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News & Insight

Dishing The Goods & Dispelling The Myths About Medium Format Cameras | Karl Taylor

By Kishore Sawh on December 6th 2015

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Unless you’ve been a patron of photography arts for some time, or have had formal education in photography, medium format cameras are typically a bit of an enigma. They’re enigmatic because across the spectrum of photographers amateur and pro, most will hardly ever see or hold a medium format camera, much less shoot or own one. They are the reserve of only a small portion of the professional market, for those who demand the utmost of their imagery, or have the most demanding clientele. So why are they so special, and why would a photographer use them?

To answer that you’d be best to hear from someone who uses them often, and in the video herein Karl Taylor offers about the best short explanation. In a rather broad but not ambiguous way, Taylor explains the primary physical differences between medium format and smaller format cameras like 35mm DSLRs, which fundamentally and foundationally is the sensor.

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He then continues to explain why the physical properties of that sensor dictates what the rest of the camera, and accessories like lenses, looks like, and why their performance parameters are so far greater than those of the SLRs most are used to.

There’s been much brouhaha in recent years that the high megapixel sensors found in cameras like the D810, Canon 5dSR, and Sony a7RII make the results of those cameras rival that of medium format, but this is only through certain metrics of measurement, and really, it’s just not the same. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen images I’ve loved, typically fashion or beauty, and tried to recreate the looks with high res cameras, only never to quite achieve the right nuanced look, and that’s because there’s more to a medium format system than the number of megapixels. The sheer physics makes sure of that.

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[REWIND: AN ILLUSTRATIVE GUIDE TO POPULAR LIGHT MODIFIERS (VIDEO)]

Have a look at the video and Karl will dispel certain myths about these curious systems, and offers up their advantages and their limitations. He says something in the early half though, that’s good to keep in mind, and that is regarding who and when these are typically used. If you or your client are looking for good enough, these aren’t for you, but rather for those who are, “needing to achieve the very best images for perfection driven clients, or for projects where image quality matters, then there will be no room for equipment compromise.”

Find more brilliant stuff from Karl here on his YouTube channel.

 

About

A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Stephen Glass

    @DUY-KHANG HOANG It seems to me there are specs, and then there’s the real world. In my audio days a $250 mic spec’d much the same as a Holy Grail AKG 414 or other german miracle. It didn’t sound the same that’s for sure.
    I really love this thread. I’m going to rent a MF in the next month or so and see what it’s all about. I don’t know if I can afford to buy one ever, but it’d be good for me, and many of us, to rent one. Get familiar with a brand and when a job comes up that would benefit you’re through that part of the learning curve.
    But going back to the specs for a moment. 16-bit is exponentially more information then 14-bit. Of course it’s logarithmic. I know when I’m shooting an interior or a backlit subject… some frame with a high dynamic range, I can see the difference between 12 and 14-bit. Nikon has the choice of the two on many bodies.
    Now I wish I could afford an MF camera. I’m thankful for my 2 D750s though. Are there instances when the MF might not matter? Yes probably for the majority of what I do. Even then I have no doubt MF would out perform my D750 in most respects. But it’s not going to give me a significant edge in my market place. And thank God for that eh? What’s entry point? $30 to $40K? That’s approaching my sum investment in DSLR gear and lighting gear.
    I’m an education junkee, I’m sweeping my studio and I’m listening to seminars and such. I’ve heard some commercial photogs say that some ad agencies require a photographer to shoot to specs. So perhaps the brief might say, “native RAW files shall be w x y dimensions…” This was in the context of a 5DS discussion.

    BUT “the times they are a changing” eh?

    I think Karl’s point is this. There are limiting factors that can’t be overcome. Physics. The size of the circle of confusion has bearing on the quality and resolution of glass. So that’s the distance between the lens plane and film plane.

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  2. Benn Raistrick

    I find myself frustrated with people who make comments on content, people asking for benchmarks and tests, and making comments on who sponsored the content, it’s ridiculous.

    First Point: You don’t use a sponge to hammer a nail.

    I shoot mainly 5D MKIII and would like eventually get a Hasselblad I have never shot medium format but I have a reason for wanting to switch.

    In Karls video he talks about the sensor size and how MF handles dynamic range, so it’s not all about mega pixels, which also means that f4 will not have the same bhoke as f4 on a 35mm camera. The leaf shutter system means no need for high speed sync, the lenses create less distortion when shooting at wider angles 24/35mm.

