The Difference Between Amateurs and Professionals

It seems as if everyone with a camera is setting up shop and marketing themselves as a true professional. But can everyone with a camera be a professional? Can you command professional prices just because you love taking photographs?

The answer is a definite no.

Lots of people love photographing nature, but there’s only one Ansel Adams.

Lots of people taking portraits, but there’s only one Annie Leibovitz.

So what is the difference between an amateur and a professional? How do you know when you’ve reached professional status?

Wedding Photography Business Using Digital Cameras

1.You think like a professional. Amateurs want a photography business to give them a reason to buy more camera equipment. Amateurs want a photography business to keep them busy when they want to be busy – not on a full time basis. A professional loves capturing images, and sharing them with as many people as possible. They love to be busy doing what they love – and making a good living at it as well.

2. You think of yourself as an entrepreneur. Yes, there’s more to a photography business than photographing. There’s production. And marketing. And paper work. And emails. And promotion. And sales. An entrepreneur loves growing a business, with photography as your passion, product and service – not the other way around.

3. You make it a goal to improve. You take your camera everywhere. You’re the one at the party behind the lens of the camera. You also attend your local photography meetings; buy videos and training materials to improve both your photography and business skills; and hire coaches to make you better at building your photography studio.

4. You spend time studying other photographers work, and try and improve your own photography by following examples. An amateur loves what they do, and thinks there is no room for improvement. But a professional knows the education will never stop. There’s always room for improvement.

5. You create your own style. Everyone starts out imitating a mentor photographer. I remember taking posing guides from some of our favorite photographers (David Ziser, Clay Blackmore, Heidi Mauracher) and imitating poses and images produced by greats like Denis Reggie. But once we moved into professional status, we created our own style. The posing comes naturally. The fun is always there.

Better Portraits With Reflectors

It’s always effortless, and it shows in the images.

6. You know your stuff. There’s no more thinking about each image. You automatically know when you’ve captured the perfect image. It’s all about having fun with the client, pulling together a professional image for the client to see, and knowing everything will fall into place perfectly.

7. You’d do this even without the money. Photography is something that is inside of you, no matter what. You love doing it, and find any excuse to photograph. But you also know that as a true professional, you can command a high fee. It comes with being a professional.

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We're the co-founders of VirtualPhotographyStudio.com and have been writing on this blog since 2004. We started Virtual as a way to help photographers stretch beyond a part time income, and develop strategies to become a Five Figure Photographer or a Six Figure Photographer. Ultimately its all about lifestyle, and if your goal is to live as a photographer 24/7, we think you should have the knowledge and the tools to do so. Welcome!

Comments

  1. There is always something that you can do to improve or learn. Before you call yourself a professional have someone seriously critique your knowledge, your work, your final products on a daily or consecutive project basis. Even “professional” photographers don’t call themselves professionals because they know well enough that they can still improve and learn in their field. They say so themselves (I know, I’ve been around a few) Sure, they get paid…but have they become “masters”, or “outright experts” have they learned everything there is to learn? Yes, there are those who know quite a bit…but is it their ego or their knowledge that makes them a “professional”? Even Ansel Adams had room to improve in photography.
    You can have the biggest camera, or the most lenses or have a high paid job using strobe flashes…but do you just get the job done? Do you care? Do you fall asleep when people are learning from you? As yourself, have you learned everything you can or is there room to grow or room for improvement?

  2. Virtual Photography says:

    Thanks for the great comment. I definitely follow in your train of thought, and consider myself always in learning mode. No matter what class I find myself in, or what book I read, or what person I’m listening to, I always find something that can help me or my business become better.

    With digital still such a new artform, and so many ways to process a photo after you’ve taken it, I know I’ll be learning forever.

    Thanks!
    Lori

  3. the difference between a professional and an amateur is that a professional makes a living from photography and an amateur does not. you have described the difference between a good pro and and a bad pro. the fact is, an amateur can tick all the boxes you just mentioned and not make a living from photography ( i would say i do). On the other hand there are plenty of pros out there who tick none of those boxes and still make a good living from photography.

  4. The main difference between amateur and pros are commitment, responsibility, reliability.
    It is not the camera that makes the job but the photographer.

