Nikon D5 Camera Review

Sometimes my reviews don't appear quickly. This D5 review is one such case. Mostly, it was just prioritization that kept pushing the review back, and then I decided to publish it coincident with my D5 Guide, so that pushed it a bit further back as I struggled to get my 1100-page tome wrestled to the ground. But delayed reviews are often interesting, in that they give me incredible shooting experience upon which to base them. I can say with deep confidence that what I write here is what my camera has managed to do in terms of performance over a long professional schedule.

bythom d5 w lens

What is It?
The Nikon D5 is Nikon's flagship camera, the top of the FX line. And of course, the FX line is their top line. 

The single digit D's are Nikon's camera oriented specifically to pros, and particularly to pros who demand rugged reliability, speed of shooting, and low light capability over things like pixel counts. The D3, D4 series, and now D5 are found in the bags of Nikon-shooting photojournalists and sports shooters because of those three basic elements. It doesn't hurt that Nikon pours all their formidable technology development into this flagship camera, either. 

For example, the single digit D's have always been the place where Nikon has unleashed new metering and focus capabilities, and the D5 is no different: it's all new in the core technologies compared to the D4s that preceded it. 

While the D5 looks an awful lot like the D3/D3s and D4/D4s that it takes over from, a lot is different. A whole lot. 

Let's start at the sensor. The D3/D3s had Nikon's first FX sensor, which checked in at 12.1mp. The D4/D4s came five years later with a 16.2mp FX sensor that was arguably better at all things. The D5 now comes with a 20.8mp FX sensor that's better at, well, certainly at high ISO performance, video, and a number of other things, but not so much at low ISO capability. I'll deal with this in the performance section below, but if the D5 had any disappointment when it was introduced, it was that the ISO 100 dynamic range was worse than the D4s it replaced.

The sensor can manage 4K (2160P) video at 30 fps. Video on the D5 is a little tricky: 1080P is full frame, 4K is 1.5x, and there's an option to shoot 1080P in a 3x crop, as well. As usual these days, Nikon outputs uncompressed 8-bit 4:2:2 on the HDMI port if you want something other than the internal H.264 compression. The H.264 compression has been upped to 48Mbps from 24 at High Quality, which puts the D5 pretty much right at the low end of the broadcast standards. 

But the big thing everyone was talking about when the D5 was introduced is that you could set ISO 3,280,000. Yes, that's millions. Holy photons, Batman, are they any left to capture at that level? 

Normally I don't get into performance points in this section, but Nikon's marketing of that absurd ISO capability requires a counterpoint when we're discussing the specification itself. Yes, you can set that value. No, you're not going to be shooting at that value. Okay, maybe once to see what happens. I will say this here: there isn't a better low-light sensor on the market that I know of. Nikon has definitely pushed ISO capabilities to the current limits, but you won't be setting those ginormous numbers, you'll be using the range you've been using and getting better results.

Meanwhile, the focus system has moved from a 51-point system to a 153-point one, and a focus system that's much more nuanced than ever before, and basically kicks butt in terms of speed. As good as we all thought Nikon's 51-point autofocus system was, Nikon proved that it could be incredibly improved. Partly because the D5 now has a dedicated AF CPU that previous cameras didn't. But more interesting and not often discussed, is the additions that the new 180,000 pixel metering sensor—up from 91,000—provides.

D5 153 point

One is better pattern recognition. The other is better face detection. And yes, both of those are used in some of the Autofocus Area modes (e.g. 3D-Tracking, which is now often uncanny in how it figures things out). That, of course, leads to new options buried in the menus you have to come to grips with in order to maximize what the camera can do, but fortunately this really hasn't added complexity. All the new options are pretty much where you'd expect to find them, and clear in what they're trying to do.

I know some folk will complain about the new focus system still not covering the full frame of the image area. Will you settle for covering 30% more area? ;~) 

You'll have to, of course, as the manner in which DSLRs do phase detect does have a physical size limit related to the lenses and in particular the mount opening, and the D5 is now right at that limit.

All that area is better covered with cross sensor focus points, too: 99 of them, up from 15 in the previous flagship cameras. All these changes in the focus system start to add up: faster, larger, better discrimination, more options, better integration with color information. Yeah, Nikon spent a lot of time putting everything they had into the new focus system, and it shows. 

