level has a great impact on earning ability. It may be that the education allows them to operate a business with more proficiency, but I think the education provides something more important - common ground with your clients.

Unfortunately I believe many folks entered photography because they were not particularly good at dealing with people. You don't have to be very likable to be a great photographer. (We all know many great photographers who couldn't earn enough to survive.) But I would guess the majority of successful commercial photographers are generally likable people.

The problem is that you can make yourself a much better photographer, but if one is not very likable, that is tough to change.

Last year I spent near half that average annual income in photography. (equipment, ink, paper, a 32 print exhibit of my work which is still running, etc.) I didn't get any cent in return. Yet

Plenty of people work in plenty of skilled jobs these days for very little money.

Typical software programmers make a pittance compared to 20 years ago. Why? Because writing software is no longer as difficult as it was. It's like making stuff out of lego.

When programming was hard and required an intimate knowledge of the underlying technology, programmers were a highly valuable commodity. Specialists in databases or networks could make a small fortune and command very high contract fees. There were not many of them either, because what they did was technically complex and few people were good enough to deal with large commercial systems.

However some programmers are now among the richest people on the planet. How come? Because they are not first and foremost programmers. In the main they are engineers, scientists or mathematicians who can understand and model highly complex environments, such as commodities trading, flight control systems or encryption. The problem they solve is several orders of magnitude harder than writing software. Writing software is just a skill they pick up along the way.

By the same token, picking up a camera and making a half decent photo (in focus and properly exposed and composed) is not exactly hard any more. Apart from composition the rest is 90% automated. The genre is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as something anyone could do with a half decent camera.

It is certainly more true than it was. 20 years ago, the behaviour of film was complex, and developing and printing required extensive skill and experience. The consumables cost for a studio was horrendous and most of them employed professional labs for post production. Us mere mortals were excluded from anything much larger than a 4X6 print and stock 35mm developed in a drug store and only the hard-bitten ones had a darkroom. Masters of the craft were rare, and rates were sky high.

But the parallel is still there. The value is in the concept, realisation is no longer the barrier. A valuable photographer is not therefore a photographer, but an artist or creative director who can visualise and encapsulate a complete concept....use of a camera is optional and just one of many possible tools.

Of course there are still specialists and, like every profession, there are the dogged survivors who are so skilled that they cling on in a shrinking market, but are we surprised that the market is shrinking?

Most furniture is now made by robots, so there is no longer the same demand for hand-made chairs. What matters to us most is the design and the price. That it is disposable is not a problem if it is cheap to replace. There are not enough customers who need, or can afford, true bespoke craftsmanship so the market, such as it is, is a small enclave of the super rich. There is money to be made - if you are good enough. Same is largely true for photographers.

In the grand scheme of things, this is neither good nor bad, it is just change. If photography has become less commercially valuable, it has also become far more accessible and enjoyable for everyone else. The information revolution means having to change jobs every few years. C'est la vie. No point in throwing your clogs in the machine.

To answer the question in the post title:
Not for long. I have to pay the rent.

That's why I closed my photography business and changed careers.

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