How to Photograph Sunrise: Camera Settings and Composition Tips

By October 3, 2019 May 27th, 2020 Photography

The sun creates captivating moments when it is low on the horizon.

The ambient light at this time possesses a soft, golden glow that creates the most breathtaking pictures.

This quality of light happens twice a day: sunrise and sunset.

But, often, most of us take the former for granted and only take advantage of the latter.

However, making the effort to photograph sunrise doubles your chances of creating unique images.

It may cost you a couple more hours of sleep, but the beautiful images you’ll get in the end makes it worth it.

To quote Galen Rowell: “You only get one sunrise and one sunset a day… a  good photographer does the math and doesn’t waste either.”

But, before you sacrifice sleep and drive into the cold morning air, it’s important that you do your homework and come prepared.

This maximizes your chances of success and makes getting up early well worth your effort.

In this article, we’ll discuss the best camera settings and techniques to use in sunrise photography to make sure you get the best pictures possible.

Do Your Research

Researching ahead of time maximizes your chances of success and makes getting up early well worth your effort.

Learn the exact time and location of the sunrise beforehand.

These factors change throughout the year, so be sure to get the most relevant information.

If you want to include the sun in your shot, a good rule of thumb is to research places in your area that face east.

You should also find a location with a clear view of the horizon for this composition.  

Weather conditions should also be an essential part of your research.

Different types of weather create different qualities of ambient light, highly impacting the overall aesthetic of your image.

To keep track of the weather and time of sunrise apps such as               Accuweather and NOAA are my favorites.

You will need more advanced tools to keep track of the sun’s path to plan your composition accordingly. 

For more detailed research on the lighting conditions, visibility locations, and the sun’s path, you can use Photographers Ephemeris and Sun Surveyor. 

These are great apps that every photographer should have if they plan on shooting during sunrise, sunset, or even at night. 

Resource: 15 Tips for Planning Your Next Photography Trip

What Gear to Bring:

When it comes to sunrise photography, I like the less is more approach because no one likes to lug a massive bag of gear around at 5 or 6 am.

Keep it simple and know what you want to capture.

Resource: 13 Essential Gear for Travel Photography

1. Lens

The best lens to bring will depend on your subject choice and the type of composition you’re trying to create.

If you plan on photographing wide, sweeping landscapes, then bringing a wide-angle lens will likely be the best choice for you.

BrandFocal Length
Maximum ApertureAF MotorPrice
Nikon14-24mmf/2.8YesCheck Price
Sigma14-24mmf/2.8
YesCheck Price
Canon11-24mmf/4YesCheck Price
Nikon16-35mmf/4YesCheck Price
Canon16-35mmf/2.8YesCheck Price
Sigma18-35mmf/1.8YesCheck Price
Sony16-35mmf/2.8YesCheck Price
Sony14-24mmf/4
YesCheck Price

These lenses provide a wide-angle view, ideal for capturing more information from the scene.

In contrast, telephoto lenses create a narrower field of view.

These lenses crop the scene and only include the most important elements.

Telephoto lenses are best used to highlight the intricate details in a scene.

BrandFocal Length
Maximum ApertureAF MotorPrice
Nikon70-200mmf/2.8YesCheck Price
Canon70-200mmf/2.8
YesCheck Price
Canon70-200mmf/4YesCheck Price
Sigma100-400mmf/5-6.3
YesCheck Price
Sony100-400mmf/4.5-f.6Yes
Check Price

Also, keep in mind, wide-angle lenses tend to make distant objects appear smaller, and closer objects appear much larger. 

This means that if you want the sun to be a dominant part of your image, you’re unlikely to benefit from these lenses.

To have the sun clearly defined in your image, a better alternative lens to use are zoom lenses.

Telephoto lenses magnify distant objects and make them seem within reach. These lenses are perfect for evoking feelings of connection and intimacy with your audiences. 

2. Tripod

To me, a tripod is an absolute must for sunrise photography.

For one, using a tripod allows me to shoot the scenery before the sun rises without sacrificing image quality. 

Because of the low amount of light available before sunrise, it’s almost impossible to get sharp handheld shots without raising your ISO.

Having a tripod enables me to get around this.

A sturdy and durable tripod is essential.

I recommend you use the Manfrotto Befree Carbon Fiber Tripod. 