While Canon hit 14 fps with full focus, Nikon opted to only go from the D4 series 11 fps to a 400k rated 12 fps shutter rate on the D5. You can set 14 fps on a D5, but you only get focus and exposure readings for the first image, and the viewfinder blacks completely out during the burst. But Nikon did improve the viewfinder blackout time at 12 fps, so I'm perfectly happy with their decision. Indeed, I often set my D5 down to 8 fps or 10 fps because I don't need so many images to sort through after a sports shoot.

There's plenty new elsewhere on the camera. One big one is the rear LCD, which has gone from 920k dot on the D4s to a 2.36m dot touchscreen on the D5. Touch isn't enabled everywhere, but it is absolutely useful in sorting through thousands of images when reviewing them on the camera, and if you're like me and entering things like Image Comments or IPTC data, the data entry process is hugely improved by the addition of touch. I wish the menus themselves were touch-enabled, though. 

bythom d4 versus d5 back

For cards, we now have two matched XQD card slots on the model you'll usually find for sale. You can get a D5 with two UDMA 7 CompactFlash card slots, but I highly recommend against that. Sure, you're saving on having to update your cards, but you're also in a dead-end card that won't get faster. 

Moreover, buffer performance is absolutely phenomenal with XQD, especially the fastest cards from the second generation. Buffer performance with CompactFlash is more old-school, and you will find times you hit the buffer. I can say this after shooting sports with the D5 for almost two years: I've probably had a buffer fill or hiccup a dozen times in that period using state-of-the-art XQD cards and shooting raw. 

What's that in numbers, you ask? Okay, we're going to shoot 12-bit Lossless Compressed with both versions of the camera. With the XQD version, we hit the 200-shots-at-a-time limit before the buffer is filled. At 12 fps, that's about 17 seconds of shooting. And if you lifted off the shutter release at 190 shots and then pressed it again, yeah, you probably still won't fill the buffer with the next sequence with the fastest cards (you probably will with the older generation one XQD cards). 

With the CompactFlash version of the camera? Same settings you're going to hit the buffer a little over 100 shots in. You won't quite hit 10 seconds of shooting. And if you need to shoot another sequence immediately, you absolutely will hit buffer hiccups. 

JPEG shooters need not worry about either choice, they'll almost certainly never hit the buffer limits no matter what they try to do. 

Nikon will take a CompactFlash equipped D5 and make it into an XQD equipped one (or vice versa) for less than US$400. But just get the XQD model in the first place. That's what this camera was designed for, and it shows in actual use.

The battery in the D5 is now the EN-EL18a, and the CIPA number for the D5 with that battery is an unbelievable 3780 shots. And you're not going to believe what you really get from that battery (foreshadowing the performance section), that's what's going to make things really unbelievable).

Unfortunately, the D5 is now sporting warts. It seems that even in this big body Nikon can't seem to fit everything in. So, if you want Wi-Fi, you're going to plug a WT-6/6A (or the older WT-5/5A) into the special socket on the left side of the camera (as you hold it). But if you want radio flash or remote control, you're also going to be plugging a WR-R10 into the 10-pin socket on the front. You do have an Ethernet port if you want to go wired network.

Source of the reviewed camera: purchased under NPS Priority Purchase

How's it Handle?
We've now got an extra Fn button (three on the front around the lens, one on the back panel). We get a dedicated ISO button behind the shutter release, and this triggers a slight trickle-down move of controls (the Mode button moves from behind the shutter release to top button group on the left of the camera as you're holding it). This in turn kicks another button off and elsewhere, and so it goes. 

The big aspect of this has to do with anyone shooting with older D3 and D4 series bodies at the same time as a D5. The control placements are different. This befuddles me sometimes when I'm shooting sports with the D4 and D5 simultaneously, though you can mitigate some of that by doing a bit of judicious reprogramming (for example, I've reprogrammed my video record button to Mode, so that's back behind the shutter release where I expect it). 

Normally I'd chastise Nikon for cheese moving, but that's a bit tricky this time around. The D5, D500, and D850 now all share controls and features in ways that make it easy to move from one to another. More so than previous generations of Nikon's. So on the one hand, Nikon made a bunch of cheese moves from the D4 generation to the D5. Yet within the D5 generation so far, things have once again stabilized very nicely. So from a handling standpoint, the real issue here is that it's difficult to shoot with two bodies across generations, no real issue to do so with two from the same current generation. 

