The Best Cameras For Shooting A Documentary

I write a lot about cinema cameras and getting the cinematic look that many of us are after, especially on fictional narrative projects. But what about documentaries? This article will explore camera options that are best suited for shooting documentary material, and while some of them may overlap with cameras you could use for fictional narrative shooting, they are likely going to be set up and used in very different ways.

Initially I was going to write a post on specific cameras and list their pros and cons as far as how they apply to a documentary project. However I decided against getting too specific as far as camera choices and rather talk about camera types instead, touching on specifics when needed. Because truthfully, new cameras are released practically every day and there are an almost infinite amount of choices out there – so it really isn’t about which exact camera model you should buy, it’s about which type of camera will suit your story and production. The only camera type that I didn’t go into here are action cams (like the GoPro Hero3+) because these are specialty cameras that may be used for some specific shots, but not an entire film. To help you narrow those choices down, let’s take a look at a few categories or types of cameras, and see where they fit into the world of documentary filmmaking.

Digital Cinema Cameras

Examples: Arri Alexa, Red Epic, Blackmagic Cinema Camera, Sony F55.


These may not be the first cameras to come to mind when you think of shooting a documentary, and in most cases they are not the right choice. But there are some higher budget documentaries that can make exceptionally good use of cinema cameras to tell their story. For example, if you are shooting a nature documentary and have all the time in the world to shoot (and a large budget) – why not shoot the best possible quality footage you can get? It will only increase production value. Or if you’re shooting a docu-drama that requires re-enacting scenes, or even a mixed format doc where you want some really polished looking interview footage, this may be the way to go. As long as you have the time, money and resources to handle these cameras and they don’t become a burden on your project, then by all means consider them an option.

Besides the added cost that these cameras will bring to your budget, the biggest downside is the size. These cameras all need to be rigged up to work properly, and once you step into that territory you are now losing out on a two main things. The first is your stealth factor. Many documenaties require the director/camera op to blend into a crowd as they are often in situations where cameras aren’t allowed or where the subject matter will be compromised if a camera is visible. Any of these cameras will draw attention to you and the stealth factor goes right out the window. The second issue is dealing with the cameras set up times. These cameras do need to be rigged and you can’t just pull them out and shoot which means if you expect to get a lot of shots on the fly (as most docs do) you may literally miss shots by not having your camera set up in time.


Examples: Canon 5D, Lumix GH3, Sony A99, Nikon D5200.

Nikon DSLR

DSLR’s are one of the most popular cameras for documentaries today, despite the issues and workarounds that come along with them. The reason being that they maintain a relatively stealth form factor and are easily portable, while still delivering a solid image in most shooting situations. They are also very affordable. In a lot of ways, they are the perfect balance between size, quality and affordability. You could theoretically use them for just about any shot in your documentary, unless something very specialized in required. I mentioned earlier that with Digital Cinema Cameras you might want to use them for part of your production (interviews) but not for others (run-n-gun footage). With a DSLR you can use it quite effectively for both. They can be set up beautifully for controlled interview footage and can be effectively used to run-n-gun with, although they aren’t always ideal for this type of shooting for the reasons listed below.

The cons of using a DSLR for a documentary are basically the same as using a DSLR for any other shoot. The biggest issue though, and the one that is most applicable to docs is the rolling shutter. Many docs are shot on-the-fly, and moments are captured spontaneously with a hand held camera. DSLR’s can be painful to work with for handheld work, not only because they are not ergonomically designed to shoot video with, but also because of the micro-jitters that run rampant through hand held DSLR footage. This can of course be fixed by using a rig with the camera, but then you run into the same issues that I described above when riggining up a Cinema Camera. This isn’t a deal breaker, but is something to be aware of. As long as you make sure you have stabilized lenses, and are comfortable shooting handheld, you will be okay. Audio is another issue to consider as most DSLRs don’t even have a headphone jack. So make sure if you are buying a new DSLR, find one with a solid mic input and headphone output.

