Mistakes Professional Still Photographers Make When “Moving” to Video

1.  They forget about the story – it’s not your camera that tells the story – it’s the person using the camera. Pretty visuals, slapped into a motion timeline with music, doesn’t necessarily tell a story.  Video is a story telling medium – don’t forget that.

2.  They think they already know how to shoot – if you think because you are a professional photographer and all you need to do is get a camera with a “video mode” on it, you are mistaken. Shooting in motion is far different than shooting still images. An experienced motion shooter can spot a video shot by a still photographer with little know how, right away.

3.  Thinking audio isn’t important – audio is more important than the visual when producing video.  Hire a sound person to do it right, but don’t discount it.

4.  Thinking the DSLR camera is all you need for video productions – this is a biggie.  How are you going to go after professional video jobs if this is the only tool in your kit?  Sure you can rent a RED – but make sure you are as proficient with this tool as your competition is before hanging out your “motion” shingle.

5.  Positioning themselves just as DP’s or Directors and thinking you’ll maintain ownership of your work. If you assume the role of a camera operator, DP or even a director – you will be in a work for hire position in most markets.  Position yourself as a producer – shoot if you want to – and direct – but realize that you’ll be just one rung on the “content ladder”.

6.  They don’t learn interview skills – this is what separates the pros from the still shooters who have DSLR cameras and think that’s all they need.  I’d say about  70% of my work includes on camera interviews.  Even though I ask the questions- I’m not on camera, my subject is.   I not only need to know how to ask the right questions and get great audio, but I need to produce a usable interview clip for an editor. That means knowing how to get great soundbites. This is one area I excel in – it’s all about rapport with your subject.

7.  They try to compete in “old business model” markets – Everyone wants to shoot broadcast spots and feature films (or short films) so they think that after shooting motion for only a few months – or even a year – they will be able to compete in the high end business of video production.  First, this market, like the still photography market,  has changed drastically, mostly marginalized by still photographers who are just starting to shoot motion,  shooting jobs for next to nothing because they have no understanding of this “business”.

8.  Learning the “how to’s” in terms of gear – but nothing about the business – this is also a biggie.  There are so many “how to shoot motion” workshops and roadshows out there but no one seems to be teaching the business end of things.  Still photographers think they already know “the business” but quickly realize that they don’t, and they put themselves out of business in this medium – before they’ve barely started.

9.  Teaching “how to” workshops in video with little or no experience – I can’t tell you how many photographers have called me for technical advice about some pretty basic stuff in terms of video,  and four months later they are teaching workshops. Please don’t become part of the problem and send more shooters out into this field without teaching them something about business. And if you are considering taking a workshop – do your homework and take the workshop from someone who is accomplished in this field and has done something.

10. They forget about the story – I know that’s #1 but it needs reinforcing.

Monetization of Photography in Spite of a Lousy Economy

I talk to a lot of photographers. I don’t define the word “photographer” by the type of camera he or she shoots with. Whether someone is shooting with a still camera, a traditional video camera, a motion picture film camera or a hybrid camera that shoots both stills and motion – a “photographer” these days is apt to embrace more than one of these tools.

Regardless of the tools you may use, I’ve come up with a few tips on how photographers can stay afloat and make money in this continued stagnant economy.

