Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens Review

That the Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Planar T* came into existence was not a surprise (Zeiss revealed plans for this lens nearly 10 months before the announcement), but it is no less welcomed. The quality of the Otus 85 was also not a surprise. The Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 is an amazing lens, the highest quality 50-something mm wide-aperture DLR lens made, and now the Otus 85 fills that position in the 85mm lens class: The Zeiss Otus 85 is the highest quality 85mm DSLR lens that money can buy.

While that statement surely whetted your appetite, there are two things you need to know about this lens right up front. The first thing you need to know is that the Otus 85's price is as extremely high as the Otus' image quality. The second thing you need to know is that this is a manual-focus-only lens. If your budget is not solid or if you need autofocus, this lens is not for you. Otherwise, you are going to want to continue reading. You may want to continue reading regardless, but ... just for dreaming purposes.

Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens on Canon EOS-1D X

Focal Length

Focal length should be a high priority factor in your lens selection as it determines your perspective/working distance. Especially when combined with a wide aperture, the 85mm focal length screams "portrait lens" to me. Classic portrait focal lengths fall into the 85mm to 135mm range (after FOVCF is factored in). An 85mm lens hits the bottom classic range figure on a full frame DSLR and, at a 136mm angle of view equivalent on an APS-C 1.6x body, it essentially remains in the ideal portrait range on this format also.

Helping to justify the high acquisition cost of this lens is that portrait photography is one of the most-revenue-producing genres and I argue that people are the most important subjects available. If I am shooting portraits, very frequently I have an 85mm lens in my hand (or a zoom lens with the 85mm focal length covered). Even when using this lens on a full frame body at minimum focus distance, the working distance is long enough that facial perspectives do not become strongly distorted. Here is an f/1.4 portrait example captured with the Otus 85 on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III:

Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens Sample Picture – Portrait

The "portrait photography" designation is a broad one that covers a wide variety of potential still and video subject framing (from full body to head shots) and a wide variety of potential venues (from indoors to outdoors). Portrait subjects can range from children to seniors and individuals to large groups with this focal length creating a pleasing perspective for all of these situations. The subject(s) will not appear flattened from a too-far-away perspective or distorted from a too-close perspective.

The assignment list that this focal length is ready to tackle includes engagements, weddings, parties, events, families, small groups, senior adults, fashion, documentary, lifestyle ... and a long list beyond these, but 85mm is not reserved only for portrait photography. This focal length also works very well for landscape, architecture, products (medium through huge), commercial, general studio photography applications and a wide range of other subjects.

Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens Opening

Aperture

A short telephoto focal length combined with a super-wide aperture creates a very shallow DOF (Depth of Field) at short focus distances, and I can't get enough of the shallow DOF look that draws the viewer's attention to the subject by eliminating the background distractions. This capability adds artistic-style imaging to this 85mm lens' capabilities list.

Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens Sample Picture

The bright f/1.4 aperture allows tons of light to reach the sensor, allowing lower ISO settings (with the low noise levels that come with these) and fast-action-stopping short exposures (fast shutter speeds). It seems that there is always enough light to handhold a camera at f/1.4. This wide aperture is especially valuable after the sun sets, when shooting indoors and under shade including indoors using only ambient window light.

Following is an aperture walk-through.

Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens Aperture Comparison Example

This sequence was captured in narrow to wide sequence (which explains the wasp's movement path). The camera was not moved for the f/1.4 image, but the wind caused a slight amount of subject movement.

Image Quality

As with the Otus 55, the majority of photographers and videographers buying the Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens will be described as "discerning." These photographers know what they are getting for their money and premier image quality is the primary driver behind this purchase. As you expected to hear regarding this lens, Otus 85mm image quality is best-available in an 85mm DSLR Lens.

I started this lens review with no plans to include this lens in my kit, even though I knew that it would be a stellar performer and that I frequently use 85mm for portraits. The price was too high, autofocus was not there and I was very happy with my Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 L II USM Lens. As I finished this review, I am no longer sure about my plan. I will never look at 85mm prime image quality the same again and it is going to be hard to be happy with lesser image quality after having used this lens.

The Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens is extremely sharp at f/1.4 across the entire full frame image circle.

That is a simplistic statement of the sharpness component that provides a good encompassing overview of a lens' image quality including contrast and resolution, but ... this is a simple lens to describe the image quality of. When reviewing and comparing the Otus 85's image quality results, pay special attention to the crisp, high contrast transitions from black to white on the test chart, even at the wide open f/1.4 aperture. This difference is quite visible in real world photographs, some of which I will share below.

