6.1 Lunar Eclipse

Been pretty quiet for a while because of a very busy summer. Hope to be a bit more active in the weeks ahead!

Sunday the 27th brings the next lunar eclipse. There have been a couple over the last year and it always makes an interesting subject to shoot. Night sky photography has become a much bigger target with the equipment we have today. Certainly the digital age not only allows us to do things we couldn’t before, it also has brought that capability to many more photographers with the tools and knowledge to take very beautiful shots.

Normally night photography is a tightrope game between trying to get the most out of a dark canvas without washing out any light with noise from high ISO’s and long exposures. It is usually done with wide angle lenses and fast f-stops. Eclipses, and the time leading up to and directly after, create a very different set of problems that we must deal with.

To begin with, instead of wide angle lenses, this is one of the few times most of us will shoot the night sky with a telephoto lens. Generally, the biggest problem is the movement of the sky during your exposure time. With wide angle lenses there is a lot of forgiveness as the large view shows very little movement with exposure times of 20, 25 or even 30 seconds. Because telephotos have such a much smaller field of view, any sky movement shows up after only a few seconds with the shutter open. Consequently, our first solution is to try to shoot the sky in as short a time as possible. With a full moon this is easy. Even at ISO 800 or 400 a bright moon in a small field allows shutter speeds of 1/800 second to 1/1000 of a second or even faster.

It is surprising how much difference in light there is between the sun-drenched full moon and the shadowed moon only a few minutes later. So to overcome the second problem the photographer has to be ready to change settings several times during the rapidly changing light conditions. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and not check the back of your camera or histogram. My first strategy is to increase ISO to allow the camera to get enough light to the sensor. As the moon darkens, I’ll go from a starting point of ISO 400, to 800, 1000, 1200, 1600, 3200 and 6400. Once there, now I have to go to reducing the shutter speed until the moon becomes fully shadowed. After the few minutes of total eclipse, you have to be ready to reverse the process until the moon is fully sun showered again.

So, telephoto on a tripod with a remote shutter release. My go to setup is a 300mm f/2.8 with a 2X teleconverter. I shoot in manual mode with the ISO starting at 400, shutter at around 1/1200 second and the f/stop and big as it can be – with this combo f/5.6. If you have live view on your camera, manual focus is a piece of cake. Make sure you do your focusing when the moon is brightest. Put onto live view, hit the enlarge button to 10X and fine tune your image. If you don’t have live view, you must pre-focus during the day as instructed under the shooting aurora blog entry.  As the shadow moves across the moon, check you histogram and adjust as necessary. If you’re unsure about how to read your histogram, images on the back of your camera will give you a good ballpark as to what’s going on. As the evening progresses past the midway point, reverse you adjustments.

Pretty tough to get much “environment” with your shot. Usually the moon is high enough that with the telephoto it’s difficult to get enough field of view to include the moon and anything earth side, and get ‘em both in focus. I have seen some mountain pix where this has been accomplished well. Getting neighboring stars and/or planets can also make an interesting shot. The tendency is to fill the frame with the eclipsing orb. That makes an interesting shot or two, but getting some with the surrounding heavens really makes the shot “pop”!

Good luck! I hope you find a good spot to shoot from and have clear skies!Luna and Her Sisters

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5.1 Rainy Days

We’ve had a number of rainy days and I’m itchin’ to get outside to shoot. There are some great themes to shoot during days that don’t seem fit for man ‘nor beast, but that’s a topic for another day. I use some rainy days to just bite the bullet and catch up on admin tasks such as copying folders for backup, cleaning up files, getting ahead on assignments, office organization, catching up on email, working on future presentations and even cleaning my office! I talked to one fellow photographer yesterday who was going to tackle five month’s work that he’d been letting go. He wasn’t looking forward to it, I assure you! I have folders backing up as I’m writing!