  5. 1. Professional photographers work to play their life bills, mortgage, car loan, food and hopefully save enough to retire on. It rarely has anything to do with love of the art, sharing their photos. Its about cash in pocket. I shot as a full time professional for 5 years. Not once during that 5 year period did I shoot for me or for love.

    2. Spot on. A professional photographer spends far more time being an accounting, marketing guru, sales machine and lawyer than they do being a photographer. The average wedding is 50 hours of work for 8 hours of shooting.

    3 & 4. These are the same points. This describes a hobbyist more than a professional. Most professionals (wedding photographer, portrait photographers etc. spend less time on becoming better photographers and more time on being better businessmen. Once you are good enough where people want to pay you, you only need to maintain or improve enough to keep the business growing. Hobbyists on the other hand live to get better. They want to try new things. They are the ones likely to take courses or attend seminars or join study groups. They are into photography because they love photography. Professionals are in to it because they are good at it and love money.

    5. True for both pros and amateurs.

    6. A pro will know enough to to the job. There are a vast number of people making living from photographer using a kit lens and their cameras on Program mode and would panic if they ever met manual. Hobbists are into the craft and love to work in manual mode.

    7. No professional would ever say I would do this without money.

  6. I’ve had many conversations with several New York and Los Angeles based professional photographers and photographer’s representatives who have no less than ten years experience shooting jobs with solid clients as well as advertising agencies and designers. These are the creative professionals who determine who will work on a consistent basis and therefore maintain a steady workflow that keeps a photographer employed. The professional is consistent and deliberate in his or her approach to their career. The Professional usually has a solid mixture of the following experience: Art or Technical schooling, some sort of internship with one or more working class photographers, lots of assisting experience, some have color lab experience. The amateur has little to none of this background.

    Another problem the amateur has in making the transition to pro is that there are thousands of highly trained assistants also trying to make the jump from assistant to professional. This is one of the major blocking points that the non-professional has to go up against. Assistants are the photographers who usually get the lower paying jobs. This is where their experience comes from. Even to get this work one has to show some sort of portfolio and many assistants are as good if not better than lots of working professionals. It is one of the hardest steps to complete in the professional process, and once you get into a consistent working mode their is no guarantee you will receive more work without the consistency of a business model.

    The business model determines which photographer works and which one does not. There are many talented photographers that are not working and I mean top notch gunslingers who have had great success. The competition is fierce and ninety percent of those who pick up a camera do not have the stomach to see their career as a professional through to the end. The end? The end is a lifetime of being a photographer… not pretending to be one on any given day.

    So, what damage can an amateur or non professional do? In my humble opinion the amateur will dabble around the edges or shoot jobs a seasoned or well trained assistant or professional photographer would not touch with a ten foot pole. The professional has to use his or her experience to find work that will cover an overhead of fine talent such as food stylists, make-up talent, wardrobe, etc . Who does that talent work with ? Surely not an amateur. Professionals have a hard enough time culling that talent themselves.

  7. These days with the help of Digital cameras, hardly you can find anybody who don’t take photos. As a result you can see lots of normal people with their own basic digital cameras, take better photos as well as sell them their images.
    I liked your informative article.

  8. Do you need to know more ?

    Let me here call attention to one of the most universally popular mistakes that have to do with photography – that of classing supposedly excellent work as professional, and using the term amateur to convey the idea of immature productions and to excuse atrociously poor photographs. As a matter of fact nearly all the greatest work is being, and has always been done, by those who are following photography for the love of it, and not merely for financial reasons.
    As the name implies, an amateur is one who works for love; and viewed in this light the incorrectness of the popular classification is readily apparent..”

    Alfred Stieglitz, in 1899

  9. John hit it, I think you missed the boat on the differences here. Many examples you use to describe a pro better fit the amateurs and vice versa. For example the pro never says I would do it even if I was not paid. This is what an amateur would say

  10. hello – I run a blog for the Professional Photographers of Canada and would love to reprint your article on our blog. Would you mind if we did that and give a link to your site? Please let me know. thanks.

  11. Both Rob and Bruce made some good points. Personally I have 20years in the field as a pro. Both lab and field work. Talent is everywhere and you can learn from anyone. True skills are shown by the results. Unfortunately technology is hurting many jobs by simplifying such as digital. Try using a 50 yr old film camera and you’ll know if you have what it takes. Ansel could look at a scene and adjust accordingly; no histogram, no LCD to review just knowledge from trial and error. I had a best selling abstract merely a fluke from loading film but I still admit to it. If you succeed good for you just don’t rule anything or anyone out enjoy what you shoot it will show in your work. Just like any business art is subjective.

