Soviet Rangefinder Lenses: The Truth

We interrupt your scheduled programming to bring you a lens test.

Simply put, I’m sick of talking about the differences between Soviet and Leica lenses and not having anything to back it up – so here’s one of the many LTM shoot-outs I’ve done over the years to compare lenses.

A direct comparison of the Summicron and Jupiter 8 on a Leica mount body.
A direct comparison of the Summicron and Jupiter 8 on a Leica mount body. (Click through for the full-res file)

[UPDATE: I was somewhat lazy in the writing of this post. I should have cited evidence for my claims of technical incompatibility; I was somewhat presumptious in thinking people would know where to look for further discussion of this problem, and find further (and arguably more credible) research. If you are doubting my argument, please look in the comments below this article for my lengthy tract citing (amongst others) Brian Sweeney, Dante Stella and Kim Coxon, three very highly respected repairers/technical experts. It should be sufficient to back the points made below.]

Now, the boring info:
– The film was HP5
– The developer was LC29, 1+19
– The camera was a Leica IIIf, with a slightly faint rangefinder but one that was fully calibrated (i.e. accurate).
– The exposures were exactly the same, and both shots are at f2 (i.e. wide open).
– The camera was mounted on a tripod and fired with a cable release.
– The focus point for both shots was the face of the figurine at the front of the shot, which was exactly 1 meter from the film plane.
– These are tight crops from a full 35mm negative (the left-hand side of the montage is probably 1/4 of the frame).
– The scanner was a Canoscan 9000f, which has somewhat dubious sharpness, so bear that in mind (my Summicron shots always print sharper than they scan). The resolution was set to 2400 DPI, with no autosharpen or grain reduction.
– the only post-processing was some sharpening in Photoshop (200% with a radius of 1.0; it may seem like a lot, but it’s the only way I can even get close to wet print quality from my scanner. Both images were treated exactly the same, however).

With all that out the way, the difference between the two photos should be obvious, and it repeats the same result I’ve seen in many tests I’ve done myself; the Jupiter 8 is noticeably out of focus under such critical conditions. It’s also worth pointing out before I go any further that I’m not in any way claiming the Jupiter 8 is a bad lens, and my particular lens isn’t a bad example. It’s taken some great photos over the years – when used on a Soviet body. The difference between Soviet LTM and Leica LTM is real, and while it doesn’t affect most lenses (the various Industar 50mm lenses and the 35mm/2.8 Jupiter 12 are almost totally unaffected, due to their wider depth of field), once you start getting into faster and longer lenses it does become a problem. If you understand the limitations of Soviet lenses on a Leica (or Leica spec) body, you can get great lenses for very cheap.

The scan doesn't do this justice; the wet print is incredible. A humble Industar 22 collapsible 50/3.5 on a Leica IIIf.
The scan doesn’t do this justice; the wet print is incredible.
A humble Industar 22 collapsible 50/3.5 on a Leica IIIf.

The problem with this claim is that it tends to get repeated around the internet without the caveats I mentioned earlier. A lot of people simply don’t know about the incompatibility, shoot their Jupiter lenses all day at f8, and never notice any issues. It’s easily done; I have done some shots with Jupiters “in the field”, and providing you stay away from the wide-open and close up ends of the scale, you rarely ever notice a problem. Even the longest lens – the Jupiter 11, which is a 135mm/f4 lens – becomes completely usable on a Leica body once you’re stopped down and past a certain distance. However, it is a fool or a liar who uses shots like these as “evidence” that the two systems are completely interchangeable.

I'm no Capa; this is as close to war photography as I'm willing to get. Shot with a Jupiter 11 on a Leica IIIf.
I’m no Capa; this is as close to war photography as I’m willing to get.
Shot with a Jupiter 11 on a Leica IIIf.

