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Can You Spot The Difference? $1300 Canon 400mm F/5.6L vs $11,500 Canon 400mm F/2.8L

By Anthony Thurston on April 19th 2014

If there was one way of thinking that I could eradicate from the photography world it would be the assumption that “lens A,” is way better than “lens B,” due to the price. Lenses come in all shapes and sizes, some are more expensive than others, and yes, in general, more expensive lenses are “better” than cheaper lenses. But just how much better are they?

In many cases, the difference in optical quality is not nearly as high as the difference in price, and today I wanted to take some time to demonstrate that. I am currently reviewing and comparing the difference between the relatively cheap $1300 Canon 400mm f/5.6L and the very expensive $11,500 Canon 400mm F/2.8L.

[REWIND: Sigma 50mm F/1.4 vs Canon 50mm F/1.2]

 

This particular post is not meant to be a full review or even much of a comparison for either lens. This is solely for the purpose of showing you, with real world examples, what the visual difference between these lenses are.

Click on the Image to open a large version. These were shot with the Canon EOS-M and Canon 6D bodies on an overcast day, so light was dim, but even. 

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So can you tell which lens shot which images? The depth of field may give it away, as both lenses were shot wide open, but as far as the optical quality of the images go, I have to say that I am both surprised and impressed with how well the 400mm F/5.6L holds up.

Initial Thoughts & Perspective

Just to put it into perspective, for the price of one 400mm F/2.8L, you could purchase 8 of the 400mm F/5.6L lenses. Are the images above that come from the 400mm F/2.8L 8 times better than the images coming out of the 400mm F/5.6L? Not in my opinion they aren’t.

That is not to say that there are not other areas that the 400mm F/2.8L is much better than the 400mm F/5.6, but in terms of optical quality alone the difference in real world shooting is not as high as uninformed individuals may think.

What are your thoughts on this quick and dirty comparison? Do you see an 8x difference between the shots taken with the F/5.6L and the F/2.8L? Share your thoughts below.

Answer Key: The First and Last shots are the F/5.6L, the two in the middle are the F/2.8L

Anthony Thurston is a photographer based in the Salem, Oregon area specializing in Boudoir. He recently started a new project, Fiercely Boudoir to help support the growing boudoir community. Find him over on Instagram. You may also connect with him via Email.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Brenner

    For my budget I’d have to go with the f/5.6 LOL but the difference is there and specially on these shots, I’m pretty sure that there are better shots of the f/5.6 and I think the angles did not help at all but even if you were to put both lenses at f/5.6 the F/2.8 would look slightly sharper, because lenses tend to be a little soft on the widest aperture. A f/5.6 cant beat a f/2.8 that’s definitely LOL… but the price says it all…. which one is better? In this case, because they are both L lenses…. THE CHEAPER ONE of course.

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    • Brenner

      O and I forgot its just because of budget wise haha because honestly who wouldn’t want that 2.8? LOL

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  2. JohnT

    Your wording really doesn’t make clear that you are talking about optical quality when there is lots of light, and I can’t believe you are surprised at how small (but very noticeable) the differences between the images are. Had you taken them all at f/5.6 telling the difference would probably be much harder. Someone who isn’t familiar with photography might think there would be a huge difference, but this would be the same person who thinks your great shot is due to you have an expensive camera. I do understand your point, but by not making clear the limitations of the less expensive lens and that the photos were taken within those limitations you make the two lenses sound more alike than they are. That’s why you’re getting so much flack.

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  3. J M

    Worst review ever!

    The shots aren’t even the exact same. No mention of what aperture they are shot at. No side by side comparison… garbage.

    Of course F2.8 is way better than F5.6. The sheer amount of light entering the lens is tons. It’s probably got a better built. probably has better weather sealing.

    oh my word. don’t even read this trash…….

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  4. Maiaibing

    Have used both (have none now). The difference between the two @ f/5.6 is really very marginal (you can check some of the test sites to have this confirmed). For my use it was essentially non-existent, YMMV.