  12. Actually, it’s the amateur who is the one “always with a camera *AT THE PARTY*” Sometimes I will bring my camera to the party, because I’ll make people do silly photos, then blast it to facebook and tag them for the PR / Marketing side of things.

    However… As a commercial advertising photographer being seen as the “event photographer” at parties does not help my brand.

    To the people who say being a “pro” is about “making money” your are totally missing the boat. Would you hire a mechanic or a plumber just because they are “profitable”… yes you might, but you want them to “act professionally” meaning bedside manner, customer service, ethics and quality of work.

    Sure I and anyone may drop the ball every now and again, but the dedication to being the best in one’s craft and in customer service is what separates the pro’s from the wannabees.

    Later,
    @AcmePhoto
    in Phx.

  13. Great post! Some really good food for thought for both pros and amateurs alike.

    I agree with everything except:

    “You take your camera everywhere”

    and

    “You’d do this without money”.

    On the first point, professionals acutely understand that photography for them “is a job”. They *don’t* take their camera everywhere because they are not being paid to do so. The passion and drive are there, but channeled into a finely crafted service that they SELL. To do this everywhere they go, whether or not they are generating revenue, dilutes the value of the service they offer and takes attention and time away from crafting a better *business*, which is ultimately what really sets them apart from an amateur (there are amateurs out there who have better photography skills than pros). Instead of bringing their camera everywhere and anywhere, they do personal projects to hone their skills.

    On the second note: “You’d do this without the money”.

    A professional photographer has gone through the period in time where they are grossly undercharging for their work, and have paid the consequences of that decision (burnout, inability to pay the studio rent, resentment of their career choice, etc, etc), and have learned that because they are a professional, they will never do photography without getting paid for it, and paid well. One exception to that would be if they have a separate photography hobby they do on their own time just for fun (ex: a pro fashion photographer doing landscape photography just for fun).

    And I *absolutely* agree with points 1, 2, 5 and 6.

    Pros don’t generally upgrade equipment unless absolutely necessary, because they know that equipment does not generate revenue, and in order to run a business, and not a hobby, they need to keep the bottom line in mind with every single little thing they do.

    Professional photographers are also well aware that they can expect to spend most of their time (85% +) NOT doing photography, but doing all of the things that make a business more successful as you mentioned above. I have a feeling amateurs actually spend a lot more time shooting, lol.

    “You create your own style”. I know of few successful professional photographers who do not have their own style. You might add to this that they are leading instead of following, when it comes to looks, composition, backgrounds, locations, etc. They take their creativity and inspiration from inside instead of looking to other photographers.

    #6-” you know everything will fall together perfectly”. I totally agree. I think that comes with the confidence born from lots of experience with clients. A pro doesn’t need to spend a great deal of time planning the shoot and thinking up what they are going to do, because they know that things will change, and that in order to get the best images, they need to be flexible and open to whatever they encounter when they arrive, and create the very best images from that situation, regardless of whether it is going according to the plan in their mind.

    Again, really great post and I love that it has people talking! :-)

  14. Thanks so much – and I love your explanation on the first two points. I couldn’t agree more. As a professional, you do have to separate work and personal, and understand you get paid well for what you do. I was definitely thinking of it more as its such a passion, you use it as a hobby too. We may have photographed weddings and portraits during our working time, but love to take our gear hiking into the mountains or out to the beach to capture landscapes as well. Once you’re a photographer, it’s hard not to look at something and say, “That would make a great photograph…”

  15. Let me start with saying the following is in no way meant to be a shot at this website or it’s author(s) – I agree with a fair amount of what they say. I also address this to the photographers who are just taking a stab at it, trying to determine if they could ever become professionals as compared to amateurs. Perhaps the pros might learn about compassion a bit should they read it.