So why does this happen? Well, it’s largely to do with Zeiss. Or, more precisely, the fact that the Soviet Union took Zeiss’s designs and production lines as war reparations after the Second World War. What happened next regarding lens and camera design decisions is somewhat lost in the sands of time, but it seems that the Soviets took the specifications for the Contax lenses and used them on the Leica mount lenses they were producing for their own LTM bodies – most notably the nominal 50mm focal length that the camera’s rangefinder expects as a standard. They didn’t care that this made them technically incompatible with Leicas; why should they care? They were aiming for self-sufficiency, and no good proletarian would be using a Leica when the Fed and Zorki models were just as good. (Aside: this might sound like I’m joking, but the earlier Fed and Zorki models ARE very good, providing they’ve been properly cared for and serviced. Quality, however, dropped massively towards the end of the Soviet Union’s existence.) It’s also worth pointing out that this wasn’t the only example of a non-obvious technical incompatibility being designed into what should otherwise be a compatible system; Nikon did exactly the same thing with their rangefinder system – which otherwise used the same mount as the Contax rangefinders. As a result the Nikon/Contax rangefinder users find themselves with the same problem as the Leica/Fed/Zorki ones – wide angles are perfectly compatible between the two systems, but faster and longer lenses mis-focus at close distances and wide open.

This is not to say that the lenses are in any way bad, or inherently incapable of being in focus; you simply have to use them on the system they were designed for. This, for example, was shot with a Jupiter 8 on a Fed 5 – wide open and close up:

Norwegian girls make the prettiest models. Jupiter 8 on a Fed 5, f2 and 1/60th, Provia 100f.
Norwegian girls make the prettiest models.
Jupiter 8 on a Fed 5, f2 and 1/60th, Provia 100f.

Now, there are certain things you can do if you’re dead set on using Jupiters on your Leica. The first is simply to tolerate the limitations and accept that it’s probably – at best – an f2.8 lens. If this is how you want to deal with it, I strongly accept you do a series of tests of your own – using similar settings as mine above – but altering the aperture to compare the lens’s sharpness across the range as opposed to comparing it with another lens. You might find it’s acceptable at f2.8, or you might not be happy with it until f5.6. Everyone has different concepts as to what constitutes acceptably sharp.

The other option is to get the lens shimmed (or, if you’re feeling brave/foolhardy, do it yourself; there are instructions as to how to do it on the Internet, but I’m not willing to enable the potential destruction and/or miscalibration of a good piece of Soviet glass!). The success of this method supposedly varies depending on the lens; Jupiter 8s can be shimmed with relative ease, but the Jupiter 9 85/2 will apparently never be capable of focusing correctly across the range on a Leica body for various reasons.

(Another aside: The Jupiter lenses, other than the Jupiter 12, are all Sonnar lenses. This is a legendary lens design – particularly for portraits – but they are well-known for a focus shift issue that is inherent to the design. This can work in your favour with shimming – the Jupiter 3 fix relies on using the focus shift to allow full focusing capability – but with the Jupiter 9 it just seems to exacerbate the problem.)

The final option – and one I’m seriously considering – is to ignore the Leica mount altogether. The Contax mount Soviet lenses are built to the same specifications, but the Amedeo adapter will ensure correct focusing when they are mounted onto a Leica body. Of course, it’s somewhat foolish to pay a couple of hundred dollars to use some cheap Soviet lenses, but consider the world of lens options that opens up for you: the Helios 103 – a.k.a the Soviet Summicron, a correctly focusing Jupiter 9, a Jupiter 11 that can focus closer than the LTM one, a Jupiter 8m (which is a shorter Jupiter 8 with click stops!) – and that’s just the Soviet lenses! The original Zeiss lenses for the Contax system are legendary, and were reason enough for people like Ansel Adams and Robert Capa to eschew the whole Leica system in favour of the Contax one.

I wasn't being flippant about the Helios 103 - It's a Double-Gauss design which is VERY similar to the original Summicron.
I wasn’t being flippant about the Helios 103 – It’s a Double-Gauss design which is VERY similar to the original Summicron.

Of course, of you want a 50mm f2 lens on a Leica body that works at f2 reliably, there are the “native” – and less fiddly – options; Summar, Summitar, Summicron, Serenar or the Voigtlander Heliar. If you go into M mount, there are even more options – including the modern Zeiss Sonnars that share the same design as the Jupiters, but without the focusing errors. Each one has its own benefits and distinct look, and while none are as cheap as the Jupiters, they’re all stunning in their own way. I must admit that since I bought a collapsible Summicron, nothing else has really compared to it.

It's honestly quite hard to pick one particular photo that shows off the Summicron, so sod it - here's a photo of my uncle Doug.
It’s honestly quite hard to pick just one particular photo that shows off the Summicron, so sod it – here’s a photo of my uncle Doug.