  • Think outside the box – don’t think of yourself as one who just shoots still images. Even your “still” clients will have a need for motion imagery these days.  It may not warrant the need for them to hire a big video production crew to make a broadcast spot.  But it could be one of your corporate clients needs a “talking head” for their website. Even if you don’t shoot motion or don’t want to – collaborate with someone who has these skills to fill your client’s needs instead of sending your clients  elsewhere.
  • You don’t need someone else to commission your services in order for you to make a living. When photographers take on personal projects, not only are they creating a buzz and getting noticed by potential clients, they are also creating their own “content” to monetize. It is possible now to get our content to market without the need of a middleman. Portals are open and plentiful to all.
  • Take advantage of what is “free”, rather than be put out of business by it. There are so many ways to build your brand and get noticed without spending a fortune. The costs of building and maintaining a website have dropped significantly because of advances in technology. And utilizing social media to create a buzz and get the word out about your company is virtually free with Facebook, Twitter,LinkedIn and YouTube. But be prepared to do the work and discipline yourself because this territory is ripe with distractions.
  • Re-purpose your content. If you’ve been blogging or have something useful to share – consider packaging your “knowledge” into ePubs, podcasts or “how to” webinars. One thing I’ve learned about making an ePub is that you can either do it yourself or hire a formatter so that it gets to market quickly – via Amazon, Barnes and Noble or the iTunes platform. Price it right – and offer more than one ePub at a time. (I’m working on my 2nd ePub now) In this market, if someone has just spent $3 or $4 to buy your ePub and they see you have another one for sale – it’s not a big stretch for them to buy that other book you offer at the same time.
  • Collaborate with others. Partner with others to put on webinars, podcasts, call in phone seminars etc. Use this opportunity to build your own brand. Don’t always feel that you have to be the only “act” offered. In fact many times, if you join forces with other creatives, it will get you further than if you are the only speaker in a half filled room. Get out there and get noticed and learn from your colleagues at the same time.
  • Be authentic. I cringe when I write that word because it has become a bit trite. I guess in a way I have always been authentic. In fact I just can’t help myself. If you are true to yourself, you will be ready, eager and able to work hard on your dreams. And hard work is exactly what is necessary to make it in this profession.  You’ve got to want it bad enough in order to do the work. If you are a clone of other photographers, you’re career will be short lived. I guarantee the photographers that you are emulating will be “moving on” because their passion is driving them to new things. So, what happens to the cloned versions then?
  • Don’t focus solely on the money. Easy to say and really hard to embrace when you can’t pay your mortgage. But look at any successful person – I don’t care which business you choose to look toward in terms of finding successful people – but you’ll see that most people who have “made it big” were not driven by the money. I’m not saying that money is not important, but if you are solely focused on the money and not on the act of creating – it will show.   Being too focused on the  money part of the equation, can sometimes push it away. People sense it. It’s human nature to want to be around a “winner” – not someone who is begging for a job to keep them afloat financially.
  • Be patient. Everything turns around. While the old days and ways of doing things won’t come back, better opportunities will replace them. Don’t be paralyzed by your own fears. Do what you can that won’t cost you a lot of money and there is plenty you can do. Work social media, learn new skills – audio, editing, writing etc., network with people, create new content for ePubs, webinars, and podcasts. Use your imagination, pursue what you are passionate about and when the economy turns around – you’ll be ready.

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Why Did You Want to Become a Photographer?

That was one of the questions posed to me during an interview this past weekend. A young woman had asked to interview me for a college paper she was writing. The call and the questions started out somewhat clinical, most likely another task or paper that she needed to check off her list. She proceeded through the usual list of questions: “Did you go to photography school?” “What type of photography are you interested in?” So on and so forth.

I could hear her typing my answers and I paused to let her catch up. But then she asked a question that really struck me on many levels. “Did you get into photography because it was cheaper?” I asked her what she meant by that – did she mean the tools of the trade were cheaper? When she responded “yes”, I told her that was somewhat of a misnomer and that the first cameras I bought (mechanical ones) I had used for 10 years. I added that now, because of the exponential impact of technology on my profession, my cameras and the software I need on the post end, have to be upgraded at least every two or three years, and that was only part of the investment required in the “tools of the trade.”

As she typed my response, I felt myself getting a bit anxious and I started speaking rapidly. I told her that even if that were true – meaning that I got into the photographic profession because it was cheaper – that would have been the absolute worst reason for me or anyone else, to choose photography as a profession. I went on to say that you need to be passionate about some aspect of photography that makes you want to do it more than anything, if you want to have a chance of sustaining yourself financially in this profession. Pursue photography because it brings you joy and that if you are getting into it because the entry level costs were “cheaper” you’ll simply be competing with thousands or tens of thousands of button pushers.

I went on to tell her that I became a photographer as a means to an end. I had been studying architecture in college and after two years left school to travel. I traveled the world for a year and came back knowing that I wanted to pursue a lifestyle that would incorporate travel but more importantly fill my endless curiosity of people and cultures and exploration. I wanted to become a storyteller, and became a photographer as a means to that end.

