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Review: LEE Filters Seven5 system

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The genre of photography that excites me the most these days is landscapes. I can’t think of anything I enjoy shooting more than a drama filled natural landscape. I feel at peace doing this type of photography, truly content. In preparing for our recent photo safari to Namibia I was looking at getting a filter system to help me make the most of the landscape photo opportunities that we were going to encounter.

 

So why use filters when a lot of the effects they offer can be replicated in post production software like Photoshop or Lightroom? Well, firstly I don’t like to do things in post when they can be done in the camera. If there’s a recipe for making me fed up it involves me sitting behind a computer screen for hours tweaking pixels with masks and layers in software that requires a great deal of expertise to get the best results from (besides, I’m not playing the Adobe rent-a-shop game these days). Secondly, the sensors on digital cameras these days have pretty good dynamic range, but if you want to make the most of the digital information captured on those sensors, it’s probably best to avoid working with the extremes of DR. If you’re on the edge of blowing out the sky while lifting the foreground, why not just play it safe and protect the sky with a neutral density graduated filter?

 

Neutral density filters that block light in the same way that sunglasses do have long been used by photographers to slow down exposure times when using wider apertures in bright outdoor conditions, or to selectively reduce glare in parts of the frame. Doing this not only helps to minimise depth of field in situations where your shutter speed is hitting the limits of your camera’s ability, but it also helps to create drama in skies with moving clouds, or to give moving water the dreamy silk-like effect that we see so often in seascapes and photos of rivers and waterfalls. You can’t replicate those effects easily in Photoshop or any other image manipulation software.

 

So, now that I have convinced you to use filters to enhance your landscape photography, you have a couple of options if, like me, you are chasing down exciting landscape photography:

 

1) you can buy filters that screw onto your lens, which gets expensive if you have quite a few lenses with different filter thread sizes, or…

2) you can buy into a system of filters that can be used on any lens with an adapter.

 

I decided to look into the latter and the LEE filters Seven5 filter system that has been designed specifically for smaller mirrorless cameras like micro four thirds popped up on my radar.

 

The Lee Seven5 system is much like their well known bigger system of resin based rectangular filters that can be slotted into a holder, which is then attached to a lens by means of a lens adapter. The only real difference is that the Seven5 filters are smaller (they are 75mm wide whereas the bigger filters used on DSLR’s are 100mm wide). Assuming you are using a ND grad, once the filter is in position you can easily rotate the holder around your lens to darken certain parts of the frame. You can also slide the filter up or down inside the holder to adjust the part of the frame you need to darken. This can’t be done with a traditional screw-in filter.

 

I got a LEE Seven5 filter system that comprised the following bits:

 

LEE Seven5 filter holder (dual slots for filters)

46mm, 52mm & 58mm adapter rings

0.3, 0.6 & 0.9 ND hard grad filters

0.9 ND filter

 

The filter numbers indicate the number of stops of light that they cut out. For example, 0.3 is 1 stop and 0.9 is 3 stops.

 

These hand made filters come in handy micro-fibre pockets that can double as cleaning cloths, but they are also wrapped in a fine tissue like paper that I have often used to clean lenses with in the past. Unfortunately the tissue paper didn't make it out of the desert intact...

 

The adapter rings are made of a black anodised metal and the filter holder simply snaps onto these, allowing you to easily rotate the holder with the filters in place. It’s a very neat, uncomplicated system.

 

So how does it work in the field?

 

Prior to this Namibian safari I had never used filters like this, so you could call me a complete filter system newbie. Fortunately there is a lot of information on the LEE Filters website, as well as guides on how to use their products, so before I went on the trip I spent some time reading up how to use them and it seemed to be a fairly straight forward process.

 

The first time I tried to use them was at Bloubergstrand in Cape Town where you get some amazing sunsets over the ocean. Initially I found it a little difficult to figure out where exactly the ND grad line was appearing on the Olympus E-M5 because even if you press the depth of field preview, the EVF automatically brightens itself. This is a setting somewhere that I simply didn’t have the time to go looking for, so I guessed where to place the filter. The results were interesting, but as I was still learning how to use the system, I needed to experiment a bit more.