That being said, I try to always take some time during these days for some fun. Many times that means going through old folders and “finding” some gems that I missed before. Sometimes I just didn’t look at it carefully enough, or sometimes I didn’t like the subject matter or couldn’t “see” the shot I thought I might be getting. Many times weeks, months or even years later as I look back at these files, and I’ll come across something that is truly worth working on. Such is the case with the image below. I had been out looking for Calypsos and had found a few. Along the way I had discovered one that had been knocked down by something and the stem destroyed. I took a couple of shots but went back to concentrating on some standing blooms. When it came time to post, I had forgotten about even taking the shots. This morning while going through the folder I came across them again and they struck me as being interesting in several ways. To begin with, from the angle of a standing Fairy Slipper, it’s very difficult to get this view of the tongue of the blossom. In many ways it’s the most intricate and beautiful of the flower. Also, the bed of cedar fronds that it’s laying on give a sharp contrast in color, making it stand out (which is important to me), and a great textured background as opposed to the soft bokah I usually strive for. Definitely a shot worth keeping! Good luck!

Lots happening in the outside world right now! A few events I’m associated with:
Boreal Orchid Hunts – We are in the prime time for orchids! Still have the 2-fer special on 1,2 or 3 day hunts. Two for the price of one! Check my website for details and use the Code Word “Ramshead”
Northwoods Nights – I’ll be presenting on Wednesday June 24 at Vermilion Community College. I’ll be talking about things I’ve learned along the way that have improved my photography.
Introduction to Digital Photography – At the Ely Folk School on Saturday July 11th. I just found out yesterday that they’ll allow a few more people into the class. If interested go to www.elyfolkschool.org to register.
Fall Color Tour – Not too early to be thinking about our three day workshop at the end of September. Check my website for details.

 

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4.2 Background

 

Most photographers understand that once a subject is located, shooting for the available light is the number one factor in determining a usable shot. What they don’t often recognize is that background follows closely behind.

A background can make or break a shot. It can add to your story, or it can lose the subject amidst chaos. Too many times the background can confuse a viewer, making the subject have to compete with what else might be happening in the shot. At best, it’s clutter. At worst, the subject is overcome by other parts of the composition.

When shooting, take a moment to consider your background. Often it’s just a matter of changing your position relative to the subject, as in the Calypso below. Same flower, same light, same lens and same f/stop. By merely changing position and the angle that I shot, I was able to highlight the subject to the primary focus of attention. A few seconds of thought can make a BIG difference in the effectiveness of your outcome!

 

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4.1 Exposure Compensation

I see a lot of photos, particularly of birds, that would be very nice shots except that the bird is in silhouette against a bright sky, with no detail in the bird. There are two ways that you can fix this problem. One is to add light via a strobe or flash to light up the bird, or to use exposure compensation.
When the sensors look at the scene you are trying to photograph, they will put the settings to shoot an exposure for the overall scene. Whatever dominates the scene will determine how much light the camera will let it. If you have a bird against the bright sky, the camera sets the exposure for the bright sky taking detail out of the bird which is not nearly as bright. So, you lose detail in the bird. The same thing happens if you try to take a picture of a person standing in front of a window, or a shot of something in a snow-filled setting.
The solution to the problem is to “trick” the camera and override what it wants to do. It’s a fairly simple procedure. Because the subject (bird in this case) is underexposed, you want to OVEREXPOSE the shot. On your camera someplace – on some cameras it will be a separate button, on some on a dial and on some you have to look in the menu – you will find a control that is marked with the symbol, +/-. That indicates the place where you can change the exposure that the camera wants to take. There will be a scale associated with it that looks like the scale below. When the camera takes what it thinks is correct, the button on the scale will be in the middle. You can move the button either up or down my manipulating the +/- on your camera. Cameras do this differently. If you have a Canon DSLR, you manipulate by holding the shutter half way down and turning the dial on the back. One direction will move the button to the + side in 1/3 stop increments. The other direction will move the button to the – side. The 1, 2 or 3 numbers are full stops of override. Most often you will want to overexpose by moving to +1, +2, etc.
In the example below, the first shot is taken with the button in the middle. The bird is dark with little detail showing. The second shot is with an EC (exposure compensation) of +1. You can see the increased detail. Both shots are straight out of the camera with no processing. The second shot gives you enough information to make a much more pleasing and detailed final product! Finally, the third image is with minimal post processing and cropping. Pretty extreme cropping, but this series was done more for example than artistic quality.  So, the next time you’re out shooting birds, give this a try. I think you’ll be happy with the results! Good luck!