The crops shown in the site's image quality tool are processed in the "Neutral" Picture Style using a sharpness setting of "1". This low contrast, low sharpness setting used on an image of a high contrast black-on-white subject is tough on image quality appearance. Add f/1.4 vignetting to the picture and corners can become especially ugly. The Otus 85 really shines in this test including in the f/1.4 corners, though the upper right corner (the corner crop shown in the image quality tool) from my early-production lens tested at 10'/3m is very slightly softer than the other 3 corners as demonstrated below.

Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens Corner Image Quality

I was not able to find any real-world examples among my thousand-or-so Otus 85-captured images that showed this.

Following is an f/1.4 image quality/sharpness comparison between the Otus 85 and the Canon 85 f/1.2 L II (use the mouseover links below the image). The Otus crop was taken from the extreme left side of the frame. Because the Canon lens has a slightly wider angle of view, the Canon crop was taken from just inside of the left edge (a small advantage) to better-align the details. These images were captured in full shade and processed using the "Standard" Picture Style with a sharpness setting of "1" (very low).

Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens Edge-of-the-Frame Image Quality Compared to to the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 L II USM Lens

Click on the above image to see the full range of apertures (through f/8) compared (opens in a new browser tab).

Practically all lenses have it and it is most noticeable with a wide open aperture. Of course, peripheral shading is what I’m referring to – and you just saw an example of it in the sharpness example above. Full frame DSLR owners will see about 2.5 stops of darkening in the corners at f/1.4 (a normal amount). Stopping down to f/2 reduces the shading by roughly 1 stop and another stop is shed at f/2.8 where vignetting becomes hard to recognize. The .25 stops of vignetting that remains over the balance of the focal length range is unnoticeable.

APS-C/1.6x DSLR camera owners will find the just-under 1 stop of corner shading at f/1.4 to be barely noticeable. Stopping down to f/2 eliminates visible APS-C shading (only .2 stops).

Otus 85 vignetting can be seen by comparing the wide open aperture sample picture below with the vignetting-free f/11 version:

Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens Vignetting Comparison and Distortion Examples

Also seen in the above images is that the Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens is practically distortion-free. This fact will be especially appreciated when straight lines are present near the edge of the frame, such as the rows of brick in the above images. I had to look very closely at critically-captured architecture images captured with this lens to see any distortion at all – a very slight amount of pincushion distortion.

The Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens has only very slight coma visible in the corners (a clear night sky photo was required to discern this), is impressively flare-free (see the flare test results) and is impressively lacking of CA (Chromatic Aberration-free). "Because this lens is an apochromat, chromatic aberrations (axial chromatic aberrations) are corrected with elements of special glass with anomalous partial dispersion. The chromatic aberrations are therefore significantly below the defined limits. Bright-dark transitions in the image, and especially highlights, are reproduced almost completely free of color artifacts." [Zeiss]

One form of chromatic aberration often seen in wide aperture lenses used at wide apertures with very high contrast subjects is commonly referred to as "purple fringing." In the following near-center-of-the-frame full-sun example with intentionally blown highlights, you will see the impressiveness of the Otus 85's resistance to purple fringing. The comparison lens is again the Canon 85 L II. Processing used the Standard Picture Style with sharpness = "1".

Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens Center-of-the-Frame Image Quality Compared to the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 L II USM Lens

Again, click on the image to see a wider range of apertures compared. As you can see, the Canon 85 L II is a very sharp lens in the center of the frame even at wide apertures, but the Otus 85 is far more resistant to purple fringing. You will also see the Canon's purple fringing reduced at narrower apertures.

The Otus 85 easily throws the background out of focus and the quality of that background blur is excellent. While the aperture blades do not appear to be rounded (at least not significantly so – based on the shape of the blurred specular highlights below), the centers of these shapes are quite smooth. The "corner" example below is from the absolute bottom left corner of a full frame Canon EOS 5D Mark III image, showing that extreme corner bokeh remains similar to that found in the center of the frame.

Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens Bokeh

That the above examples were captured using different apertures was incidental. The Otus 85 uses a 9-blade aperture that will produce 18-pointed stars from specular highlights when used with a narrow aperture.

Overall, from an image quality perspective, there is no better 85mm DSLR lens available.

Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens on Canon EOS 5D Mark III Close-up

Focusing

The Otus 85, like all of the other Zeiss ZE (for Canon) and ZF (for Nikon) lenses, is manual focus-only. But, it delivers the ultimate manual focusing experience.

