Tag Archives: Tips

The Canadian Men’s Chorus

I sing (tenor) with the Orpheus Choir of Toronto. When you sing with a community choir, one of the expectations is that if you have gifts (quite apart from your voice) you will place them at the choir’s disposal to contribute to its success as an organization. And so I am called upon, now and again, to show up with my camera. It’s given me occasion to think about the mechanics of shooting both choral groups and individual choristers. However, I haven’t been able to put my thoughts into practice, at least not in a concert setting with Orpheus, because it’s hard to sing and shoot at the same time. Fortunately, in the last few years, there has been an explosion of high quality choral groups in the Toronto area. With that has come a corresponding explosion in demand for choral photography.

I’ve recently had the pleasure of working with the Canadian Men’s Chorus as they update their promotional material. The CMC is in its sixth season, with Greg Rainville as artistic director and Arlene Jillard as manager.

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Here are some thoughts about shooting choirs, by no means exhaustive:

This is NOT wedding photography.

If you expect to shoot a group of people standing static on risers and smiling for your camera, you’ll be shooting something that looks like a choir, but it won’t be a choir. Choirs are anything but static. Sometimes, I think choirs are dance ensembles that happen to sing. Choral music engages the whole body.* There are the obvious things: the lungs, the tongue, the palate, the lips, the face. But the feeling radiates out from there. The body sways with the rhythm. Feet tap to the beat. The whole spirit vibrates and, if it’s a good choir, those vibrations start to move the audience too.

Sometimes, body movement is deliberate, as illustrated by the shot below where the CMC sings the world premiere of “Boots (Infantry Columns)”, Don MacDonald’s TTBB setting of a Rudyard Kipling poem about infantrymen on the march. Footsteps (and snare drum) supplement the work’s martial character.

Think of shooting choirs as more like street photography than wedding photography. You’re looking for that decisive moment—a facial expression, a meeting of eyes, a sway in the body as the music transports the singer.

(In fairness, good wedding photography is not wedding photography either.)

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Respect the performer’s dignity.

My second observation flows naturally from the first. Shooting choristers as they sing can be a lot like shooting people as they chew on their food. When singers work to give their words clarity, they contort their faces. Captured as stills, the resulting expressions can be unflattering, or even frightening. Shoot continuously through a range of motions, keep whatever works, discard the rest. Better yet, wait for held notes when the face isn’t doing a lot of weird things.

Related to that is eye contact. In a perfect world, all choristers watch the conductor all the time. When still photos catch a chorister with their nose buried in the score, it’s incriminating evidence. A flattering photo is one that captures the chorister staring attentively at the conductor with smiling eyes. Yes, smiling eyes. As I am learning from my own choral experience, eyes that smile help to produce a brighter sound.

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Community choirs aren’t church choirs.

I can’t speak for Europe, but in North America, community choirs have a branding challenge. They are secular organizations heavily reliant on funding from secular sources (government & charitable foundations), and many (including both Orpheus and the CMC) are committed to commissioning new works that reflect the huge cultural shift from sacred to secular that engulfs us all. At the same time, unless a choir can pack a large concert hall, the best venues are churches. Acoustically, most churches are designed to amplify the sonorities of a choir. They also serve well as mid-sized concert venues. The problem is: they’re full of religious paraphernalia.

The challenge for the photographer is: you’ve been asked to photograph a secular organization, but all your images end up with religious symbols and churchy-looking architecture in the background. There are workarounds but no perfect solutions. One technique is to use a shallow depth of field to make the background blurry. This is fine for blurring out small crosses and whatnot, but never really eliminates obvious architectural features like gothic arches. A second technique is to fill the frame with individual choristers, which is fine but never answers the challenge of shooting the entire ensemble. A third technique is to clone out sacred details in your favourite image editing software. Effective, but labour intensive.

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Choristers in community choirs are like superheroes.

