Is the DSLR Really Dead?

Being a Nikon DSLR landscape photographer who is anticipating the foreseeable demise of said cameras, I have been curious about the Nikon Z 7II. I wanted to see how one of these lighter, smaller mirrorless cameras functioned not only for landscapes but as a travel setup. Here are my initial thoughts.

I should preface by saying that normally gear reviews are not really my thing. The fact that I still shoot with a Nikon D810 and have an assortment of older Nikon prime lenses from back in the film days, such as a 55mm Micro and 105mm Micro (yes, the old metal ones) should be your first tip-off that I’m not exactly someone who’s interested in all of the latest and greatest year. I find what works well for me and tend to stick with it. I believe in the adage of “why fix what’s not broken.” Not a very sexy viewpoint in this day and age I suppose, but I’ll leave musings on that subject for another day.

Curiosity about mirrorless cameras has been building for a while for me though. After lugging my D810 and 24-120mm f/4 lens on a biking trip through Glacier National Park this past summer I found myself pondering the Nikon mirrorless system as a potentially great travel photography setup. The small size and light weight would have made a big difference on that biking trip. Add to that the fact that I could easily use all my old prime lenses with the FTZ adapter, and the system became much more intriguing.

When my girlfriend and I scheduled a spring break backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to test out the new Nikon. If there is anytime that size and weight become a huge consideration, it’s backpacking, especially as I move into my latter 50s. It makes carrying around heavy gear less and less appealing every year.

The body, Z 24-200mm lens, and FTZ adapter all arrived from Lens Rentals on the day before the trip. I was leaning heavily on my experience as a Nikon DSLR user and being generally pretty adept at new technology to help make the short learning curve smooth. I was mostly right, although not without a few bumps along the road.

Back of the D810
Back of the Z7 II

The first thing that struck me when I unboxed the camera was, of course, how much smaller it is than my D810. My normal travel, or “walkabout” kit as I like to call it, is the body paired with the 24-200mm f/4 lens. The Z 7II with the 24-200mm lens attached was diminutive by comparison. Of course, there are sacrifices made in a lens that does not have a constant aperture and is overall a slow lens, but I found that for what I wanted on this trip, the smaller size and weight was worth it and not really a hindrance to making some decent images from down in the canyon.

The camera itself as noted by many reviews is very comfortable in the hand and very well-balanced coupled with this lens. Slung around my neck, it felt like almost nothing compared with my other rig. As a personal preference, I also liked the inconspicuousness of the camera. Carrying it around the more heavily visited overlooks before the start of our journey down into the canyon, I found I liked not standing out as much as I do with my larger DSLR and bevy of lenses. Anyone who has ever done landscape photography at popular locations has probably experienced this. When you arrive at a vantage point and begin setting up an expensive-looking camera on a tripod, people tend to congregate near you, I guess figuring that whatever you are shooting must be worthwhile. It just goes with the territory, I suppose, but I found myself enjoying being a little more inconspicuous with this camera. I can well imagine this to be a big plus for the street photographer as well.

The Z 7II with FTZ adapter and 55mm micro lens
Shooting with the Z 7II on a tripod

I’ve heard the argument that these cameras don’t have the heft of a DSLR, and thus feel too lightweight. I used to have this viewpoint myself. But unboxing the Z 7II, I was struck by how the camera body itself is similar in size to the original film camera that I started with as a teenager, the classic Pentax K-1000. In this way, it seems like mirrorless technology is bringing things around full circle to where we started with the SLR. This camera felt great to carry, and well balanced with the 24-200mm lens attached. And come to think of it, I don’t remember ever saying to myself all those years ago with my Pentax: “gee, I wish this thing was bigger and heavier".

As far as ease of use, my experience on this point was a bit mixed. On the one hand, a lot of the layout and controls were familiar for someone coming directly from Nikon DSLRs. Several differences, including menus that are accessed either a different way or were not there all, became a little frustrating at times. For example, there is a whole set of buttons on the left side of the back of the camera that is gone. Some have moved down to the right, some are in the menu now. Also, there is a little joystick for adjusting the autofocus placement. I was unimpressed, but to be fair, I am a landscape photographer, so it’s not a function that is top on my list. But, it did seem to me like the autofocus placement was a bit clunky, which I have heard from other reviews. So overall, despite what some may lead you to believe, there are significant differences in the layout of these cameras compared to a DSLR.