I can live with that. It's a decent compromise. Certainly there were things that, in retrospect, are totally worthwhile changes (such as the addition on an ISO button on top behind the shutter release, whereas the D3 and D4 had that button buried under the small rear status LCD, which was inconvenient). 

So for any Nikon shooter moving from the older generation to the D5 generation, be prepared for some learning curve time to make adjustments to where you find the controls. Arguably, they're better placed on the D5 than the D3/D4, so it's worth taking the time to get used to them.

One thing we received with this generation that's amazing once you discover it and master it is the ability to flip autofocus area modes with AF-On. Considering that you can program AF-On to almost a half dozen controls, that means you can change focus modes instantaneously. How's that work?

Okay, simplest example, let's say I primarily use Group autofocus and that's what I set with the Focus Mode button and Command Dials. When I press the AF-On button with back-button focus set, I get focus using Group autofocus. But if I program the thumbstick that controls the focus position so that pressing it all the way in, I can also program it to do both AF-On and switch Autofocus Area mode, to say, Single Point. No fumbling to find the front Focus Mode button. Both the AF-On button and the thumbstick button are right there where my right thumb naturally falls, so it's really just a matter of shifting the thumb back and forth to get different focus behavior. Bravo. What's not so bravo? Nikon doesn't allow you to program 3D Tracking to these buttons, and that's the one mode I'd most want to do that with. Good old Nikon: giveth and taketh in the same change.

Note: the D500 and D850 aren't quite as good at this as they don't allow the thumbstick to control position at the same time as providing AF-On. The D5 does allow both, which makes this all work so much more seamlessly.

One handling issue to know about: while the D5 is about as effective at shedding water as any camera on the market, be careful. If water is so heavy that it somehow "saturates" the upper left button cluster, weird things happen. I've verified this on multiple D5's now in really inclement weather: the left-hand buttons (top and left side) all shut down, though the camera still operates. That means that you can't get into the menus, nor can you review/delete images on demand. But you can still shoot.

Curiously, it does not appear that water actually gets into the camera. It's something about the way the upper top left controls are built that seems to allow water to impact the connections in some way that's not direct. Once there's enough moisture in that area, the left side of the camera shuts down. It's weird, but repeatable, and there does not appear to be any permanent damage to the camera when this happens. Return the camera to a dry environment and everything restores. Disassemble the camera and there's no sign of moisture incursion. Strange.

Thus, even a modest cover is necessary when shooting with the D5 in severely inclement conditions, something didn't seem to be necessary on previous pro Nikons that I'm aware of.

How's it Perform?
Battery: I don't even think this is useful to measure any more. I've had plenty of sessions where I shot well more than 4000 images per charge and not come close to exhausting the battery. Many topped 5000, some 6000. The EN-EL18a battery is big in capacity, and it powers the D5 quite well and for long periods, no matter how you're using the camera. Even shooting video the darned thing seems to last a full two hours for 1080P/60. I've watched students on safari shoot for days with their D5 without having to charge a battery. 

I simply can't imagine any scenario where you need more than two batteries, ever, at least if you have access to AC power and the charger overnight. Do we need better than that?

Card Write: Another big win, at least if you're using the correct cards (that would be Lexar 2933x or Sony G-Series XQD). JPEG buffers might as well be considered infinite. Even with the slower cards you can easily shoot JPEG images pretty much out to the maximum continuous release of 200 shots without ever hitting a slow down. Well, okay, there are features on the camera you can turn on that might impinge that number a bit, but only a bit. 

RAW shooters with the two fastest types of cards (see above) will likely hit the 200 max image limit before the buffer fills, too, and especially so if they follow my suggestion and shoot 12-bit Lossless above low ISO values. 

But the real test is repeated bursts. Shoot at 12 fps and take a 10 second burst, wait a second or two, shoot another 10 second burst, wait a second or two, shoot another 10 second burst, wait a second... Yeah, we could be doing this for awhile before we get a real burp from the camera if you're using the fastest cards and avoiding a few settings. Shooting college football in 12-bit Lossless Compressed basically had no limitation other than 200 continuous shots in my experience with a Lexar 2933x card. And if I took my finger off the shutter release at 200 and put it back down, I still didn't hit write limits.

