Grant McWilliams

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Photography Blog

Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not  ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Going back to Canon

I haven't done a proper review of my Sony RX-100 yet as I haven't really felt like writing about it. I've used Canon Point and shoot cameras for years (s230, sd500, sd870, G7, s90) but Sony just plain outgunned them in every aspect short of one - usability. The RX-100 is a phenomenal piece of equipment with a sensor 3 times larger than the Canon S120 and a much faster lens too. This thing just plain creams the competition in the hardware department and it's small enough to put in my pocket too. 

However, there's that usability issue.

 

I saw DPReview's complaints about it but I thought I'd just customize the buttons and move on. However, it's more complex than that. I'll pull it out of my pocket and it may or may not decide to take photo depending on how it feels. You see, it's a computer with a CPU, memory and operating system and sometimes it's just busy doing something else. Sometimes it will take my auto-exposure bracketed 3 photos, and sometimes it just takes one until it gets warmed up. Sometimes my thumb will hit the help button which brings up the help menu.... when I'm in the middle of shooting and I have to cancel it before I can go on.  Sometimes I want to adjust my white balance with a plain piece of white paper and I haven't yet been able to figure out how. Also why does it have a video mode AND a video button? When you put it in video mode and press the shutter you'd expect it to take a video but it doesn't because you didn't press the OTHER video button. You get all of this for only $700!

This camera drives me insane. I've never had a love hate relationship with a camera before. The RX-100 has truly amazing hardware and truly incompetent software. I've come to the point where I realize Sony just doesn't get it. 

When it comes to buying a new camera I'll be going back to Canon because after several years of sitting on the sidelines they've decided to compete with Sony. The new Canon G7X has the same 1" sensor as the Sony RX-100,  an amazingly fast lens (1.8-2.8) with more zoom than the RX-100.  It's shortcomings seem to be that the battery life is mediocre at best and it doesn't have a viewfinder. I can live with both. I'll carry extra batteries, a solar charger or even drag around a 1982 delorean with a backpack full of plutonium if necessary as long as I can have Canon's wonderful ergonomics.

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Goodbye Canon, hello Sony?

 

It's been a really long time since I wrote about photography. Generally I buy new cameras every year as new technology comes out and the driving force behind that is travel. As you probably know I like cameras that are able to fit in my pocket so it's always been a struggle to get a camera that's portable, takes good photos and has the features that I want.

Previous point and shoot Canons

My first digital camera was a Canon S230 with a 3.2 MP sensor and a 2x zoom. It was good enough for the time. That got replaced by a Canon SD500 with a 1/1.7" sensor (large for a Point and Shoot), a 3x zoom but no wide angle. I added a Canon G7 to that mix with the optional (and massive) wide angle lens. This lasted one trip until I knocked it lightly against some asphalt at while trying to take a photo of the Space Needle in Seattle. I never got it fixed.

The SD500 was replaced by an SD870 which got me Image Stabilization and a wide angle lens in a small package. The sensor was smaller but due to improved technology the image quality was equal to the SD500. That camera lasted me a few years until Canon reintroduced the S series. 

Canon S series

The Canon S90 almost single handedly created a new category of point and shoot cameras for more serious photographers. It had amazing low light performance, a wide angle lens, full manual controls, auto exposure bracketing and raw mode. The lens was reasonably fast on one end and not so fast on the other. All of this in a very small package. The S90 was replaced by the S95 which mainly fixed usability issues I outlined in my review. The S100 got a wider angle lens with a bit more reach. The S110 got wifi and a touchscreen (meh). The brand new S120 is almost exactly the same but with a better video mode. Note that every change since the S90 4 years ago has been very small. 


The problem with the incremental improvements Canon has made is that the world hasn't stood still in the last four years. Panasonic keeps churning out new LX cameras, Fujifilm's XF1 has a sensor that's 50% larger than Canon's. Sony has really changed the game with their RX100 which has a 1 inch sensor with nearly 3x the area of Canon's. Yes, these cameras cost more than Canon's but still occupy the same market. Sony's RX100 ii is being sold along side the previous generation RX100 with $150 separating them. This puts the new RX100 ii at $750 which is very high in my opinion. The good news is the original RX100 is now selling for $550. This is still quite high for a compact camera and is $150 higher than Canon's S120, Panasonic's LX-7 or Fugifilm's XF1. The RX100 ii customer is an odd one because that person could have bought a DSLR.