As the interview progressed I noticed the typing started to diminish as I told her that I have never separated my business from my pleasure and that they have always been tied together throughout my life. Simply put – my business is my pleasure. I talked about my frustrations starting out as one of a handful of women in a man’s world and for the most part a man’s profession – at least in the early days. I talked about the endless stream of rejections and the “wins” that seemed to pop into my life when I needed them most, rescuing me in the knick of time, just when I was thinking of quitting and moving into another career. I told her that unless she really wanted to do photography, she wouldn’t survive in this profession. I talked about my mentors when I was her age and how grateful I am that I had those people in my life. I relayed a couple of anecdotes about things my mentors had said to me and how those words had been pivotal moments in my life and that when things got tough, I drew upon those words of wisdom to get me through the day.

Then there was a very loud audible sigh, followed by a long period of silence and my mind raced through the various things that I had said to her. Was I too harsh? Did I paint too bleak of picture? Or worse yet – did I make it sound too easy and that all she had to do was “just do it”. I felt this overwhelming sense of responsibility that maybe I said something that was going to dictate the rest of her life and I kind of panicked in that moment of silence. And then she said “thank you so much for talking to me today, I started out just wanting to write my paper, and I’m going to have a great paper, but you have no idea how much talking to you has helped me.” She went on to tell me that she had been struggling with a decision that she was trying to make between going to law school and going to film school. I told her that she needed to make that decision all by herself and that it wasn’t a decision that anyone else could make for her – not I – not her parents – not anyone else. I told her to dig down deep into herself for the answer, beyond the influence of others, the dogma of the day and all the noise. And most importantly to remember that it was her life and that she got to choose how to live it and that she had every right to change her mind along the way.

Quite honestly, it has been one of those “onion” months for me, with layers of setbacks and second-guessing myself. I got off the phone feeling good about paying forward what I have learned along my way and in that moment, I realized that this might be my “purpose” at this point in my life. The day had turned into one of those sweet “strawberry days”. She didn’t know it, but she had helped me as much as she said I had helped her. It’s those conversations and those little moments that keep me going, and come to my rescue, just in the knick of time.

I would love to hear from you all – why did you want to become a photographer?  Something you say or write just may help someone and paying it forward is the best feeling in the world.

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Conversation with Director/Editor Erik Freeland

I was extremely fortunate that Erik Freeland of Springhouse Films was the editor on our film Opening Our Eyes.  I learned a lot from Erik through our collaboration.  I thought I would share some of Erik’s insights about the art of editing.

What makes a good editor?

Knowing a little bit about everything. Art history, popular culture, physics, linguistics, music… it gives you more points of reference for understanding and presenting the story. Attention to detail is very important because in the end, nothing goes unnoticed by the audience. I guess I’d have to say patience is tremendously important –– even though computers do amazing things, editing is at its core a tedious process.

We all seem to wear more than one hat these days – do you? If so do those skill sets complement each other and how?

I started in this business as an editor but really wanted to have more control over the material I was editing. I’ve have been fortunate to be able to also have a career as a director. Understanding those two disciplines and knowing what is possible in each allows me to visualize the editing process more during the shoot.

I know from editing projects myself, it has made me a better shooter. For still photographers who may not want to edit their own projects – what tips can you give to them about shooting video and motion?

Don’t cut too soon. Be patient and let a shot evolve.

When shooting a scene or a moment in time, think of it as different framings: the wide establishing shot, a medium shot of the main action or subject and little details that can serve as cutaways to prolong the scene or intercut the other shots while masking breaks in continuity.

Plan your movement of the camera and commit to it. When you start a pan, resist the temptation to reframe the shot mid-move. Keep it moving for long enough to make the shot usable in the edit and cut only if it really falls apart.

Keep in mind how much footage you are shooting vis a vis what you will want to end up with. You don’t want to miss anything important but a lot of redundant footage can really be a liability in your edit.

What does a well-edited film mean to you?

Many things. I think first and foremost, it’s about clear storytelling. It shouldn’t be confusing and leave the viewer behind. The editing shouldn’t stylistically overpower the story. Secondly, the rhythm of the cutting should help move the film and should be sympathetic to its tone. Third, it should move you, surprise you, change your mind, do something… I suppose I could say the same things are equally important in directing a film.

As an editor, you can have a lot of influence over the meaning and arc of a story. How much influence should an editor have? Does it depend on the director?