    Would I use MF for wedding’s or journalistic photography? No. Automotive, fashion, portrait? Yes.

    If we keep making comments about who sponsors the content then no more posts, or insights. Profoto, westcott, elencrom, canon, nikon put time into providing insights into methods, into teaching us to be great photographers, infact if we hate sponsored videos we should ditch all of Adoramas videos and SLR Lounge which promote a product. these are “businesses” imparting knowledge, so what they make money off it, without it we would never have access to all this knowledge because these videos take time to make, time away from running their businesses.

    I say stop moaning and appreciate what people like Karl Taylor, Pye Jirsa, Jarred Platt, Mark Wallace and so on do to help us learn more.

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    • Stephen Glass

      I agree. It’s all about context and what you’re using it for. I think for product photography it’s probably a must have for the big league.
      Hey in a perfect world I’d have a Hassleblad with a great back and a bunch of Profoto gear!

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  3. Stephen Glass

    Really, really interesting. He calls ISO 800 high ISO. That’s really interesting to me. It shows how our markets tend to pigeon hole us in some. ISO 10000 is high to me now if I’m shooting a wedding or something low light. I have not thought of ISO 800 as high since my D70 or d300

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    • Stan Rogers

      That really depends on how long you’ve been at it, I think. My brain still puts “ISO 800” and “colour” together in a way that adds up to “surveillance quality”, even when the picture is obviously something other. (True confessions time: I used it to create those artsy-fartsy “grainstorm” images in the late ’80s/early ’90s. I’m not proud of that.) It also needs to be said that both Hasselblad and PhaseOne artificially limit the top end. The CCDs really do start to fall apart if you go much higher than ISO 800 (CCDs are great if they get enough light, but their noise pattern is horrible and extremely hard to clean up — it looks like cross-stitching because of the bucket-brigade read method), so that makes a lot of sense. They also limit the CMOS sensor to ISO 6400, where Pentax has shown that you can still get a quite decent picture at ISO 25600 from the same Sony sensor (approximately the same as, say, ISO 6400 from a D810) and something usable with a little work a couple of stops higher. But yes, we’re talking about the difference between “taking” and “making” at a different level here: a commercial photographer usually has the luxury of lighting the heck out of everything, or of coming back tomorrow if the ambient conditions aren’t cooperating, where the wedding/event photographer always has to be able to make “now” work somehow (and often isn’t too concerned with how the picture will stand up as a 9- by 12-foot mural that people will be standing 3 feet away from in a boutique; the album’s the test, and anything that’ll print in an album will also print big on canvas). Different jobs; different tools required to carry them out.

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  4. Stephen Glass

    i think this is a great post and it’s great information. It does not diminish the information that it is advertorial. I’ve experienced this myself in chasing ever increasing megapixels. It’s a fool’s errand on a DSLR. It costs you ISO. My D800 SUCKED in low light in every respect. It cost me assignments to realize that. Physics is a limiting factor. I’m now happy with my 2 D750 bodies. But there is always a limiting factor and the medium format is a different camera. It’s not necessarily a better camera depending on the task at hand. Like everything in photography “it depends”. I would love a med format for my portrait work. On my budget I need something that can do editorial and low light as well.

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  5. Mark Henry Dela Torre

    The best thing about medium format cameras are they are modular. So upgrading is not that expensive. You can upgrade the sensor, the body, or the lense. If they apply this to 35mm cameras, it would be great. If you like the body and the controls you don’t have to change it, just the sensor. If you want to upgrade the sensor then upgrade just that one. I think Ricoh tried to do this but failed because they made the sensor and lense into one unit.
    This will be my dream device. A modular camera. Grips and body design from Fuji, sensors from Sony, then lenses from Leica. All upgradable by modular parts.

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  6. Mark Romine

    All that needs to be said is: Dishing The Goods & Dispelling The Myths About Medium format Cameras = 16 bit capture. It certainly doesn’t have to be done with a Hasselblad.

    If you have never shot or at least looked at 16 bit files then you just can’t appreciate this. It’s not just about greater resolution but it’s more about color and tonal transitions without getting banding. Do you need this if you are a wedding or portrait shooter, no.