Sony RX100

The secret here is that I just purchases the previous generation RX100. The difference between the RX100 and the RX100 ii is a tilt LCD screen and a bit different back lit sensor. Are those things worth $150? I really don't think so. Is the RX100 worth $550? I'm not sure but the fact of the matter is it's the only compact camera with a sensor that large and I'm excited.

I already ordered the Richard Freniac grip for it. His grip for my S90 made it usable and cut down on my stress level drastically as I no longer had to worry about dropping it.

Comparison table (thanks to dpreview for the data)

 Sensor area, mm2
(dimensions)
Focal length rangeFocal length range (equiv.)Aperture rangeAperture range (equiv)*Dimensions (mm)
Canon S110 41
(7.4x5.6)
5.2-26mm 24-120mm F2.0-5.9 F9.3-27.4 99x59x27
Sony 
DSC-RX100
116
(13.2x8.8)
10-37mm 28-100mm F1.8-4.9 F4.9-13.4 101x58x36
Fujifilm XF1 58
(8.8x6.6)
6.4-25.6mm 25-100mm F1.8-4.9 F7.0-19.1 108x62x33
Panasonic DMC-LX7 34**
(6.7x5.1)
4.7-17.7mm 24-90mm F1.4-2.3 F7.1-11.7 111x68x46

The major advantage the RX100 has over these other cameras is the sheer size of the CMOS censor. At nearly three times the size of the S120 or Panasonic LX7. This allows more light to hit the sensor so you can take photos at a lower ISO resulting in a better photo. It makes a huge difference in low light situations. The lens on the RX100 is very fast on the long end (F1.8) but slows down just like the Fujifilm and Canon although the Canon is the worst.  It doesn't have the same amount of zoom but I find myself needing wide angle more than zoom so I'm OK with that.

I'll do a real review after I've had some time with it.

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Point and Shoot Photography

I've always been a proponent of learning as much as you can about a subject before running off and buying more equipment and photography is no different. A lot of times people think they can't take great photos without having great equipment but I've found that you can do a great deal by KNOWING what you're doing first. Years ago when I skated we'd go to Woolworth's and buy a pair of Roller Derby Phantoms to which we'd replace the liner with a Reidel or Rollerblade version, replace the wheels and bearings then tear up the track. Whomever just got owned would always come up and ask what we were skating on which we'd respond with "Roller Derby Phantoms, I got them from Woolworths for $39". Perhaps this caused a few people to give up on their dreams and live out their days serving 7 layer burritos at Taco Bell if you believe in the Butterfly Effect - I don't know. Anyway my philosophy is this.

"Be as good as you can with what you have and only replace it when IT becomes the limitation"

I live this with my photography. Sure a DSLR will take better photos than a point and shoot, nobody's arguing that. However, if you can't aim a point and shoot at a subject and make art out of it then it's doubtful that something as complex as a DSLR will help you any. Most point and shoot cameras will take decent photos within context. That context usually has to do with lighting and depth of field. With a small sensor they just can't take in enough light so anything over about 200 ISO they're done. They also have a very wide depth of field and the recent trend of adding wide angle lenses to them has made this worse. It's nearly impossible to do those very dramatic narrow depth of field closeups using a point and shoot camera with a wide angle lens. Other issues they have depend on the make of the camera but I'll list the general ones and attack them one at a time

  1. Noise at any ISO above base
  2. Limited zoom
  3. Purple fringing
  4. Inaccurate white balance
  5. Color blowout
  6. Overexposure


1. Noise: Because of their small sensors they struggle at taking photos in low light conditions so don't. That's right, just don't do it. If you have to then manually set your ISO as low as it will go then place the camera on a tripod and fire the shutter using a timer. My Jobi Gorillapod has allowed me to capture some great nighttime shots because it will stick to about anything. At least two of the shots in the gallery below would not have been possible without it. 

