Why Music Festivals Suck For Photographers

Every time I shoot a music festival I have a bunch of kids come up to me and ask me how I get my press pass. They want to stand in front of the stage and get access to their favorite bands and are envious of the photographers who get paid to do it. I just want to break it down for everyone and explain why I hate covering music festivals and why they are often the hardest and most annoying things I have to photograph.

First the good stuff. I get to take photos for a living and I should stop my complaining right here. But I won’t. There are some things I really enjoy about covering music festivals. I love to travel and I love to get paid well for my work. I get to fly all over the US to shoot these things and I get paid pretty well to do it because they are usually long and full of billable hours. Plus airline miles! I like to see my friends who are in the music industry who I only get to see at these things and often I get to see a band I really dig. Plus they are hard work and that makes me feel like I am doing an honest days work instead of shooting a party for three hours and then going home to edit photos in my underwear. That being said, music festivals are a huge pain in my ass.

Music Festivals Are Huge– Often music festivals are spread out over a massive area, some times in the case of SXSW or CMJ over a whole city. When you are carrying two cameras, three lenses (including a huge telephoto), extra batteries, memory cards, chargers, a jacket, food & water and your camera bag it gets fucking draining. Think about how tired you are after a day at a festival and add 50lbs and the fact you pretty much have to run everywhere to get to the next stage. Fun times.

This Is Only One Of Lollapalooza's Many Stages

This Is Only One Of Lollapalooza’s Many Stages

Long Hours – I know I just told you how I actually enjoy the long hours and hard work but I don’t enjoy that stuff until it’s over and I am looking back. When I am on day three of working from noon to four AM and then editing photos until 8am I am not happy about it. I am in fact miserable. Which brings me to clients.

Dances With White Girls Naps At WMC

Take Naps When You Can – DJ Dances With White Girls Naps At WMC

Clients Need Photos Right Away – Most of the time I shoot an event a client needs the photos by 8am the next day if not sooner. So when everyone else is going out to party you are stuck in a hotel room or on a friends couch editing and uploading photos. Clients don’t understand why you can barely keep your eyes open the next day and half the time they don’t even do anything with your images until Monday. Still, I always make sure to have a fast turn around to keep clients happy. Nothing pisses off a client more than a photographer taking forever to get them photos.

The Weather – No matter what happens you are expected to get the shot so if it rains you better be prepared. I don’t mind getting wet so I rarely bring a poncho but I have weather gear for my camera and my camera bag. Music festivals are often in the summer so the sun can be brutal, but then it can get freezing at night so you better have a jacket because you sure as hell can’t go back to your hotel. If the sun is bright your photos can suck, if there’s no sun your photos can suck. No matter what festival you are photographing something nature is going to do to you is going to make your job harder.

Don't Forget Your Rain Gear!

Don’t Forget Your Rain Gear!

Festival Press People – Before I bash all these PR people that work music festivals I have to point out that they have a hard job. It’s not always their fault that shit is fucked up and they are dealing with journalist after journalist yelling at them for the same things. Because of this they tend to be extremely bitchy and unhelpful especially if you are working for a smaller outlet. Fortunately, I shoot a lot of this stuff for Village Voice Media and I have a little more pull than if I was shooting for my blog, but it’s still a huge pain in the ass dealing with getting credentials, getting the right credentials, getting access to whatever you need access too, etc. An amazing amount of stress is put on a photographer just because we have to deal with people who for some reason want to make our jobs really difficult for seemingly no reason.

Band Press People – Music publicists are often a weird breed of people and the more successful they are the harder they are to deal with. I don’t even run a music blog and I get hundreds of emails a week from these people but when you need a favor from them they often don’t respond to emails or give you a hard time. Some of them are great at their jobs and a pleasure to deal with, but I have dealt with so many bad ones it’s hard not to include them on this list. The biggest problem though is with these insane contracts PR people try to get you to sign if you want to shoot bigger bands. Acts like Foo Fighters, Lady Gaga and Britney Spears all have these crazy contracts that say the band owns the photographs once you take them. They are total bullshit, legally suspect and I never sign them. All other photographers should do the same.

Then Again Maybe Dealing With PR Girls Isn't All Bad...