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    • Kishore Sawh

      I’d broadly agree there Mark. Wedding shooters would be quite atypical if they were to use an MF system. Portraits on the other hand…Well, I sure as hell don’t NEED it for my portrait work, but I would like it at times…

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    • Duy-Khang Hoang

      I’d actually be inclined to strongly disagree with your post. The majority of the 16bits captured that sits above the typical 12-14bits is mostly noise. The reason MF went with 16 bits in the past was due to their being a niche product and as such they had to make do with off the shelf components to do their processing. There weren’t any 14bit chips at the time so they went with 16bits, that’s all there really is to it, that it also helps them with their marketing using bigger numbers doesn’t hurt either. Note the Hasselblad H5D-50C, Phase One IQ250 and Pentax 645z medium format cameras all use the same Sony sensor with on chip ADC. Only the Hasselblad claims 16bit whilst the other two spec 14bits, do you honestly believe that Hasselblad somehow knows more than Sony about how to extract 16bits of data out of an imaging pipeline that only records 14bits? Of course not, they just added 2 bits of noise to the capture.
      If you want to distill the benefit of medium format over smaller formats into a single factor, it would be “magnification”. Sounds obvious but it’s sometimes lost in the mess of all the other specs. The video in this post makes some very good points (as well as some not so good points) about the advantages, but the true advantages all come down to magnification. e.g. Lens design is easier when you are designing for larger formats since you don’t have to make the lens resolve down to the tiny pixel pitches of a smartphone camera for instance. For the same resolution, you can get away with a less sharper lens (per area). Halving the sensor height requires a lens twice as sharp to produce the same image. Each time you attempt to make a lens sharper, you have to design a lens that is more corrected. Each correction results in compromises to the lens rendering since sharper does not discriminate between in focus and out of focus. This relaxed lens restriction on medium format sensors is what is responsible for the smoother bokeh transitions that you mention. The smoother tonal transitions again is a result of larger surface area since their is a limit to how cleanly we can capture light at various wavelengths (there is a video by Eric Fossum, father of the CMOS sensor, which suggests we’ve well exceeded that point already). Of course the smaller photosites have the advantage of oversampling so it’s not a total loss. The other features mentioned like high resolution is not an exclusive advantage (just manufacturing), the pixel shift tech also has been implemented in Olympus and Pentax cameras so not unique to hasselblad/MF. As for the leaf shutter advantage, that is a true advantage of MF, though with a limit of 1/1600s compared to 1/8000s with HSS. The other problem is of course the high sync speeds also equals the max shutter speeds so if you need to freeze motion beyond the shutter speed of the lens, you are out of luck.

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    • Mark Romine

      @ DUY-KHANG HOANG

      Interesting comments about MF camera makers fudging or interpolating data above the 12/14 bit level. How do you know this and what is your source for backing up such comments? I’m interested in knowing/learning?

      Principally it sounds like you are saying that the main reason for MF files having smoother tonal and color transitions is because the lenses used with MF cameras do not have the same resolving power or sharpness that smaller formats have? Therefore, they are creating a smoother bokeh by smudging or smearing the pixels?

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    • Duy-Khang Hoang

      @Mark Romine
      I’m not sure if we can post links in the comment section so the best I can do is point you towards the paper “Noise, Dynamic Range and Bit Depth in Digital SLRs” by Emil Martinec (there are many copies floating around the web, original was from the uchicago edu website). For additional reading that may be a bit more digestible, check out Bill Claff’s website Photons to Photos, or seek out postings by Marianne Oelund.
      Just to clarify, I’m not suggesting that MF manufacturers are padding the captures with noise, more that their sensors cannot capture 16bits of actual signal data, there is too much noise for that. According to Bill Claff, 14bit ADC can capture up to 15.79 stops of dynamic range, so until we go beyond that value, there is no inherent advantage to using 16bits of capture information. There are however disadvantages since it requires more computing power thus slowing down captures and draining battery life.
      Regarding lenses, you have worded it such that it sounds like I am saying MF lenses are not very good :D apologies if I wasn’t clear enough. It’s more complicated than what I have posted of course, and it would be easier if you don’t think of it in pixel terms, but more in how you have to focus the light. My main point was that magnification is the main advantage of larger formats over smaller formats. MF lenses are very good for their intended purpose, they aren’t designed to be pixel level sharp on a 20mp phone camera sensor. As Karl Taylor mentioned in the video, lenses for larger senses are easier to design than ones for smaller sensor cameras. The trade-off of course is that they are more expensive due to having to have such a large amount of glass which is expensive. As you shrink the sensor size, you reduce the amount of glass exponentially, this reduced glass volume allows you to use more exotic glass to make up for the smaller pixel pitch. There are diminishing returns on either side of course.