 

DALL4822.jpg

click to enlarge

Above is a shot showing the sun setting over Robin Island with a bit of the shoreline in the frame. If I remember correctly I was using the 0.6 ND graduated filter here, but I might be wrong. The overall exposure between land, sea and sky seems to be nicely balanced, but there is a spot of flare from the sun in the frame. This is not a train smash as you can always clone it out, but because you’re using what is essentially an external element to your lens, the quality of the filter will affect the severity of flare if you have the sun in the frame, so keep this in mind if you get the notion of buying cheaper filters.

 

The next time I got to use the filters was a couple of weeks later when we found ourselves photographing landscapes inside the Sossussvlei, which is a spectacular dune reserve in the south western part of Namibia. This is a place where landscape photographers die and go to heaven. Wherever you turn there is majestic landscape waiting for you to capture it. On our second day in the area we stayed inside the reserve in one of the exclusive Namibia Wildlife Resorts which enabled us to stay in the reserve at the most important photographic times of the day, sunrise and sunset. We made the most of this and did a session near dune 42 in the fading light of late afternoon and then again the next morning before sunrise at the Deadvlei, which is about 60km from the lodge, right at the end of the asphalt road that runs through the reserve.

 

The afternoon session gave me some much needed time to play around with the ND grads using my Olympus OM-D E-M5 and 9-18mm lens. While our group were mostly photographing the massive dune in front of us, I turned around and looked at the landscape behind us. The sun was setting and the light was amazing, so I found some foreground interest and proceeded to experiment with the LEE Seven5 ND grad filters, trying them all, before finally finding my stride with the 0.6.

 

DALL5847.jpg

 

 

DALL5531.jpg

 

DALL5852.jpg

 

The next morning three of us arose before the dawn and headed for a sunrise at the Deadvlei. This gave me yet more opportunities to try out the ND grads. Again the results were great!

 

DALL5909.jpg

click to enlarge

 

The next time I got to try out the filters was in Swakopmund, but the sky was very washed out there and there weren’t any clouds, so for this particular shot I went with the 0.3 ND grad and positioned it just below the horizon to give some more definition to the tops of the dunes.

 

DALL6278.jpg

click to enlarge

 

I think that this little system of filters is indispensable to landscape photography. It’s been downsized for use with the smaller mirrorless systems, such as micro four thirds and Fuji X-trans, so it’s easy to carry around in a camera bag. I managed to find a $20 slimline Lowepro GPS case that fits the filters and adapter rings I have perfectly. The filter holder comes with a drawstring pouch that fits nicely into the side of my ThinkTank Retrospective 5 bag, which means I can bring along my entire m43 kit and a filter set without having to resort to a bigger bag.

 

There are quite a few filter options available for the Seven5 system, ranging from sunset, B&W, tobacco, chocolate and sepia grads to polarisers and even a lens hood to help minimise the flaring from light hitting the filters at oblique angles. All in all it’s fairly comprehensive as a system and should keep landscape shooters using smaller systems quite well prepared for many eventualities.

 

Price wise it’s not cheap, but it should be remembered that each filter is hand made, so you're getting the very best it can be. For the set of 3 ND grads, a single 0.9 ND filter, holder and 3 adapter rings you’re looking at approximately US$396 excluding shipping. There are now also Singh-Ray filters that will fit the LEE Seven5 holder, but those cost even more than the LEE filters.

 

In my opinion if you’re into outdoor photography, especially if you want to keep weight down by using a small mirrorless system, you can’t beat this Seven5 system for convenience. Go get it if you can, it's a worthwhile investment in your photography.


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Thanks for the detailed review, Dallas. I got Lee ND grads 15-20 years ago, but I wish they had offered the 75mm system then, when I used the old Olympus OM system. The quality is great, and very much better than Cokin.

Great images too! The last one is interesting, well spotted.

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An excellent piece Dallas, great post.

 

Enjoyed the images which illustrate perfectly the advantages.