Then Again Maybe Dealing With PR Girls Isn’t All Bad…

Photo Pits – Photo pits are the bane of my existence. They are the three feet in front of the stage full of photographers. At big festivals like Lollapalooza the stage is 15 feet in the air and you can’t even shoot the bands without a telephoto lens shooting straight up at them. Often you can only enter them from the far side of the stage so you have to walk through a crowd of thousands of kids just to get to the pit. They are filled with photographers who all are getting the exact same shot and you have to pretty much shove people out of the way just to get an unblocked. I am generally a very friendly photographer to work with in a pit and always there to help people and make sure everyone gets a good shot, but recently as more and more amateurs show up in photo pits I have started to become a dick. Which brings me to my next point.

Nothing Like A Bunch Of Photographers To Ruin A Shot - Fishbone At Voodoo Fest

Nothing Like A Bunch Of Photographers To “Enhance” A Shot – Fishbone At Voodoo Fest

Other Photographers – I have been shooting music festivals for more than 15 years and I started shooting bands for a little zine I published when I was in high school. I didn’t really know how this shit worked but I was trying. I am sure I pissed off some of the seasoned pros, but it wasn’t as big of a deal because there were never more than a handful of us in the pit. With the advent of blogs and digital cameras more and more people are getting media access to music festivals and most of them have no idea what they are doing. So many kids who have no experience are willing to shoot these things for free because they want to go to the festival but they have no idea how to act in the pit. Now I truly believe that if you are a good photographer you can get the shot you need with nearly any camera but filling up the photo pit with kids with kit lenses, point and shoot cameras and iPhones is insane. If you are shooting with a lens that can’t even fill the frame you are just wasting everyone’s time and getting in the way.

Nicki Minaj Being Charmingly Blocked By Cell Phone Cameras

Nicki Minaj Being Charmingly Blocked By Cell Phone Cameras

Other Photographers Part II – Some photographers are so obnoxious they need a second section. For some reason people with no photo pit experience decide they need to lift their cameras in the air to get a better shot. Doing this gets in everyone’s fucking way and ruins shots for everyone behind them. If you need to lift to get the shot do it from the back of the pit so you aren’t in anyone’s way. 90% of the time you are going to get a horribly composed shot anyway because you are just guessing wildly. When I see people do this I will grab their arms down because I don’t really respect them enough to ask nicely. Keep your fucking cameras at eye level. On this same point, almost every festival has a no flash rule so take your flash off your camera so it’s not in anyone’s way. Also, if you have a good place in the pit shoot a song there and move so someone else can get their shot. You want a variety of angels anyway, not just a shot right in front of the lead singer.

I Know You Love DFA 1979 But Keep Your Damn Camera Down!

I Know You Love DFA 1979 But Keep Your Damn Camera Down!

Videographers – I have a lot of the same complaints with videographers as I do amateur photographers but the videographers are worse. They hold their cameras up in the air and look through their monitors and get in everyone’s way. Often they have fuzzy microphones or big lights attached to the top of their cameras and it ruins shot after shot of the photographers behind them. On top of that 99% they aren’t even supposed to be shooting video and if they get in my way I will rat those mother fuckers out so fast.

Not You Too Joel McHale! You Are So Great On Community!

Not You Too Joel McHale! I Love You On Community!

Three Songs, No Flash – Three songs, no flash is the standard rule at most big concerts and festivals. Basically it means that the photographers get to be in the pit for three songs and they can’t shoot with flash. The flash part makes perfect sense as most concerts should be lit well enough that you don’t need one. Flashes get in the way of other photographers and they are distracting to performers. The three songs part completely sucks. I get the idea. You can easily shoot 100 photos in three songs and then you get the hell out of the fans way… the problem is that the first three songs are never the songs you want to shoot. I would take the last three songs every time. If you are dealing with a rap group some times the whole group won’t come out until half way through the set. You are never going to get a photo of a special guest performer or an amazing encore. Imagine if three songs and out was the rule in the 60s. No one would have ever caught Jimmy Hendrix setting his guitar on fire or the Who smashing their equipment. On top of that every photographer gets the same exact shots and they don’t capture the real essence of the performance. Plus you only get to hear three songs and then you move on to the next one. I have photographed so many bands multiple times but I couldn’t tell you anything about their set from the fourth song on.