    However, as some said earlier, if you need the faster f/-stops the f/5.6 is not going to deliver. And f/5.6 is quite a lot of light even with today’s high ISO.

    It also suffers a little more flare and loss of contrast against the sun – but the built in hood helps quite a lot here. Absolute ability to resolve is probably less, which may be important one day with a high MP body if Canon ever manages the produce what the competition is already selling. Bokeh wise I don’t remember any difference – just be aware that the raw blur effect is not that strong @ f/5.6 even @400mm.

    Finally, it has no IS – and Canon should really upgrade the lens – and the 300mm f/4 too (this one is btw nowhere close to the 300mm f/2.8 IS L). Not that I think hand holding the 400 f/2.8 is an option – for me at least.

    I think the same argument can be made for may fast primes. You simply pay A LOT for the privilege of shooting those fast f-stops and have more opportunities to shoot longer hours etc.

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  5. Yes, Another Tweet

    Me thinks you should test both lenses where each lens was designed for. The f/2.8 lens was designed for low light shooting such as night football games or indoor games. Try taking the f/5.6 to a high school/college/NFL (night)football game and see how it compares in that environment. I think you will see why the /2.8 is priced so high.

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  6. Orange

    I dont think anybody could possibly expect the f5.6 lens to better the f2.8 lens, particularly given the price differential. I think the point of this article is that the f5.6 version is fantastic value and will most likely satisfy the demands of most users, including some professionals. Is it the lens for everyone? Absolutely not. Clearly the f2.8 will be the lense of choice for those who demand the additional couple of stops in particular. I am not a Canon user but I do use the Nikon 400 f2.8 and the 80 to 400 4.5/5.6 . Both these lenses are very good, but they are chalk and cheese. Sometimes only the big prime will do the job but on other occasions it has to be the much smaller and lighter zoom. However is the difference in terms of quality proportional to the price differential? No it isn’t. Canon and Nikon are no different in this respect.

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  7. NancyP

    The added values of the f/2.8 L II IS:
    1. no depth of field wide open, for bokeh enthusiasts
    2. faster AF on some cameras, and use of more AF points on some cameras. I suspect that none of these considerations apply on the 6D.
    3. use of lens at f/2.8 in pre-dawn and post-sunset conditions when birds are active
    4. Ability to use 1.4x and 2x TC III teleconverters and still maintain good AF and IQ (I don’t think that the 400mm f/5.6L would have all that great IQ with the 2x TC, and even with the 1.4x TC II, I have to manual focus it, which is a PITA unless one has a stationary subject).
    5. IS!!!

    Advantages of the f/5.6 L:
    1. Best budget birding lens out there for those who don’t mind the steep learning curve involved with handholding, no IS. Side benefit: if you can get a decent keeper rate with this lens, you have developed pretty good handholding skills that should help you if you ever upgrade your lens and your arm muscles to one of the larger-aperture or longer FL lenses.
    2. Best for extensive handheld BIF, at least for those who aren’t serious gym rats. Also nice for those with small hands. I am a not too muscular, small handed woman, so I prize the ergonomics on this lens
    3. Good lens for multiple lens, multi-day backpack trip where you anticipate some birding. At least this is true for me. Some might prefer the 24-70 and 100-400 for a long trip.
    4. Fewer spectators looking at your lens, since it isn’t a behemoth.

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  8. EJ

    EVERYONE READ MY COMMENT RAHHHHH!!!!!! Troll filter is definitely needed. Everyone seems to think they are the Albert Einstein of photography. Golden Rule – If the lens you buy adds extra money to your bank account each month then price is irrelevant.

