Thursday, November 30, 2023

The Month In Pictures: Michigan Autumn


I spent most of November in Michigan.

Which isn't a bad time of year to spend in the Midwest. 

November is fall colors and migrating birds and apple cider and hay rides. Pretty great if you're a photographer.

Pretty good if you're not a photographer too.

Not great for my mobile bandwidth though. I tend to take a lot of pictures. Given that I make a not insignificant fraction of my income from photography, I don't suppose that's any sort of surprise to you. And of course, if you follow me on social media, you know I post a lot of images to my various audiences on multiple platforms. Which is, as I said, not real great for mobile bandwidth. I burned through 150GB, all of my primary mobile hotspot, in about 28 days and was well into my reserve allocation on my backup device when I finally was able to pack up and return home. 

So, instead of posting my normal week in pictures from the road, you're getting the whole month all at once. 

I spent most of my time in Michigan at my mother's place outside of Middleville, a small farming town turned Norman Rockwell bedroom community in the Lower Peninsula's southwest. 

Long ago, the place used to be a mill town and a stage coach stop on the routes between Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo and Battle Creek. The mill is long gone, so is the stage coach and the railroad that replaced it in later years. The old rail line is now a Rails-to-Trails conversion and a popular path for hikers on the North American Birding Trail. 

The old dam that once held back the Thornapple River is still there though, a fixture of downtown, and still doing its job generating some small amount of electricity and regulating the flow of the river. And because of that, the miles-long millpond that once powered those long gone wheels and grinding stones is still there too. It's shallow these days, a wetland overgrown with cattails and reeds, home to white sucker fish, trout, bass, carp, leeches, several species of squirrels, chipmunks, a half dozen species of turtle, mink, fox, bobcat, deer, muskrats, ground hogs, seven species of woodpecker, cranes, herons, jays, sparrows, finches, juncos, coots, grebes, ducks, geese, swans, a colony of kingfishers, and a vast, vast biome of native and imported plant species. 

It is the perfect stop for migrating birds. 

Such as these sandhill cranes:

For certain reasons, I shot the cranes primarily in the very early morning hours before the sun was fully up or in the late evenings at and after sunset. 

Now, normally, this would be less than optimal, photography wise, but the equipment I'm using (Nikon's latest mirrorless system, the Z9 and the Z8) is very, very good in low light. And I'm fortunate enough to own very good, very fast glass (i.e. lenses that are able to both provide high magnification and a very wide aperture). 

So if low light is what you have, said I to myself, quit bitching and make the most of it. 

It takes some experimenting to get it right and capture these ghostly apparitions in the dark.

It's not just a matter of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. In these conditions, the light changes. The quality and the wavelengths of light change. The sun is low on the horizon, certain wavelengths (colors, in layman's terms) are filtered out by those extra miles of dense atmosphere, by rain, by moisture, by clouds, by temperature, by dust, and pollutants in the air. The color changes. The amount of light changes. Very rapidly. Sometime there's a bright moon, sometimes it's as dark as a cave on the far side of Pluto. 

You might have only a very few minutes to get the shot. Sometimes less than that. And remember, the subject has to cooperate in that brief period as well. 

In the old days, you'd need to swap out film as the light changed. You'd get pretty good at it, like a soldier reloading a weapon in the dark. But it was complicated and clumsy and not particularly optimal. Or you could carry multiple cameras, each loaded with different film, sensitive to different wavelengths and light levels, that would produce different results. 

That gets expensive and logistically complicated pretty quickly. 

Nowadays, most of us use digital cameras. 

This is where the purists spit on the ground, but modern digital sensors make for photography that would have been simply impossible not very long ago. Film has some pretty specific limitations as dictated by chemistry and physics, and there is only so much you can do with it. Chemical emulsions can only react so fast, at least the ones most of us can afford or are safe enough to use.  

Digital sensors have limits too, of course, but those boundaries are often much, much broader and can be adjusted in the field very, very rapidly (if you know what you're doing). 

Don't get me wrong, it's still about physics.

Photography is ultimately about light. And light is physics. And physics is the law, there's no way around it. 

You want to see in the dark, in color, then you have to gather more light. More light means bigger lenses (or mirrors, if you're an astronomer). Bigger lenses mean more glass. But more glass can mean less light if that glass isn't very, very optically pure in the wavelengths you want. And what that means in a practical sense is: money.