During the day, they go about their ordinary lives. Working. Going to school. Making meals. Caring for children. Picking up poop after their dogs. But when the sun goes down, they assume a new identity. They put on gowns and bow ties. Or if they’re off to rehearsal, they fill their water bottles and sharpen their pencils. Like superheroes, their involvement in community choirs is voluntary. That means their time is limited. It’s difficult to gather them all for a dedicated photoshoot. Instead, you most likely have to shoot at times when the choir is already gathered. Rehearsals and concerts. The problem with shooting during rehearsals and concerts is that choirs already have something to do: rehearse and perform. Artistic directors have things they want to accomplish during rehearsals. Those things are musical, not photographic. It’s important for the photographer not to interfere with those aims.

Yes, get your shot, but be unobtrusive. Don’t get in the way of sight lines. Turn the camera to silent mode so it doesn’t make beeps when you release the shutter. In performance, time the shutter release to moments when the choir is singing forte so your clicks don’t disturb the audience. Wear quiet shoes and dark clothes. Show up early for the performance so you can catch the choir warming up. That way, you can get “performance” shots (i.e. the choir singing in concert dress) from positions you wouldn’t be able to occupy during the actual performance.

Catch the next concert of the Canadian Men’s Chorus on May 7th 2016: On Growing Up.

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* People who know me and how stiff I can be may find this amusing. Treat my writing as aspirational. It reflects an ideal, not something I actually accomplish.

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Visual Hygiene

Last night, I went to a clinic in the suburbs for a sleep study. I rode the subway and got out at Leslie Station just before my 9 pm appointment. Leslie and Sheppard is one of those big suburban intersections where cars rule and pedestrians are an afterthought. My head was in a different space. I’d been reading a poetry journal and couldn’t make the switch to the more prosaic task of crossing the street. The light changed before I was halfway across and I had to run. My boots crunched on the salt. The road was slick and reflected the headlights beaming through the darkness.

This is my fourth sleep study, a followup to make sure everything is fine. My first—the one where I was diagnosed with sleep apnea—was 16 or 17 years ago. My current CPAP machine (which makes me look like one of those Giger-inspired creatures from Alien) is 11 years old and has logged more than 22,000 hours of use. I find that shocking. That’s 22,000 hours when I’ve failed to be a productive contributor to the global economy. Instead, I’ve spent time refreshing myself and dreaming. I’m so irresponsible.

I suffer a clinical loneliness during these studies. You sit in a cramped stark room while a technician daubs putty all over your head then sticks wires into the putty and tapes them in place. Then you have to lie back on the bed while the technician performs a series of baseline tests. “Blink ten times,” he says through the futzy intercom. He’s sitting at a computer terminal in another room and watching you through a camera hanging from the ceiling. “Cough three times. Point your left foot down, then flex it. Move your eyeballs up and down, up and down. Now side to side, side to side.”

The last time I did this, there was a man in the next room who snored like a tractor and when he wasn’t snoring he was buzzing the technician to help him unplug his wires so he could go for a pee. I had a miserable sleep and, the next morning, rode home on the subway like I’d been out all night on a bender. It could have been worse; I could have been him. The time before that, I met a girl who looked like Drew Barrymore. I stepped into the room while she was having wires stuck into the daubs of putty. She looked up at me, smiled, and fell asleep. She functioned like she was a hundred and three.

This morning, the technician opened the door and flipped the light switch. I raised an arm like I was defending myself against an assault. Once I’d adjusted to the light, I noticed, for the first time, a print of a painting that hung on the wall above my feet. It was the only adornment in an otherwise bare room. It was a “realistic” painting of a maritime scene: ocean, rocky shore, green grass above the rocks, lighthouse, rainbow, and bald eagles. The colours were gaudy. The horizon line cut straight through the middle of the scene. It was sentimental. It was kitschy. It was worse than the light switch. I raised an arm like I was defending myself against an assault.

It reminds me (of at least one of the reasons) why I spend so much time with a camera. I feel like King Canute declaring war against a rising tide of visual garbage.