So, after all that, what have we learned? Well, that Soviet lenses deserve all the reputation they’ve picked up, but also deserve a better explanation than most people give them. To write them off simply because you don’t fully understand either the technical or economic conditions in which they were built is horribly, horribly reductive. When treated well and used under the correct conditions, they can be just as good as their contemporary competition – and in some cases, even better.

However, there is one final caveat to this whole post: your lens is only as good as its history. What do I mean by this? Well, simply put, over the years Soviet lenses have, on occasion, been horribly mistreated. I think this is for two reasons; number one is that due to the way the Communist economic system worked, they were able to be produced at a very, very low cost considering what went into them. The side effect of this is that when they were exported (at a very low price compared to their competition), the perception of them was that they were low-quality lenses, and they were often treated with a lack of care to match. This still occurs today; people are literally “fixing” these things on their kitchen table with no previous experience and then selling them on eBay when the resultant mess doesn’t function properly. The other issue is ideology. The Cold War “taught” us in the West that the Soviets were a backwards people, and their products were often derided as a result. You still see it on web forums today; the spectre of the Cold War is hard to shake off.

But if you buy from a respected dealer, get one in a good shape and use it within its specifications, these are honestly great lenses; don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Comments

  1. says

    Got my Jupiter 8 a view days ago.
    Shot a roll but haven´t developed is jet.
    There are a view test shots wide open on it.
    I have even done a 0.7 mod on it.
    After reading your article i was a little concerned and just checked it on my M2 with a ground glass and a magnifying glass.
    Everything matches the rage finder. Form 0.7m to infinity wide open. Everything sharp.
    Maybe it is my m39 to m adapter or just luck.

    great podcast btw!

    • Tony Gale says

      There’s a good chance it’s already been adjusted at some point. There’s a lot of already converted Jupiters floating around, which doesn’t help the situation with regards to the claims of correct focusing.

  2. says

    I have got mine from a ukrainian seller in kiev.
    As i said i have disassembled it for fresh grease.
    Found no sign of a mod.
    Don´t think this lens ever saw a M before.

    I don´t want to prove you wrong.
    But i miss hard facst in this whole debate.
    Is there a different Flange focal distance? What are the numbers?
    Is there a difference in the thread gradient?
    Or are the “bad” lenses build for just one specific camera?
    I saw a scan of a price list of jupiter lenses a time ago.
    It was a price list in german maybe from the early 80s.
    Maybe they have build “export models”. who knows.

    • Tony Gale says

      Okay, my apologies. I should know better; academia taught me to name/list my sources and I haven’t.

      Basically, the two main camera repairers whom I have spoke to and whose posts I have read are Brian Sweeney and Kim Coxon, both of whom are well-renowned for fixing and collimating Soviet lenses. Brian, in particular, has done a lot of research regarding both the root causes of the problem and how to fix them. In fact, if you know where to poke around (or even make some well-placed Google searches), you can find his exact posts on the subject.

      Meanwhile, here’s a section from a post very similar to mine over at slrlensreview.com:

      “Back in the days long gone (circa 30s, I think), we had two competing camera designs – Leica III and Contax. The two dominant cameras of that day had different focusing systems. Both were built around 50mm lens but employed different assumptions when designing rangefinder system. Leica had a short-base magnifier, which connected to thread-mount lenses. Every lens had a rangefinder cam, which transmitted the focusing distance to the camera, and used the rate of movement of the focusing helicoid of a 51.6mm lens (actual focal length). This rate of movement was used to calculate a multiplier, which was then used in calibration of the rangefinder for every lens – a wide angle lens would have a shorter helicoid rate of movement, while a tele would have a longer and so the multiplier helped position the rangefinder at the right focusing distance. Contax, which had a 50mm focusing helix, but otherwise looked and worked pretty much the same way as Leica’s, standardized around a 52.3mm lens as the choice for a ’50mm’ lens. Needless to say that the rate of movement for Contax standard 50mm was different from Leica’s. To have a lens work properly on either Leica or Contax body, designers had to use one of the focal lengths assumptions (51.6mm or 52.3mm), exact rate of movement and multiplier, and finally the distance from the back focus of the lens to the film plane. Change one of these and you will end up with a lens that will mis-focus at all but infinity distances.”