More light means more glass means it's going to cost you a lot more. 

And it's heavy. 

My big lens, a Nikkor 600mmf4E weighs about 18 pounds (that's without the camera) and costs about what a decent small car does (then again, people spend that on golf clubs, so your mileage may vary). 

I'm not actually trying to impress you with the quality of my equipment or trying to dazzle you with technobabble, but I keep getting asked: How do you get photographs of birds, sharp, in motion, in color, in the pitch dark? 

Actually, the question I usually get is: Settings? 

That's the question professional photographers get asked most often. What are your settings, exposure and shutter speed? 

What were your settings for that image of sandhill cranes at night reflected like ghosts in still wine dark water?

Will you tell me?

And I can do that, I can give you those numbers, and I will, but it likely won't do you much good. 

For the reasons I've described above, you can't just plug those two settings into any camera and get the same results. 

I'm not saying you can't get similar results with lesser equipment. I'm saying you can't get it by just plugging in a couple of numbers you got from some random guy on the internet. 

What I'm actually saying here is this: If you want to do photography (and I highly encourage any and all to do so, the more the better, the world needs art and it's never been easier or cheaper to make than it is today) as opposed to just clicking selfies and snapshots, then you have to learn how your equipment works.

Experiment. Take notes. Make mistakes. Shoot a lot of crappy pictures. 

And learn what works for you.

There's an old truism among photographers: Amateurs talk about equipment, professionals talk about results

I find that to be pretty true  -- after I just spent how many paragraphs talking about equipment? Heh heh. That said, I hope my results speak for themselves. 

It took me a lot of years to get where I not only liked the results I got, but also to be able to predict with decent accuracy what results I'd get in any given situation. 

I'm still learning. 

I think that's true of most photographers. 

I have days, fairly rare now, where I shoot a thousand shots, sometime ten thousand shots, and don't like any of them. 

Most of the time, I get something that I like -- and sometimes I really, really like it. 

Sometimes I take one shot, but that's the shot. That's the one. 

I'm always looking to do better. 

And not just do better, but help others do better too. 

Art is subjective. 

Some of my own work, stuff that really speaks to me on a personal level, elicits little more than a "meh, nice" from my audience. 

And some things I think might be derivative or done to death or not my best work gets tens of thousands of likes and comments and goes viral on social media and I sell hundreds of copies. 

And that's great. That's what pays for the gear, and my mortgage. 

But, you never know what will appeal to people. 

Because art is subjective. 

We like what we like and that's okay. 

The point of making art isn't so much for the audience, but that the artist enjoy it.

If you're getting the results you want, so long as you're not hurting others or making the world a worse place, then you're probably doing it right.

That means you don't have to be a professional or have hundreds of thousands of dollars in gear.

It means you just have to enjoy doing it for your own sake and to hell with the critics. 

Note that this is also true of any other art, not just photography. Paint. Write. Make the music you enjoy. For your own sake. 

Speaking of liking your own work, this blue heron fishing in the very early morning light is probably my favorite shot from this month. 

It was a tough shot, long distance, weird light, damn bird kept moving and turning its rear at me. I kept waiting for him to strike, and waiting, and waiting, and it was about 13F, and waiting, and my hands were numb, and waiting and I had to wrap my hat around the camera to keep the batteries from dying in the cold too fast because I'd left the spares in the car, and my ears were about to fall off, and waiting, and waiting, and finally he slammed his face into the water and came up with that white sucker fish and the light was just right and, yeah, I got the shot. And it's a hell of a shot. It's a shot I love.

That's a good morning. 

That's what makes it worth it. That's what makes it fun. 

This is probably the most popular shot I did this month.

It's one of those things that took a lot of work. Several weeks of tracking the cranes' flight path as they returned to the pond each night. Watching the phases of the moon. Figuring out the right spot to get both in the frame at once. Right equipment. Right settings. And then it all lined up and I got it. 

But it was mostly just to see if I could.

This was one of those shots that I did for myself and didn't think anyone else would care. Meh, birds, moon, whatever. You know. 

Instead, it's the one that appealed to everybody and I got the most requests to put in the store.

You never know.

Or maybe it's this little chickadee I like the best. 