My Only Decent Shot Of A$AP Rocky At Pitchfork Because He Came Out During Song Four

My Only Decent Shot Of A$AP Rocky At Pitchfork Because He Came Out During Song Four

Photographing DJs – DJs are usually boring to shoot anyway but if you can’t shoot them from the stage you are just waisting your time anyway. Photographing a DJ from the photo pit is completely pointless because you can just see the top of their head over the table and their laptop. My favorite DJ’s to shoot put on a show and get away from their table. I will shoot Steve Aoki, Girl Talk or Major Lazer any day because they put on a better show than most bands, but for most DJ’s I don’t even bother. I just turn my camera away from them and shoot the crowd.

Steve Aoki Is One Of The Few DJs That Puts On A Show Worth Photographing

Steve Aoki Is One Of The Few DJs That Puts On A Show Worth Photographing

Bands Suck – One of the most over looked things about music fests is that most bands suck and a lot of the ones that don’t suck are really boring to photograph. If you are just going to stand there and play music you might as well stay home and just have someone play your CD for us. 75% of bands have terrible live shows and 75% of those make awful music anyway. If you are working for a festival for a client you often have to shoot band after band that you hate that you don’t even want to look at much less photograph.

Say What You Will About The Insane Clown Posse... At Least They Know How To Put On A Show

Say What You Will About The Insane Clown Posse… At Least They Know How To Put On A Show

I am going to stop whining now. But If this article stops one 20 year old kid from agreeing to shoot photos with their brand new $400 digital SLR for free fo some mediocre music blog I will have done my job. In fact, I will make a promise to any music blogger right now. If I am covering a music festival I will let you run my images FOR FREE if you apply for a photo pass, get the pass and then don’t give it to anyone. One less photographer in the pit will be well worth it to me.

Now it should be said that if any photographer is coming to a music festival for the first time, or just wants some advice I am not here to give you shit. If you come to these things excited about photography and music and willing to listen to some of the pros in the pit we will welcome you with open arms. We all started because we loved this stuff and we respect young photographers with passion. We just need you to not make our jobs any harder than they already are.

I recommend to anyone just getting started in music photographer to check out the book Concert And Live Music Photography: Pro Tips From The Pit by J. Dennis Thomas. It has great tips on everything you would need to shoot music from equipment to post processing but most importantly it has a fantastic chapter on photo pit etiquette that everyone should have to read before they shoot a concert for the first time. It will go along way to helping you gain acceptance from pro photographers plus if you are ever in Austin J. Dennis Thomas WILL be in the photo pit with him, and he is a dude you do not want on your bad side.

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Comments (38)


  1. Barry
    July 18th, 2012 | 9:29 pm

    That was very informative and enjoyable. I’d appreciate a future post on flip-phone photography.

  2. July 18th, 2012 | 10:22 pm

    Excellent article. As a videographer, I will take your advice and suggestions.

  3. TC M
    July 19th, 2012 | 2:25 am

    enjoyed the read. keep up the good work!

  4. July 19th, 2012 | 5:01 pm

    Barry, get a damn smart phone already. I need you to have a Twitter.

  5. T.
    July 19th, 2012 | 5:16 pm

    you have a few good points, but all in all you’re an arrogant asshole.

  6. Gary Miller
    July 19th, 2012 | 5:19 pm

    31 years shooting concerts and I agree with 99.9% of what’s in here. Especially the part about the fucking lifters, get to the back of the pit and take your shit photos from there.

  7. July 19th, 2012 | 5:22 pm

    Never a truer word spoken!

  8. Jon
    July 19th, 2012 | 5:24 pm

    because I’m not an idiot I can lift my camera above my eyeline and use very basic understanding of angles to know a. where my camera is pointing b. the angle it will fucking create.

    Eye level shooting gives you one very particular level and one particular level of shooting only. Just because you move closer/further away to create a new angle doesn’t mean you’ll get the right level of proximity you were after, again basic knowledge of mathematics and angles there.

    Most of what you said is fairly accurate but seriously don’t knock on a style because you think it looks amateur, some of us know what we’re doing.

  9. July 19th, 2012 | 5:32 pm

    thanks for the article. i have seen a bit of this, done a music fest or two and had the same experiences. Nice to read up on a pro, i will use your advice in the future. gladly i am able to say i am not a dick about the pit, respect commands respect. thanks. Stephen.