Evening shot testing out the high ISO performance: Z 24-200mm 1/20 s f/5.3 ISO 3,600

In particular, I found myself missing the handy bracket button. I like it best on the dial of my “old” D800, after which it moved to the slightly less desirable left side of the viewfinder on my D810. On the Z 7II, I found myself having to dig into the menu to get to this feature. I know that I could have set this up as a custom user function and would have if I had had the camera longer, but I still think my personal preference is having handy access to it right on the top of the camera. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Starting the descent down into the canyon

Another thing that I found a little bit annoying with the camera was that some of the shooting parameters seemed to reset themselves. Primary in these for me was the timer, which I tended to use on longer exposures since I did not have a remote shutter release. I use the delay feature on my D810, another thing missing on this camera, so the two-second timer seemed to be a perfect alternative, except whenever the power got shut off, the camera reset itself. It was quick and easy to change back on the rear screen in the information menu, but I still found it very annoying.

Getting in close to the bottom of an Agave plant with the Z 24-200mm: 1/6 s, f/8, ISO 64

Then there was the monitor mode button on the side of the viewfinder for selecting between viewing the image solely through the viewfinder, automatically switching between the viewfinder and LCD, prioritizing the viewfinder (not sure of the difference between this and auto-switching) and LCD only. This seemed to work inconsistently. I can only guess that it was due to ambient light. By default, I initially chose to have this set on automatic, and yet sometimes, I found it to work fine, and other times, it would not switch off of the viewfinder when I pulled my face away. Getting frustrated out in the field, I eventually defaulted to the viewfinder only, even using that to evaluate images. Back at my Airbnb, when I had power again, I was able to set it on the monitor. This may have just been a quirk of the rental copy that I had or a newbie error. Either way, it seemed to take a little more attention to it than I would have wanted or expected.

Strange clouds over the Grand Canyon: Z 24-200mm, 1/40 s, f/8, ISO 64

One thing I did love about the viewfinder was the live histogram. This is such a nice benefit of mirrorless systems in my opinion. The ability to evaluate the exposure on the fly instead of looking at the back of the camera after the fact is wonderful for me.

Dried Agave leaves: Z 24-200mm, 1/125 s, f/8, ISO 100

Speaking of the viewfinder, I liked it, mostly. It was bright and made viewing easy. The only times I didn’t like it other than the aforementioned inconsistent switching issue was occasionally, it showed a jittery image as I moved my camera while looking through it. At those times, I was reminded that I was looking at a video instead of an optical image coming through the glass. A bit of an adjustment for us older DSLR users, I suppose. Not a deal-breaker, but I look forward to the day when that is smoothed out a bit.

Another thing I found a little annoying and surprising was the ease with which the card slot door could be accidentally opened. I had read about that in another review but didn’t think much of it until it happened to me a couple of times. A casual flick of the thumb seemed to be enough to pop it open, as opposed to the more decisive push required for my DSLR. I have no idea what the thinking could be around making this kind of change.

Ok, image quality. That’s the point ultimately, right? Honestly, there is not much to report here. The images are great. I was very happy overall with the results, both with the Z 24-200mm lens and with my older primes on the FTZ adapter.

Oh, what a difference a day makes. Packing out in the snow.

I did find that the contrast and color were not quite as pleasing as my D810. I seemed to do a bit more work in Lightroom to get them to where I wanted as opposed to my older system. They were just a touch softer coming out of the camera. An adjustment to my import presets would probably fix that easily enough, but it’s worth noting because if not for the consideration of the camera’s size and weight for travel applications, I’m not sure if the extra 10 megapixels are worth it. I do make large metal prints of my work for sale, so the extra resolution is always desirable, but not enough by itself to warrant a switch.

Dappled light and fresh snow: Z 24-200mm, 1/50 s, f/8, ISO 64

In conclusion, as an older DSLR shooter looking to make the switch to mirrorless, I found this camera to be capable and fairly familiar. A little more adjustment time to get used to the menu and button differences in layout, and I’m sure I would be working without much second thought.