2. Limited Zoom: get closer or take the cleanest shot possible and crop. That's really what it comes down to. A zoom provides optical magnification which your point and shoot may not have. Optical is always better than taking a large photo and cropping it because the magnification is being done in the lens thus leaving all your pixels to still take in light. If you take a photo and crop it to simulate a 4x zoom with a 10 MP photo you'll end up with a 2.5 MP photo that's not very sharp. This is the limitation so you'll have to live with it.

Purple Fringing



3. Color Fringing: There's not a lot you can do besides avoiding the types of photos where it's prevalent ie. leaves backed by sky. The photo to the right shows fringing around the leaves.

 

 

4. Inaccurate White Balance: Light metering in point and shoot cameras leaves a lot to be desired and has to do with the software in the camera more than anything else so two cameras using the same sensor may not be equal in this regard. There's a simple solution that most cameras allow. Take the whitest piece of paper you can find and hold that in front of the image you're wanting to photograph and select "Evaluate White Balance" in your settings. Even cheap point and shoot cameras usually have this. This will tell the camera to change settings so the sheet of paper is considered white. This works really really well and I can't recommend it enough. This is especially useful for taking indoor shots under artificial lights because they're all different. I recommend this setting over changing to the pre-configured Tungsten, Fluorescent or other settings. Just remember to change it back when you're move to a new lighting condition. You may even do this several times during shooting to let it recalculate. 

 

 

5. Color Blowout: What I mean by this is some cameras prefer certain colors over others. This is a designed in feature of the camera manufacturer to satisfy the point and shoot market. Manufacturers of cameras designed for the common non-photographer folks like to make cameras that output bright over-sharpened photos with punchy colors because this is what consumers want. However, seasoned photographers know this isn't a good base to start your post processing with. It's better to have an image closer to raw so you can do the processing yourself. 

Just keep this in mind when you take photos. The photo of a rose to the right was taken by my Canon S90 which is one of the best point and shoot cameras you can but. The rose is really peach colored so you can see how bad the camera mangled it.

 

Over exposure

6. Overexposure: This is a real problem on a point and shoot because their sensors are so small and have very limited dynamic range. If your camera has auto-exposure bracketing (not likely) then turn it on. This takes three photos every time you press the shutter button at different exposures. This will allow you to choose the right one later or possibly even combine them in HDR software to make one High Dynamic Range image. If your camera doesn't have auto-exposure bracketing you might want to see if you can assign exposure settings to a hot button (ie. on Canon it's the print button) so you can take a photo, adjust exposure and take another quickly.  In more cases than not you'll be adjusting down and not up. I take most of my point and shoot photos at -2/3 exposure. Experiment and take lots of photos with different settings to see what works. You can always decide later what to keep.

 

With all of that in mind you can take decent photos with your point and shoot. I've had photos published in magazines that were taken with a 3.2 MP point and shoot camera with a 2x zoom. It IS possible. 

Why not just go to a DSLR?

I still carry around a point and shoot camera although a higher end one - Canon S90 because I can get it in my pocket. A camera that I have on me is a camera I'll take photos with. A bulky DSLR left at home will never get used. I will probably be replacing the S90 with an S100 or doing more research on the Canon G1X even though it pushes my envelope of what I want to carry around.

The moral of the story is learn how to use all the features of your camera and don't be afraid to experiment. The photo at the beginning of this article was taken using the gorillapod, a two second shutter and the exposure on the pre-configured Fireworks setting. 

 Point and Shoot Photo Gallery: click for lightbox

{gallery}Gallerys/Portfolio{/gallery}  

 

 

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Don't stop learning in cooking or photography