  10. July 19th, 2012 | 5:35 pm

    Great writing, I have been shooting music for a few years already, I do use a wide fisheye often and sometimes have to hold the camera up, however I try to avoid getting in someone else’s way. Should I just stay away from the fisheye shots from now on?

  11. July 19th, 2012 | 5:37 pm

    ha, two things:

    Village voice pays you well? I’m going to have a talk with the Observer editor about my check


    Dennis is a pussycat šŸ™‚

  12. eb
    July 19th, 2012 | 5:41 pm

    Very good article and all so true.

  13. July 19th, 2012 | 5:41 pm

    Love this post, as a videographer who mostly shoots for recap + vignette purposes, I always respect and give priority to photographers in the pit. Unfortunately we are all stuck in that same little pit together at music festivals for those lovely 3 songs, I hang in the corner so I’m not in the way, but I agree about others. There should be a rule in the pit, if you piss off 3 people within 1 song, you’re out.

  14. Bob Evil
    July 19th, 2012 | 5:43 pm

    This is why I can’t stand most ‘professional’ photographers. You get PAID to do the things you love while those who struggle EVERY DAY, trying to make a living in photography, would give their right arm for the opportunity that you piss and moan about. As far as I’ve noticed, in this business, it’s not what you know but who you know. I’ve known 30+ year veterans of festival, concert, and rock star photography and not once did they bitch and complain about an ‘amateur’ wanting to live their dream; to be in the position they were in. Try doing wedding photography or yearbook photos for your paycheck then come back with that lame attitude. Deal with your issues, stop bitching and smile, because there are thousands of people who would give EVERYTHING for a chance that you take for granted.

  15. Dom
    July 19th, 2012 | 5:44 pm

    Great read, agree with you 99%. However, if I was the type of person to put my camera in the air and have someone grab my arm down with force Iā€™d for sure be knocking their teeth right the fuck out with my battery pack.

  16. AmyP
    July 19th, 2012 | 6:11 pm

    Great articulation of how it REALLY is, which most people don’t get. Wish there was a better way to load-and-process between bands, to save time in the evening, but technology isn’t quite there yet. Thanks for posting this brain dump – very useful!

  17. July 19th, 2012 | 6:41 pm

    Hahaha, the “Other Photographers Part II” is really the worst for me. Makes me want to shot the camera in front of my lense with a baseball bat. Why do they want a shity pic AND piss all the other photographer, whyyyyyyyyy !

  18. Bec
    July 19th, 2012 | 6:51 pm

    Girl with an iPhone kept blocking me at a festival recently. She was lucky I didn’t drop her…

  19. Tony
    July 19th, 2012 | 7:20 pm

    Love the article!
    Personally, I work for a company providing festival management for most major shows in Europe – and from this I do apologise on behalf of all festival staff everywhere šŸ™‚

  20. July 19th, 2012 | 7:25 pm

    So I guess shooting from the pit with my iPad is totally out of the question? LOL JK! That image popped into my head while reading. Awesome article and I’m very appreciative that you took the time out of your busy schedule to share your wisdom & knowledge.

  21. July 19th, 2012 | 9:18 pm

    @T I don’t know that I am very arrogant but I am definitely an asshole.
    @Jon If you are going to lift stand in the fucking back and even then you are blocking paying customers in the crowd. You can get even better photographs if you get on stage and stand right in front of the lead singer but you wouldn’t do that would you? Have some respect for everyone.
    @Troy It drives me nuts when someone with a fish eye is trying to shove his camera in the bands face. If you can do it quickly and get the shot do it but stay out of everyone’s way. In smaller venues its a completely different story. I love shooting with my 20mm lens if I can get away with it.
    @Mike I couldn’t make a living if I just got paid for the Voice. I have a good relationship with them where I can shoot for them and then sell images to other people as well.
    @BobEvil I started shooting bands in 1995 and it wasn’t until 2008 that I did photography full time. I busted my fucking ass in this business and I still do. I have never shot a wedding in my life and I don’t plan on it because I don’t want to shoot stuff I don’t enjoy. I moved to NYC and shot events until 4am and then went to work at 5:30am as a bus boy. I can bitch about whatever the fuck I want and you can just not read my website. Enjoy shooting yearbooks motherfucker.
    @Tony make everyone who applies for a photo pass read this shit before you give it to them. Would make everyone in the pit a lot happier. Thanks!
    @The Concert Man If you get J Dennis’ book he has a picture in there of someone shooting with an iPad in a pit. I’ve seen people shoot video from them at concerts. Completely insane!