    It’s just that I read about one of these type blog posts a week, and for those just getting into photography professionally this can be a touchy subject. Your first years are spent paying your dues, and getting kicked while you’re down by “fellow” photographers can be deeply discouraging. Purely accidental kicks, I’m sure. Get to hear a lot of it at PPA conventions. “What separates the Men from the Boys?” They basically always comes down to “You’re a professional if you are like the author.” While the varied definitions of what makes a “true” professional often disagree, it is amazing how the definitions are always broad enough to encompass the author’s working situation. Some say you must have a storefront studio; amazingly, those authors all have storefront studios. (A commercial food/product photographer definitely needs studio space. But do wedding specialists *really* have need of a studio?) Some say you absolutely must be full time; amazingly, all those authors do it full time. (My dentist does dentistry 30 hrs a week – should I quit using him because he’s “just part-timer” and thus obviously not a “true” dentist?). Some (like me) say you absolutely have to shoot everything on Manual; amazingly, these authors have had years to perfect an intuitive understanding of exposure reciprocity and only carry light meters to prove to their assistants how well they can guesstimate exposures with the Sunny-16 rule. (But there are some who make a full time living shooting mostly salvageable exposures on Shutter priority and fixing RAW files in Lightroom.)

    Here’s the thang. Anyone can call themselves a pro and anyone can shoot for money. My 15 year old has better vision than some “pros” out there. Anyone can accuse you of not being a pro because of issue X. Are you getting repeat business? Does the younger sister of a previous wedding client book you for her wedding because they were so impressed by not only your images but your presence and gentle manner of dealing with wedding guests? Are you raising your prices annually and keeping in line with PPA’s studio benchmarks? While there are obvious preconditions and requisites, there is no single valid litmus test of what constitutes a professional photographer.

    If you’ve been in the business less than 3-5 years, let me offer this suggestion. Create a definition of “professional photographer” which is uncharacteristically NOT self-serving. Create a definition which excludes you, but is obtainable. It may be as simple as “been in business over 4 years”. Ah, met that definition? Congratulations! Now change it to “been profitable for over 4 years”. Oooh, that was below the belt, huh? Once you meet that goal, set another one, higher still, and climb that peak. Look, I’m no Ansel Adams not an Annie Liebovitz, nothing close to their caliber. I am working on it. Yes, I’ll still shoot for me occasionally, but If I’m not shooting a wedding I’d rather teach my kids to how to shoot for them, or devote a few grueling 18 hour days of camera and computer work to my local Cowboy Church’s Rodeo Bible Camp every summer. Most of my time is marketing, sales, and post-production wedding work. Like someone else said very accurately, being behind the camera is just 10% of the work hours you log. And I HATE the way the terms “amateur” and “hobbyist” are denigrated. Look, true professionals all started as amateurs, and worked their way up to hobbyists before deciding to pursue photography as a career. Like the Nike commercial says – just DO IT. But do it smartly. Read and research. Join PPA, WPPI, or whatever fits your market. Do what you’re doing now – read blogs and the opinions of schmucks like me. Maybe you’ll succeed. To be brutally honest, statistics say you’ll most likely fail. But at least you will be counted among those who dared bravely when it’s time to give an account of your life. God forbid I am ever counted among those who cowered in knee-hugging timidity. Don’t let those nay-sayers get you down; quitting only benefits them. Have a side job if you have to; let photography be your side job for now if you have to. It’s OK to start your career part time while still maintaining a full time job to feed your family as you get your feet firmly planted.

  16. Thanks so much Kevyn for your comments – I’m sure you touched a lot of nerves with this one.

  17. Thanks. When I wrote that I was specifically thinking about a young single mother I first met in a class at TPPA’s week-long Texas School last year. This girl sold everything she owned to get into photography, and was doing everything she could to do it well (like attending Texas School). I saw other photographers subtly looking down at her. True, her technical knowledge and abilities were less than most in the class. But I saw her bravery, her tenacity, her creativity, her thirst to learn, her willingness to do whatever it took to become a better photographer and succeed at the life-shaking risk she took. I want encourage anyone like her reading these kind of posts and comments to not get discouraged by other photographers well-meaning definitions. My apologies to anyone (especially established photographers) I might have offended; no offense was intended. I love what Adam N. said: “the dedication to being the best in one’s craft and in customer service is what separates the pro’s from the wannabees”. It’s the dedication to excellence, the professionalism demonstrated in the full 360 business arena, that more than anything else defines a professional photographer.

  18. Fantastic post and one that gives more inspiration than you probably realized when you wrote it. I have set myself a goal to go from Rookie Photographer to Professional in 5 years.