The temptation in sports, as with the Sony A9, is to just mash the shutter release at 12 fps (20 fps on the Sony) and shoot until there's nothing left to shoot. Start before the play starts, end after the play ends. Yes, you can do that with the D5. But you're going to be sorting through thousands of images per game if you do so. 

There are now three cameras that clearly shoot "beyond my basic needs" in this respect: the Sony A9, the Canon 1DxII, and the Nikon D5. 

Focus: Let's put this to a rest right now: as I write this in late 2017 the D5 is clearly, measurably, repeatably, and with some margin, the best autofocusing camera we've had to date. That includes much-hyped products such as the Sony A9, the direct competitor Canon 1Dx Mark II, and all other comers. 

Set properly for circumstances, the D5 simply produces more keepers per long burst on pretty much any subject I've pointed it at, from running backs to erratic bird flight to kids playing to, well, anything. 

It's that "set properly for circumstances" that's the only contentious part of my statement. Just how do you do that? Well, my book might be one starting point ;~). 

One thing that emerged early on was that people felt that Dynamic Area AF was failing. Not exactly. It was just doing what it was programmed to do so much faster than any previous Nikon DSLR that you needed to account for that. 

As a reminder, Dynamic Area AF lets you select a starting point for focus. If the camera detects that the subject is moving you authorize the camera to look at points near the point you selected (25, 72, 153, and with a firmware update, 9). The problem is twofold: (1) if contrast isn't high enough on the originally selected point, the camera will move focus immediately, and I mean immediately; and (2) if you can't keep the subject steady in the frame the camera is so fast that the jitter in your holding technique will trigger it to move focus sensor. And not always to where you want it.

bythom US CO Boulder CO-WSU 4137

This is a typical worst case for focus lock: pan to the ball, lots of background detail that could be found by the camera, low light situation. The D5 just often surprises you in its ability to figure things out, so it pays to take the risk and push the release.

In previous Nikon DSLRs there was always a lag with Dynamic Area AF. Enough of a lag that case #2 didn't tend to happen, and even case #1 often got resolved as a subject moved through light or angled and got more contrast. Just not so with a D5. Immediate is immediate. Startlingly immediate. That new focus CPU is incredibly fast. And remember that you may be shooting at 12 fps with some viewfinder blackout time between shots: you might be jittering your hold enough to provoke focus sensor change without actually seeing it.

Thus, one thing D5 users (and D850 users, as well) have to think carefully about is making sure that Dynamic Area AF size is small enough that it can never go off subject. And that was one of the problems: D25 is actually a fairly big area. Big enough that a bird in flight that's not full frame can trigger the focus system to go to the background, and a bird that is full frame might trigger the focus system to go off the head. You really need to up your game to make Dynamic Area AF work on a D5, and you absolutely need to dial in smaller settings (e.g. D9) than you might think you should be using based upon previous Nikon DSLRs.

But there's a hidden gem that a lot of frustrated Dynamic Area AF users found: 3D Tracking. 3D Tracking is sort of like D153, but with a twist: it uses color information to inform the movement of focus sensor. The combination is near magic, and it works in situations I never thought it would. But here's the catch: you're going to need to master using that thumbstick to control the initial focus point, because if you're a little off with the initial acquisition, the color model being used to inform the focus system may also be off. Still, it can be uncanny. Birds with distinctive head coloration are a no-brainer for 3D Tracking as long as you can start the focus on the right part of the head. Ditto faces (though helmets with clear plastic face guards can be a problem). 

Meanwhile, there's also Group and Single Point, and they are reliable and predictable and fast (Group does closest subject priority across a selectable pattern of diamond, horizontal line, or vertical line). 

It took me a few shoots to "dial in" my use of the D5's focus system, but once I learned its nuances, it's been, as I noted above, clearly, measurably, and repeatably the best autofocus system I've encountered to date. Even after almost two years of use, the D5 still surprises sometimes when I've managed to frame chaos yet the focus system still is figuring out the right thing to do.

Not to say that the Canon 1Dx Mark II is all that far behind the Nikon D5. It's close. And the thing I noted about the Canon and Nikon autofocus systems many years ago still seems to be true, though Nikon has closed the gap considerably. What's that, you say? If I have to generalize, the Canon system is slightly faster to first focus acquisition than the Nikon (though the D5 cut that to a level that's hard to measure). The Nikons seem to hold acquisition better through erratic motion.