All that said, it is obvious that this is not a camera that has the years of design refinements that the Nikon DSLRs enjoy. It’s only the second generation, after all, and is obviously still a work in progress. Nikon has a few things to iron out in this system for sure, but I look forward to what is in store next from them.

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52 Comments

Nicholas Tinsley's picture

In common parlance, I think "X technology is dead" implies not that the devices have been destroyed but simply that they are no longer being actively researched and developed. We might say "the keypad flip phone is dead" when in fact if you look hard enough, you can actually still buy a brand new one (https://www.t-mobile.com/cell-phone/alcatel-go-flip-3?sku=610214661463). Likewise with DSLRs, with the exception of Pentax's tiny operation, I believe all the DSLR manufacturers have gone on record stating that they are only working on mirrorless bodies and mirrorless-only lenses going forward.

Technologies almost never truly die in the mortal sense: not only are people still buying flip phones, but people still love their vinyl records, horse-and-buggies are still on the streets, and there's even a market for twin-lens reflex cameras. So we all have to draw the line somewhere.

Casey Chinn's picture

So true. And they all come back around at some point anyway.

Kirk Darling's picture

Nah. Landline dial telephones aren't coming back. Eight-Track audio tape isn't coming back. Betamax isn't coming back.

There's not going to be a resurgence of DSLRs, either.

J.d. Davis's picture

And we are all thankful for this! I for one, REFUSE to re-buy 'The White Album' ( had it on cassette, CD and DVD as well ) !

Casey Chinn's picture

True Kirk. They don't ALL come back. Some do, some don't. And sometimes it's hard to predict what will or won't. I have a good friend who has recently gotten seriously into wet plate photography. Some things have a way of coming back around. Who can really say for sure.

Kirk Darling's picture

Very true, Nicholas Tiinsley. I've read that there are more horse owners in the US today than there ever were in American history...but it doesn't mean we're going back to horses as our primary means of transportation.

Nacona Nix's picture

If it meant people would stop asking and answering this question, I'd murder the DSLR myself.

Hudson Henry's picture

With respect, exposure delay is there on every Z camera in the custom settings under exposure and easily programmed into the i menu and or user settings. Like the 850, there are more delay choices on the Z's than my old 810 had (even the Z50 has more).

The display switching issue is undoubtedly lint or gunk on the tiny shiny black eye sensor at the viewfinder. You simply pull the eye cup up to remove and wipe it off. Solves it every time.

Bracketing programs nicely to function 2 up front for instant two dial adjustments and you can do the same for AF-mode/area on function 1 above it. Move the DOF preview to the movie record button next to the shutter since it is unmapped for stills and DOF is easily checked with one finger without using a second for control wheels. That's all easy in the custom settings under controls. I agree that I'd like those controls back as dedicated buttons,but I love those remapped locations. I never take my eye off the finder now.

My biggest control gripe is the play button still being on the left. I need to take my left hand off a big lens to review images in the viewfinder. Luckily the long S lenses also have programmable buttons. If only the 500PF or 105 1.4 did too...

Viewfinder priority saves battery for milky way and time-lapse. It only uses the back display when you hit play or menu. It shuts off while shooting. No live view. The viewfinder activates only while you are looking in it. It's a way cool. battery saving feature that I always use in night work. By the way, the original Z's can nail focus on a bright planet with low light AF activated and the ii's can nail a bright star. You can also zoom to 100% and see stars in the EVF to manually focus them with practice. It's a whole new night world.

I have an 850 I haven't touched in over a year after spending significant time with the Zs. The 850 feels clumsy and old fashioned to me now. That Z viewfinder's bright view in dim light, the outrageous new S glass, the dead accurate AF-S in nearly no light, and the eye/face tracking is just hard to imagine going without again and I've owned and shot tens of thousands of frames through the d70, 200, 300, 700, 800, 810, 500, and 850.

Casey Chinn's picture

Thanks for the great info and perspective!

Matt Williams's picture

Almost every problem, if not all of them, you have with this camera is either due to the fact that you got it the day before you left for your trip or because some of your issues are due to unrealistic expectations on your end. For example, complaining about the new button placement is pretty bizarre - how else do you design a completely new and smaller (which you liked) body while still having every single button that the DSLR did? Literally how would that be possible? Not a single mirrorless camera is like that.