Pocket Cameras

Examples: Blackmagic Pocket Cam, Sony RX1.

Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera sensor

These little cameras are absolutely fantastic for documentary filmmaking and I would be shocked if we don’t start to see a lot of new docs utilizing these small, but very powerful cameras. The upsides to shooting on cameras like these are pretty huge. The cost is very low. The quality can be very high. And the size of them is so small that it makes travelling with the camera or being discreet an easy task. Once again your camera choice is going to be dependant on the type of production you’re working on, but as an all round documentary camera these are hard to beat. They may not be the perfect cameras for a docu-drama or a nature doc (although you could definitely make it work), but they would be pretty ideal for the majority of docs. The key with these cameras is to choose the right one for your project. Don’t just choose the Blackmagic Pocket Camera because the quality is so good. Keep in mind that the file sizes will be larger than the Sony for example so if you can’t dump the footage for a couple of days, you may want a camera that will eat up less memory cards. Pick the camera that suits your needs and project best.

The cons to these cameras are pretty much on par with shooting on a DSLR. They are typically going to give you pretty bad rolling shutter artifacts and that can be a bit of a nightmare to work with unless you rig them up. The good news here is that the rigs are smaller and more cost effective because of the size of the cameras, but it is still something to be aware of. You also need to pay attention to their audio recording capabilities. The Blackmagic Pocket camera for instance, doesn’t have the strongest audio performance. It is useable but isn’t by any means perfect. So you may also need to look into recording dual system with a Zoom h6 or similar, or getting a good preamp to help out your audio levels coming into the camera. And these cameras, much like DSLR’s don’t have built in ND filters, so keep in mind you will need to have some ND’s, or a single variable ND, on you at all times.

Traditional Camcorders

Examples: Canon XA20, Panasonic AG-AC90, Sony HXR-HX5U.


To many of us, these types of cameras feel like a thing of the past. In the days of the DVX100, Canon XL1, and HVX200, camcorders were all the rage. They were used on everything from television content to indie films to documentaries and everything in between. The popularity of DSLR video put a huge dent in this market, but nonetheless there is still a strong need for camcorders, and they’ve come a long way over the past few years. These cameras are really built for documentary style shooting, which is why so many shooters that use these cameras are working in journalism. The image quality on most of these cameras is really quite good although more clinical and video looking than other cameras on this list. They not only produce sharp, crisp images, but are built to be easy to shoot with. The ergonomics are fantastic and they are loaded with features that are critical for shooting quickly – like built in ND filters and XLR inputs. Some of the newer models even have wi-fi built in so that you can upload your footage via FTP while still in the field shooting!

The negatives that come along with shooting on a camcorder are nothing new to most of us. They are the same issues that caused most of us to switch to DSLR’s years ago – lack of interchangeable lenses, relatively poor low-light performance, difficult to get a shallow depth of field, etc. Another issue is that while almost any other camera on this list (other than the Cinema Cameras) can be passed off as something else (most often a stills camera), these cameras definitely can not be. There is no fooling anyone when shooting with a camcorder, as the average Joe on the street knows exactly what you’re up to. If that isn’t an issue for you though, the only other big factor is the footage itself. If you don’t mind having a more journalistic, news-style look to your footage, then you have nothing to worry about. But if you expect to get shallow DOF shots that rival DSLR’s and a more cinematic look to your footage, then these cameras are not for you. No matter how hard you try, they will always look more like video, than most of the other cameras on this list.

Phone Cameras

Examples: iPhone 5s, Galaxy S4, Lumia 1020.