      (http://slrlensreview.com/web/entry/a-guide-to-russian-ltm-lenses-part-2)

      And what’s their source? Only Dante Stella, photographer and technical expert. His article on the Contax/Nikon and Leica/FSU incompatibilities is even longer:
      http://www.dantestella.com/technical/compat.html

      A key quote:
      “I would guess that to promote efficiencies of scale, the Soviets standardized all of their camera systems to a 52.3mm standard lens. Why do I think so? Ever see any of the Soviet lens charts that show the actual focal lengths of 50mm LTM rangefinder lenses as 52mm? The commiecameras.com site has a verbatim copy of a Soviet spec sheet for all of the lenses.

      [Note: Sadly, I have only bought one FSU 50mm lens that came with the original black case, and it didn’t have the spec sheet or “passport” that should have come with it from the factory. Other focal length lenses – like my Jupiter 11s and 12s – have that sheet. I’m sure scans of one must exist on the internet somewhere. I can’t find one on the site Dante Stella mentions.]

      First, this allowed the immediate use of Contax tooling to make optical units for both Kiev and Fed/Zorki lenses. Second, standardizing on 52.3 would allow optical units to be used for both Kiev and Fed lenses interchangeably, depending on what needed to be assembled that day. Third, it also cuts down on the number of rangefinder helix types to design. And who cares about whether or not the resulting M39 bodies were truly compatible with Leicas? What good worker would have such a capitalist-lackey Leica camera? And what self-respecting Westerner would be caught with a Soviet lens? For a very long time, Soviet cameras were just not an export product.”

      He – or more precisely, a correspondent and mathmatician called Michael Darnton – also notes that the Drug 2 has a Leica-style roller cam instead of the Soviet style “sled” cam, and it appears that the Jupiter 8s shipped with the Drug are actually pre-calibrated to Leica spec. (I would also like to point out that the reason for the sled cam is to allow easy close-focus adjustment on Soviet rangefinders, something which is not so simple on a Leica.) As such, it seems fair to assume that there WERE Leica-collimated Jupiters going around before the fall of the wall, but they were certainly the exception and not the rule.

      Further, Brian Sweeney has (after personally adjusting many lenses), listed the computations for the necessary shims here: http://www.rangefinderforum.com/forums/showthread.php?t=111193

      I hope that clears things up a bit. There’s a lot to chew through there and a lot of unnecessarily verbose or technical language, but there should be enough empirical research and evidence to back up my claims above.

  3. says

    Wow! Thank you for your effort!
    I am impressed.
    I have done a research on this topic and these are exact the informations i was looking for an could not find.
    I guess one has to follow the debate a log time to pick up the valid informations.
    If someone said “put 0.07969mm between the lens an the camera” it is a valid information i can deal with as a former tool mechanic.

    Again – thank you!

    btw. i found it a bit ironic to use a scan of a 9000F to compare sharpness. :-)
    I have the same piece of crap sitting on my desk. It was the biggest mistake ever to buy one.

    • Tony Gale says

      It’s okay. That was the stuff I really should have included in the first place, so thank you for encouraging me to go dig it out.

      I’ve been following the FSU discussions for ages. Years, in fact. I know from personal experience that the lenses can be fantastic performers, and I get a bit sick of the Cold War-inspired Soviet-hate – which seems to be mostly from very vocal Americans. It’s a shame, because the Commies managed to do and design some truly amazing stuff – and not only in the photographic world but in other fields as well. It’s a shame we let politics get in the way of celebrating that.

      Anyway, I don’t mind my 9000f for medium format, but for 35mm it really does stink. I might have to wet print my test images next time I’m in the darkroom and see how much difference there is when they’re presented “properly”.

  4. Ian Greenhalgh says

    Hi Tony

    Excellent article. Some little snippets of info to add:

    The Helios-103 has an optical block that is very simple to remove from it’s Kiev/Contax mount – a couple of tiny set screws to loosen, then it just unscrews. This block is a direct fit into the barrel of one of the Russian M39 lenses such as the Industar-61. That way, you can make an M39 H-103. There is another very nice lens that you can also make into M39 in this way – the Vega-1 2.1/50. The V-1 is for 16mm cine cameras but was originally designed as a rf lens. The optical block fits into an I-61 barrel. The design of the V-1 is 100% Russian, it’s a 5 element simplified double-gauss, similar to a CZJ Biometar.