I was working on putting my Moussaka recipe back up on the new site and took one look at the photo I had on file for it and knew I couldn't do it. It's amazing how much of a difference just knowing a bit about what you're doing makes in many things. In this case it's both cooking and photography. My current camera is a bit better than my old one in that it takes better low light photos. However because of the wide angle lens it has a wider depth of field making it hard to get those really dramatic close-up images with the foreground and the background blurred out. However, how I took the new Moussaka photo I could have taken with the old camera too. I also don't have any more of a food photography studio than I ever did. One hundred percent of the difference between the two photos below is knowledge and nothing more. I'm still using a point and shoot camera, I'm still taking photos under fluorescent lights, I'm still using a couple of books and a $3.99 tripod from an outlet store, and I still don't have any flash, props, umbrellas or any of that jazz. So look at the photos below and see the difference. If you're one to run out and buy better equipment because you want to take great photos you may want to just get really good with what you have first THEN go buy new gear. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Obviously the plate is different. I bought the one on the right for $6.99 for four at TJ-Maxx. The ones on the left cost the same per plate a an Import store. The recipe is of course different and I spent more time making the Bechamel sauce thicker (whipped egg whites then folded them in) but the real difference is lighting, subtle backgrounds and matching up colors with dramatic patterns lacking in color. You don't have to spent a lot on the background either. I layed a group of fake grapes and grape leaves back there and you can see something but it doesn't draw attention. It has a presence but doesn't introduce itself to you. The photo on the left is bland and plain. I'm too zoomed out, the food looks sad, the plate looks empty and alone. It's just blah.

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New Photography galleries

I haven't done a lot in the way of photography blogging or even uploading photos lately since I've not been on vacation. Most of the photos here have to do with food or travel but I've just added a new menu item under Photography labelled Galleries. Generic I know and I'll probably change it but these are galleries that have to do with photography itself as opposed to photos for other purposes. What spawned this was that I have a gallery of photos taken with my Canon S90 where I'm just showing off the camera to see what it can do. I decided to share. Another thing happened that spurred this decision is that I bought a Nokia n900 cell phone. If you're wondering what a cell phone has to do with photography you've obviously not seen the photos this thing takes. I'm not going to say they're camera quality but I'm very very impressed so far especially within the context of "cell phone". The photo to the right was taken with the Nokia. See what I mean? So in the future I'll be taking more photos with both my S90 and the n900 just to show off what the cameras can do. Currently I'm thinking of taking a Vehicle mount for the Nokia and hacking it into a tripod mount since it doesn't have a mount on it. It might seem silly to take photos with a cell phone but it's also fun to see just HOW good they can be. The standard Nokia software is about as good as aftermarket Android camera software. I downloaded Bless900 which allows me to take RAW and HDR photos with the nokia so I'll be playing with that too.

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Canon updates S90

Regular visitors know of my obsession with finding the ultimate point and shoot camera and know that I bought an S90 which I've been very impressed with. It's two downfalls have been the ergonomics and the lack of improvements in video abilities. The former you can work around by adding a grip and just plain getting used to it. The latter you're stuck with. Canon appears to be listening and has released an update to the S90 aptly named S95. I think the update may be fueled as much by Panasonic adding more zoom to the LX series as customer demands.

According to dpreview they've added support for SDXC cards for larger than 32 GB (ho hum), some improvements in the image stabilization (yawn) and multi-aspect shooting (tapping my fingers here Canon). The ONE real new feature and probably the only real reason for the update is the improved sensor that does 720 HD video (at 24 fps) with stereo sound! Finally Canon is getting into the game. I don't care that much because I also own a Canon HF-200. The improvement is welcome though and shows that Canon is making the changes to be competitive in the Point and Shoot video market as well.

There are still limitations to the very design of most point and shoot cameras. They will say unlimited video recording until the card is full or the file size reaches 4 GB. In HD the S95 can record about 30 minutes of video non-stop. Sounds like a Fat32 filesystem limit to me. I think it's time camera manufacturers endorse a new filesystem.

They've made other small changes to improve the complaints about ergonomics. The small wheel on the back supposedly is less sensitive, the coating is less slippery than the old finish (listed as wet bar of soap in the catalog I believe), and the power button and ring function button have been swapped. Also it looks as if the shutter release is about the same size but the area surrounding the button is dished in to help you find it by feel. The button itself looks to have more of a bulge to it for the same reason. If you go back and read my S90 review you will see that they have directly addressed ALL of my major complaints except for the grip issue which can be fixed by buying the aftermarket grip. Since I've not used the S95 I cannot comment on whether they have been successful but it looks positive.