    My blog at http://www.rookiephoto.com will journal my experience and hopefully show how hard the challenge will be. I’ve dedicated myself to other businesses before and have achieved success but this will be my biggest challenge. Thanks for your article as well as the other resources on your site.

    Kyle Bailey

  19. This article seems just a bit on the generic side. Surely there is a lot more that divides the amateurs from the pros than the things listed here? I can think of several important things just off the top of my head, even.

    As a newer photog, I am constantly wondering if I’ve crossed the line from n00b to pwnz0rz. I was excited to read this article and see if I pass the test. Alas, I fear that I’ve been let down.

  20. Thanks Parker

    Yes, there could always be more; but you have to start somewhere. That’s the goal of my entire blog. I give quick information every day to help you see your business from a different light. This is just one quick idea on how to start distinguishing yourself between being an amateur and a professional.

  21. The difference between amateur and professional isn’t nearly as convoluted as people like to make it out to be. If you make the bulk of your living with your camera, you are a professional. If you don’t, then you are an amateur. Skill level and membership in groups is irrelevant. People need to stop looking for the validation of being called “professional”. There are plenty of horrible professionals out there, and many PPA members that don’t deserve to carry the camera bags of some of my students. On the other hand, there are plenty of “amateurs” whose vision and skill is astounding, but lack the desire or business acumen to try to make a living at this.

  22. I loved your post Kevyn. I really hate the denigration of the world amateur or hobbyist as well. I think that, while there is a great deal of technical knowledge needed in photography, it is ulitimatly very subjective. Some “professional” photographers, which I really think is a subjective word in and of itself, aren’t as good as some “amateur” photographers and vice versa. I saw a post the other day “Tips for amateurs” the first was “learn about your camera”. Seriously??? This is the level that pro’s view all amateurs as being at. I know a great deal about my camera. I have been taking pictures for years, and I have been charging for it for the last year. What is the definition of a professional? In my opinion it is SIMPLY someone who gets paid for their work, always strives to become better at their craft, and always delivers professional work that their clients love. And truthfully, some new photographers and hobbyists can deliver this. Reading your blog made me really sad. The way you viewed amateurs was completely incorrect in my opinion and I think you need to take a step back and remember yourself at that stage. Did you really think to yourself “I’m perfect where I am now I can’t learn anymore” No. You had zeal. You wanted to learn more. In my opinion that’s more like the pro whose been doing it for 20 years talking.

  23. Back in the naughty nineties while shooting a wedding and trying out John Whitfield-King’s idea of shooting weddings in a photojournalist style.I forgot about the poor old videographer’s. Dare I say it, I had the sheer audacity to, shh — don’t tell anyone, (I walked across the front of his cameras while they were on.) Promise you won’t tell anyone now. Monday morning at the studio found moire sifting through the mail. On opening one letter it had a very serious letter of complaint that ended with “very unprofessional”.

    This accusation disturbed me into going to the local library where it was my habit to check out the old 20 volume O.E.D. Encyclopedia of the English Language. My hobby now is the history of words and their usages in all times and locations after making the most excellent discovery that every letter is a picture. I photocopied all four pages under the heading of “professional”. Then went back to the studio and read all the quotes to see what professional really means. I found this little gem amongst them. A reference to usage during the 1840′s in a newspaper article about a musical performance of a band of amateur musicians.

    ” It seems the amateurs are as good as the professional.”.

    I highlighted that point with one of those neat little 3m marker pens and put all four pages in an envelope with no return letter of apology and posted it and smiled.

    Was it professional to do that or not?

    The word professional gained its usage from the military. The military establishment took on the work that word now does for us and press ganged it into service for the benefit of we, the residents in the 20th/21st centuries. The Military was not paid before that word was pressed into service but gained their income from rape, pillage and plunder only during the event of war. A full time military profession is a recent phenomena. They were amateur before they became professional?

    I was not impressed by the criticism I faced from the video guy when after all is said and donel I was looking for the best pictorial viewpoint while his “MOVIE” camera was sitting on a tripod when I know for a FACT movie cameras just love movement and action in front of them. Your honor/honorees I rest my case, may the jury retire to consider their verdict? Was I not a respected guest at that wedding and since that was the case then why should my action not be present in the record of the said event?