The extremely smooth focusing ring has a huge 265° of rotation that allows very precise focusing. Focus ring rotational resistance is on the light side, though it is not nearly as light as the Canon 85 L II's free-spinning manual focus ring. Subjects change size in the frame by a modest amount during a full extent focus adjustment, but size changes during short focus adjustments will not likely be noticeable or, minimally, not be bothersome.

As expected for a lens of this class (and for all of the Zeiss lenses I've used to date), the front element does not rotate during focusing. This is important for use of some filter types including circular polarizer filers.

Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens Top View with Hood

A full DOF (Depth of Field) scale is provided and includes wide aperture marks – not just f/11 and narrower. Unique from the Zeiss ZE and ZF lenses and like the Otus 55 is that the Otus 85's ft/m distance scale resides in an uncovered window built into the lens barrel. A concern I have is that dust/dirt/moisture can get inside the lens via this area – by landing on the ring and getting turned under the lens barrel housing. My concerns were unfounded during my time with this lens or the identically constructed Otus 55.

Standardized into the Otus line is the high-visibility yellow paint used for the lettering and markings. While I remain a bigger fan of the color white from an aesthetic perspective, functionality is paramount with this lens and the yellow color is purposed for use in low light conditions. All lettering and other markings on this lens are etched into the metal lens barrel, focusing ring and lens hood. Infinity and minimum focus distances are hard stops with distant subjects (such as stars) being sharp just before the infinity hard stop. Focus distance settings/marks are easily repeatable, a feature needed by videographers.

Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens Front

With a manual focus-only lens, focus accuracy is 100% your responsibility. When using a tripod with 10x Live View manual focusing, my hit rate is nearly 100% even at f/1.4 with a close subject. With a stock DSLR focusing screen, my f/1.4 hit rate is significantly lower.

On par for its class is the Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens' 31.5" (800mm) MFD (Minimum Focus Distance) and the resulting 0.13x MM (Maximum Magnification) spec. While these figures are the best in the following comparison chart, the MM differences are minor. Even at 0.13x magnification, reasonably tight head shot portraits can be captured.

ModelMFDMM
Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 L II USM Lens37.4"(950mm)0.11x
Nikon 85mm f/1.4G AF-S Lens33.5"(850mm)0.12x
Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM Lens33.5"(850mm)0.12x
Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens31.5"(800mm)0.13x
Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Planar T* ZE Lens39.4"(1000mm)0.10x
Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 Lens19.7"(500mm)0.14x

The DOF at f/1.4 focused at MFD is razor thin, but the image quality remains razor sharp at this distance. Here is a 100% f/1.4 crop captured at MFD using an EOS 5D Mark III:

Zeiss Otus 85mm Lens f/1.4 100% Crop from Minimum Focus Distance

My questionably beautiful model is an assassin bug. This may be the only assassin bug ever to be photographed by the Otus 85, but it hopefully helps you to see the capabilities of this lens. Notice the fine hairs visible on the insect's legs and the sharp ridged back? They are very crisply rendered.

If you need a shorter MFD and greater MM, use an extension tube. You will not fit an extender with a protruding front element behind this lens as the rear lens element is flush with the lens mount when focused at infinity.

Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens Mount

This is a rear-focusing lens design. When un-mounted, the rear lens element can be seen retracting into the lens body by a modest amount at MFD.

Build Quality & Features

This lens' build quality gives up nothing to its image quality. The Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens is built like few other lenses with the Otus 55 sibling being an exception. Here are these two similarly-shaped lenses side-by-side and the 55 in front of the 85, showing similar curvature:

Zeiss Otus 85mm and 55mm f/1.4 Lenses Side-by-Side

The word curvature is more commonly used in lens reviews to describe the area a lens renders in-focus, but these lenses have very attractive physical curvature. The Otus 85's lens barrel, after a quick but significant bump-out near the mount, is straight with a gentle outward-flaring contour starting in front of the focus ring and finishing in the lens hood.

Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens Product Images

Select View:  MFD |    w/ Hood:  MFD |    Rotated        Compare >

The Otus 85's smooth-shaped, rock solid, all metal construction features only one moving exterior part – the focus ring. The flush-mount focusing ring is smooth-rubber-covered for a secure grip and comfortable feel under a wider range of temperature conditions. This is a change from the ribbed metal focus rings typically found on most other DSLR lenses including Zeiss ZE/ZF lines. The focus ring is nicely sized and in ideal-to-slightly-forward position for use.

Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens on Canon EOS-1D X with Hood

The metal lens hood is substantial – It does not noticeably deform even when very firmly squeezed. The metal lens hood is so strong and well integrated/contoured that it simply feels like an extension of the lens barrel. This design is comfortable enough that I frequently find myself supporting the lens partially by the hood (insure it is properly installed before doing this) while using my thumb and index finger to fine tune focus. Alternately, I grasp the lens just in front of the mount with my thumb and index finger with the balance of the fingers managing the focus ring.

Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens on Canon EOS 5D Mark III – Front View

That is a Canon EOS 5D Mark III hiding behind the Otus 85 in the image above. The size of this lens, especially the diameter, makes it a handful. The Otus 55 is big and though the Otus 85 is modestly shorter than the 55, the increase in diameter makes the Otus 85 more of a handful of a lens. The 85 also weighs more, but with the wider-max-aperture Canon 85 L II included in the chart below makes the difference appear not so out of line.

ModelWeightDimensions w/o HoodFilterYear 
Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 L II USM Lens36.2 oz(1025g)3.6 x 3.3"(91.5 x 84mm)72mm2006
Nikon 85mm f/1.4G AF-S Lens23.3 oz(660g)3.4 x 3.3"(86.2 x 84mm)77mm2010
Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM Lens25.6 oz(725g)3.4 x 3.4"(86.4 x 87.6mm)77mm2010
Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens42.4 oz(1200g)4.0 x 4.9"(101 x 124mm)86mm2014
Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Planar T* ZE Lens20.1 oz(570g)3.0 x 3.4"(77 x 86mm)72mm2008
Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 Lens36.4 oz(1030g)3.6 x 5.7"(92.4 x 144mm)77mm2013

For many more comparisons, review the complete Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens Specifications using the site's Lens Spec tool.

You know that you have something in your hand when using this lens and constant manual focusing detracts modestly from shooting comfort. Long hours of carrying this lens will result in a muscle reminder that you did so, but the Otus 85 is not so heavy that the size and weight bothered me significantly during use. Those acclimated to using only light lenses may need some time to acclimate to the weight. On a good tripod and head setup, the weight means little.

To clearly appreciate the size of a lens, I always find a comparison picture helpful.

Zeiss Otus 85mm Lens Compared to Competing 85mm Lenses

Positioned above from left to right in their fully retracted positions are the following lenses:

Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 L II USM Lens
Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens
Nikon 85mm f/1.4G AF-S Lens
Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM Lens

The same lenses are shown below with their lens hoods in place.

Zeiss Otus 85mm Lens Compared to Competing 85mm Lenses with Hoods Installed

The Otus 85 is clearly the largest in its class. Also large is the Otus 85's filter thread size.

Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens on Canon EOS-1D X – Front View

Unless you have the Sigma 150-500mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Lens or the Sigma 180mm f/2.8 EX DG OS HSM Macro Lens in your kit, you probably do not have an 86mm filter or a lens to share the Otus' 86mm filters with. If you can afford this lens, I'm sure that the addition of these moderately large filters to your kit is a non-issue. Having to carry/pack an additional filter set might be a bigger inconvenience for you. I opted to buy an 86mm-to-95mm step-up ring to allow use of my kit's existing 95mm CP filter. The downside to this strategy is that the lens hood does not fit over the step-up ring.

Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens Case/Box

No case is included with the Otus 85, but the presentation-like box it comes in is more protective than the case provided with many lenses. During use, I've been carrying this lens mounted to a camera body with the hood in ready-to-use position in a Lowepro Toploader Pro 70 AW. This is an ideal compact and convenient carrying solution for this combo.

Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens Cap

Price

Relieving some of the pressure on demand for the Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Planar T* Lens will be its price. As I warned at the beginning of this review, this is an expensive lens. Unfortunately, many photographers will be unable to overcome the Otus 85 price tag and without question, the biggest hurdle this lens faces in the marketplace is its price.

As I said in the Otus 55 review, wildlife photographers often spend two or three times this much for their primary lens. I love wildlife, but will argue that the human subjects this lens is ideal for are far more valuable.

Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens on Canon EOS 5D Mark III on Tripod

The Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens is available in Canon (reviewed) and Nikon mounts. My standard disclaimer is to say that there are potential compatibility issues with third party lenses. However, I consider the compatibility risk of a manual focus-only lens to be quite low. The Zeiss Otus does have communication with the camera body (including an electronically controlled aperture), but without the added complexity of auto focus, I have a very low compatibility concern. Zeiss includes a 2-year limited warranty (extends to 3 years with product registration within 4 weeks of purchase) with this lens.

Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens Side

The review lens was any early production lens loaned from Zeiss, and unfortunately, as-always, it had to be returned. I have to admit that this return was one of the most difficult that I've made.

Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens on Canon EOS 5D Mark III Angle

Compared to Other 85mm Lenses

The second lens in the Zeiss Otus line arrives to stiffer competition than the first Otus arrived to (though the better-competing Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art Lens arrived soon after). The Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 L II USM Lens (currently in my kit) and the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM Lens are the two high quality, wide aperture 85mm alternatives I am most familiar with. Both are great lenses. Zeiss also has another entrant in the 85mm f/1.4 competition, the Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Planar T* ZE/ZF Lens.

Compared to the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 L II USM Lens

Canon's 85mm f/1.2 L II USM Lens has long been one of my go-to lenses and as you have surely noticed, this was my primary comparison lens for the Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens review. To see the difference in image quality (in addition to the comparisons already presented), use the following link (it will open in a new window/tab, retaining your place in this review). Then use the mouseover feature to see the difference in image quality, paying careful attention to the edges of the black details and how crisply they change into white. Also consider selecting narrower apertures to compare: Zeiss Otus 85mm vs. Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 L II USM Lens image quality comparison.

While the Canon has a 1/3 stop wider aperture available, the Zeiss is considerably sharper at f/1.4. The Canon closes the gap significantly by f/2 and the sharpness difference is only slight at f/4. The Canon has very slight barrel distortion vs. the Zeiss' very slight pincushion distortion. The Canon shows slightly more flare and considerably more purple fringing under high contrast/wide aperture scenarios. The Canon is smaller and weighs modestly less, has autofocus and costs less than 1/2 as much.

Compared to the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM Lens

Start with the Zeiss Otus 85mm vs. Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM Lens image quality comparison. Again the Zeiss is sharper with better contrast at f/1.4 through at least f/2.8. The Sigma has more CA and shows more flare at narrow apertures, but it has slightly less vignetting at wide apertures. Like the Canon, the Sigma frames slightly wider. The Sigma is smaller and weighs considerably less, has autofocus and costs less than 1/4 as much.

Compared to the Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Planar T* Lens

Looking at the Zeiss Otus 85mm vs. Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Lens image quality comparison, we see that the Otus 85 is clearly sharper/has better contrast until about f/4 where the Otus is only slightly sharper. I did not include the non-Otus Zeiss 85 in the visual size comparisons, but the product image comparison tool will show you that the Otus is a very-significantly larger lens. The Otus' price is also much larger – nearly 4x so.

Compared to the Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 Lens

Perhaps best-competing against the Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens is its sibling, the Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 Lens. As already discussed, these lenses are nearly identical, including their image quality. In the test chart comparison, you will see that the 55 slightly edges out the 85 in the full frame, wide aperture corners, but that is only true in the top right corner (as already discussed). The 55 has modestly more vignetting, modestly more distortion (barrel-type), a lighter weight and an insignificantly-for-most lower price tag. While these focal lengths are not the same, they are not dramatically different. I personally find the 85mm focal length more useful and the longer focal length can create a more-diffusely blurred background. The 85 would be the easy decision for me personally (having both would of course be ideal).

Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens Top View

Review Summary

When asked about his thoughts on the Otus 85, Richard Schleuning (Zeiss National Sales Manager) responded:

"Our legacy Planar T* 1.4/85 continues to be a high performing lens, providing a range of image resolutions depending on the chosen aperture. At wide open, the lens produces a nice, soft quality that is ideal for portraits. At f/5.6, the lens is extremely sharp and becomes either a general purpose short-tele or a portrait lens for a 'harder' look."

"With the new Otus 1.4/85, the image resolution is not dependent on the aperture – so it becomes an outstanding all around performer for low light conditions, general purpose, portraiture, fashion and lifestyle photography. This quality is shared with the Otus 1.4/55, which broke new ground in image resolution and control of chromatic aberration at wide open aperture. The improvements come from a unique lens design, more advanced glass materials and a much higher build tolerance. The Otus 1.4/85 is the best short tele lens ever produced by ZEISS and we believe there is nothing comparable on the market today."

I agree. With the Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Planar T* Lens in your hands, you have the confidence of knowing that there is no better 85mm lens available. You can count on your wide open aperture images to be very sharp with high contrast and excellent saturation. Not only is it a joy to use such a phenomenal lens, but it is a joy to review them as well, though sometimes I am left less satisfied with what I am currently using. Try this lens at your own risk, but if an 85mm manual focus lens will meet your needs and your budget accommodates the Otus' price, I highly recommend that the Otus 85mm lens finds a home in your kit.

The Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens "accepts no compromises". [Zeiss]

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