Cycling in snow flurries

Cycling in snow flurries

There’s a phrase I learned, probably after my first sleep study when I went back to the clinic to get outfitted with a CPAP machine. The RT (respiratory therapist) spoke to me about sleep hygiene. I’ve always been a fan of the Buddha whose principal claim is that he wanted people to be awake. I think the Buddha was talking about a spiritual state, but he could have been speaking literally, too. You can meditate until your toes fall off, but it won’t amount to anything if you’re dozing with your head between your knees. So I practise sleep hygiene.

By analogy, I think there is visual hygiene. I have lofty aims. I want to SEE the world. I want to see in a way that isn’t distorted by my own situatedness in it. Or, at the very least, I want to see in a way that is aware of its distortions. But sometimes that seems an impossible task. Every day my eyes are assaulted by a barrage of images. Advertising. Facebook memes. Glossy magazine spreads. Instagram posts. Book covers. Traffic signs. Instructional manuals. Cheesy prints on clinic walls. I swim in their culture. I swallow their meanings. I become desensitized to visual garbage. I lose my ability to distinguish one thing from another.

Desensitization and the inability to distinguish modes of seeing are distinctively postmodern experiences. I don’t think we need to evaluate them. As experiences, they are neither good nor bad; they simply are. However, these experiences should alert us to the risk of overwhelm. Psychologically, we aren’t designed to cope with the barrage of imagery that screams for our attention, just as we aren’t designed to cope with perpetual wakefulness. We need time to tune out, turn off, recuperate.

My experience with a camera engages me in intense seeing, but it also shields me from the risk of overwhelm. The very fact that I can frame a scene gives me a measure of control over it. I can eliminate excess detail and focus attention. I can use depth of field, cropping, desaturation, black & white conversion, and mindful curation to accomplish the same thing. Using a camera also helps me to hone my visual literacy so I can reacquaint myself with the habit of distinguishing one thing from another. Finally, as a practical matter, whenever I’m looking through a viewfinder, I’m not staring at advertising, Facebook memes, cheesy prints on clinic walls.

I’d love to write more, but I had a horrible sleep last night and I need a nap.

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Ode To Spot

In the 6th season of Star Trek TNG there is an episode called “Schisms” in which Data delivers a poetry reading. While he recites an ode to his cat, Spot, listeners squirm in their seats.* Data has enough insight to recognize that his poetry makes people feel awkward, but not enough insight to understand why. After the poetry reading is over, Data coaxes Geordi La Forge to explain things to him. Data understands all the formal properties of a poem—metre, rhyme, stanzas, specific formats like sonnets and odes—but he hasn’t the slightest idea what a poem is for or what effect it’s supposed have on a listener. His intelligence is like the intelligence of a person with Asperger’s Syndrome—formal intelligence without emotional grounding.

Cat & Owner

I think a lot of photography (including a lot of my own) is the sort of photography Data might make if he ever decided to wander through the Enterprise with a Nikon D810 or a Canon 5DS slung around his neck. He would have a grasp of all the formal properties that contribute to a good photograph. He’d know all the “rules” about focus, depth of field, white balance, saturation and composition. And he’d have instant access to all the great photos shot by masters of the discipline. All of the hardware, rules, and historical knowledge would allow him to make technically correct images. But so what? Without more, those images would be the visual equivalent of his Ode To Spot.

In an age when it’s increasingly easy to make technically “perfect” images, it’s correspondingly easy to be complacent about whether or not those images do what images are supposed to do. Do our images merely allay anxieties around formal requirements? Or do they satisfy deeper needs? While the two are not mutually exclusive, there are many photographs that move us deeply even though they are deeply “flawed”. I think it would be an accomplishment to make even one such photograph.

A flawed photo.

A flawed photo.