This is a quality tripod made by a trusted brand. It is easy to use and lightweight so you can easily move around and adjust your composition.

A tripod also enables you to bracket your images, which can be invaluable in high-contrast environments typical during sunrises.

(I’ll talk more about exposure bracketing later how to do this later in this post.)

If you don’t wish to carry a tripod or are simply unable to do so, consider mounting your camera on stable objects around you.

For this, you can use ubiquitous objects such as rocks, logs, or benches.

If you decide to shoot handheld, you may need to raise your ISO to keep your shutter speed from getting too low.

Using slow shutter speeds without a tripod can produce camera shake and render your image blurry.

To maximize sharpness for handheld images, avoid using shutter speeds less than your focal length. 

Finally, don’t be afraid to raise your ISO to prevent your image from turning out blurry.

Although a high ISO leads to more noise, a photo that’s in focus with some noise is better than an image that is out of focus.

Also, do not purposely underexpose your image to avoid raising your ISO, especially if you plan to compensate for this later in post-processing.

Doing so will typically create more noise than taking a properly exposed photo with a higher ISO.

Plus, most modern cameras are powerful enough where you can set your ISO higher without creating too much noise.

Best Settings For Sunrise Photography

1. Use Aperture or Shutter Priority

Camera Mode Dial

Although shooting in manual mode has many benefits, there are times when shooting in priority mode produces better results.

One of which, in my opinion, is sunrise photography.

As the sun rises, the quality of light in your surroundings will quickly shift to many different tones.

This is especially true in days with cloud-filled skies.

Shooting under such dynamic light requires that you continuously change your exposure settings accordingly. 

In such cases, using manual mode only serves to slow you down and put you at risk of missing your shot.  

A more efficient way to control your exposure is switching your camera mode to manual, shutter priority, or aperture priority. 

Priority modes allow you to choose the best exposure settings quickly by allowing your camera to select one of the exposure settings for you automatically.

Whether you should set your camera to aperture or shutter priority will depend on your subject choice and the photographic effect you’re trying to create.

Aperture Priority

Aperture priority gives you full control of your aperture and ISO setting while your camera sets your shutter.

Using aperture priority is best if you’re particular about how much of your frame you want to keep in sharp focus.

In aperture priority, you have full control of your depth of field, and thus the overall sharpness of your image.

For instance, if you’re photographing a majestic mountain and you want to capture everything, from the foreground to background in great detail, aperture priority is ideal.

Aperture priority is also ideal for still subjects, such as in landscape and architecture photography.

Because your subject is not moving, having control of your shutter speed is often not a concern, especially if your camera is mounted on a tripod.

If, on the other hand, your subject is moving, as is often the case with portrait and wildlife photography, use shutter priority.

Shutter Priority 

Shutter priority provides you with full control of your shutter speed and ISO while the camera sets the aperture for you. 

Use shutter priority if you want full control of how motion is captured in your image: frozen or blurred. 

Resource: How to Use Your Camera: Understanding Camera Modes

2. Choose A Narrow Aperture (High f-stop)

Sunrise photography often involves taking photos of scenic locations.

Thus, when shooting sunrise, most photographers opt for a narrow aperture or a high F-stop.

As mentioned, using a narrow aperture increases your depth of field, enabling you to capture most of a scene in great detail.

In contrast, using wide aperture decreases your depth of field, creating an out-of-focus background.

Unless your goal is to create a soft and blurry background, your image is unlikely to benefit from using a wide aperture.

Using a narrow aperture also enables you to create the sun star effect you often see in sunrise pictures.

To create the sun star effect, I recommend starting at f/16 and adjusting according to the scene.

If you’re in shutter priority and are set on using particular shutter speed, you can influence your aperture setting by adjusting your ISO.

For instance, if you want more of your frame to stay in focus (higher f-stop), adjust your ISO to a higher setting.

3. Shutter Speed Settings

If you’re taking pictures of still subjects, such as landscapes and architecture, using slower speeds won’t usually be a problem.

This is particularly true if you mount your camera on a tripod.

But, if you’re shooting handheld, your ability to use slower shutter speeds can be significantly limited depending on the available light.

For example, if you plan to take photos before or as the sun is rising without a tripod, you’ll likely need to raise your ISO.