  22. JammyBastard
    July 19th, 2012 | 9:28 pm

    Great advice. I direct the multi-cam video at Lolla, Coachella and many other festivals and I’ve seen many of the things you’ve mentioned,
    Can I give a couple of more suggestions?
    1. If you are s lucky enough to shoot onstage wear black. Please. Nobody likes to see you standing behind the drummer in a bright yellow ironic trucker hat. Especially all the people watching the webcast, the IMAG screens, etc…on the grounds. Dress in black, stay low, and move fast.
    2. Don’t bring your brand new Zacuto/Red Rock/Jag35 DSLR rig with you unless you are hired to shoot doc style video by the Fest and have the credentials to prove it. If you don’t you’ll get tossed. Many Of the big fest don’t want a guy with a DSLR that looks like a Xmas tree running about the stage and pit. Plus you look like an idiot.
    3. Don’t step in front of, push, back into, try to talk to, or get mad at with any working video camera op with a cam on his shoulder that has a cable coming out the back. While the acts are onstage the guys and gals providing video to the screen/webcast/broadcast are working. They need to be able to move and get their shots. Sorry, but they have the right of way and if you impede them you can get tossed. They usually have a cable grip with them who will let you know if you get too close. If you think they might be in your way then talk to them before the music starts. Most cam ops are photos themselves and will work with you so everyone gets the shots they need.
    4. Don’t act like you are the show. You aren’t. The fastest way too lose your credential and future credentials is by being a knob. Be cool and worry about getting the shots you need. We all live and die by what’s in the frame. Take care of that and you’ll be fine,

  23. July 19th, 2012 | 10:08 pm

    @JammyBastard I have never had any problems with Festival Staff videographers. They usually seem to know what they are doing and I always make sure to watch out for their cables…

  24. July 20th, 2012 | 12:23 am

    @Igor I assumed as much by your post. I was just adding some more points to your list, which was pretty comprehensive already.
    I think my biggest pet peeve is the same as yours: the proliferation of prosumers with prosumer gear crowding the already tight places were are trying to work in.
    That shot you posted of Dicky from the Bosstones in the pit singing his balls off says it all.
    Look at the woman with the point and shoot in the upper right of the frame.
    Why is she there?

  25. July 20th, 2012 | 12:25 am

    *correction” -Angelo of Fisbone….it’s late.

  26. July 20th, 2012 | 5:19 am

    I am impressed from your article! I am music photographer also and share all your feelings and words. Your post discribe very precise work of music photographer and all situations, difficulties, advantages and disadvantages.
    One thing is certain – the shooting music festivals and concerts became a passion and you can’t live without it. I am addicted to music photography and think – you too! :))) So, let’s enjoy our work :))) The life is so short and so wonderful!

  27. July 20th, 2012 | 9:51 am

    Be careful who’s arms you pull down. Some might not take too kindly to that.

  28. Michael Murray
    July 20th, 2012 | 11:29 am

    Greetings from the ridge Erika.
    It’s another peaceful morn here.
    Thank you ever so much for sharing your truths and reality.
    I can relate. Last year at the King Biscuit Blues Festival enjoyed the music. As I did from where we sat, watched the nonprofessionals with their phones and such block those who knew what they were doing. Even had one person with an i pad or whatever that take pictures. (learned from a friend she knew someone in “security”.
    Still, life is good and come to the ridge anytime.

  29. J. Dennis Thomas
    July 20th, 2012 | 11:31 am

    Thanks for the plug!. I’m really a nice guy in the pit. Until you stick your camera or flash in my shot about 100 times…

  30. July 24th, 2012 | 11:54 am

    Right! But we still kick ass….

  31. K
    July 24th, 2012 | 8:54 pm

    In the pit at a festival on the weekend there was someone with a backstage pass, not photo pass, standing right up against the stage holding their iphone up, filming Lana Del Rey and I had to stop myself from pushing his arm out the way. He was leaning on the stage right at the front with a pit full of us photographers getting his iPhone in every shot. Made me so angry! That is what happens when festival management dont restrict the pit to photographers, but let anyone with a backstage/AAA pass hang out in the pit also.