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*Felis Cattus, is your taxonomic nomenclature,
an endothermic quadruped, carnivorous by nature?
Your visual, olfactory and auditory senses
contribute to your hunting skills, and natural defenses.

I find myself intrigued by your subvocal oscillations,
a singular development of cat communications
that obviates your basic hedonistic predilection
for a rhythmic stroking of your fur, to demonstrate affection.

A tail is quite essential for your acrobatic talents;
you would not be so agile if you lacked its counterbalance.
And when not being utilized to aide in locomotion,
it often serves to illustrate the state of your emotion.

O Spot, the complex levels of behaviour you display
connote a fairly well-developed cognitive array.
And though you are not sentient, Spot, and do not comprehend,
I nonetheless consider you a true and valued friend.

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Why did I shoot yet another fucking cliché?

This morning my alarm went off at 5:00. I remember setting it last night. My night self was pulling a prank on my morning self. My night self told my morning self that getting up at 5:00 is good for you. That’s when you get all the good shots. Plus: getting up is good for body and soul. Think of Benjamin Franklin: healthy, wealthy and wise. Yeah, my morning self sneers, fat lot of good early rising did him; he’s dead. I turn off the alarm and roll over but I can’t get back to sleep. Fine, my morning self says to my night self, have it your way. I pack my gear, eat a banana, and fill a thermos with hot coffee.

My night self had the vague intention of plopping my morning self on the slope of Riverdale East Park and watching the sun rise over the city. Because it’s nearly two hours until sunrise when I step onto the street, my morning self supplements that plan with another vague intention: taking shots of the Bloor Viaduct. Since the Pan Am Games, the Luminous Veil has been lit up with coloured lights that moved along the length of the bridge. I catch the first train to Broadview Station and set myself up on the east end of the bridge. There are cloudy wisps in the sky and they turn the full moon into a diffuse ball of light hovering in the west. Light trails seem like a good thing to shoot, but afterwards, as I’m packing up my tripod, I remember that everyone and his dog shoots light trails. The world needs more light trails about as badly as it needs more Facebook memes.

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Blogging Photography – 1st Anniversary

Today marks the first anniversary of my first post on this blog. More than 200 posts later, I find myself in a reflective mood. Here are a few random (and eerily interrelated) observations which may be of use to fellow photographers, but more generally to anyone engaged in an artsy pursuit.

1. Discipline

The act of posting things on a regular basis gives a self-imposed discipline to your work. The world won’t come crashing down if you miss a self-imposed deadline, but missing it on a blog does provide a sense of public accountability. If you’re like me (i.e. a bit OCD), it will goad you to do more.

Reflection from polished granite, Avenue Road, Toronto

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Canon 5DS Sample Images

It seems everyone who has their hands on a 5DS has been posting samples so people can download giant image files (50 megapixels) to see how giant an image file can get. I’ll offer a couple images here (just to get it out of my system), then side step the whole giant image thing which, after all, is nothing more than a photographic pissing contest.

Here you go. Image #1 is an early morning shot of Toronto’s skyline as viewed from Governor’s Hill overlooking the Evergreen Brickworks. I used a Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art lens. ISO 100, f 8.0, 1/60.

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I’ve also attached a 564 x 846 pixel swatch from the above image so you can see the level of detail possible when an image is viewed at %100 resolution on a monitor.

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A few things are immediately apparent. First, if you inspect photos at %100 on a computer monitor, you’ll end up thinking most of your images are garbage. Even the slightest shake produces blurred pixels. The old rule about minimum shutter speed (i.e. for hand-held shooting, your minimum shutter speed should be the inverse of your focal length) gets tossed out the window. With a 50 megapixel sensor, clarity on a pixel by pixel basis is impossible without a good tripod. That said, when you DO achieve that level of clarity, the result is amazingly crisp. After my first day out with the 5DS, I was getting images that pop in a way I’ve never been able to achieve with my Mark III. Download a full size (8688 x 5792) jpg here.