I love every bit of how this shot came out. The colors, the framing, the soft focus but dead sharp on the berry in the bird's beak, the pastel colors, the implied motion, the feel of the season. 

This is the kind of image I love, right here.

Most of these images will available for purchase in various formats, prints, canvas, metal, puzzles, mousepads, and more, in my store, this coming weekend. Just in time for Christmas, along with a selection of my other art, pens and seam rippers and so on. 

I'm uploading now, but it's not fast even with my office connection. 

That's it. 

That's the month of November in pictures. 

Hope you enjoyed this little break from the ugliness of the world. 


Prints, Puzzles, Calendars, and other products featuring my work are available for purchase from my store.  // Jim


  1. Such beautiful photography! I am also a photographer, also from Alaska, and now live in Hamilton, not too far from your family home. I've been on that trail many times and am always amazed at how beautiful it is. Thank you for sharing your gift with us!

    1. Where about in Alaska?

      I lived in the Valley, outside of Palmer, for about 20 years. I miss it terribly.

    2. My husband’s relatives live in Grand Blanc. I’ve been there 3 times with. Once was miserably cold, the other 2 times were nice springtime weather. If I never go back, it will be too soon. I hear the upper part is amazing. I’ll take people’s word for it. :) haa!

    3. I've been following you since your Alaska days and Shopcat, Jim. I don't remember much photography back then except for the cat, dogs and your woodwork. My goodness! How it seems to have exploded in these years you've been in Florida--probably because the weather down South is more conducive to outdoor nature photography, and indoor creativity like woodworking is more inticing than being out in the bitter cold of the far North.

    4. I've also been following for several years, love your photos, woodwork and your opinion. I also have a kitty named ShopKat, and he's getting up there in years. All the best, Jim, and thank you so much for all you share!

  2. Jim, I have 10 of your photographs framed and hanging in my home. Now I am trying to figure out how I'm going to find the space to hang a ton more. These are amazing. Every time I don't think you can get any better, you do. Wow, just wow! Thanks for sharing these.

    1. We got to get you a bigger house.

    2. Going to buy a lottery ticket now. ;)

  3. Lovely. I love the picture of the quail.

    1. That's a bobwhite, as you noted a small quail. That one is a resident of the W.K. Kellogg Biological Research Station in Augusta, run by Michigan State University. Probably one of my favorite places to shot pictures. Wonderfully nice people. Amazing work. Hell of a legacy.

      Not many of those little guys left. Industrial agribusiness turned small farm fields into massive grain producing volumes. When they eliminated the hedgerows and tree lines that used to divide up the fields, it destroyed the habitat these little birds need to survive. In my lifetime, their populations have diminished by more than 85%.


    2. The bird sanctuary on Gull Lake? I was at the Kellogg mansion a few weeks ago, didn't make it to the sanctuary.

    3. Yes, that's correct. The sanctuary at the W.K. Kellogg Biological Station on Gull Lake. It's about two miles from the old Kellogg mansion, which is at the Biological Station HQ and conference center.

      There's also a forest hiking trail that's part of the bird sanctuary directly across from the Mansion on the corner of E B Ave and E. Gull Lake Road that's worth your time.


  4. Thank you ever so many times, I needed to experience November in pics!

  5. Your photography is so impressive. The art you create with your camera and patience is a gift. Thank you.

    1. I think of it more as a reward for endless work at creativity.

  6. So many wonderful shots. I've been enjoying them through the month, but having them all together is wonderful.
    But all that said, today my favorite is The Argumentative Goose.
    It's what a Canada Goose IS.

  7. That was immensely delightful.

  8. Thank you so much for providing such a fascinating insight into your photography.

  9. I have enjoyed all of those photographs as they came up while you were in Michigan. I'm more than passing fond of that chickadee shot.

  10. Stunning photos, Jim. That's a combination of a good eye, lots of patience, and the skill to get what you want from your equipment. Thank you!

  11. Just gorgeous. I'm going to be shopping for a set of sandhill crane images. I want to take my time looking at them, letting the images sink in, figure out which ones will continue moving me for years to come. No rush for Christmas, just for me.

  12. I think many of these breathtaking photographs are sublime!

  13. I started watercolor painting during the pandemic. I really appreciate what you said about making art. My teacher's comments are sometimes a bit obscure and discouraging, but I love painting and need to just do it for my own joy. If someone else likes it, that's a bonus. Thank you for your beautiful art.