An editor should exercise as much as they can… without upsetting the collaborative balance. Everyone involved in the film should influence it to the best of their ability. Otherwise, their contribution to the process is short-changed. Of course, every working relationship is different and some are less collaborative.

What makes a good director?

I think some of the same qualities that make a good editor are part of a being good director. Knowing a little bit about everything as a director for instance, allows you to tell many types of stories and immerse yourself in the subject matter. Attention to detail, multi-tasking capabilities, being able to verbally communicate about visuals are of course all important skills. There is also a balance between focus and objectivity. A good director is fused with the film –– totally absorbed in every detail. At the same time, they have to be able to look at it and all decisions objectively and from a distance, almost like the eventual viewer.

What makes a good story?

Characters you care about, conflict and location, location, location…

What’s more difficult – editing a 2 minute piece for the web or a feature length film?

Hmmm, that’s a hard one. Kind of like asking which is better night or day.

Does editing have trends? Maybe you can point out a couple of examples of style over the years.

OK, first I don’t profess to be a film historian but I try to keep up on things. I tend to watch the films I like the most over and over. Technology has certainly created trends in film editing and directing. Advancements in keying technologies, motion tracking and motion capture as well as realistic CGI environments are but some of the major trends that have changed the way films look and are edited. Probably the closest things to trends specific to editing have been related to timing and pacing. The time-lapse of “Koyaanisqatsi” in the early 80’s, the repetition and multiple outcomes of “Run Lola Run” and the quick cutting shorthand jump-cuts and time-compression in Guy Ritchie’s films like “Snatch” have all had a huge influence over the editing of their time.

The Making of a Movie with a DSLR

It’s been a wild ride since I first began this journey of making a feature film with a DSLR camera – in my case, the Canon Eos 5D Mark II. I had already completed three short documentaries to date – all made with traditional video cameras from my first Canon XL-1 to my current HD Sony EX-1. But this time I was heading out on a 99-day journey around the globe, with my 23 year old daughter in search of ordinary people on six continents, who were making a difference in the world, and we had to pack light.

We were “the crew” – the two of us. We had to work efficiently and with gear that would fit into two backpacks and would endure the adventure as we traveled to 17 different countries on 30 flights. I also wanted to shoot both still images and motion, so I opted for the DSLR solution. Of course, I was enchanted by the “big chip” and the cinematic look of these cameras, but I was also thinking of my gear in practical terms – how I was traveling – how I would be shooting – and of course the desired outcome.

You can read more about the gear I took here.

So with my daughter “running sound”, doing the interviews with our subjects, shooting still images, and navigating us through the subway systems in Moscow and Buenos Aires, and me taking care of all the logistics and  shooting both video and stills, we came back 99 days later with almost 3000 gigabytes of content – that’s approx. 150 hours of footage and 5000 still image captures!

I wasn’t mentally prepared for what came next and that was 2 intensive months on my part ingesting all the content into my editing system, transcoding and adding metadata to the files and culling through hours of interview soundbites until I had cut it down to three . It was grueling and my winter months were spent putting in 14 hour days – 7 days a week. I was overwhelmed, yet somehow driven by some force.  It was a lot of work, it was tedious and it was daunting – but yet it was my passion and somehow this inexplicable “force” got me through it.

I raised money along the way through crowd funding on Kickstarter and with that, I hired an editor. After I handed the project off to my editor, Erik Freeland of Springhouse Films, there was a huge sigh of relief on my part. I knew the post production had a long way to go but, I also knew that I had to let it go for a while and step back. Working with Erik has been amazing in itself and he has brought enormous value to this project and film. I have learned a lot from his insights and his talents in knowing how to” tell a story”, and we are finally coming to the completion of this film. Or at least in getting the “first cut” done for a sneak preview on July 17th, at the State Theater in Traverse City, Michigan. The screening is by invitation only and if you would like to attend, just drop me an email at gail@openingoureyes.net and tell me how many people would like to attend.