2013-09-10-15_17_29-Apple-iPhone 5s-Design

Shooting your documentary, or even parts of it, on a smartphone may feel odd but it is becoming more and more common every day. In fact even the oscar winning documentary “Searching For Sugarman” was partially shot on an iPhone. While the quality of these cameras isn’t at the level of any of the other cameras on this list, they do beat out every other camera in the size department. Nothing is more low-key than shooting video on a smartphone as you can easily conceal what you’re shooting. And even if someone catches on, chances are they aren’t paying too much attention to you if the only gear you have on you is your phone. The big advantages of shooting on your smart phone are size, portability, availability, and anonymity. I wouldn’t suggest shooting an entire doc on smart phones (unless you have a very specific idea that lends itself to doing so), but I would suggest considering it a tool that you can utilize when needed.

The biggest downside to shooting on a smartphone is the quality of your footage. While phone cameras are getting better with each new release, they are still not at a level of quality that even comes close to other more affordable cameras, like the Blackmagic Pocket Camera for example. They have a particularly bad rolling shutter (and chances are you’re not rigging up your phone), so you will likely have to deal with those shortcomings. You’re also stuck with the lens that comes built into the phone, which isn’t going to give you much flexibility. But perhaps the biggest downside is the low-light performance. Since smartphones have such small sensors, they are notoriously bad in low light and night footage will always come out grainy and noisy.

So which one do you choose?

Well it depends. If you’re shooting a highly structured, well funded documentary that mainly consists of talking heads and some re-enactments then go for a Cinema Camera. You’ll get the best possible quality and will have the money to work around the hurdles. On the other end of the spectrum, if you’re shooting completely on-the-fly without a real structure and little to no funding, a Pocket Cam or DSLR would be your best bet. These types of cameras will still give you that great quality that you’re looking for, while maintaining anonymity when needed. In fact I would say that despite their issues, Pocket Cams might be the best all-round documentary cameras if you are still going for a cinematic look. With that said, if you’re shooting material that calls for a more journalistic approach and aren’t as concerned with making the film look cinematic, but rather ensuring that you adequately capture everything that you absolutely need with a camera that is tooled to do so, then there is no beating shooting on a camcorder. That of course leaves phone cameras, which are not ideal to use, but may be the only option in many scenarios. I don’t recommend using these when you don’t have to, but I absolutely do recommend using them when there is no other option. Rough footage from a phone is better then no footage any day, and you can always save it with good audio and editing, especially if you’re only using it in small amounts.

The fact is there is no perfect camera for any job, but we are fortunate to have lots of great, affordable options these days. Choose the camera that best suits your project and take advantage of the fact that with a documentary, you are able to mix formats as needed. Don’t be afraid to shoot interviews on a RED camera and then pull out your iPhone the next day to capture something covertly in public. Documentaries are great because they allow for that flexibility, so be sure to take advantage of that whenever you can.

Last week I wrote an article on How To Get Away With Shooting Guerilla Style. It was written from the standpoint of fiction narratives, but most if not all of the principles apply to documentary shooting as well, so be sure to check it out!

If you enjoyed this article please help to support the site by sharing on Facebook with the link below and following me on on twitter  – @noamkroll


About Author

Noam Kroll is an award-winning Los Angeles based filmmaker, and the founder of the boutique production house, Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television, and in various publications across the globe. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!


  • Melissa
    October 22, 2021 at 2:07 pm

    Thanks for amazing article to help us out. I bought Blackmagic Sony RX1 camera for my mountain documentary at Karakoram range and this camera was the best choice I would say.

  • Jessica Stones
    September 24, 2021 at 9:08 pm

    Canon XA20 works great with all its features

    • Noam Kroll
      October 20, 2021 at 7:48 pm

      Thanks for adding this to the list, Jessica!

  • elizabeth
    July 27, 2021 at 5:15 pm

    A firm favourite amongst documentary filmmakers is the Panasonic Lumix GH5. While some people may argue that the newer edition Panasonic Lumix GH5s is a better camera, the GH5 might remain the better camera for documentary filmmakers.

    • Noam Kroll
      October 20, 2021 at 7:36 pm

      Appreciate your input – why do you prefer the GH5 for doc work?