  14. Wonderful as always! Thanks for sharing.

  15. Your photography is for the birds!
    Sorry, I couldn't refrain.
    Thanks for these fabulous photos and stirring recollections of my time in western Michigan and exploring the Thornapple. Love the sandhill cranes!

  16. I don't think it's possible to express how much I like every stinking photo that you have ever posted! If there was a Stone kettle photo gallery, I would make an annual pilgrimage to it, even if it was in Florida, a state I have sworn to never returned to

  17. It was a beautiful break from the ugliness. Thank you. I'll come back to look again, & share your work with my family & friends when the mood takes me, so this is a gift that doesn't stop giving.

  18. I just happened to drive through Middleville this Thanksgiving. Picked up a turkey at Otto’s Turkey Farm. Good bird.

    1. You likely passed me. I've been to Otto's many times. Damn good bird.

  19. I love the blue heron picture. We have them in our area and I am still persuing my perfect shot of them. You give me hope that I will capture it one day. Glad you are home for a time. Caregiving a parent is the hardest job you will ever love.

  20. Love your pictures, but also the narrative thst goes with it. The pictures don't "just" happen. I follow a photographer, Dave DiCello, who photographs primarily Pittsburgh Pa. Everyday, all year long. His photos of the various structures and the moon are famous. But he researchs the time and place the moon will be in the sky to get thst "perfect" shot. Good photography takes more effort than just being in the right place at the right time.

  21. I love your photography, every time you post a photo of yours of some amazing shot that took you forever to get just right, a bit of the weight of the madness of the world just evaporates. My Dad was a photographer. I only dabble with it in Second Life usually taking photos of groups of people having a time. It satisfies the itch as I have neither money nor the skill-set to do it otherwise.

  22. How dark is it in the sunset photograph? Digital cameras can now see "better" that the human eye. I used to be a very amateur photographer(I sucked, that's why I am an accountant), enough to appreciate how really difficult these photographs actually are.

  23. My wife, Daughter, and I were looking thru pictures I took of her for her Senior Photos. I was using the camera she uses for her school photography class. The school provides it, but doesn't give the option to buy insurance like they do for the school provided notebook. Shooting humans is weird because you have to direct them. I learned allot about the basics of photography because of the mistakes I could see in the pictures I took. Lots of good background with colors that really pop. We took them down by the Boise River. But a lot of them my Daughter was slightly out of focus, or I had the camera horizontal when vertical would have framed her better. The settings for light were off in a lot of them. I need to learn what those settings are and how they settings work to clean that up. My wife and daughter picked out the ones they liked and my daughter will take them to school and edit them to get them the best they can be.
    I get what you mean about doing it for yourself. It's gratifying to see the results, even if they aren't perfect. We spent the time laughing as a family and enjoying the results. Especially the photos of shrubbery that I gotta trying to get Zippy the Wonder Squirrel in the frame. At least for a couple hours then world wasn't crappy.

  24. I truly enjoy your photography. It’s truly an art and skill I don’t have. Quilting is my thing. I taught at Palmer High for 18 years. May have had your children in class way back when. I do miss the school and community but it’s good to be retired.

    1. My son (and his wife) both went to Colony (different years though). I miss living in the Valley. Wish I could still be there.

  25. Beautiful photos; thanks for sharing. That fishing heron is a forty-foot three break putt for sure, but I also love the plain old journeyman work that went into getting the moon shot. I a pure tyro by comparison, but photography adds a dimension to my motorcycle tourism that I love, so I appreciate the bits of knowledge I pick up from you and my other “serious” photographer friends. It’s been a bumpy month: thanks for some beauty to leaven it.

  26. You, sir, are an amazing photographer. Thank you for sharing.

  27. Just beautiful, Jim. Simply stunning.

  28. Jim, your photography does “speak for itself.” And it loudly proclaims your mastery of photography. Thanks for your November photos.

  29. That heckin' duck with the crest is just KILLING me. I am a huge fan of bright colors and that guy has them in buckets. Kinda makes me a little less atheist, if I'm being honest.