Upcoming events:
1. Still some spots left for the Boreal Orchid Hunts in late May and June
2. I will be teaching an Introduction to Digital Photography workshop at the new Ely Folk School on July 11th
3. Space left in our Fall Color Workshop, September 25, 26 and 27

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3.3 Teleconverters

The world of photography is expensive. Everyone (including me) is always looking for a way to save some money on equipment. When a single lens may cost $500 to $9000, it’s difficult to put a lot of them into your camera bag. Early on I looked at teleconverters as being one place I could expand what my current lens selection without spending a lot of money.

The concept is simple – add an attachment to an existing lens that will increase the magnification of that lens, at a fraction of the cost of another piece of glass. Teleconverters typically come in two sizes – 1.4X and 2X. So, if you have a 100mm lens, by putting a 1.4X teleconverter onto it you now effectively have a lens that shoots as a 140mm. Add a 2X and it’s now a 200mm. If you start with a 300mm you can see how the multipliers quickly add up.

They do work – and in the right combination of camera and lens can work quite well. However, as always happens in the world of photography there are some limitations and trade-offs. To begin with, any time that you put extra lens components in the line of light leading to your sensor, that light will have more possibilities of being effected. Image quality is always diminished to some extent. How much depends on your set-up. Prime lenses tend to work the best. If you have a 100mm or 300mm or 500mm lens the teleconverter should work just fine. Zoom lenses tend to be more of a problem. It’s very difficult to get a sharp image with a zoom/teleconverter combination. By stopping down you can improve the sharpness, but you lose a lot of light and then shutter speed.

Speaking of light, you will automatically lose some light just by putting on a teleconverter. A 1.4X will lose 1 stop of light and a 2X will lose 2 stops. That means that you either have to shoot only in bright light conditions or have to be on a tripod/monopod if it’s cloudy or at dusk or dawn.

Some cameras, especially entry level DSLR’s, will not allow autofocus when you have a teleconverter on. The electronics only allow you to manually focus.

And finally, the cost savings might not be that much. Your best results will only come when you start with good glass. I WOULD NOT recommend getting teleconverters to use on kit lenses – you will be disappointed with many of your images. Also, good teleconverters can cost a lot as well. A good one will cost $200-400. All the camera companies make their own version, but Kenko is a third party company that puts out a darn good product for a little less money.

I am in Colorado this week and brought my Canon 300mm f/2.8 prime and both a 1.4X and a 2X to use as my long lens. If I’m careful I can get some great images with this combo. Hopefully as nice as the hawk owl shown below – taken with a 500mm and a 2X form a LONG ways away! Good luck!

 

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Hawk Owl

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3.2 Editing Software

I was asked again this week about a suggestion for editing software. There are several out there and, at least at the basic level, all will do some good work. I have, however, been a Photoshop user from day 1 and have never looked back. By far the first choice of most professionals, Adobe has lead the way with innovation, ease of use and multiple levels of products available.

My first Photoshop purchase was Photoshop CS back around 2001. Adobe would come out with a new version about every 18 months and would give license holders a break on upgrading. To start new, Photoshop cost in the neighborhood of $600, and an upgrade would be near $150. That kind of money kept a lot of hobbyists out of play. Adobe countered by offering Elements which had the Photoshop basics without some of the bells and whistles that those making a living in the industry needed to use. At the beginning, PS Elements could be bought for about $30 – a huge savings that most anyone could afford.

In the meantime the company came out with new software called Lightroom that could stand alone as an editing tool, but worked best when used in conjunction with Photoshop. Every professional I know uses one or the other, or their own combination of the two. Personally, I open in Lightroom to control my color balance, exposure, saturation and lens corrections. Then I move the image over to Photoshop and apply noise reduction, sharpening, cropping, repair (cloning, etc.) and any special effects I would like to add. Each of these programs will do all of these things on their own, but for me this workflow makes sense.