In third place I'd put the Sony A9. And again, it's very close. Still, in repeated experiments with cameras side by side on the same subject, the keepers on the Nikon D5 were higher. If you're going to use a high burst rate camera, keeper rate is extremely important. Indeed, more important than frame rate. That's because if you have 100% keepers at 12 fps you're often better off than you are with 80% keepers at 20 fps. In the latter case, you have four out-of-focus photos, and if they occurred at peak moment, the 20 fps didn't really help you.

Image Quality: Finally, we get to the one aspect of the D5 that's generated controversy, image quality. Specifically dynamic range. 

But first, let's talk about pixels. The D3/D3s was 12mp, the D4/D4s came in at 16.2mp, and the D5 is 20mp. These cameras aren't targeted at landscape, studio, or other uses where large prints are needed. They're targeted at versatility, particularly in low light. And they appeal to photojournalists, event photographers, and sports/action photographers.

I know a lot of pros still shooting with a D3s. If you go to someplace like photonstophotos, which measures dynamic range, you might see why. From a purely useful dynamic range standpoint, the D5 really doesn't best the D3s. Indeed, it falls short of the D4 at lower ISO values. It's really only at ISO 2500 and up that you see clear benefits (other than crop potential) from the D5 sensor. Frankly, that says a couple of things: first, just how good the D3s really was, and second, how close to "ideal" we've come with sensors. The D5 at high ISO values is just about at that point.

No one doubts the D5's prowess in low light. If you're shooting at ISO 3200 and 6400 a lot, you're not going to find a better choice. If you sometimes need to go above that, there's no way you're going to find a better choice. I base those statements upon nerdy scientific testing, analysis of other folk's tests, and real life shooting. One thing that makes the D5 so good at those things is just how "quiet" the sensor is. By this I mean fixed pattern noise. It's one thing to get read noise down so that it isn't a contributor to overall noise propagation, but fixed pattern noise can present a visible problem even if you do have read noise under control when you start boosting ISOs way up. My D5 has the best (lowest) fixed pattern noise I've seen off a sensor to date.

The objection about the D5's "image quality" almost always seems to be "but it isn't as good as the D4 at base ISO." Heck, if you're a landscape shooter it isn't particularly good at all, with a maximum useful dynamic range of maybe 9.5 stops in a world where something over 11 is achieved by quite a few full frame sensors. But frankly, virtually everything I shoot with a D5 the only reason I'd need more than 9.5 stops is to reign in specular highlights. I'm not bothered by the limited headroom.

I'm more bothered by the fact that Nikon uses multiplication to create the lower ISO values, and that produces some anomalies. I really want to shoot the D5 with Auto ISO set to 1600. At base ISO I'd have 9.5 stops of useful dynamic range, at ISO 1600 I'd have 8 stops. I'm fine with that for the uses I shoot a D5 for.

Unfortunately, the intermediary ISO values are strange. ISO 160 is almost a half stop worse in dynamic range than ISO 200. Really? Indeed, the optimal ISO values on a D5 in the range before it goes ISOless are: ISO 100, 200, 400, 640, and 1250. Heck even ISO 2500 is a bit better than ISO 2000 (after ISO 2500 there's a loss of dynamic range with each boost). Thus, using Auto ISO produces less-than-optimal results in that lower ISO range. While that might not be particularly visible, the perfectionist in my chafes at "less than optimal." 

In practical terms, that means that boosting shadows with low ISO values has limits, and doesn't act like the ISOless cameras. For example, with the D810 it wouldn't be unusual to push shadows up five stops and get something that looked exactly as if you shot at a five stops higher ISO value. On a D5, well, it doesn't quite work that way until ISO 2500, and the ability to bring up shadow information is much more constricted. 

Which brings me to another interesting point: Nikon has tuned the metering and in-camera processing in a strange way (it started with the D5, but has expanded to the D500 and D850). In-camera JPEGs tend to look a little bit hot. Your tendency will be to dial in some negative exposure compensation. But if you look at the raw file you shot with the JPEG, it will look a bit underexposed, despite Adobe converters dialing in a +0.3 stop exposure compensation. 