Read DPreviews press release.

 

 

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S90 Review

After months (no years) of debate trying to find my perfect point and shoot camera that was good enough to be my only camera I bought a Canon S90. I thought since I've now been using it for several months I'd post a review of what I thought.

The choice really came down to the Panasonic LX3, Canon G11 and Canon S90. The G11 was knocked out in the first round because it really doesn't do anything more than the S90 and is larger and heavier. It's lens has a bit more reach but it gives up low light performance (f2.8 vs f2.0 for the S90) in the process. It has a hot shoe and even though that tempted me with buying the G7 I never ever used it. The deciding factor was that the S90 fits in my pocked comfortably and the G11 never will (nor did my G7 because of weight). The real comparison came down to the Panasonic LX3 and the Canon S90.

The real draw to the LX3 was that it has amazing low light performance. To be honest at ISO 80 and lots of light you can take great photos with a point and shoot as long as you have some manual control. At ISO 400 things change and the point and shoots are just about done. By ISO 800 you start throwing away photos but a DSLR is just getting started. The draw of having great low light performance almost made me choose the LX3 before the S90 came out. The biggest reason I didn't was that the LX3 has no lens! OK, it has a lens but what good is a 60mm reach? That's not a zoom lens, thats a "bring it in to normal field of view" lens. I was really hoping for at least a 2x - 3x zoom so I held off. When DPreviews did their premium point and shoot comparison and the S90 proved to have better low light performance and a 28-105 f2.0 lens I bought one. Now that Canon smacked Panasonic up side the head I see that Panasonic is coming out with an LX5 (what happened to the LX4?) with a longer reaching lens and a control ring, the two things that Canon has that Panasonic really needs. It looks like though they're trying to get even rather than leap frog Canon. Before I go on I will just mention just for the record that the Pansonic movie mode creams Canon. So on with the review.

 

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Read more: S90 Review

I decided on the S90

It's been nearly 2 months since I've posted last! This is by far the longest and it's only out of a lack of time. I've been working 110 hrs a week and teaching two classes on top of that and in the middle of a recession no less.

After a lot of research I finally ordered the Canon S90 which I'll have in a few days. I have a Canon G7 with hack kit and wide angle lens which is currently broken. I liked the quality of the photos and the manual everything but my complaint with it were that it was heavy, bigger than necessary and the wide angle wasn't built in. The G11 would have solved the last item but not the first two. I pondered the Panasonic LX-3 for a really long time but not having any real zoom turned me off. The 24mm lens would have been nice but only if I had any zoom at all. The Panasonic LX-3 is a 24-60mm zoom and 50mm is life size so you can imagine that 60mm does nothing for you. It zooms out but not really in. I was really drawn to the LX-3 because of it's fast lens and low light performance however DPreview just did a full test on the S90 and it was actually better in low light than the LX-3 so I put the money on the table. DPreviews still didn't rate the camera super high but it takes great photos, is small, has a wide angle lens and manual mode so is about perfect for me. They complained about it being slippery and likening it to a bar of soap. They also complained about the settings wheel on the back being way to free wheeling. To solve the first part I also ordered Richard Franiecs add on grip for the S90. This is machined out of solid alluminum so it will give the S90 a bit more heft which won't hurt it and improve the feel of the camera 100%. It would be interesting to see how DPreview would have rated the S90 had it had a decent grip. I also ordered some LCD screen protectors and a couple of extra aftermarket batteries as well.

I'll report later about my feelings on the S90.

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PMA new camera thoughts

The annual PMA show just finished up so I'm here to give you my thoughts on the announcements. Canon released some new point and shoots none of which are really any different than what they've been shoveling out for the last few years. Video has gotten better on the SX series and the model numbers have grown on the SD series but overall not very exciting. The one theme that seemed to be consistant was manufacturors releasing water-proof cameras. There seems to be a trend that every manufacturor wants at least one waterproof point-and-shoot in their lineup. I bought my Sanyo E-1 for that purpose but have only taken it underwater once. The nice thing about waterproof cameras is you don't have to worry about rain, sand and dirt as they are sealed. This I've enjoyed.