Raising your ISO will enable you to shoot handheld at low light conditions without sacrificing the overall exposure and sharpness of your image.

Shooting handheld is prone to blurry images caused by camera shake.

To avoid this, you’ll need to use faster shutter speed, ideally, don’t set your shutter speed slower than your focal length. 

For example, if your focal length is 200mm, it’s ideal that you don’t shoot with a shutter speed of less than 1/200. 

But, in low light conditions, using a shutter speed of 1/200 may be too fast to produce proper exposure. In which case, setting your ISO to a higher value can help.

The same is true if you are photographing dynamic subjects, such as people or wildlife.

To capture moving subjects in sharp detail, you’ll need to use faster shutter speeds.

How fast you set your shutter speed depends on how fast your subject is moving.

For example, to photograph people walking at a relatively close distance, a shutter speed between 1/125 or 1/250 is typically ideal.

On the other hand, if you are shooting fast-moving wildlife, you’ll need to use faster shutter speeds, such as 1/400 and above.

4. Use the Lowest Possible ISO Setting

Choose the lowest possible ISO setting you can. 

Raising your ISO will enable you to take brighter images by amplifying the data recorded in your sensor.

But, as you increase your ISO, you also increase the presence of noise in your image.

Thus you’ll want to set your ISO to the lowest possible value.

The specific ISO will vary depending on the amount of light available and your subject choice.

But, the closer you can be to ISO 100, the better. 

Only raise your ISO if you are unable to get the proper exposure using your shutter speed or aperture settings without sacrificing your composition.

This means, raise your ISO if you can’t use slower shutter speeds or lower f-stops without sacrificing the level of sharpness you want in the resulting image.

That said, don’t be afraid to raise your ISO to get to the correct exposure. An image with some level of noise is always better than a blurry or underexposed one.

5. Use Matrix or Spot Metering

Matrix Metering 

Matrix metering is one of the best options to use when shooting sunrise.

Shooting in matrix metering ensures that you capture maximum detail in your photo, which is essential for the wide landscape photos that usually accompanies sunrise photos.

Matrix metering (Nikon) or Evaluative metering (Canon) considers the entire frame when calculating the exposure of a scene. It does this by averaging out the exposure of the whole scene and applying it to the entire photo.

As a result, when using matrix metering, you typically get an image with most of your scene correctly exposed.

Using matrix metering mode is straightforward.

Set your camera to matrix metering, compose your photo. Once you’re ready, take the photo.

Matrix metering is not perfect and is prone to inaccurate exposure readings to scenes with uneven lighting and high contrast.

If your sunrise scene is characterized by uneven lighting and high contrast, you will need to use your exposure compensation to prevent incorrect exposure.

We will discuss exposure compensation in greater detail in a later section.

Spot Metering

Spot metering uses a single region “spot” when determining the exposure of a scene.

The “spot” is selected based on where you place your focus point. 

Use spot metering if you want to expose for a specific element in your scene or if you are trying to create silhouettes.

You can create silhouettes using matrix metering, but it is a bit more complicated. 

The benefit of using spot metering is that you can expose your scene for a specific element.

This is a great way to ensure that your subject is always correctly exposed.  

It is also much easier to apply a creative twist to your exposure using spot metering.

For example, if you want to overexpose a scene, select a dark spot and the meter will do the rest. 

The same can be done to overexpose your scene to create silhouettes.

To create silhouettes using spot metering, you will begin by placing your focal point on or near the brightest point in the frame.

Doing so will ensure that your camera sets your exposure settings for underexposure. 

Once you set your focal point, press your shutter button half-way down.

Finally, move your focus point on your subject and fully press the shutter button to capture the image. 

The result is a photo with silhouettes in all the darker regions of the photo. 

6. Use Exposure Compensation When in Priority Mode

Exposure compensation is a must-use tool in sunrise photos.

The high contrast and uneven lighting during sunrise often cause inaccurate exposure readings when using matrix metering. 

Exposure compensation is a tool inside your camera that allows you to adjust these inaccuracies quickly.

In particular, it enables you to adjust the baseline metering calculation when using auto or the priority modes

When using exposure compensation, you can adjust your meter to either expose for 1-3 stops under or overexposed without changing your priority settings

For example, if your image is overexposed by one stop, you can adjust your exposure compensation to a negative one.