Image #2 is a graffiti-covered trestle that crosses the Don River. I used the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L USM at 70mm. ISO 100, f/11, 1/50. Download a full size jpg here.

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The second thing that is immediately apparent is that images become grainier at lower ISO settings than with the Mark III. Maximum ISO on the 5DS is 12800 whereas on the Mark III it’s 102400. Simply put: the 5DS doesn’t perform well in low light. That’s another argument for using a tripod. For best results, shoot in the ISO 100-400 range and slow everything down.

Now let’s side step that pissing contest. One of the great advantages of the 5DS is NOT the size of the image it produces, but the huge amount of play it offers in terms of cropability (is that even a word?). If you’re a purist who believes everything should happen in camera, then you may want to ignore everything else in this post. But if you believe it’s okay sometimes to reserve framing and composition considerations until post production, then read on. The 5DS is your friend.

Take my 3rd image as an example:

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I shot this hand held with Canon’s EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens. ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/80. Because damselflies are easily spooked, I stood back a discreet distance & subsequently cropped the image to 5760 x 3840. The reason for those dimensions is that they are identical to the Mark III’s maximum image size. I simply wanted to demonstrate that I can sacrifice nearly 60% of the image and still end up with something printable to the size of a large painting.

Here’s a more extreme example:

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Also shot hand held with the Macro lens, I’ve cropped this fly to 3093 x 2062. While the resulting image can’t fill a wall (& who would want it to?) nevertheless, I could print it at a high quality resolution on a letter-sized sheet of paper.

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7 (non-photographic) things you can do to improve your photography

The following are suggestions (not prescriptions) and are highly personal. They reflect what I would describe as an emerging philosophy of seeing and engagement with the world. In particular, I preach a holistic gospel of photography: photography works in service of the whole person. For that reason, the whole person needs to be enlisted in the service of photographic practice. That’s why seemingly irrelevant activities might benefit, and even improve, your photography.

1. Meditate

By meditation, I don’t mean that you should embark on an elaborate pilgrimage to a Tibetan monastery. I mean something simpler. Breathing. Mindfulness. The work of becoming awake. The discipline of meditation can provide the foundations for a discipline of seeing. You walk down a street and are more alive to the visual possibilities that present themselves. You may have walked down the same street a hundred times, but because you have become habituated to that walk, you cease to notice the wonder of its particularity. It’s as if you are sleepwalking. The thisness of its place and time have vanished. Wake up!

Time to wake up!

Time to wake up!

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Yes You Can Break A Carbon Fiber Tripod

Another gear mishap. The last time was a lens dropped on gravel with a scratch that rendered it unusable. This time, it was a broken tripod. On Monday, I was up to my wazoo in snow as I tramped through the sugar bush at Williams Farm (see yesterday’s photos). I was trying to get early morning shots of sap lines through the trees. The problem with setting up a tripod in snow is that it’s hard to find a stable base. That problem is compounded late in the season by the fact that the snow is dense and compacted. I was ramming my tripod through the crusty layers to find the ground. But once I hit the ground, I couldn’t open the legs. So I tried ramming the tripod into the snow with the legs slightly apart. The idea was that, as I shoved the tripod down, the legs would splay further into an open position. Seemed like a good idea. I shoved down and heard a loud crack like a branch or a bone breaking, but the only pain I felt was in my hip near my wallet. One of the legs had cracked lengthwise along the grain of the fiber.

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A couple takeaways from this experience:

1) When the salesperson tells you your carbon fiber tripod will be the last tripod you buy, don’t believe them (unless you’re really dainty with your gear).

2) When shooting in snow, don’t be impatient. Spend some time tamping the snow down with your boots before setting up your tripod.

3) Always have some duct tape on hand. I could still have gotten a few shots if I’d had some duct tape in my pack.

And, in case you were wondering, yes, I replaced it the next day with the same tripod – a Manfrotto O55. It’s an awesome piece of gear.