  30. I did enjoy the article... as much as I did the the pics . Thank You

  31. I love having so many of your awesome pictures in one place to enjoy. The stories are very welcome and help me appreciate the shots. Thank you Jim!

  32. I took my time scrolling thru just looking at each photo, not reading. I'll do that later. This was the most awesome 15-20 minutes I've spent in months. Every single photo grabbed me in some way: light, color, mood, mystery, awe, peace, simple beauty, love. What an awesome experience!

  33. My favourite of your photos is the one of the butterfly perched on some cornflowers. Because flowers are my thing!

  34. That's one gorgeous eagle.

  35. Keep up the good work Jim. You have an eye for composition. Bravo.

  36. As an amateur photographer, I am always interested in hearing about settings and equipment, but your results *ALWAYS* speak volumes for themselves.

  37. That was a FANTASTIC break from the world. Thanks for it.

  38. I always appreciate a reminder that making art is about enjoying it yourself. So much of everything at this point in history is performative, though I suppose that's not new but, man, is it in your face now. The idea of making art for your own self gets lost. When the end result gets you stoked, that's when all of the hard work turns into fun and you want to learn how to do it even better. It's a pleasure and an inspiration to see your photos and read your words (even if the internet tells me birds aren't real.)

  39. I, too, fondly remember the Shopcat days ... it was a simpler time in many ways, but we didn't know it. Your art here is breathtaking and a welcome diversion from the "real" world which seems to be right out of a sci fi series. Thanks. I especially welcome the explanation of your freezing your ears off. I often wonder about the situation of the CBS Sunday Morning videographers when they air "the quiet time" at the end of the program.

  40. It's been a stressful several days lately, but after spending the time to read this post and go over the photos, I feel very relaxed and calm. Thank you for that. Seeing beautiful critters in the wild is heartwarming. And needed.

    I appreciate your work with both weird and cameras, and will continue to support them. I also talk you up for pens, photos, and snarky commentary.

  41. Hi, Jim. These photos are marvelous. Thanks for sharing a beautiful November with us.

    Not that it matters, but I still have the Make America Kittens Again extension on my browser, and a few of your photos got turned into kittens. At first, I thought this was just very cool randomness from you (and wondered if you had new cats), until I recognized one of the kitten pics and got smart enough to click through to see the real photo. Silly trivia. :)

  42. "The point of making art isn't so much for the audience, but that the artist enjoy it."

    Thank you for that. I'm 67 and I'm finally recording rock music. I'm only about 50 years out of date, but I'm making music I like. Thanks for the encouragement.

    Thanks for the encouragement. I need a

  43. Thank you for sharing Jim. Beautiful pictures!

  44. Amazing images, which can't be minimized with discussion of advances in technology--one can have every single tool in the catalog, but that won't grant the user the imagination, the stick-to-it-ive-ness-stuff, and the attention to detail which you use to make multiple beautiful photos. Thank you so much for a beyond-beautiful glimpse of my home state, in my favorite season, and never stop!

  45. Enjoy the birds and appreciate the insights into the process! My favorite lately is the flapping ungrace of 'dance like no one's watching' but the ghost cranes glowing in the dimness are stunning too. Thank you for these website posts! Would love to be able to afford prints, my wishlist goes back to the droplets on dandelions series, but even on a small screen these images delight the soul.

  46. All of your photos are most excellent. It's too difficult to choose which are my favorites. I appreciate the time, patience, & skill it takes to produce works of art such as these. And we have the bonus of getting to enjoy (and even own) the beautiful captures of nature you have worked so hard to get. Knowing that you love doing it makes it even better bc , like most artists, the passion is clearly expressed. Thanks for sharing with us!

  47. Someone on FB was talking not very kindly about their own photographs. Your response:
    "Do what you love. Don't worry about how it compares to anyone else. Life's too damn short."
    I have that framed on my wall. Hope you don't mind.
    I got back into photography a few years ago, after a long absence; Costco had a bundle with a half-frame Nikon (still a decent 24mp) and a couple lenses. I've upgraded a couple times, got more (and better) glass, and I hope to grow into the newer hardware as I go. Practice, practice, practice.
    At 68, I hope I never stop learning.

  48. Thanks Chief. Not only amazing shots but great advice to us amateurs who just like capturing the beauty of this world. Since I don't do the X anymore, it is nice to see you work. I've missed it.