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  9. Happy Tinfoil Cat

    Last weekend I was shooting with a 135L + 2x + 1.5x which gets me 405mm @ probably around ƒ/5.6 Sure the quality was meh but it didn’t cost me any extra money. All the above was bought used. I decided to look for an L-class 400mm. 99% of the population wouldn’t know the difference between either of the above lenses or my stack. I always go for the wider aperture choice at the expense of IS since I believe in shutter speed, especially for moving targets. Considering how expensive the ƒ/2.8 is, I will probably just go with a 200L and use an extender for the extra reach when needed. The last time I had a big white 400mm I got all kinds of unwanted attention; the size and black color of the 200L push me that direction. I will continue to play the lottery though and who knows…

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  10. Anthony Petit

    The differences I note may be due to the different bodies in use. What was the lens/body combination for the images? There are all kinds of little things that make each image different on it’s own and I suspect that if the same framing, zooming, subject positioning, … , had been used there might be something to talk about. But…

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  11. Domo

    Oh man what is up with all the retarded comments?? It’s a basic comparison showing how these two lenses don’t actually differ that much in terms of sharpness and contrast in standard lighting conditions…how is this so difficult for everyone to understand? Sure there’s certainly reasons one would spend $11.5k on a lens, but come on admit it, the 5.6L performs so bloody well for such an in-expensive lens.
    Interesting little post cheers Anthony.

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  12. Quentin Decaillet

    Comparing two lenses solely on IQ isn’t quite “real world testing”. As others have said, for some of us real world might mean rain, dust, low light, very fast moving subject, etc.
    Your test is kind of like comparing a T5i with a 17-55mm to a 1D X with a 24-70 2.8 II in studio. Sure both are about 18Mpx and when shot in studio at f/8-f/11, both kits will give you great results! Why pay about 10x the price to get a heavy and bulky lens and body for an almost similar result? Well… because for some jobs it is more suited and for those jobs, usually, it is a matter of get it and get paid or miss it and go home.

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    • Randall Huleva

      Another consideration is the extra weight and storage in your bag to carry the 400 f/2.8. Personally, unless you are a pro photographer who really MUST have that fast of a lens to get a shot, I would pass on this lens. If it’s really that important, I can create almost the identical photo in post and still have about $10K in my pocket!

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  13. Shai

    I suppose it all comes down to what your definition of ‘real world’ usage is.

    The examples you gave really show that in certain conditions there is not a marked difference to the eye.
    The f5.6 lens really holds its own in this situation. It is definitely a lens to consider if you don’t need more capabilities.

    I know that as a live performance photographer, my ‘real world’ usage requires me to shoot almost constantly at f2.8. I also need a lens that can survive rain and take a bit of a beating. Can the cheaper lens do that?
    For some, shooting at 5.6 is perfectly acceptable, but then you are trying to compare lenses designed for pros and lenses that aren’t.

    Saying that, I don’t think an 8x increase in price is warranted, but then, I don’t know how much these lenses cost to create and produce.

    I can see where you are coming from in this post, but I think it really comes down to the right tool for the job.
    If you don’t need f2.8 and an L series build quality, then there really is no need to buy the more expensive lens.
    If you do then, unfortunately, you have no choice but to pay the premium.

    But, as you stated, just because it is more expensive, does not necessarily mean it is more suited to the job you need to do.

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  14. dbltapp

    you need a troll filter on this comment stream.

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  15. R Lee

    The upgrade from 5.6 to 2.8 is adding another tool to your pouch that allows you to be creative and make your photo stand out when compared to a 5.6 when they are printed. Other than that there is no shame if you can’t afford the best.

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  16. Scott

    Others have made excellent points that, if you have to have f/2.8, then the value question is moot. The rebuttal has been along the lines of “that’s not the point.” Fine. But how about do a review with a more obvious point. Perhaps compare image quality of using 70-200mm lenses with 2x teleconverters versus the native 400mm lenses also shot at f/5.6.

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  17. Daniel Carroll

    I recently rented the f5.6 to shoot the lunar eclipse. I used a 2x teleconverter too which made it f11. Which forced me to bump my ISO to around 5000 on my 5d MKiii. I would have gladly spent 8 times the RENTAL price to have had the 2.8 so that the use of the teleconverter wouldent have crippled me.

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    • Daniel Carroll

      But that’s just rental, I wouldent ever spend the money on that lens for purchase. Is pay the price for the 200-400 and have similar aperture performance and IS AND zoom ability.