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Shooting Into The Light

The rule of thumb is: shoot with the sun to your back. It’s a good rule. It means your subjects are well lit and your colours are more saturated. You don’t have weird lens flares or washed out subjects. And yet, sometimes, rules need to be broken. For one thing, if your shooting is determined by a few simple rules, one image will start to look like all your others. Here are a few shots I took into the sun just to change things up.

The first shot is kind of a cliché. It’s the steeple of the San Francisco de Asis Mission in Taos, New Mexico. I was going for all the flare I could get. (Tip: don’t use your view-finder when you point at the sun or your could damage your eyes. Set up your shot using the LCD screen.)

San Francisco de Asis Mission

I took the next shot facing west from St. James Cemetery in the late afternoon. I held my hand above the lens hood. The shadow of my hand reduced the glare.

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Slow Shooting

Have you heard of the slow reading movement? Among those who cultivate literary appreciation, there’s a growing push-back against the instant-on digital environment that treats readers as consumers and books as commodities to be gobbled up as quickly as possible so that consumers can move on to the next product. Slow reading is about savouring the moment and making yourself present enough to the words on the page that you can sense their nuance. Advocates of the movement say that it heightens the reading experience. I wonder if the same thing is also possible – maybe necessary – in photography. Digital cameras make it easy to take hundreds of exposures at a time while incurring little or no expense (except the expenditure of time needed to sort through them). Gone are the days of hiking to a location with a couple photographic plates in your pack and only those two chances to get your shot. Now there are no limitations on your resources. The problem, though, is that such convenience may make us complacent when it comes time to do the real work of our craft – the work of looking closely at a scene and applying our visual imaginations to the creation of an image. Maybe we need to slow down. Maybe we need to discipline ourselves by pretending we have only one or two chances to get the shot.

With this in mind, I tried an experiment. A while back, I had seen a drain pipe that empties into Yellow Creek. Rust from the pipe has discoloured the rock where the water splashes, turning it a bright orange. I took a shot of it before, but wasn’t happy with the result. So I thought to myself: I should go back, but this time, I should approach it slowly, methodically, breathe deeply. So, here, I document how I proceeded:

First off, I found a stable place to set up my tripod. I was going to use my 70-200 mm f 2.8 lens, which is fairly heavy, so there can’t be any shake. Next, I remembered to put on my mirror lock and pull out my remote shutter release. These two steps go hand-in-hand with setting up the tripod. They’re aimed at keeping shake to minimum. Then I lined things up and took a test shot. Here’s the result:

Drain Pipe

The reason for the test shot was to get the focus right. You see, if I really take slow shooting seriously, then I have to slow things way down. That means using an ND64 filter, which slows things down by 6 f-stops. Sometimes, autofocus doesn’t work with a neutral density filter because it doesn’t let in enough light for the camera to detect the correct distance. So, after the test shot, I switched to manual focus and screwed on the filter. At f-16, I set the shutter to 30 seconds. This was the result:

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The colour is a little more saturated, but you can’t see that in a small jpg like this. Really, the only difference you can see is in the water pouring from the pipe. It has that silkiness that comes from a long exposure.

slow-shooting-drain-pipe-3I’m not done yet. Taking the shot is only half the story. The next step was to import the RAW file into Adobe Lightroom where I applied a lens correction, upped the clarity, vibrance and saturation, and adjusted highlights and blacks. You can see the settings I applied at right.

From there, I exported the image as an uncompressed .tif file which I opened in Photoshop. There, I did two more touch-ups using Nikon’s Color Efex Pro Plug-In. The first touch-up was to enhance the tonal contrast as shown below. This gave the image some punch and brought out some of the detail lurking in the shadows. I set that adjustment layer to 50% opacity because I’m too lazy to do it within the plug-in.

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The second touch-up was to add a subtle vignette to the image. You might not even notice, since it’s only a 1% border with a 3% opacity.

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Are we slow yet? Here’s the final image. Take your time. Savour it.

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