You also complain about the joystick??? For real?? I came from a Nikon D700 and D810 to the Z7 and the joystick was instantly something I loved. I mean instantly. And I'd never used a camera with a joystick before. Extending that logic, you'd be annoyed with the D850. Oh and also you can still move the focus points with the 4 way d-pad if you want.

You also didn't bother you set up one of the best features of the Z cameras - the i-Menu, which provides quick access to like a dozen settings, every single one of which you can change to whatever you want and organize it in any manner that you want. It's a huge advantage of mirrorless cameras - not only better, but it exists because, well, they had to give quick access to the buttons that they had no choice but to remove. (I do wish they'd kept the Autofocus/Manual switch on the front bottom for changing focus.

"Then there was the monitor mode button on the side of the viewfinder for selecting between viewing the image solely through the viewfinder, automatically switching between the viewfinder and LCD, prioritizing the viewfinder (not sure of the difference between this and auto-switching) and LCD only."

Again, taking literally 20 minutes to consult the manual would tell you things if you couldn't figure them out. The EVF prioritization is actually one of the nicest features of the Z cameras because no one else has it and it's incredibly useful. It's actually something I'd think you'd appreciate, since it basically acts like a DSLR. Bring your eye up to the EVF it comes on, take it away it turns off, but the rear screen remains off - unless you open the menu or review images... just like a DSLR. Auto-switching means one of the two is always on, which means if you're just walking around looking for stuff to photograph, the rear LCD is running. So the Nikon feature saves battery life and it simply makes sense for any kind of walk-around shooting where you always shoot with the EVF... why have the LCD always on if you aren't going to shoot with it?

Also, if you'd had more time, you could've taken advantage of setting up the three custom modes, so you could flip between whatever settings you use for whatever you're shooting now. I have mine for portraiture (aperture priority, C-AF with eye-AF, auto ISO), landscape & other tripod work (base ISO, manual exposure, IBIS off, AF-S with pinpoint AF), and wildlife (shutter priority, auto-ISO, AF-C).

Seems like you should have spent a day or two with the camera before leaving, though I'll say that I definitely adjusted to a lot of your issues 20 minutes after unboxing the camera.

Greg Wilson's picture

There's nothing dead about DSLR. They are great cameras.

Even the almost 10 y.o. Canon 5DIII still holds very well and many award-winning photos are taken with this camera every year.

Mirrorless is quite an incremental step in my opinion. It's pretty much the same image quality, slightly shorter battery life, better AF, exposure preview and that's it.

But there's certainly a huge marketing push from the vendors as they need to sell more cameras to stay afloat.

paul garger's picture

Great review. It answered some questions and curiosities regarding the Nikon mirrorless system.

Am an older landscape photographer like you and was considering switching over from my Nikon D700 and D800 to the Z7.

And then it happened, was bit by the film bug again. Dusted off the Pentax 67 and Hasselblad 501, and recently bought a Horseman Convertible 6x9. Had forgotten how much fun film is.

But great article, found it enlightening. And maybe in the future a Nikon mirrorless will be for me.

Thanks for the insight.

Casey Chinn's picture

I'm glad the article was useful for you. Best of luck with the return to film.

L B's picture

Few more years and DSLR technology will become "vintage" and some will be seeking to add the DSLR look to their images. And of course there will be DSLR presets for the rest of us. Ha!

Casey Chinn's picture

So true!

Michal Kloda's picture

I have had similar issue with the camera switching its display from viewfinder to the back display inconsistently on my new Sony, I think that any reflective surface as straps or marks on your jacket or your backpack straps can confuse the sensor as this happend to me on automatic lights with similar sensor for light switch on mode.

Casey Chinn's picture

Thanks for the feedback. I was wondering if this was just a flaw in the rental camera or an issue with this technology. I guess there are still things needing to be refined, even for Sony.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

It's not dying, it's being forced replaced by the manufacturers themselves. Now that they are removing any lens they can, they are in control to shut it down fast, but it's like a spoiled child crashing the car in purpose so the parent will replace it with a new one. I make 100% of my income from DSLR and no client has asked me to move to ML.

Casey Chinn's picture

Good point. I still make 100% of my income with my DSLR as well. And one that is far from the latest and greatest.