Since I first dreamed up this project in the final days of 2009, to the departure of our trip in the Spring of 2010, to where we are now, it has been a continual journey on every level imaginable. And I have had many angels working on my behalf – my husband Tom Kelly who has been the “wind beneath my wings” and without his support none of this would have been possible, my extended family who have been amused over the years with my schemes and dreams, my dear friends Angel Burns and Ally Raye who have believed in me and this project and have made incredibly exciting things happen for this film. (I’m not quite ready to divulge some of those exciting things publicly, just yet), Maria Grillo and Jason Harvey at The Grillo Group who have been so giving with their time and talents and created all the graphic design for the film’s release, and so many other “angels” who have helped me with foreign translations, been financial backers, helped me spread the word globally, and every person who was there for me when I needed support and encouragement. I am deeply grateful to have all these people in my life.

We live in an empowering time. When I began my career as a still photographer, over 30 years ago, I never would have imagined doing any of this. In fact just two years ago, none of this would have been possible. Our dreams are as big as we want them to be. I have seen this dream clearly from the start and each day I get closer and closer to seeing it become a reality.

Watch the Trailer

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We’ve Lost a Blues Legend – Pinetop Perkins July 7, 1913 – March 21, 2011

Yesterday, legendary bluesman Pinetop Perkins died. Pinetop was 97 years old. He was one of the greatest boogie-woogie piano players ever to strike those keys. I could go on and list all of his awards and accolades because Pinetop has received some of  music’s highest distinctions. He recently received a Grammy, making him the oldest Grammy winner on record bumping George Burns. He had previously been awarded a lifetime achievement Grammy.

But rather than go on and list more of Pinetops achievements, which can be quickly googled, I’d like to share some personal experiences I had with Pinetop over the years. I first met Pinetop and his manager Pat Morgan in 2001 when I was shooting my Delta Bluesmen Project. It was my very first multimedia project where I was shooting still environmental portraits of blues musicians, images and b-roll video of the Mississippi Delta region and interviews of legendary blues musicians from this part of America. I had no idea what I was taking on by myself – I just had this crazy idea that I needed to document these men before they died and I had no time to waste since the youngest was in his 70’s. So, I just decided to do it with the unstoppable enthusiasm of a kid.

When I first contacted Pinetop’s manager Pat to set up an on camera interview with Pine, she quite firmly rejected my request. Pat was very protective of Pinetop and never wanted to overload him with interviews and fan requests and she had already granted an interview to another filmmaker, so I was out of luck. But I was persistent and Pat finally said that I should come to Pinetop’s homecoming party at Hopson’s Plantation in Clarksdale, MS and get what I could catch of Pinetop there. The day of the homecoming, I was allowed to put a lav on Pinetop to get better audio of his interactions with people throughout the day. One reason Pat thought the homecoming would be a good opportunity for me was because Ike Turner was going to be there. Pinetop had taught Ike to play piano during the 1940’s when they were both working at Hopson’s Plantation and this was going to be a true homecoming.

I put the wireless on Pinetop and kind of forgot about it as the day went on. I was roving around the plantation getting great b-roll and then went into the commissary where there was a big music jam going on. I had taken my earphones off outside, but quickly put them back on to protect my hearing in this incredibly loud environment. I dialed the audio way down on the camera mic but Pinetop’s wireless was still loud and clear. All a sudden I heard Pine and Pat talking about giving Ike a little tour and showing him Pinetop’s old sharecropper shack. I glanced around the commissary looking for them and couldn’t see them – I could just hear them. So, I raced outside, camera in hand just in time to see Pat, Pinetop, Ike Turner and a couple of other people walking across the grounds of the plantation headed toward Pinetop’s shack, just as the sun was setting. I caught up to the group and managed to get some great b- roll and audio of this historic moment. With camera running, I followed them inside the shack where Pinetop naturally sat down at the piano and started to play with Ike chiming in. I was in b-roll heaven and just hoping I was getting it right in camera.

After that little tour was over Pat came up to me and told me that she had worked with a lot of photographers and filmmakers over the years but had never seen instincts like mine. She said she was blown away when I just showed up out of nowhere to film this mini event. Then she told me that if I could come by the next morning, I could get an interview with Pinetop. I did come back the next day and spent a memorable morning with Pinetop on the porch of his old shack. I will never forget that morning – the quiet and the warmth of the place and the man and the moment. You can see some of that footage in this 7 minute sample of my film. The still images and video component of that project is still being exhibited around the country.