  32. brian
    August 13th, 2012 | 5:00 pm

    awesome post! i’ve been working my way up for the last 2 years or so and am getting to a level where i will be getting some passes to some decent shows in the near future. it’s nice to get some more info on how to behave once i make my way into a photo pit, i’ll also check out that book.

  33. August 17th, 2012 | 2:22 pm

    Thanks for this article – I loved it. I take a few (amateur) shots once a year at a small festival. I have no ambitions to do more than this and I try not to get in the way of the 1 or 2 professionals there.

    This article brought home the reality of music photography for a living and I also laughed a lot reading it!

  34. Amanda
    August 18th, 2012 | 12:28 am

    Nice article! It got to the point and had some humor. I was waiting for some photographer to make a post about the do’s/don’ts of photographing music events. I’m only 16 and I’ve yet to shoot anything nor buy an slr camera yet, sadly, and I had to agree with you on everything. I’ve never shot a show or been in the pit and it pisses me off when I go to a concert and see people in the pit with a phone taking photo’s. It’s like get out you’re not getting good photos and you’re pissing off other photographers. Then it makes me bad because if I were to apply for a pass I’d probably wouldn’t even get on yet those idiots are.

    In my opinion, I think if you’re young like me and you plan to shoot a show read online for some help before going there so that you don’t look like an idiot. Half the time young photographers are shooting with kit lenses where the photos will look like crap due to the apertures not being f/2.8 or lower.

    I didn’t really agree with your “I am going to stop whining now. But If this article stops one 20 year old kid from agreeing to shoot photos with their brand new $400 digital SLR for free fo some mediocre music blog I will have done my job.” because of the $400 camera, just because it’s $400 doesn’t mean it can’t take good photos. I know you’re a pro and all but you don’t have to slam it in everyone’s face about you having pro and nicer gear. There’s 14 year old’s running around with pro slr’s ranging about $2000 and only use auto mode. Just because you have something nicer/more expensive doesn’t exactly mean it takes better photos nor are you better. But gotta give credit to ya that you take amazing photos and of course you’re a professional.

    Hopefully one day I’ll be where you’re at.

  35. August 18th, 2012 | 3:11 pm

    Amanda, I am with you on your last point. If you take good photos you take good photos and it doesn’t matter what your equipment is. I shoot tons of stuff with a $200 point and shoot 35mm camera and I love the stuff I get out it. My point was just that digital SLRs are so cheap that anyone can pick one up and claim to be a photographer and get in my way. I am not trying to discourage anyone from trying to be a photographer and I always take the time to give advice to anyone who wants it but when you are messing with my ability to do my job then I get upset.

  36. Amanda
    August 26th, 2012 | 12:06 am

    I understand. I totally agree with you about “digital SLRs are so cheap that anyone can pick one up and claim to be a photographer and get in my way”. I see so many people on tumblr and in person taking photos with them in Auto mode as if they’re a photographer. It actually pisses me off in a way because here I am trying to save money for a good camera and have the eye for photography and there they are owning one and not even a photographer. I understand you now though. Great article! šŸ™‚

  37. Tony Landa
    August 26th, 2012 | 2:40 am

    Great post. I started doing concert photography in 2008 and I learned a lot of photo pit etiquette from shooting festivals like Bonnaroo with pros like J Dennis, Casey, Tim from Getty, Gary and others. I tried to be respectful from the beginning by just using basic common sense, but I quickly understood what was not cool to do from the pros. I always listened to what you guys were complaining about because I never wanted to be that asshole newb. Now, I shoot festivals and bitch about the newbs. Pitchfork was a nightmare with all the hipster bloggers that had absolutely no respect for the other photogs. Of course, I know how to deal with them and get my shots, but it’s refreshing to be around the vets that know how to be respectful.

  38. November 12th, 2012 | 1:28 pm

    im just starting in this business, but im not a 20 kid anymore…and i would take this article really careful like a ggod lesson that a etiquette and behavior.. you wrote, you dont want to give a shit but with all this information im pretty sure that you have scare many of these(annoying ones)
    take care .. peace and have a drink and relax

    with love
    Mauricio Torres

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