Jeremy Lusk's picture

I doubt any client will care, but I also doubt you’d have any trouble making the same income if you switched to a capable mirrorless. The force is in you!

Benoit Pigeon's picture

That is no true actually. I will start making the same money after I spend $13-$18k unless you suggest the manufacturer gives cameras and lenses for free.

Mike Ditz's picture

If i were you, I would buy a couple of the DSLRs that you like to use when they aren't made anymore...Stock up on a few batteries too!

Benoit Pigeon's picture

My only plan right now is wait and see an other year or two. If you have come to the conclusion that I don't plan on going ML, well good for you. I just replied to the question in the article. I look at the R5 and it's clear to me with the 8k that that camera is unfinished. I have no rush.

Mike Ditz's picture

I really haven't come to any conclusion about what your plans may be, just offering a suggestion. I am not very familiar with how the Canon universe is doing the DSLR>ML transition, as I switched when Canon was in it's long slumber. Do the old lenses work with the new R cameras?
My dad's neighbor in Florida always had the big boxy Lincoln Town Car and when Ford totally redid it he bought 2 more and put them in storage, last I heard he had given up driving but still had a fresh Lincoln in storage.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Same exact thing happened with my father. What a small world!

Paolo Bugnone's picture

It's not being "force replaced", manufacturer are simply making what people want because otherwise they wouldn't sell any camera.
Canon and Nikon would have been perfectly happy if they kept doing what they already did instead of having to invest millions in R&D and new manufacuring tools.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Ask Canon for an interview or may be you did and they told you they did not want to spend a dime but people asked for RAW 8k so they made one for them even if technically it's barely usable. I don't think so. Again, I'm not against ML, but it's definitely at the point I want to put a dime in it.

Tom Reichner's picture

The question that the title asks really comes down to just one thing, and that is how one defines "dead" in this context. It really is all about semantics, and not at all about the functionality or popularity of any given technology.

Casey Chinn's picture

Good point. I was perhaps a bit melodramatic with my title.

Bjarne Solvik's picture

If not dead DSLR will be inexpensive to purchase second hand. In a shrinking camera market being overtaken by mirrorless used DSLR cameras shuld be cheep to acquire in the years a head.

Mike Ditz's picture

At first the second hand DSLRs will be cheap, then after a few years they may become desirable again...once the hipsters latch onto them.... :D

Kenneth Tanaka's picture

Any product that’s as nearly perfected as the single lens reflex camera is doomed, certainly in the consumer electronics world.

Rod Alalay's picture

Maybe your brain is dead not the camera itself. Why film is still around if DSLR's are dead? Use your common sense and observe instead of creating a mindless dilemma.

Kirk Darling's picture

I can see film cameras of all types still being of significant niche interest long after DSLRs are hard to find. People still like horses, but how many people still drive steam-powered automobiles? People still like vinyl albums, but not 8-track tape. That's because horses and vinyl albums still have a favorable panache, while steam-powered automobiles and 8-track tape are simply obsolete.

Film will continue to have a favorable panache; DSLRs will simply become obsolete.

Casey Chinn's picture

Good point. Probably true. Certain technologies hold up well over time and others, not so much. It seems to me that sometimes it's hard to predict which though. Except 8 track tapes, that is obvious.

Hugh Wolfe's picture

Good review, I’ve been waiting for a comparison between mirrorless and DSLR in a landscape vernacular. I’ve thought about mirrorless cameras for a while, even purchased a Fujifilm version which I quickly sold due to the tiny size. I just couldn’t operate it effectively due to my large hands fumbling around over multiple tiny buttons simultaneously resulting in odd results. Perhaps the rumored Z9 will work out better for me. Oh and one more thing, I’m still very pleased with my D700, both physical size as well as image quality, thus my reluctance to buy the latest offerings.

Casey Chinn's picture

I'm glad the article was useful for you.

JEREMY MOORE's picture

And this is a test comparing old tech, to the worst new flagship of the big 3. I get that you want to stick with Nikon. But I couldn't fathom preferring it for mirrorless

Zenon Nowobilski's picture

I'm canon user, and i think it will get a while. Trashed my 6d, cried out loud, loved that camera. Both RP, great little gem, from canon website: Canon RP, Grip Blue and adapter with polarizer for $1300.
Then look for camera always wanted could not afforded. 5DsR it can be buy for less than 2K, now we are talking.