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  18. Marco

    It all depends on what you want to get out of photography. Unfortunately quality as it relates to price does not follow the mathematical reasoning you use in the article. Two stops and the depth of field they create, especially at this focal length, is a huge advantage for professionals, something you will never get with the f5.6 lens. That makes f2.8 totally worth it.

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  19. Sean

    This review is pointless. Go shoot a night football game with a 400 f/5.6 and then get back to us about your lens preference.

    I’ve extensively used both the 400 f/5.6 and the 400 f/2.8. Each lens has its strengths and weaknesses. They have entirely different purposes and markets, and there isn’t all that much overlap. Judging that one lens is “better” than the other based on photos of a few birds in your backyard is just silly.

    On an unrelated note, you couldn’t post a photo of the EOS M mounted to the 400 f/2.8? Just for the giggles?

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    • Anthony Thurston

      Haha Sean, I’ll have a shot of the EOS-M on the 400 in the full 400mm review. Its actually quite funny.

      For the record, since you are the second person to say it was my backyard. These were shot at a local wildlife refuge. I agree, the F/2.8 is a better lens for night/low light shooting, but that was not the point of this comparison. Thanks for the comment!

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  20. Kinson

    The difference is massive. It isn’t 8x better but that’s not the point? Ever heard of diminishing returns?

    At the end of the day, you get what you pay for.

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    • Anthony Thurston

      Your definition and my definition of massive must be infinitely different…

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    • Kinson

      You need to look at the big picture. IQ is only a small part of the equation.

      Sharpness across the whole frame, rendering ability (both oof and in focused area), micro contrast, IS, 2 stops advantage, AF accuracy and speed are only a small part of why the 400 2.8 IS costs 8x more.

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    • Anthony Thurston

      I don’t disagree with that point Kinson, but this was not – as I mentioned in the post – an end all be all review. It was just a quick “can you tell the difference”comparison, with some added commentary about how in this situation the differences are not that huge. As you will see in my full review and comparison of the two, the 2.8 wins hands down in almost any situation, but the performance of the 5.6 makes it a worthy alternative to those who don’t have the funds or don’t need the performance for low light.

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    • Kinson

      Also the possibility to add a 2xTC and make it a 800 5.6 IS further justifies the cost.

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    • Kinson

      Well Anthony to answer your question in simplest way yes there is a difference, when one is working in a limited budget you have to compromise. I think most people already know that the 400 5.6 is a great starting birding/sports lens at a budget…..

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    • Anthony Thurston

      I appreciate that it may seem like that Kinson. But we have not covered the subject on our site before, and while it may seem obvious that the 5.6 is a good starter lens, we still get many questions asking about it. So I used this opportunity to show people the difference, simple as that. Thanks for the comments, your thoughts and feedback is always appreciated.

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  21. Simao

    I think that this a largely pointless comparison, you are not comparing an old used generic lens to an L canon lens, you are comparing two top of the line L lenses that have two different maximum apertures, if you compare them at the same aperture then there might be a point as the readers will find out how much better (or worse) the 400mm 2.8L is compared with 400mm 5.6L.

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  22. Mike

    Why don’t you photograph birds in flight on a dim evening and see which fares better. I suspect AF performance to be much better with the more expensive lens and 2.8 will give you more options in dim light.

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    • Mike

      My thoughts exactly. Even at a baseball game in good light you still need fast AF to get more keepers. Speed of focus acquisition should be much faster on the expensive lens.

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  23. Pahn

    Is everyone just plain ignoring the part where he said “everyday” shooting…. He’s not referring to which would be better in low light, high speed conditions.

    Learn to read.

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    • Alex

      What exactly is “everyday shooting”? Can’t imagine grabbing either 400mm to take on a stroll.

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    • Anthony Thurston

      Thanks Pahn. Indeed I was referring to daytime shooting, in daylight conditions. This could be an afternoon baseball game or a trip to the wildlife refuge. But I guess I didn’t explain that well enough.