    Also, it is worth knowing that with the Jupiters, and to a lesser extent, the Industars, earlier is better. The 1950s ones with the red P coatng symbol (looks like an ‘n’) are excellent, very close to the Zeiss originals, they don’t have the quality variations of later models. The J8M is a revised, simplified version, they replaced the front triplet with a doublet, and in my experience, this results in a slightly less good lens, so I would always chose the J8 over the J8M.

  5. says

    Just stumbled across this. I didn’t realise my name had spread so far. Anyway, thank you for the kind words. Much of my expertise comes from the Jupiter 9. Brian has worked more than I have on the Jupiter 3. These 2 lenses highlight the problem much more the 8.
    I might add a few extra words to the above. From my limited research on the Soviet cameras several things come to light. On the very early ones, the lenses were matched to the body and were not interchangeable as we expect today. Even later on, many most soviet users might only have the body and one lens and they may have had to wait for some time to get that. It was difficult to get things in that period and so unlike todays “disposable” society, they would have been looked after and repaired.

    I understand the argument about the “Leica” and “Contax” standard and I believe it id true. Indeed one of the reasons the industars seem to be better is maybe because they were based on a Leica design whereas the Jupiters were a Zeiss design originally.

    However from my experience, this isn’t the whole story. By now I must have “tuned” well over 50 lenses. Most have been J9’s but J8’s as well. Some have been almost “new old stock” still in the plastic tub with paperwork and maybe original tissue. Others have been right across the spectrum to very well used.

    Now some have shown signs of work. Some appear not to have been taken apart before. However putting aside, the ones that may have been worked before, I have noticed a huge variety in what should be the same lens. Nearly all have different thicknesses of shims in them. Now as has been pointed out, they were originally shipped with a test certificate showing their measured focal length. This points towards the fact that they were not “precision” engineered in the way we expect today but rather adjusted as they were assembled. As I said earlier just about every J9 I have worked on has been slightly different. I have managed to adjust most of those but there was one I couldn’t get close. So I have come to the belief that there are also “Friday afternoon” lenses out there which may have been put together after a certain amount of vodka. In the end, it is a bit of a lottery when you buy one and that doesn’t depend if you are going to try it on a Leica. Several have been out even for a Soviet body.

    If anyone is interested, there are some pages on my website of how to service these lenses.

  6. says

    Hi Kim,
    thank you for this interesting information.
    I have used your website to CLA´ my Jupiter 8 back then.
    It seems with a little bit of basic technical knowledge you can adjust almost every one of them.
    Except for the “Friday afternoon” ones.
    And i think it´s a good thing because it keeps the price low.

  7. Sebastian M says

    Hello,

    i am happy that i found this post,… i am about to purchase a new old Jupiter 9 (black version), and in advance i purchased also an m42 adapter with focus infinity glass, after some extended reading i learned that this glass affects the quality of the lens itself, so the better way is to use an adapter without glass and to modify the lens in a way to reach the infinity focus///

    I love diy projects, i would love some guidance so i can do this my self , what should do in order to reach infinity focus without the glass adapter, i want to use this lens on a nikon dx body, mainly for half body and crops…\

    Thank you

    • says

      There’s really three different things to deal with here.

      1) In order to allow a lens to focus correctly on a camera with a longer register (i.e. a further distance between lens mount and film/sensor) than the camera it was designed for, you have to find some way to move the whole lens towards the camera. The “easiest” way to do this would be to move the infinity stop in the focusing helical – in theory. In reality, it’s not always possible, and I’d suspect that the Jupiter 9, being as it has a few different helicals, would be too complex for the average person to make this modification.
      2) Incorrect flange-to-film distances are less of an issue on SLRs (where you’re optically confirming the focus) than on rangefinders (where a mechanical linkage tells you where it’s supposed to be focused). Providing the Nikon’s register isn’t too far away from the M42 register, it shouldn’t be too much of an issue.
      3) Infinity focus? On an 85/2 lens? The Jupiter 9 is designed for portraits; it shouldn’t really be used at infinity most of the time!

      My recommendation is to leave it. Buy an M42-to-Nikon adapter that doesn’t have the glass in, and use the Jupiter 9 for what it’s good at instead of potentially ruining your new lens.