  49. Love the belted kingfisher and wood duck photos. When I worked for Fish & Game I used to watch one kingfisher plying her trade. About 1 in 3 attempts were successful. Looks like a hen hooded Merganser in the shot of 2 drake wood ducks

  50. The chickadees... They are my favorites, they remind me of home.

  51. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and pictures.

  52. Thanks for the post, Jim. Much to say about all of the photographs, but I’ll keep it shortish.

    I was amazed to see you caught not one, but two birds' nictating membranes. Difficult to say it wasn't luck, but also hard to say otherwise.
    And one shot of the chickadees(s) reminded me of the concept of the ornithopter, especially as expressed in Herbert’s Dune.

    What especially struck me though was how I percieved some of the birds in the photographs as a kind of fish, swimming in the atmosphere, or as the term has been coined, the ‘hypersea.’ The male wood duck brought to mind a reef fish, utterly flamboyant and in its element.

    Thanks again,

  53. Jim, such a wealth of pics I cannot take them in at once and am marking for later. Thanks for the notes on process AND for the images

  54. Your this:
    "The point of making art isn't so much for the audience, but that the artist enjoy it."

    Reminded me so much of Kurt Vonnegut's this:
    "When I was 15, I spent a month working on an archeological dig. I was talking to one of the archeologists one day during our lunch break and he asked those kinds of ‘getting to know you’ questions you ask young people: Do you play sports? What’s your favorite subject? And I told him, no I don’t play any sports. I do theater, I’m in choir, I play the violin and piano, I used to take art classes.
    And he went wow. That’s amazing! And I said, ‘Oh no, but I’m not any good at any of them.’
    And he said something then that I will never forget and which absolutely blew my mind because no one had ever said anything like it to me before: ‘I don’t think being good at things is the point of doing them. I think you’ve got all these wonderful experiences with different skills, and that all teaches you things and makes you an interesting person, no matter how well you do them.’
    And that honestly changed my life. Because I went from a failure, someone who hadn’t been talented enough at anything to excel, to someone who did things because I enjoyed them. I had been raised in such an achievement-oriented environment, so inundated with the myth of Talent, that I thought it was only worth doing things if you could ‘win’ at them."

    And I want to thank you for that, because when I try to tell my kids that, it's a helluva' lot easier to go with your sentence than Vonnegut's anecodte.

  55. I love those chickadees. Thank you!

  56. Bravo Zulu Chief. Great stuff.
    Loved the line about "And physics is the law, and there's no way around that", and couldn't help thinking some bozo would be dropping the Big Lebowski line, "Well that's like just your opinion man"
    My dad taught me photography on an an Argus C3 and a hand held light meter. Got my first SLR, a Yashica FX2 from the NX while in CTM A & C schools, in P'cola, and my favorite SLR, an Olympus OM-1, when I got to my ship the Biddle.
    I currently run with the early Sony Mirrorless NEX6 and some lenses. On vacation in Marathon Key now. Shitty weather (where'd them Geminids?) and just have my Samsung S21. Good for sunsets and still birds.
    Question on picture hanging and lighting. I'm thinking of building a floor based thin light box (think 2x4 with a 3/4 wide 2 in deep groove slot for a light strip that would collimate light upward, and I'd hang your pictures with a 5 to 12 degree forward tilt to selectively get some light on them. Think that would work?

  57. The heron with the fish in the mouth is just spectacular.

  58. I love your photos. The chickadee photos remind me of my grandmother. They were her favorite bird. Photos of bluebirds always tickle me. Bluebirds always seem a bit grumpy in photos. I think they must be nature’s curmudgeons. Thanks for the article and the photos. They are a nice break from our currently crazy world.

  59. I have missed your photos and your voice. I will make a point to check in here. Thank you for a few moments of respite from the insanity of our nation's politics. Be well, Chief.

  60. This is the best blog post I have seen in my life! I just loved all, but some of the Cranes: wow. This comment above, about them swimming in the air, is just right. Thank you for everything!

  61. Of course your photography is impressive and your dedication to the craft is astounding but if you’re burning through so much mobile bandwidth you should consider being a bit more mercenary about hunting free Wi-Fi or dumping your RAW images to a SSDD that accepts the card your camera uses.
    Keep pressing that shutter. You make our lives much richer.


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