This will cause your light meter to exposure one-stop below it initially did. 

Likewise, if your image is underexposed, you can adjust your exposure compensation to a positive one. 

This is valuable when you are trying to hold your depth of field or motion effect constant. 

To tell if your scene is underexposed or overexposed, a useful tool to use to help you is your camera’s histogram. 

 Histogram

During sunrise, the lighting in your scene can take on many forms, which can make reading your scene a bit difficult.

But, the light during sunrise if often characterized by mostly highlight, mostly shadows, or high contrast.

The histogram in a camera is a graphical representation of the exposure of a scene.

It plots highlights to the right, shadows to the left, and mid-tones at the center.

Using the context of your image and comparing it with your histogram, is a great way to tell if your exposure is accurate.

Unfortunately, there is not a particular histogram shape for a properly exposed image.

You will need to use your histogram along with the context of your image and make sure they align with each other.

As a guide, here is what your histogram should look like during these conditions:

If your scene consists mostly of highlights, your histogram should be shifted to the right.

On the other hand, ff your scene is primarily shadows, your histogram should be shifted to the left.

Finally, if your scene is high in contrast with both lots of shadows and highlights, your histogram should peak on the right and left of the histogram.

When the lighting and contents of your scene do not match the shape of your histogram, likely, your image is not correctly exposed.

If this is the case, adjust your exposure compensation.

Consider the scenario below:

Your scene is bright and has many highlights, but your histogram is shifted to the left, you have a problem.

Your image is likely underexposed, and you will need to increase your exposure compensation.

Resource: How to Use Your Camera: Understanding Camera Modes

7. Bracket Your Exposure

The light during sunrise is often hard to expose properly. This is due to the high contrast and uneven dispersion of light. 

As a result, sunrise photos often have a higher dynamic range than cameras can capture. This forces photographers to either expose for highlights or shadows. 

One way to avoid this dilemma is by using a bracketed exposure. 

Bracketed exposure is the process of capturing multiple photos of a scene at different exposure levels.

These photos are then combined using post-processing software. 

There are two ways you can capture a bracketed exposure: manual or automatic. 

Manual 

Manually bracketing your exposure involves physically taking multiple photos of the same scene at different exposure levels. 

It is best to do this using manual, aperture priority, or shutter priority. 

To begin, correctly expose your scene. Next, capture the same scene both underexposed and overexposed. 

When bracketing manually, you can adjust the number of shots you take as well as the number of stops you adjust exposure.  

To ensure that you don’t change the composition of your shots, I highly recommend using a tripod.

Automatic Exposure Bracketing (AEB) 

The second option of creating a bracketed exposure is using automatic exposure bracketing (AEB).

I recommend using automatic bracketing exposure because it is much faster than manual and with the everchanging light of sunrise every second matter. 

Automatic exposure bracketing is a feature built into most cameras that automatically capture a scene at multiple exposure levels.  

Most cameras allow you to adjust the number of underexposed and overexposed images you take. 

The most popular setting is a three-shot AEB, but five and seven shot AEBs are also available. 

A three-shot AEB captures three photos, one underexposed, one overexposed, and one correctly exposed. 

Likewise, a five-shot AEB captures two underexposed, two overexposed, and one correctly exposed photo. 

You can also adjust the number of stops you want to adjust exposure. 

For example, you can set your camera to a three-shot AEB and bracket for two stops.

In this setting, your camera will capture one image two stops overexposed, one image two stops underexposed, and a correctly exposed image. 

Compositing and Blending

The final step to a bracketed exposure is combining the images. 

This process can be done using HDR software that does it automatically or by hand using post-processing software. 

If you are looking to do it manually then Photoshop and Lightroom are your best options. 

These tools are extremely powerful and easy to learn with the countless online resources. 

You shouldn’t have an issue learning what you need. 

If you want a software that does it automatically, then Luminar is a great option. 

This tool has a powerful AI tool that will combine your images for you. 

HDR software is easier and faster than blending your images by hand. But, this often requires you to forgo some level of control of your photo. 

Blending your photos manually is time-consuming, but it gives you greater control over the elements you include in your photo. 

Using bracketed exposure and blending the images is an excellent way to produce photos with a higher dynamic range than most cameras. 

Auto HDR

Capturing HDR images is now easier and faster than ever. Newer camera models now have an auto HDR mode. 