Times have changed. Adobe continued to advance its CS series through CS6 and then started a new program. Today most professionals I know subscribe to a package from Adobe that combines both Lightroom and Photoshop CC for $10/month. Along with the subscription you get any updates automatically that come along. At $120/year it is cheaper in the long run – and you don’t have to periodically take off and put on new versions. Still pricy for a lot of people, however. Elements has also been continually been updated. There were some major changes that came along with Elements 11 that made it an advantage to upgrade at that time. Since, Elements 12 and 13 have been released with minor upgrades. One of the new inclusions with Elements that I really like is the addition of Camera RAW. As well as allowing you to use RAW files to edit, Camera RAW comes with many of the same sliders and categories of Lightroom. I have a copy of Elements 12 and it will do 90%+ of what I need to use as a professional. It is a VERY POWERFUL editing too. Adobe lists Elements 13 at $99, but it is often on sale. I checked today on Amazon and you can purchase a new copy for $59.99! That’s a heck of a deal!

If you’d like to get the most out of your digital photography, I highly recommend taking the plunge and getting some good editing software and spending time learning how to take advantage of “the new darkroom”! There are hundreds of easy to follow tutorials online – especially on YouTube. Take it a step at a time and you can learn how to use your software easily!

Good luck!

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3.1 Haze Filter Protection

3.1 Haze Filter Damage Control

There is a long and on-going debate about whether you should use a haze filter to protect your front lens from damage. Lenses can be very expensive. When looking at the front lens element it is easy to see that all kinds of nasty things can happen to it. Anything that flies into it or you bump with it can cause scratches, nicks and cracks. Even cleaning must be done carefully because any unintended scratches you put into it can leave the lens useless – meaning a new expenditure or at least an expensive repair. Not only is this piece of glass precisely ground, it also has coatings on it that can be damaged.

For years a simple way of protecting the front element has been to put a haze filter on, and leave it there unless you need to use another filter. Any accidental bump or cleaning problem will affect the filter instead of the lens, leading to the relatively small cost of replacing the filter. Practical enough.

The argument against has been that any glass – even good glass – put in front of the lens will degrade the image quality of any photo taken. So you must accept the trade-off of protection vs. quality. But how much quality does it actually mean?

With good post processing, it is almost impossible to tell the difference. For MOST applications the average person won’t see any degradation at all. If you are a pro and submitting to National Geographic or Sports Illustrated they might be able to detect a small difference. Is it worth taking the chance?

I went into the world of expensive lenses about 15 years ago. I’ve spent thousands of hours at athletic venues, in the woods, on the water and at all kinds of crowded social occasions that could have easily damaged my lens. Only once have I had damage occur at an event that could have been expensive (note: that doesn’t include one night when it was -30 degrees and I dropped a $4000 lens and $3000 body after shooting a lunar eclipse, but that’s a story and a blog for another time). I was shooting at the Minnesota Golf State Championship in 2005 when a golf ball sailed into the parking lot as I was putting my gear away and knocked the camera out of my hand. It landed on the pavement and looking down I could see small shards of glass sitting next to the front of the lens. Fortunately, I do use haze filters for protection and that piece of glass took the brunt of the energy from the ball and the drop. The pic below shows what happened to the filter and I can only assume my front element would have looked the same if I didn’t have it on. I immediately tested the lens and the only damage had happened to the filter.

It is still a personal preference. If you decide to use a haze filter, use a good one. Cheap ones can be made of plastic and the glass quality is such that there is a good chance of seeing some IQ problems. Whether you use the haze filter or not, some other pointers to protect your lens:
1. Always use a lens hood if you have it. That will keep most collisions from taking place directly onto the lens.
2. NEVER walk with your lens pointed toward the sky – it collects more dust and precipitation if you do, and falling objects are more of a hazard than those coming from below
3. Clean your lens with fine brushes, blowers or microcloth – never paper towel or Kleenex; I don’t use liquid lens cleaners, they can harm some lens coatings
4. If you’re shooting in tight spaces, scout out for potential objects that might accidentally come in contact with the front of your lens. Especially important when shooting macro.
5. Have a good pack or bag to transport your gear. Make sure the lenses are protected both on and off the camera.
6. Wear your neck strap or use your hand strap if you have one.  It’s amazing how small an unexpected bump it takes to knock the camera from your hand.
Good luck!