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  7. Ray Mas

    Thanks Kishore. MF will only make sense to those who are always pushing the limit and (like Karl said) who are the most demanding consumers of photography. MF photography (like Leica, Broncolor, Briese, Zeiss, etc.) is not for those who are only interested in bang for buck. Yes, MF might offer only 20% improvement for a 500% cost (for the sake of illustration), but that is not the point. The point is that there is a higher level achievable, and there are people out there who appreciate the possibilities. I recently had a similar experience with lighting gear. I am just an amateur trying to scrape for my first lighting equipment, but got the opportunity to rent out a Profoto B2 set and was blown away by how easy lighting could be compared to speed-lights I had used before. Without even going into the light quality and power it offers, I could immediately understand it’s value. Regarding the article title and the blatant Hasselblad promotion, I believe the point was that this video has real information for those interested in MF and particularly those wondering if it’s worth the price of admission compared to 35mm gear. I’ve learnt that I really have to use it myself before I dismiss it based on “specs” or price or anyone else’s blind tests.

    I truly agree with your comment Kishore: Once you see the point, good luck unseeing it! And this applies to many things. Always enjoy the topics of your articles.

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Thank you for the kind words Ray. If you’ve never shot MF, there are some design schools and even some university photography programs that use these systems as part of the syllabus. Sometimes it’s possible to audit these classes without cost (though of course no credit given), and you may be able to give it a go. I actually suggest using local educational institutions for other photo experiences too, such as darkroom experience. Cheers Ray.

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  8. John Cavan

    Being a Pentax fan, I’ve been drooling over the 645D line for some time. However, given that I’m an amateur doing it for fun, even I can’t justify the MF uplift in price. There is a difference in look, I’ll grant, but I’m just not convinced that it’s meaningful. Given that the vast majority of the images taken with these are aimed at the consumer market, via magazines and advertising, I’ve yet to see real evidence that the average consumer can see, or care, about the difference.

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Hi John, I truly believe it’s one of those things where you’ve got to use it to see, and that this is certainly not something aiming to please the average consumer. I can equate it to putting you in studio with Elinchrom or Broncolor lights (not that they’re at all equatable), and then with a Briese system. You may not be able to see or care about the differences, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there and aren’t meaningful to some. And if you’ve been drooling over a 645D, I’d reckon that when you start on that system (sending positive energy your way), you’ll be looking for the differences, and then you’ll see them. Once you do…good luck unseeing them.

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  9. Paul Reiffer

    Disappointingly misleading headline.

    This isn’t “DISPELLING THE MYTHS ABOUT MEDIUM FORMAT CAMERAS”, this is a “Hasselblad sales pitch by Karl Taylor”.

    IF you’re going to reference a “system” for an objective assessment, the content should be about the system (medium format), independently of a specific manufacturer. Otherwise, please in future mark such articles/videos as the advertising they really are so people can choose not to waste their time.

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Hi Paul, the headline suits some and not others. If you’re brandishing a medium format camera of your own and are well versed in the gear, then agreed this is but a scratch of the surface. However, there are hordes that will and do find this information useful. In addition, your notion that this is a waste of time is certainly your own opinion that you’re entitled to, but I can assure you there are people who can and will disregard the superfluous in this video and be able to see what the ‘meat’ of it actually is – seeing that most of what he has said is applicable to other MF systems.

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    • Paul Reiffer

      Then simple – don’t badge it up as an informative article. Sorry, but this isn’t a case of “the headline suits some and not others” – it is 100% INACCURATE. This isn’t a form of journalism/story, this is a promo video for Hasselblad.
      Don’t sell apples as oranges. End of story.

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Paul, I’m not selling anything, and incidentally, it is possible to learn from a promotional video. You say he information is entirely inaccurate? Part of me would like to agree with you to help soothe the nerves of yours that seem so burned, but there’s just no point in us both being wrong. At the end of the day, it’s not all that serious. Be well.