This mode brackets your images and combines them with the single push of the shutter. 

The new HDR mode is best for those who prefer not to edit their photos or those who want HDR images immediately. 

Unfortunately, auto HDR does have some faults. First, most cameras only allow you to capture HDR photos in JPEG. 

The second disadvantage is that only the final HDR image is stored. The bracketed images used to create it are discarded. 

8. Expose for Highlights

If you prefer not to use exposure bracketing or are simply unable to do so, a good alternative is to expose for highlights.

Exposing for the highlights will enable you to capture as much detail as possible in high contrast scenes.

This remains true, even if it leaves most of your picture dark or underexposed.

With most modern cameras, you can almost always boost your shadows with editing software.

Slightly underexposing your sunrise images also tend to make the colors in it richer, more defined.

If you’re lucky enough to be photographing a vibrant sky, exposing for highlights can make your picture look more compelling.

Keep in mind, when exposing for highlights, you may need to leave some elements overexposed to avoid being unable to recover the dark areas in your image.

Leaving some areas in your image, overexposed is normal and expected, especially around your light source.

9. Adjust Your White Balance

 White balance is a tool you can use to adjust the colors in your photo.

This is done by adjusting the temperature of the light source of your photo. 

Images with a warm light will have an orange tint. While images with cool light will have a blue tint. 

During sunrise, the light is warm.

The warm light casts an orange-yellow tint over your scene.

Depending on your photographic goals this tint may be unwanted or ideal.

You can use white balance to both enhance and reduce this during your sunrise photos. 

If you want to remove the orange tint from your photo, set your white balance to auto mode.

In auto mode, your colors will appear as neutral. 

If you would like to enhance the orange tint present in your photos, use the cloudy or daylight presets. 

Use the daylight preset if the colors in your photo need a small boost. 

On the other hand, use the cloud preset if your image is lacking the warmth often associated with sunrise.

This is a great setting to use when the colors during sunrise did appear as spectacular as you expected. 

10. Shoot in Raw

Unless you plan not to edit your pictures, I recommend shooting with a RAW format.

While an 8-bit, JPEG image only translates into 16 Million possible colors, a 16-bit, RAW photos can have a total of 281 Trillion possible colors.  

As a result, RAW images can better translate the variation of tones and colors in your scene more accurately into your images.

This feature can be invaluable when taking photos of high contrast scenes, such as sunrise.

Since RAW has a wider tonal range, it will more accurately read the different levels of brightness in your scene.

Raw images also have a larger color gamut than JPEGs.

A large color gamut gives you more flexibility to adjust your white balance in post-processing. 

In fact, the RAW format is so flexible; some photographers don’t bother adjusting their white balance while taking photos.

They simply correct the white balance using an editing software afterward.

Finally, compared to JPEGs, RAW files also have greater editing capabilities.

That is, with RAW files, you’ll have more freedom to adjust essential components of your image, such as the highlights, shadows, and contrast, without creating any issues. 

Resource: RAW vs. JPEG: The Full Story

Sunrise Photography Tips

1. Arrive Early and Stay Late

Aim to arrive early and stay late at the location.

Finding a good composition often requires a bit of scouting, which you can only do if you arrive at your location early.

Arriving early gives you enough time to find and refine your composition. 

Even if you’re already familiar with an area and don’t feel the need to scout the location, it still pays to arrive early. 

Sometimes the best light happens before sunrise or right as the sun is rising.

Arriving early ensures that you don’t miss the best part of the morning.

Similarly, staying later at the location comes with great benefits.

Although you wouldn’t have the rich and vibrant colors of sunrise, you’ll still be able to enjoy the soft ambient light present in the early morning.

In fact, many consider the hours succeeding sunrise to be the ideal time for portrait photography; not during sunrise itself.

This is because the bright, saturated colors seen during sunrise can often be too overpowering when taking photos of people.

Vibrant skies can easily take attention away from your main subject and dominate your photograph. 

By shooting a bit past sunrise, you can shoot under soft, warm light without worrying about colors being too overwhelming in your picture.

The golden hour can lead to beautiful portraits, but it’s generally your best bet to aim for the time right before it starts and right after it ends.

Here’s why:

2. Recompose

Once you think you have a good shot of a particular composition, it’s always a good idea to recompose and keep moving. 