  • Jacqueline L. Pollock
    July 19, 2021 at 7:48 pm

    RX10 IV has a 20MP CMOS sensor, a 315-point phase-detection autofocus system that covers 65% of the frame, touch LCD and EVF, built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity. It shoots detailed 4K video, 1080p slow-motion, and has a native ISO range of 100-12800.

  • Zoey Oliver
    July 16, 2021 at 9:06 am

    I wanted to ask you..never had any experience with cameras, other than phones, and tabs, but would like to know, without any experience what kind of a camcorder, or videocam would help me shoot a documentary in a Himalayan trek?

    • Noam Kroll
      October 20, 2021 at 7:34 pm

      Easiest option is to use an iPhone. Next easiest would be a mirrorless camera like the Blackmagic Pocket.

  • Arshad Saqib
    March 16, 2021 at 4:14 pm

    Documentary cameras are really useful and we can use them for other works as well, Thanks for the guide.

  • Amit
    April 20, 2019 at 10:24 pm

    Hi Noam

    I am looking for a documentary camera. I do have a Canon 550 D and Sony handycam HDR SR10E. Would you recommend a more sophisticated camera which is not very high on price factor but gets everything required for a solo and a new documentary maker ? Thanks.

    • Noam Kroll
      May 17, 2019 at 10:08 pm

      It all depends on what you’re filming, and how you like to work. Do you have a specific project you’re working on?

  • Brandon Portland Parker
    February 21, 2019 at 8:37 am

    I have a Nikon d850, I’m starting my journey into docs. I’m debating on getting Nikon Rokinon Cine kit ($2000.) or used C100 and Lens adapter. To use with my Nikon lenses. Thoughts?

    • Noam Kroll
      March 5, 2019 at 5:22 pm

      That’s a tough one – it really depends on how you like to shoot, and what environment you are in. The C100 will definitely be easier to shoot with if you don’t mind the extra size, but if you need to be more inconspicuous or keep your kit smaller for travel, the Nikon could be the better option. Both will capture great images, as you know!

  • Sc
    December 28, 2018 at 3:33 pm

    Hi Noam

    Im a film student looking to start a docuseries. Do you think the Sony FDR AX53 is a good option to start with? Thank you

    • Noam Kroll
      January 17, 2019 at 1:15 am

      I haven’t used it myself, but would generally stay away from camcorders. A DSLR/mirrorless camera or a blackmagic pocket would probably be a better starting place!

  • shri
    November 15, 2018 at 3:30 am

    HI NOAM,
    in dslr camera inbuilt mic is good or exterior mic good? which is best option? i am thinking nikon d 3400 which has inbuilt mic. so guide me.
    thanks noam

    • Noam Kroll
      January 16, 2019 at 7:51 pm

      Generally, internal camera mics are very bad! I would look into the Rode Video Mic, or something similar.

  • Joe
    July 28, 2018 at 4:12 am

    Hi Noam
    Great article.
    What do you recommend as the best camera for under $1000 for making docs? Is the audio terrible on most of them?
    Would love your thoughts… someone had recommended to me Lumix FZ1000 or is there another camera you think would be better?
    Thanks for your recommendation

    • Noam Kroll
      August 21, 2018 at 9:24 pm

      Have you considered a used GH4? Still an amazing camera!

  • Nowshad Rahman
    May 14, 2018 at 10:07 pm

    This article is too good.
    It’s really interesting to read and I just find out best documentary cameras.
    I just love it. Thank you!!!!
    1 question: Is it canon 5D best for the documentary?

    • Noam Kroll
      June 13, 2018 at 3:21 am

      I’m not sure there is a best camera hands down… But if I had to pick one right now, I might go with the Panasonic EVA 1.

  • Lorenzo
    September 27, 2017 at 5:49 am

    Great article. Looking for professional video camera/documentary that looks consumer style. Size/cost important. Most of film will be interviews. Some street scenes/travel style. Aim for film festival/important quality/sound.
    Thank you

    • Noam Kroll
      September 29, 2017 at 5:36 pm

      Hi Lorenzo. Have you looked into the Lumix GH5? Or a used GH4 if you need to save a few bucks?