 

I have recently bought into the Lee system, only trouble is getting hold of their products

many items are on long term back order.

I live about half an hour from their company HQ this doesn't help me get their products

any easier though  :)  ;)

 

Tony

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I still have a few "wedding-oriented" and colour compensating Cokin filters from my medium-format film days which are a similar thing to the Lee system. Personally I'm not a fan of these things for their unavoidable tendency to darken horizon features that protrude into the skies they are intended to darken, (foreground trees, background mountains) and I prefer to shoot a two or three stop HDR bracket if the sky is truly that much lighter than the rest of the scene. I appreciate that the PP fiddle is something avoided by many for the time it can take, but to be honest combining two or more correct exposures seamlessly in software gives a more natural result in my book.


Maybe it's also a hangover of the fussing about that sometimes happened originally when I worked in advertising photography, when we'd achieve a similar effect as such filters by sticking a Wratten CC gel half across the lens in the appropriate position and shooting at wider apertures with longer lenses to blur the edge. This did have an advantage over grads in that the hard edge would make the line of demarcation more controllable, but as it was also a harder line greater care had to be taken. They did have an advantage in that the dividing edge could be cut into a shape compliant with the horizon line (call it an analogue selection, if you will ;) ).

 

If the sky was to be made truly dramatic, we took several exposures and sent the best foreground and best sky exposures off to our retouching gurus to perform a now extinct skill of stripping the two images together in the form of 8x10 duplicate transparencies. It was largely the expense of doing this that saw the Lee and Cokin filters come onto the stills market in the first place, although grads had been used in the film industry for years before.

 

That said, there's no denying that these filters when used thoughtfully can result in otherwise ordinary shots becoming very dramatic indeed, but "carefully" is the operative word - I've seen some real shockers on the Internet over the years of these things being used poorly. The other thing, of course, is that there is no going back to redo the shot in post if the filter is not quite rightly setup in the first place. The shot is effectively ruined.

Edited by Alan

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Alan your last point is particularly valid I think.

If I'm at a special location I take several natural bracketed shots together with

filtered versions, the bracketed shots take just a few moments once set up.

 

I also agree filters should be used selectively and discreetly where possible.

 

Tony

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Tony  -  Have you tried Dale Photographic (A recognised Lee dealer). 

 

Just kitted out with a ND grad set, Holder and Stopper off the shelf from them last week.

 

 

MikeS


Artificial intelligence is no match for natural stupidity

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Tony  -  Have you tried Dale Photographic (A recognised Lee dealer). 

 

Just kitted out with a ND grad set, Holder and Stopper off the shelf from them last week.

 

 

MikeS

Mike,

thanks a bunch, will check it out. :)

 

cheers

Tony

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Dallas, thanks for sparing your time to write and share this valuable report.

 

Having said that, I think that the ND grads are more for the places where the horizons are straight.  You proved that Africa is definetely the place of this kind.  Same should go with the U.S. especially in the west coast where the movie industry, the main users of ND grads, is cantered in.

 

It is very difficult to have the straight horizon in the landscapes here in Japan, and the usablility of such ND grads is very limited.  I've seen an article on a Japanese professional landscape photographer who combined ND gels to create a special ad hoc set of ND grads for the non-linear skyline of the specific scene.  I've looked at ND grads several times but haven't purchased for this very reason.

 

I do prefer the Lee filter holder system to those of Cokin, Kenko, Canon or Nikon (except for the older AF-1 and -2) that I have tried myself, though.  I use one for my Kenko ND 100000 to shoot the sun and Cokin Z007 infrared filter and would highly recommend it.

Edited by Akira

"The eye is blind if the mind is absent." - Confucius

http://www.flickr.com/photos/akiraphoto/

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I really do like Zxcvbnm

'lkjhthe landscapes you have shown in this article Dallas. This is really useful 

 

*******

 

ADDED LATER:  oh la!! :D::)

I have no idea what happened with this post. Maybe my Mac has had an attack of altitude sickness having just traveled from sea level in NJ to 7500' in Colorado.