I think the real surprises for the show were from Samsung and Ricoh, two manufacturors that hang out on the fringe. Recently there was a comment thread on one of the photo sites about Panasonics GH-1 micro-four/thirds camera and people got a bit testy about these new mirror-less large sensor cameras. It was interesting to see the DSLR crowd take the defensive position that the SLR folks took when things started going digital. The DSLR crowd said a mirrorless camera will never replace one with a mirror becauseand as such the micro four thirds cameras were nothing more than point and shoots. If engineers can get contrast detect focus as fast as DSLRs and they create an "optical" viewfinder with a really high-res screen and by "zooming" in on a small section of what the sensor sees to create penta-prism focusing functionality I don't think DSLRs have a prayer. The advantages of getting rid of the mirror is one less mechanical piece, the camera body can be flatter and the lenses can be smaller all around. In the future (and I predict) large sensor point and shoots will replace DSLRs. I give DSLRs 5 years.

In that vein the two cameras I'm going to talk about are the Ricoh GXR system and the Samsung TS500. Neither of these cameras compete with the micro four thirds (after that long introduction) but occupy the space of the Canon s90, G11 and Panasonic LX3 which all of you know I've been considering as my new point and shoot.

The Ricoh GXR system is a very interesting concept where the sensor and lens are one piece. That sort of makes sense because you'd be able to have a lens/sensor combo optimized for certain functions. Say a small cmos sensor and lens aimed at doing video or a large sensor and fast lens designed for action and or low light shots. This is exactly what the GXR is. There are two options at this point - a backlit cmos sensor with 28-300 mm zoom lens (model P10). The back illuminated sensor should help in low light situations as more light hits the sensor if it's reversed. The zoom isn't particularily fast but thats not really it's purpose. The other choice is a 28mm fixed lens with a APS-C (gag, cough) sensor (model A12). The APS-C size of sensor is what's used in most all DSLRs except for a couple of high end Canons which use the full frame sensor. The lens on the Ricoh is fairly fast so in combination with the sensor you should be able to take photos in the same level of light as any DSLR. It also does full speed HD video.   Both lens/sensors take photos in raw and have anti-vibration control. I'm sure that in time there will be a bunch of lens/sensor combos coming out.  In addition they have the S10 which has a small CCD sensor with a 28-75 zoom. I'm going to wage a guess that these cameras will be expensive and we're also back to "Now I have to buy my lenses from one company" which we see a lot in the SLR/DSLR realm. Interesting concept.

The other camera of interest is the Samsung TL-500 which you can think of as the result of  Panasonic and the Canon getting waisted and spending the night in the back seat of a 64 Chevy Impala. Look at the specs and you'll see what I'm talking about.

 

  Canon S90 Canon G11 Panasonic LX3 Samsung TL-500
Lens size 28-105 28-140 24-60 24-75
Lens speed f/2.0-4.9 f/2.8-4.5 f/2.0-2.8 f/1.8-?
LCD Fixed Articulated Fixed Articulated
Sensor 1/1.7 1/1.7 1/1.63 1/1.7
Sensor MP 10mp 10mp 10mp 10mp?
Video res 640x480 640x480 1280x720 640x480
Image format raw raw raw raw

It looks as if Samsung just looked at the Canon and Panasonic cameras and did a mashup. Anyway I'm curious about the Samsung because it looks like an S90 (currently my favorite) with a slightly faster lens and an articulated screen. It's a smaller G11 is what it is. Since Samsung rarely tops the quality charts though I'll be waiting for reviews first before rushing to Amazon.

 

 

 

 

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Tossing a perfectly good camera in the air

There's a new trend in the air - camera tossing! It goes a little something like this. You face some brightly colored lights and give your camera a toss up in the air with a long shutter speed (1 second) and see what happens. Camera Tossing has become so popular that there are whole web galleries of camera tossed photos.

The photo to the right was the front of my duaghter's Shuttle PC with a USB memory card reader inserted and my nokia n800 with a new email (led blinking). I'm going to be playing more with this in the future because some of the photos others have taken have been amazing.

Check out the Camera Tossing Flickr page.

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