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    • Max C

      Point is SLRlounge gets paid to promote some products, that is why they defend it so much when it gets called out. This website belongs to SLRlounge and they can post any type of article that they want without any disclaimers. Just read everything with a grain of salt because they have to pay the bills too.

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  10. Paul Nguyen

    I agree with this just sounding like an ad for Hasselblad. People can harp on about the “medium format look” all they want, but I really want to see some blind trials.

    Series of two pictures, one taken with a quality 35mm system, e.g. a Nikon D810 and Zeiss Otus and one taken with a Hasselblad or Phase One MF. See if even the most experienced photographers can distinguish between them with a > 50% success rate.

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    • Paul Reiffer

      As someone who shoots with Phase One, Canon *and* Nikon, I can assure you there is a noticeable difference, which is obvious when you start using medium format.
      Give it a try – you might be surprised yourself.

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    • Lauchlan Toal

      It would definitely be an interesting test. I suspect that you’d need massive prints to really judge it though – at web sizes the difference won’t be nearly as noticeable if there is one, just like full frame vs. APS-C or DSLR vs. iPhone. For work that isn’t selling prints or shooting commercial projects, you’d almost never need such large files, so it really doesn’t matter to that many people anyway.

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    • Paul Nguyen

      That’s exactly my point Lauchlan!

      Exactly how many people print massive mural prints large enough to take advantage of the increases in resolution? I’d hazard a guess and say not many.

      Even with selling prints, I’m sure that the pixel density of modern sensors already exist what printers are able to print from a DPI perspective (I may be wrong), but given that the way we view most of our pictures is on screen, remember that even a 4K screen is only 8MP, so even full-screen with high quality files, we’re never seeing all of the captured data anyway.

      Here’s an interesting article that I think we all should pay attention to – http://blog.mingthein.com/2014/08/24/can-you-tell-the-difference/

      It reflects something that is very real – we often harp on about this look or that look, but in reality, very little of it is discernible even to the trained eye.

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Paul, it’s understandable that you would want blind trials, maybe. But the “very little of it is discernible even to the trained eye,’ suggests that you’re putting the produce of this format as something for the masses, when it, in fact, is not. It’s like many another thing of quality and ability; you may not ‘get it’ and that’s ok, but I assure you there are others that do. These aren’t systems for everyone, but for those who can see and appreciate the difference.

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    • Paul Reiffer

      Have you shot, personally, using Medium Format systems (Hasselbad or otherwise), Kishore?

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    • Paul Reiffer

      (intentional spelling ;) )

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    • Paul Nguyen

      Blind trials are what matters because many people say they can discern certain things when, in fact, they cannot.

      This reminds me of back in the day when ‘audiophiles’ would claim to be able to hear the difference in expensive gold-plated speaker cables, but when put in a blind trial situation, they only managed to get it right about 50% of the time (which means it’s about as good as a blind guess).

      So ultimately, this is what I am interested in. Plenty of people say they can see the difference, perhaps to justify to themselves that they made a good investment, but the way I see it is that until I can see the difference for myself, I will be skeptical.

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  11. Ralph Hightower

    Sorry Hasselblad, yes, I want to get a medium format camera; actually two! A Mamiya 645 and a Mamiya RZ67. Each has their own uses and purposes. I’d use the 645 when I wanted a longer reach with the 6×4.5 versus the 6×7 format, much like APS versus full frame 35mm. I just need to convince my wife that I want these two camera systems; but I need to add telephoto to my 5D.

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  12. Danny Rivera

    You always find and publish great content. Thanks.

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    • Kishore Sawh

      No thanks needed Danny. I’m glad you find it useful or at least of interest. Cheers

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  13. Frk W

    It felt like such an ad piece Karl has done for Hassie when me and my friends were watching it :/

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    • Kishore Sawh

      It’s hard for me to regard it that way. The offerings for medium format aren’t nearly as plentiful as the more typical types, and Hasselblad* is pretty much the standard. That he should be using this system as a base for explanation makes sense, regardless of whether he was sponsored for it. The explanation about the format too was good, no matter the branding on the body.

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    • Pye

      I think the information is fantastic. It is obviously a Hassie sponsored piece, but the information is solid and accurate. In addition, Hasselblad really is the pinnacle of medium format. There is a difference between medium format and 35mm, its small and nuanced, but it is there and this video does a great job covering it. Great find Kish!

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