  • Like 1

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You'll edit that no doubt, Andrea, but this just made my attack of insomnia really worthwhile... :D :D :D

 

(Nothing like a good laugh at 4:20 a.m. in the morning.)

  • Like 3

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Guest simsurace

Nice review, Dallas.

You seem to have a preference for the more muted, pastel-like colors in landscapes, which I think is very interesting and unusual. Is this a deliberate step in your processing workflow, or is it more due to the choice of subject matter and the rendering qualities of your camera and lens?

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Nice review, Dallas.

You seem to have a preference for the more muted, pastel-like colors in landscapes, which I think is very interesting and unusual. Is this a deliberate step in your processing workflow, or is it more due to the choice of subject matter and the rendering qualities of your camera and lens?

Not really, Simone. I very seldom make any colour adjustments to my images. My basic editing usually involves recovery of some highlights and shadows, maybe increasing blacks and whites and then if it warrants it, I might add some clarity using the "punch" preset. The colours in Namibia are really like this. :)

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Guest simsurace

In that case, I have to go there!

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Oh, it's landscape photography heaven, it really is. It's just such a pity you have to drive so far to get everywhere as this eats up a lot of your travel time - which is why I'm not in a hurry to go back myself personally. But if we have enough interest amongst Fotozones members we will be more than happy to put a trip together for you, either as a group or as private safarians. 

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      Getting to Jo'burg from Durban on SAA was easy. I have never been asked to weigh my carry-on luggage by SAA and this time was no different. I checked in my main suitcase and they didn't even ask about the ThinkTank roller which I had strategically positioned directly in front of the check in desk so that the attendant didn't really see it. I also draped my jacket over the top of it to camouflage its dimensions a little. No questions were asked. I went through security and on the other side I found the gate I needed to be at, making sure I was the first in line to board. This is important as it assures you of a space in the overhead bin - the last thing you want to have happen if you can't find any space in those overhead bins is for the flight attendants to have to place your bag for you, because the weight will be a major concern and then they will most likely gate check it if they haven't already compressed their vertebrae trying to hoist it somewhere themselves. Get on the plane first and secure a space in the overhead bin.
       
      Going back the other way from this year's Big 5 safari required me to make two flights; one from KMIA to Johannesburg, and then from Johannesburg back to Durban. In the past I have flown directly back to Durban from KMIA, but this is where I encountered the small plane problems that I knew I would not be able to take a big carry-on like the ThinkTank rollers onboard. On that flight there was no overhead bin and there was very little space under the seat, so I decided to fly back via Johannesburg this time. Longer and more expensive, but I'd rather pay more for the flights and get all my gear home safely than check it at the gate and possibly lose everything.
       
      One of our guests on this safari had brought his gear over from the US in the bigger ThinkTank Airport Security V2.0 roller. While we were waiting to board the plane back to JHB from KMIA after the safari we were both approached by a ground personnel individual and asked to gate check the rollers as we walked out to the plane from the gate. She seemed a little unassertive, so we both refused, citing the contents as being too valuable to check. She relented easily enough and we boarded the aircraft with our rollers ahead of everyone else, found our seats, stowed them above us and sat down to enjoy the flight. I also had no problem getting the roller onboard the Kulula flight back to my home city, Durban. Job done. Thank you ThinkTank!
       
      If you're thinking about getting this case, I can highly recommend it. You'll fit a decent amount of kit into it and it has some pretty neat features, including a raincoat, lockable zippers, external pockets and also a system for attaching your monopod or tripod to the outside of it. There's also a combination lock you can use to secure your case to a pole or something immovable if you need to be away from it for a short while. I can see this coming in handy when shooting on location. The build quality is also top notch.
       
      If I can offer some criticism of the case it's that I found some of the dividers a little too stiff to configure nicely. I think if they could make them a bit more flexible it would be a whole lot more awesome as a solution for your camera travels. Also, the telescopic handle of this model seems very thin and flimsy compared to its bigger brother's handle. Speaking of handles, ThinkTank have placed one on three of the cases edges, which makes it very easy to hoist from any angle. That's clever design.
       