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2.5 JPEG or RAW?

Was asked again this week if I shoot in RAW. The quick answer is, most of the time, yes! Unfortunately as with many other issues, it’s not totally a black or white answer.

I shot all RAW when I got my first pro camera. It was a Canon 10D, which was a 6.3 megapixel camera. It was a wonderful machine! In order to get the most out of post-processing I wanted all the information that RAW would give me. As new generations of sensors came along and the megapixel wars upped the ante I soon found I was shooting camera bodies that offered 10 and 12 megapixel files. If I shot RAW, my cards filled up fast, it took longer for the camera to write to the card, longer to download onto my computer, took up more space on my computer and the processor took forever to apply adjustments I made in Photoshop. Yuck! With JPEG files being much larger and containing more information than before I reasoned that I could shoot in JPEG, get rid of the space and time problems I was having and still have big files to get the results I wanted. So, I shot almost all JPEG for a few months. My first 15 megapixel camera changed me back. There was SUCH a difference between what I could do in post processing when comparing JPEG and RAW files that it was a no brainer. In the meantime, camera cards got bigger, I started using external hard drives to save my work and a got a computer that had a faster processor. There were still differences, but the space and time problems became less of a factor.

Shooting in RAW gives me the most material to work with when I take images from the camera and put them onto my computer. When it comes to using adjustment sliders I either have to move them less or the extra info allows me to move them farther to get my desired results. Yes, the same old problems do apply but minimally so and I’m willing to put up with that in order to make my images as good as they can be. Below are two images of the Easter Bunny. The first is straight out of the camera shot in RAW and the second is post processed with Lightroom initially and in Photoshop CC for final adjustments.

I still shoot in JPEG on occasion. An example would be when I shoot a sports event. Lots of burst shooting as plays develop and at the end of a contest I might have 500-700 images to go through. That takes a LOT of time and space. Most of my work for that is done for newspapers and in all honesty, newspaper print does not require the fine tuning that a wall print would need. JPEG allows me to shoot hundreds of shots on one card, load fast and go through 700 images and quickly determine and work the 50 or so images I’ll need to submit. Many times I’m working on a deadline (sometimes the next day) so time is at a premium. The images still look great!

If you do decide to shoot JPEG, make sure you use the largest file your camera will allow. The more info you have to work with, the better your result will be. Good luck!

 

 

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2.4 Shooting with ISO 1600

When I first entered the world of digital photography in 2000, the film shooters claimed digital would never replace film because there were too many limitations. One of the biggest was the noise factor. My first pro camera was a Canon 10D. It’s upper end ISO capability was 1600 which was really stretching performance. Most of the time I would try to shoot at no higher than 800 ISO. There was manageable noise at this level and I could get great looking images with it. Even so, I tried to shoot at lower ISO (usually 200) because the rule of thumb was “the lower the ISO, the less noise you have to deal with”. It was a good rule – except that most of my shooting was either wildlife or sports and even with a fast lens at that ISO, I couldn’t achieve a fast enough shutter speed to get me crisp, clear images with any consistency.

Fortunately, the film shooters were wrong. As technology quickly improved, sensors that handled noise problems became better and better. By 2012 I was shooting sports at ISO 6400 and getting very good, usable results. The old rule still does apply – the lower the ISO, the less noise will appear in the image. However, the amount of noise that shows up at higher ISO levels has become less and less. So much so, that when I am shooting on the go, I keep my camera at ISO 1600.

I have had many clients who don’t believe me. They insist on trying to shoot at an ISO that will make their shutter click and deal with the very slow shutter speed. The result is that any subject movement, camera shake or poor bracing leads to multiple soft, blurry images. ISO 1600 will give a fast enough shutter speed under most situations to eliminate many of those unusable shots, especially on days where lighting conditions are changing constantly due to intermittent cloud cover or moving from sunlight to shade.

Most noise will appear in shaded areas. If your subject is in the brighter light, you’re home free. If they are in the shade, you may need to overcompensate your exposure just a bit to reduce potential noise (this will slow shutter speed, however).