  24. I see the work of thousands photographers and designers each month and there’s one thing that sets the best apart and that is:

    Genuine Passion

  25. Well I have to say, I got more out of reading Kevyn Schneider’s comments than I did the post itself.

    I have to say, I disagree with almost everything in this post; for one very good reason: all professionals started out as amateurs.

    To belittle someone by describing them as an amateur in the way you are describing is demeaning and does you, them, and everyone in the industry no favours.

    I’ve met some professional photographers who I wouldn’t recommend to a soul, because their work is (in my view) sub standard and no-one should pay them for it when they can get better for less. I’ve also met amateurs who I would describe in the same fashion. However, I have met far more amateurs whose work I would recommend than professionals. The difference there being that amateurs are constantly innovating their own work, trying to make themselves stand out; and professionals think they have ‘made it’ and that they have enough talent to be a professional.

    Now you may have noticed me using the word ‘amateur’ there. My personal view is that a professional is someone who makes their sole income from photography. However, the term ‘amateur’ is far more difficult to pin down.

    I, for example, am not an amateur. I know what I’m doing, and I’m a bloody good photographer. I do, however, work 35 hours a week at a 9-5 job. The rest of the time, I’m a photographer. I’m trying to build my photography business so that my income is sufficient enough that I can give up my 9-5 job.

    So I’ll ask you this, what does that make me? An amateur? Hobbyist? Wannabe? Or simply part-time? I’m not going to define myself with any prefix.

    I’m just a photographer.

  26. Thanks Will – I agree, every professional once was an amateur. The difference is they took action, which is what I’m attempting to do throughout this blog. A photographer who remains an amateur or a hobbyist can still be a great photographer. The difference is they didn’t take the steps necessary to make it into a business, or to become a professional photographer – of someone who makes income from what they do.

    I completely agree, I know just as many “amateur” photographers who are incredible photographers. But if they just do it for their own enjoyment, they will always remain hobbyists.

    Becoming professional is all about the money, or the business side. If you want to make it into a business, you have to take it to the next level.

  27. I do photography as a hobby and I cringe every time I see somebody on FB start a fan page as a “professional” photographer. They post the most awful shots. I saw a portfolio where the brides head was cut off, one of the shots were so out of focus, there was a hideous selective color shot.

    With today’s economy people are going for the cheaper option and sacrificing the quality.

    I have the utmost respect for professional photographers and hopefully skill and a bit of education will weed out those “professionals” out there.

  28. I am wholly behind Kevyn Schneider’s comments. Could not have said it better.

  29. Thanks for this list, I come back and browse these types of pro/amateur articles as I’m just starting out myself. This as well as the many great comments have helped me see I’m a pro but at the amateur stage. Great site, great post – thanks for much!

  30. ProPhotog says:

    I think this is a horrible list of differences… most of ‘for hobby’ shooters I know would qualify under both lists; the Pro list is about as vapid and unsubstantial as the amateur… and NO, the FUN is not always there, some days it’s just a job.

    The difference between a Pro and an Hobby photog is simple.

    1. Can consistantly produce professional grade images (not just style) i.e. CORRECT color correction, and image adjustments that would qualify for competition density. Consistantly can produce “tack-sharp” images at any given moment and has level of quality equipment to produce said results (Hi-res digital negatives, pro-end optics that ensure low chromatic aberration, sharpness, color)

    2. Can offer the client pro grade printed materials that meet museum archival standards and density, while managing copyright and film/data archival service that would ensure long term negative preservation

    This article is trying to romanticized professional photography, but Pro photography is a business and is not about art or passion, it’s about results. And so yes, a pro does think about how to get more equipment, tools of the trade to refine his/her craft and marketability… a teenager with a point and shoot daydreams of images and wispy dreams of being paid to do fun things.

    Simply put, Any professional can be an artist, but not every artist can be a professional.

    In my opinion.

  31. Always thought, that professionals are those – who get paid for what they do… :)

  32. I am very happy to see that some people (just like me) don’t agree with this article for 100%.
    Many professional photographers I know are a photographer, because they have to earn money to pay back the house. It has nothing to do with passion, knowledge or whatever was stated here.

    Besides, what really is the difference between en pro and an amateur? Is being registered as a professional enough to be a professional?

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