      The inside also zips out completely so you can wash it out thoroughly, especially if you're in the habit of dragging your roller into dusty locations, which we tend to do a lot on safari! My associate Pepe is now using this roller permanently and I have opted to use the larger one, the Airport Security V2.0 which I will discuss in my next article.
       
      If you are in the USA you can buy this bag directly from ThinkTank and get a free gift when you use this link.
       
      Note: unfortunately the images for this article were lost in a software upgrade. 
       

      View full article
    • By Dallas
      The genre of photography that excites me the most these days is landscapes. I can’t think of anything I enjoy shooting more than a drama filled natural landscape. I feel at peace doing this type of photography, truly content. In preparing for our recent photo safari to Namibia I was looking at getting a filter system to help me make the most of the landscape photo opportunities that we were going to encounter.
       
      So why use filters when a lot of the effects they offer can be replicated in post production software like Photoshop or Lightroom? Well, firstly I don’t like to do things in post when they can be done in the camera. If there’s a recipe for making me fed up it involves me sitting behind a computer screen for hours tweaking pixels with masks and layers in software that requires a great deal of expertise to get the best results from (besides, I’m not playing the Adobe rent-a-shop game these days). Secondly, the sensors on digital cameras these days have pretty good dynamic range, but if you want to make the most of the digital information captured on those sensors, it’s probably best to avoid working with the extremes of DR. If you’re on the edge of blowing out the sky while lifting the foreground, why not just play it safe and protect the sky with a neutral density graduated filter?
       
      Neutral density filters that block light in the same way that sunglasses do have long been used by photographers to slow down exposure times when using wider apertures in bright outdoor conditions, or to selectively reduce glare in parts of the frame. Doing this not only helps to minimise depth of field in situations where your shutter speed is hitting the limits of your camera’s ability, but it also helps to create drama in skies with moving clouds, or to give moving water the dreamy silk-like effect that we see so often in seascapes and photos of rivers and waterfalls. You can’t replicate those effects easily in Photoshop or any other image manipulation software.
       
      So, now that I have convinced you to use filters to enhance your landscape photography, you have a couple of options if, like me, you are chasing down exciting landscape photography:
       
      1) you can buy filters that screw onto your lens, which gets expensive if you have quite a few lenses with different filter thread sizes, or…
      2) you can buy into a system of filters that can be used on any lens with an adapter.
       
      I decided to look into the latter and the LEE filters Seven5 filter system that has been designed specifically for smaller mirrorless cameras like micro four thirds popped up on my radar.
       
      The Lee Seven5 system is much like their well known bigger system of resin based rectangular filters that can be slotted into a holder, which is then attached to a lens by means of a lens adapter. The only real difference is that the Seven5 filters are smaller (they are 75mm wide whereas the bigger filters used on DSLR’s are 100mm wide). Assuming you are using a ND grad, once the filter is in position you can easily rotate the holder around your lens to darken certain parts of the frame. You can also slide the filter up or down inside the holder to adjust the part of the frame you need to darken. This can’t be done with a traditional screw-in filter.
       
      I got a LEE Seven5 filter system that comprised the following bits:
       
      LEE Seven5 filter holder (dual slots for filters)
      46mm, 52mm & 58mm adapter rings
      0.3, 0.6 & 0.9 ND hard grad filters
      0.9 ND filter
       
      The filter numbers indicate the number of stops of light that they cut out. For example, 0.3 is 1 stop and 0.9 is 3 stops.
       
      These hand made filters come in handy micro-fibre pockets that can double as cleaning cloths, but they are also wrapped in a fine tissue like paper that I have often used to clean lenses with in the past. Unfortunately the tissue paper didn't make it out of the desert intact...
       
      The adapter rings are made of a black anodised metal and the filter holder simply snaps onto these, allowing you to easily rotate the holder with the filters in place. It’s a very neat, uncomplicated system.
       
      So how does it work in the field?
       
      Prior to this Namibian safari I had never used filters like this, so you could call me a complete filter system newbie. Fortunately there is a lot of information on the LEE Filters website, as well as guides on how to use their products, so before I went on the trip I spent some time reading up how to use them and it seemed to be a fairly straight forward process.
       