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    • Trin

      If I had a 400mm 2.8, I would use it most every day at 2.8., not just in low light, high speed conditions, but just because I am a shallow DOF junkie!

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  24. Graeme

    The difference is apparent when shooting a football player 50 metres away at night under stadium lighting.
    Some would say the difference between having a job and not. Even when shooting with a 1dx and at 2.8, 8,000 ISO is not uncommon.
    In my opinion the 2.8 is definitely the professionals choice and 8x better is even modest.

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    • EJ

      You obviously have missed the point of the review. Its an image quality review not a useability review

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  25. Bill

    I think I’m even more impressed with howh well the EOS M compared with the 6D!

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  26. Robin

    Sometimes that last eight percent is worth the 8x difference.. sometimes. (do a sports photography comparison in low light, you’ll be cursing the slower lens while attempting to shoot)

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    • Anthony Thurston

      That may be true Robin. But that wasn’t the point of THIS comparison. In “everyday” daylight shooting, aka an afternoon baseball game or a trip to the wildlife refuge, the 5.6 holds up really well to the 2.8.

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    • Robin

      Right.. In this particular situation the IQ is pretty similar. It just depends on what you’re using the lens for whether it’s worth the price or not.. If you’re just using it to post family pics on Facebook then the price of the $1300 lens probably isn’t justified either.

      There are more aspects to a lens than simply IQ.. For most people that would be buying the more expensive lens, they’re not really paying for that last little bit of image quality, they’re paying for the other qualities that make the f/2.8 a better lens all around.

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  27. Daniel

    Why not compare the lenses at the same apeture, woudn’t that be a better comparison?

    I don’t think you exactly paying more for image quality as I’ve seen world class images from the 400 5.6. Your paying for the low light capabilities, focus speed, IS etc they are two totaly different lenses apart from the fact the both are 400mm.

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    • Anthony Thurston

      90% of the time you would be shooting these lenses wide open (especially in the case of the F/5.6), so in this particular case, I wanted to give a quick visual comparison of the two lenses wide open. My full review and comparison for each will be much more exhaustive.

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  28. Ito

    If you are going to shoot at f/5.6 then then maybe the 2.8L is 0.25x better. But if you want to shoot at f/2.8, then the 2.8L is 100x better. I don’t see the point in comparing them when they are so obviously different.

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    • Anthony Thurston

      The point is for people to see the difference. Not everyone has the knowledge or has seen the difference visually before. This is mostly for them (not that they will be thinking about buying a $11,500 lens).

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    • Richard

      Just remember, in my opinion of course….it doesn’t really matter that photographer notices the minor differences, it only matters if 99% of the people viewing it notices.

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    • Dale

      There was a time when the 2.8 was necessary for low light situations alone … early morning / late afternoon game viewing, some sporting scenarios … but the camera’s have improved so much in that area, that you can now just bump up the ISO without losing much to noise.
      Even the f4 lenses suffered the same problem, but now a 200-400 f4 offers far more flexibility for sports togs.
      You have to be really picky to find quality issue between the two, & certainly once you’ve run it through Lightroom the difference could be even less.

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  29. diane

    I am a rank amateur to photography and I can spot the difference. Yes it is 8 times better in my opinion if I had a choice without monetary considerations

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    • EJ

      Then you are most definitely not an amateur photographer. If you think it is ‘8’ times better then the rank for you would be ‘hopeless photographer’ sorry.

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    • Anthony Thurston

      Im glad you can tell the difference. But I have to tell you that I completely disagree about it being 8x better. But, to each their own I guess. :)

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    • Trin

      I’m pretty sure Diane was joking. On the other hand, when I compare photos I took between my D90 and my D800, the D800 is obviously 3 x better!

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    • Richard

      could you have notice the difference in image quality if both lenses weree set at the same aperture settings?

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    • KoKo Valadez

      Trin, did you factor in possibility of different lenses in that conclusion though? I only noticed lens changes with my DSLRs but did notice the difference when i went APS-C to FF. Of all the couple APS-C i used, I couldn’t tell much initial difference. (XTi , T1i, T2i and 7D)

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