Deacon Blues's picture

The correct answer to any headline that ends in a question mark is "no".

Michael Krueger's picture

I have that 24-120 lens paired with a D750, I do not like it for long hikes at all due to the size/weight and I'm 32. My solution was to snag a Lumix GX85, the 2 lens kit was on sale for $450 when I got it.

Wallace Thrasher's picture

Yes, all DSLR's were programmed to stop working on January 1st, 2021. They no longer work anymore.

Douglas Goodhill's picture

I would rather see a ground glass image than watch television.

Bernard Languillier's picture

As far I am concerned I moved from a D850 to a Z7 nearly 3 years ago and had zero issues working with the camera without reading the manual.

I also invested into Sony a bit later and experienced a much much tougher transition. One that I could in fact never quite get over. The Sonys are now gone.

Tom Kinkel's picture

Fuji and Sony were not able to compete with DSLR manufactures such as Canon and later Nikon and why should they need to in the early days of Digital imaging . .Sony killed off the Minolta persona and Fuji used mainly Nikon and some Canon bodies to use the Fuji digital file handling concepts .I know the film emulation of Fuji film is a great idea to Fuji film fans .So here we are , these companies were not leaders in DSLR sales or technology (Sony Sensors not included) .To be able to move forward they needed to be different as Sony A series were not that innovative (lots of random ideas from model to model) Fuji had always been quirky (Leica quirky) Rangefinder was the golden light with mirrorless technology and EVF they would innovate a new breed of digital camera .Sony do not pay licensing fees to anybody or any company they are the designers - the patent holders full stop .Boring yes ! So Sony wants to dominate and to make that happen change the approach - why would you want that old DSLR concept - profit and market domination as an early innovator .Fuji didn't have a problem with that as they were happy to have a niche market and concept around film ideas converted to Digital .I remember paying so much money for Fuji S1 and S3 , 6 mpxl DSLr's that were really only 3-4 mpxl with interpolation , thanks Fuji .Sorry about the rant but I still dislike the idea of hey this is the New future !

chris bryant's picture

Whether you are a DSLR user or not, eventually you'll be forced into the situation by the manufacturers. Can they afford to have two system lines going? Nikon will be the next to abandon the DSLR, Canon the last. In five years, no DSLRs.

Myself, I much prefer the OVF, but the size and weight of mirrorless, that's why I use a Leica M.

Tom Reichner's picture

Chris,

The key word that you used, "eventually", leaves a nice amount of wiggle room.

Some of us could be using DSLRs for a decade or more after manufacturers stop making them. Heck, if an old DSLR doesn't break, and if we can keep charging the batteries, we could use if for 20 or 30 years ... or beyond.

DSLRs can keep working for years and years and years without any kind of updates or service or repairs. And we will still be able to download the image files to computers, because the file formats aren't going away within most of our lifetimes.

Just because things aren't made anymore doesn't mean that we can't keep using them for decades into the future ..... and this is true even for computerized tech-based items like cameras.

When the manufacturers stopped making vinyl records in the late 1980's/early 1990's, that didn't force people to switch over to CDs. To this very day, I still listen to my vinyl records on the same turntable that my family used when I was a kid in the 1970's and 1980's. People who wanted to switch over to the latest format could, and people who wanted to keep listening to their old records on old devices could still do that, too. I don't see much difference between that and camera use.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

You make good points. In fact, more frequent battery charge and dust on the exposed sensor are two aspects that I am not in a rush to deal with.

Casey Chinn's picture

All good points. Thanks.

Tom Kinkel's picture

When Cd players first came out they were hugely expensive and not that good .So I upgraded my turntable to something that I wouldn't of been able to afford new .All these years later CD players are very cheap and turntables are selling really well as is vinyl .I guess why change unless you have to I still have the turntable ! The push to Mirrorless is obvious for some people - better Video capture ? .I am more concerned about the long term ownership of mirrorless . I buy weather resistant camera's because I see the value in that feature Nikon and Canon will probably offer mirrorless Pro camera's but the OVF is still a big variable in my thoughts , I have seen nothing so far to convince me the OVF is a good long term alternative ---- yet .

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