      The first time I tried to use them was at Bloubergstrand in Cape Town where you get some amazing sunsets over the ocean. Initially I found it a little difficult to figure out where exactly the ND grad line was appearing on the Olympus E-M5 because even if you press the depth of field preview, the EVF automatically brightens itself. This is a setting somewhere that I simply didn’t have the time to go looking for, so I guessed where to place the filter. The results were interesting, but as I was still learning how to use the system, I needed to experiment a bit more.
       

      click to enlarge
      Above is a shot showing the sun setting over Robin Island with a bit of the shoreline in the frame. If I remember correctly I was using the 0.6 ND graduated filter here, but I might be wrong. The overall exposure between land, sea and sky seems to be nicely balanced, but there is a spot of flare from the sun in the frame. This is not a train smash as you can always clone it out, but because you’re using what is essentially an external element to your lens, the quality of the filter will affect the severity of flare if you have the sun in the frame, so keep this in mind if you get the notion of buying cheaper filters.
       
      The next time I got to use the filters was a couple of weeks later when we found ourselves photographing landscapes inside the Sossussvlei, which is a spectacular dune reserve in the south western part of Namibia. This is a place where landscape photographers die and go to heaven. Wherever you turn there is majestic landscape waiting for you to capture it. On our second day in the area we stayed inside the reserve in one of the exclusive Namibia Wildlife Resorts which enabled us to stay in the reserve at the most important photographic times of the day, sunrise and sunset. We made the most of this and did a session near dune 42 in the fading light of late afternoon and then again the next morning before sunrise at the Deadvlei, which is about 60km from the lodge, right at the end of the asphalt road that runs through the reserve.
       
      The afternoon session gave me some much needed time to play around with the ND grads using my Olympus OM-D E-M5 and 9-18mm lens. While our group were mostly photographing the massive dune in front of us, I turned around and looked at the landscape behind us. The sun was setting and the light was amazing, so I found some foreground interest and proceeded to experiment with the LEE Seven5 ND grad filters, trying them all, before finally finding my stride with the 0.6.
       

       
       

       

       
      The next morning three of us arose before the dawn and headed for a sunrise at the Deadvlei. This gave me yet more opportunities to try out the ND grads. Again the results were great!
       

      click to enlarge
       
      The next time I got to try out the filters was in Swakopmund, but the sky was very washed out there and there weren’t any clouds, so for this particular shot I went with the 0.3 ND grad and positioned it just below the horizon to give some more definition to the tops of the dunes.
       

      click to enlarge
       
      I think that this little system of filters is indispensable to landscape photography. It’s been downsized for use with the smaller mirrorless systems, such as micro four thirds and Fuji X-trans, so it’s easy to carry around in a camera bag. I managed to find a $20 slimline Lowepro GPS case that fits the filters and adapter rings I have perfectly. The filter holder comes with a drawstring pouch that fits nicely into the side of my ThinkTank Retrospective 5 bag, which means I can bring along my entire m43 kit and a filter set without having to resort to a bigger bag.
       
      There are quite a few filter options available for the Seven5 system, ranging from sunset, B&W, tobacco, chocolate and sepia grads to polarisers and even a lens hood to help minimise the flaring from light hitting the filters at oblique angles. All in all it’s fairly comprehensive as a system and should keep landscape shooters using smaller systems quite well prepared for many eventualities.
       
      Price wise it’s not cheap, but it should be remembered that each filter is hand made, so you're getting the very best it can be. For the set of 3 ND grads, a single 0.9 ND filter, holder and 3 adapter rings you’re looking at approximately US$396 excluding shipping. There are now also Singh-Ray filters that will fit the LEE Seven5 holder, but those cost even more than the LEE filters.
       
      In my opinion if you’re into outdoor photography, especially if you want to keep weight down by using a small mirrorless system, you can’t beat this Seven5 system for convenience. Go get it if you can, it's a worthwhile investment in your photography.
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