I’ve stayed in touch with Pat and Pinetop over the years. In 2005 when Pinetop was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Grammy, the producers used some of my interview footage of Pine in his tribute film. I was there with Pinetop and Pat and a whole lot of rock legends like Jerry Lee Lewis, Ike Turner and Jimmi Page. Another memory etched in my mind.

The last time I saw Pinetop was at the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival (aka King Biscuit) in 2009. We were driving somewhere with Pat and she noticed that we had a small army blanket in our car and asked to borrow it for Pinetop that evening. It was a chilly October evening and she didn’t want Pinetop (95 years old then) to get cold that evening as he waited in the wings to go on stage. That night when I was shooting from the photo pit I saw Pinetop sitting just off stage with my army blanket wrapped around him and his customary cigarette hanging out of his mouth. I thought for a second, “I hope he doesn’t burn a hole in my blanket” and then I quickly thought that I wouldn’t mind if he did. In fact if he did burn a hole, I’d be reminded of him every time I saw it. The blanket was returned unscarred – but I still think of Pinetop every time I see that blanket in the back of my car.

I’ll miss you Pinetop. But I sure am glad I got to know you. We’ll always have your music and the wonderful memories you gave us all.

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I Must Have Been Crazy to Think I Could Do It

….But I did.  Last night I shipped 3 hard drives with almost 5 terabytes of media to my editor. After 2 very long months of extremely long days – every day – I got through the “first edit” of my documentaryIt’s by no means finished, there’s a lot more editing needed to cut it down by half, there’s music to be composed and a narrative that has to be written, but I take great joy in the fact that I got through this part of the process – because it damn near killed me.

When shooting a documentary, you don’t work with a script or a storyboard – or at least I don’t.  I have a pretty solid idea of the “story” when I set out to shoot, but there’s always twists and turns with every situation and every interview.  But I love surprises and I make room for serendipity to happen.  What results is a lot of content that needs to be crafted and arced into a story.  And I’ve just finished defining that story and laying the foundation.

It hasn’t been easy.  In fact there have been times when I’ve wanted to walk away from this because it was so overwhelming.  Trying to tie 11 different stories into one, and looking through 150 hours of footage multiple times can be overwhelming for a team of editors, let alone one individual. I’ve also had my share of low moments these past few months with a grant application rejected and a broken promise by a friend, but somehow I got through it.  I got through it because I had desire.

Having a strong desire for whatever it is one wants to achieve is essential.  Many times we say we really want something, but that is far different than having a true desire to make something happen. In order to stick to something (anything) and follow through with it – no matter what – that desire must be strong and come from within.  It’s something that can’t be copied, taught or faked – you either have it or you don’t. It comes when you are true to yourself.

It’s hard to stay true to yourself.  Many times, well meaning friends or spouses try to distract you from your purpose.  I see this happen a lot when a significant other, who may not understand that in the creative world, the line between work and pleasure is quite blurred and sometimes may feel somewhat resentful of all the time their partner spends on “work”.  I’m lucky in that my husband is also my business partner and has a full understanding of those blurred lines between work and pleasure.  He also knows that when I have such a strong desire to do something, that he shouldn’t get in the way of me following that desire.  That is truly selfless and well meaning.

Since beginning this lofty project, I’ve gotten a lot of calls from people who are in a slump for one reason or another.  They look to me for some kind of guidance.  I don’t really know what to say, other than to tell them to listen to their true self – the one underneath the clutter of the ego – and to trust what it tells you. If I get one of those calls during one of those low moments in my life, I try really hard to stay positive even though I feel like a big fake, because I’ve temporarily succumbed to my own self doubts.  At those times, I try to be utterly honest, relaying the bitter with the sweet and say that bad times don’t last forever. But you have to let your spirit shine.

I wrote a blog once about the human spirit. I feel that the spirit inside me is ageless.  I know when people come up to me and say “you look good” – what they really see is my spirit – which never gets old because I keep it alive. When I’m true to myself, my spirit soars and I look back at my defeats and rejections with a different understanding and acceptance.

So today, with my spirit in tact and my desire ever so strong, I rejoice in the fact that I accomplished something – something that’s really meaningful.  That brings a big smile to my face and great joy in my heart.  What a feeling – it’s priceless.

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