  8. Brian says

    I also stumbled across this, but much later than Kim. I put together some tutorials and explanations of the focal length difference between the J-3 and Leica standard, along with some information for shimming the lens and changing the focal length.

    http://aperturepriority.co.nz/50mm-jupiter-3-f1-5-information/

    Jason Howe hosts them at his site.

    I modified a J-9 to focus across range, reduced the spacing between the front/rear groups by ~3mm then adjusted the main shim.

    • Jeff says

      How did you settle on ~ 3mm to move the rear group in? Did you try different amounts? Don’t know right off how much but after filing the fixture mine has bottomed out.

  9. Lukas says

    Hello! Im using Jupiter 11 with my Leica IIIc, for framing/composin Im using KMZ-turnit viewfinder and I have one question for all, who have any experience with such or simmilar equipment combination. How do you frame with KMZ-VF in order to avoid parallax? Im going to describe my “modus operandi” and I would be gratefull if you could tell me, if this is the right or wrong way. Firstly Im focusing and find out the distance form lens to object. If the distance is close to 3 meter, I turn the finder so, that the arrow on the body shows directly on 3 meter. If the object is more far away, it turn it to infinity. Finally I release the shutter. Is it correct or there is something more, which should be done? im realy not sure, where the problem is. Lately I took a vertical picture of my daugther in close distance (apr. 3 meter). I wanted my daughter to be centrally, surrounded from left, right and above by background. After developing I found out, that she has been cut form the right side. It would be grat if anyone could give me some advice, how to eliminate the risk of parallax, especially by close distances. Thank you very much in advance.

    • says

      Hey Lukas – the problem you’re having is not to do with the lenses, but a result of incompatible viewfinders.

      The turret finder you’re using is designed for a Kiev, meaning that its framing and parallax settings will only line up correctly on a Contax II/III or a Kiev rangefinder. Anything that deviates from that design will cause problems – as you’re finding.

      If I could post a photo here, I’d show you how far a Barnack (screwmount Leica/FED 1/Zorki 1/Zorki 2)’s accessory shoe is from the position of the accessory shoe on a Kiev. It’s quite substantial. And while the wide angle settings on the turret finder are large enough to compensate for this, on the tighter 135mm setting, they’re quite a way out.

      The best thing to do with any rangefinder is to use an accessory viewfinder designed for that camera. That’s why I bought a collapsible screwmount era Leitz 90mm finder for my IIIf, and why I’d do the same for 135mm if I was to use a 135mm lens on it regularly.

      You could also look into the early multi-finders for the Leica – an Imarect/VIOOH. They’re cropping finders, so not as clear at 135mm as the turret, but they’re cheap and more likely to be accurate on your IIIc.

  10. says

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  11. Nigel says

    The Zorki 1 manual proudly states that the register of all Zorki cameras is 28.8mm, unlike earlier Feds. The problem (which I must say I have never encountered when using a Jupiter 8 on Barnack Leicas) must lie in the different focal length, the J8 and other Russian lenses being slightly longer than 50mm. The Industar 10 is, as I understand it, exactly 50mm, but uncoated versions made before 1948 were matched to individual camera bodies, so go for coated versions for compatibility with Leica cameras. Just my 2 penn’orth!

  12. Gregg Kawakami says

    Would the zone focusing method help to reduce focusing problems due to the incompatibility between Soviet lenses and Leica bodies? I’m wondering if incompatible rangefinder coupling is also impacting the focus.

    Mahalo!

  13. Float says

    wide open 1m away is going to give you focus shift on the J8. That example is definitely a bit of missed focus. I would like to see this repeated on digital with focus shift corrected.

  14. Konstantin says

    Good article at photos!
    Around the same time this material was published I started to buy and use old Leitz LTM lenses. I have tried almost all 50mm from Summar to collapsible Cron. I also tried FSU LTM ones. I do what these lenses were made for. Darkroom BW prints.
    Jupiter 8 and 3 are good lenses for wet prints. I have them shimmed for Leicas and FED-2. Once everything is aligned the 8×10 prints are sharp enough, even if pictures were taken on f2 and f1.5.
    Also, I agree. Industar-22 is very interesting lens for BW.
    Thank you,
    Konstantin.

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