If I can shoot off of a tripod, or if I’m in a blind that has even, bright light I will lower my ISO. A lower ISO still has noise advantage, as well as more vibrance, better contrast and generally more information to be able to use in post processing. However, the differences are getting smaller every generation of sensor that comes out.

Speaking of post processing – even low end editing software will let you do some noise reduction. Photoshop CC or Elements do a very nice job. Camera RAW and Lightroom even better. Besides those there are numerous plug-ins you can buy made specifically to reduce noise. I have used Noise Ninja and been very happy with that. Currently I am using Topaz Labs DeNoise 5 and it’s the best I’ve seen.

 
The first image below is straight from the camera, shot at ISO 1600 and no post processing. The second is the same image with Topaz DeNoise 5 applied, a bit of sharpening and a little kick of vibrance. Good luck!

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2.3 Sleeping Orchids

It’s almost two months until the boreal forest’s first orchids will rouse from slumber and present themselves for a precious few days of viewing. It’s not too early to start preparing for their appearance, however!

When most people think of taking images of flowers, the lens that first comes to mind is a macro. Great choice! A macro allows us to get “up close and personal” with the flora and take some fantastic detail images of both the entire head of the flower as well as individual petals, pistils and stamens. Make sure you have a stable tripod that will extend or fold down to get you within a few inches of ground level. A shutter release is not mandatory but is VERY nice. An assortment of reflectors and diffusers should be along as well as some tweezers to remove the dead grass blades and pine needles that will show up like beacons in your pictures.

That being said, don’t leave all of your other lenses at home. When I first started taking images of orchids I concentrated almost entirely with macro shots. I loved them but when I got home I realized that I only had a limited view of my subject. Additional lenses would have given me a much bigger picture of what the entire plant was like, what environmental factors might make for interesting compositions and a multitude of other factors that became important to me only after I’d left the field. Indeed, one of my early clients asked for an environmental image of a particular orchid that I hadn’t even thought to take. At best, it means another hike through forest and bog to re-shoot, at worst it may mean you have to wait an entire year or longer to get the opportunity for a do over.

Now when I go out I plan on spending at least an hour, if not more, to get everything I might possibly need for present and future use. Multiple distances, several angles, with and without nearby foliage as well as the intimate details of the flower itself are all important to my workflow. My routine is to start with a 50mm and get medium to long shots before I might disturb any ground around the plant (hopefully that won’t happen at all), move in with the macro (in my case a 100mm f/2.8) and then proceed to a wide angle to get even more environment, and a really different perspective of the entire plant itself. When I’ve finished I go back and go through each lens again. Might be some repeat, but many times as I run through my bag I’ll see something I missed the first go around. The examples you see below are of Calypso bulbosa, or Fairy Slipper – one of the earliest of the orchids to bloom.

I do have a couple of sets of extension tubes. They make for some breathtaking shots, but I don’t use them in the field very often. Depth of field (DOF) with tubes is minute and the slightest movement of your flower due to breeze, breath or ground shake will make it very difficult to get an image that is in focus. Many times pros will bring flowers into a studio where you can better control all of those factors. In the case of wild orchids, they are illegal to pick in most parts of the country, so that certainly eliminates your ability to do that. If a client is interested in learning or attempting to use tubes, I’m certainly willing to make it happen. It does take a while and a lot of patience is needed.

Finally, this time between now and the waking orchid world can be used to learn as much as you can about your proposed subjects. When do they blossom? What environment do they need in order to be successful? What clues might you look for to aid in seeing even the smallest of flower heads? One of my greatest challenges has been to see a new orchid for the first time. Sometimes it’s difficult to look at a picture in a book and relate that to what you might see in the field. MANY times, when I’ve finally found my prey, I look around and see that I’ve walked past several examples already without actually seeing them! Field guides like Welby Smith’s “Orchids of Minnesota” or “Orchids of the North Woods” by Kim and Cindy Risen are great companions! Good Luck!

And, just a reminder – there’s still time to book a one, two or three day excursion as a 2-fer for the upcoming orchid season. Go to www.snottymoose.com under Workshops, “Boreal Orchid Hunts” and contact me for openings for your targeted species. Remember to mention “RAMSHEAD” to get the special 2 for 1 deal!

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