Yes, you read that right. Shooting raw with a D5 tends to preserve highlight headroom. Quite a bit of it, actually (I'd say that it's more than Adobe's default adjustment implies, typically a half stop, but it can be higher in really high contrast situations or ones with lots of specular highlights). I often leave my D5 set to +0.3EV exposure compensation, and have been known to dial it even higher than that in lower contrast scenes. Meanwhile, the camera's EXPEED system is running JPEGs with some sort of compensation for raw data underexposure (ala Adobe). So what you see on the rear LCD is not what you get in raw. 

If the D5 were ISOless—and again, it is above ISO 2500—I wouldn't worry about that too much. But it isn't. Thus, coupled with those less-than-optimal low ISO values, the exposure drop can be brutal in bringing up more noise than you expect, particularly the minute you hit the Shadow slider in Adobe's converters. 

My advice: if you're shooting raw consider dialing in +0.3EV exposure compensation and only shoot at ISO 100, 200, 400, 640, 1250, and 2500 in the low ISO range. If you shoot in particular repeated venues, test exactly what the optimal raw exposure is for those low ISO values. 

So, other than that, how'd you enjoy the play, Mrs. Lincoln? 

I enjoyed it very much, thank you. 

It's easy to get really deep ended into the low ISO response of the D5. I've watched forum fights occur over this. But that's not really what it was designed for. Low ISO response in the D5 is at least as good as a 10-year old camera that many people and organizations are still using and liking. So not terrible. It's when you get into true low light situations that the D5 begins to excel. There's not a better camera above ISO 3200 (no, not even the Sony A7S Mark II). 

In Africa this summer we had a very rare species of cat walk out of the woods in front of the vehicle after dark. Guess which camera got the shot despite there being virtually no light? Yep, the D5. And it produced a very publishable shot, one of the better ones I've seen of that cat.

Time and again I found myself in low light getting results that literally show me what the photons are actually doing. In other words, the randomness of photons really is the gating element to what the D5 accomplishes in low light. Moreover, the D5's color fidelity in low light is remarkably good. Nikon attributes that to changes in Bayer filtration, and they're probably right. I can measure that. It isn't until ISO 204800 that white balance coefficients start to plummet towards one (e.g. lower color discrimination is implied).  

Overall, I'd say this: the D5 equals the D3s with more pixels in the low ISO values. It shines at ISO 3200 and above. How's that compare to the Canon 1Dx Mark II? Well, the Canon outshoots the Nikon up to ISO 1200, falls slightly behind at ISO 2500. It's a somewhat subtle thing either way. The Canon produces maybe a stop more usable dynamic range at base ISO. The Nikon produces perhaps a half stop more usable dynamic range at ISO 2500 and up. 

Before anyone sells their 1Dx or D4s, I just have to write this: be careful of chasing after small gains. They often aren't worth the money they cost.

Final Words
Nikon built another great hammer with the D5. Hammer as in, you can almost literally hammer nails with it due to the high build quality. Hammer as in it is a valuable and useful tool if you're working with nails. In this case, those nails would be low light and fast moving objects.

I've had almost two years of shooting with the D5 up against all the primary competitors (which is really only the Canon 1DxII and the Sony A9, though some might include some less expensive and expansive cameras such as the Nikon D500 and the Canon 7DII). The D5 is the one I'd pick, virtually all of the time. 

Yes, I can think of exceptions. I'd pick the A9 if I needed to shoot silently. I'd pick the Canon 1DxII if a 200-400mm f/4 lens that can also shoot at 560mm f/5.6 is necessary. Those are pretty specific exceptions. 

No, I wouldn't pick the A9 because of 20 fps. Frankly, at some point you're better off shooting with a video camera if you really need to pick apart movement with that level of discretion. Shooting at 20 fps just creates a huge volume of images to sort through, with very little gain. In sports photography, timeliness is important, and I can't sort through 128GB of images during halftime. I eventually shot my A9 at 10 fps because of that.

The interesting thing is that the D5 holds its own against a camera almost two years newer. That speaks levels about the performance that Nikon got out of their technology. And it's all encased in the hard body we all know and love (and hate). 

If you need what the D5 offers—bulletproof capability in low light—save up your pennies and buy one. If you don't, there are probably cameras that are better suited to your needs.

Recommended (2016, 2017, 2018)

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