A common mistake when taking sunrise photos is doing it from the same angle the entire time. 

That is, it’s a common practice for photographers to mount their tripods and stick to a single composition once they find the one they like.

And why not? After all the sunrise only last for a few minutes and you don’t want to miss out because you’re scrambling trying to find different compositions. 

However, most of the time, we overestimate the amount of time we need to shoot a single composition.

We also underestimate the amount of time we have to recompose and the benefits of doing so.

Compositional opportunities change as the light changes.

Different angles of light can transform a composition from dull to stunning in a matter of seconds. It can also do the opposite.

That is, it can turn a compelling one into an uninspiring one.

What may have seemed to be the best composition before sunrise, may not be so once the sun reaches a certain angle in the sky.

In short, when you stay with the same composition, you risk neglecting other compositional opportunities

Try to be aware of the changes in your surroundings.

Look behind you. Look to the left and the right.

You never know when you’ll find that perfect angle you’re looking for.

Resource: 23 Composition Techniques for Photography

3. Photograph Silhouettes

Taking photos of silhouettes is a great way to infuse drama in your images. Silhouettes typically outlined with a soft glow that can be visually striking.

When photographing silhouettes, aim to find subjects with a distinct shape.

That is, find subjects that are familiar enough for the viewer to identify with only their outlines.

Since silhouettes lack important visual features such as color and texture, using an identifiable shape will help your viewers understand what they are seeing.

Also, make sure not to let the shapes overlap.

Overlapping subjects can combine multiple objects into one shape, making their outlines unrecognizable to the viewers.

For instance, if you’re photographing the silhouette of multiple palm trees, find an angle to shoot where the leaves and branches don’t overlap. 

If you’re photographing a group of people, make sure they don’t get too close to close to each other.

Also, when photographing people, it may be better to position them sideways rather than facing the camera directly.

Positioning them in profile makes more of their features, like their noses and mouths, easily identifiable.

Finally, pay close attention to their posture.

If possible, create space between and around your subject’s arms and legs to make them more prominently outlined.

Resource: 18 Tips on How to Photograph Stunning Silhouettes

4. Include a Sunburst

Adding a Sunburst in a composition is one of my favorites, and sunrise is one of the best times of the day to do it. Here’s how:

First, set your camera to a narrow aperture or a high f-number, such as f/18 or f/22.

As light enters your lens, the narrow aperture will cause the light to bend (diffract) around the edges of the aperture.

This is what creates the “star” look.

Keep in mind, the nature of your Sunstar is dependent on the type of lens you are using.

In particular, if your lens has an even number of blades, it will produce a sunburst with the same amount of rays as blades.

But, if your lens has an odd number of blades, it will create a sunburst with rays twice the amount of blades.

To enhance your sunburst, find a way to block the sun partially.

Blocking the sun exaggerates the effect of a sunburst by diffracting the sunlight before it goes through your lens.

You can block the sun with a tree, a mountain ridge, or a rock.

If you’re at a location where there’s a clear horizon, using the horizon to block the sun can also be a great idea. 

Also, when looking for ways to block the sunburst, remember to explore different angles and compositions.

A slight change in framing can have a massive impact on the appearance of your Sunstar.

Lastly, when photographing sun stars, make sure that your sensor is free of dust.

The dust becomes most apparent when using small aperture settings.

Resource: How to Take Stunning Images With Backlighting

5. Edit Your Photos

Editing may seem like an afterthought, but it’s just as crucial to the process of image creation as taking the picture.

You can drastically change the aesthetics of your image during the editing process, especially if you shoot in RAW. 

Editing platforms, such as Lightroom and Photoshop, allow you to make a variety of changes to your image.

Tools like contrast, sharpness, and saturation sliders are just a few examples of elements that you can alter through editing.

Editing your images also enables you to create visual effects that are impossible in nature.

You can make a bright and vibrant photo convey a dark and eerie feel.

You can turn your colored photographs into monochrome.

With a few changes, your images can go from beautiful to sublime.

Resource: How to Make Landscape Images Look 3D With Dodge and Burn

About The Author

Photographer. Explorer. Story Teller. For the past 5 years, I’ve voyaged across the world seeking the next great photograph. If you’re anything like me, you love to travel, capture beautiful moments, and live life to the fullest.

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