  • Erion
    May 10, 2017 at 5:26 am

    Hi Noam!
    Thanks for your opinon about camera. I want to shot reenactment documentary. It’s sony fs 700 a good choice? For a moment i have 5d mark ii and sony nex ea50uh. Can i do with those camera?
    I wish you the best

    • Noam Kroll
      May 11, 2017 at 7:05 pm

      Hi Erion – Thanks for checking in! I tend to think Sony’s are great cameras for documentary work (including the FS700), as they offer loads of great functions, slow motion, good low light ability, and a nice look for more reality-based productions. I don’t typically use Sony cameras for narrative work myself, but I do recommend them for projects like yours. Good luck!

  • Rafa
    December 4, 2015 at 4:16 am

    Hi Noam. What kind of camera do you think is the best to shoot on jail?
    To create a cinematic and emotional look.

    • Noam Kroll
      December 8, 2015 at 4:59 pm

      Not sure I quite understand the question.. You want to shoot a film that takes place in a jail?

  • Jyoti
    March 22, 2015 at 8:34 am

    Hi Noam
    Hope you are doing good,, I came across your site, and I am really glad you doing a wonderful job..well then I wanted to ask you..never had any experience with cameras, otherthan phones and tabs,, but would like to know, without any experience what kind of a camcorder, or videocam would help me shoot a documentary in a himalayan trek? With a low, or mediocre budget, spending too much for an inexperienced is not worth it I think…please bear the unnecessary…awaiting ur reply…thanking you…

    • Noam Kroll
      March 22, 2015 at 4:46 pm

      Hey Jyoti… Thanks for the kind words! I would recommend that if you need a camera for a Himalayan trek, you get something lightweight and with a stabilized lens, so you can easily shoot nice images without needing a lot of accessories. The Sony A7 MK II has built in stabilization and might be a great option. The Lumix GH3 or GH4 would be great too, especially if you can used a stabilized lumix lens with it. Hope this helps!

  • Rima Sabbagh
    January 13, 2015 at 9:11 am

    Hello Noam,

    I am a senior promo producer and editor ,I am now interested in shooting my own ideas and documentaries, is it possible to find an on line shooting courses with you and thanks a lot.


  • sanjeev kumar
    November 14, 2014 at 8:28 am

    noam ,
    i m a journalist doing work with news, but now i want to work for doc films on social issues like effect of flood specially post flood conditions, an my target will be fest films ,. so plz advise me to select my type of camera and techs which can help me better . it should be also economic for me.

    • Noam Kroll
      November 24, 2014 at 6:51 pm

      Hi Sanjeev,

      Have you looked into the C100? If that’s within your price range, it’s one of the best documentary cameras I can recommend. Or alternatively a FS100/FS700 from Sony.

  • Brian
    September 2, 2014 at 3:58 pm

    I never respond on blogs, but I had to stop by and thank you for all the information provided.

    • Noam Kroll
      September 4, 2014 at 9:50 pm

      Thanks a lot Brian! Glad you’re enjoying it and hope to see you back around here soon.

  • Scott
    May 29, 2014 at 1:36 am

    Thanks for the great article! I am preparing to shoot my first doc and had some questions that you answered here perfectly. I also really liked the fact that you talked about “types” of cameras instead of specific models. Thanks again!

    • Noam Kroll
      June 2, 2014 at 10:15 pm

      Many thanks Scott! Best of luck with your doc.

  • Christine
    April 3, 2014 at 10:58 pm

    Hi Noam,

    Very glad I found your site, the info above was EXACTLY what I was looking for. Your info, is to the point, and gives just the right info needed.:-). Thank you very much! and keep up the great work.

    Just one more thing, before I go, this is probably a basic question:-) but never mind…

    What do you mean when you say the ‘rolling shutters’ and the ‘microjitters’ that run rumpage through the footage? what do these terms mean?

    thanks heaps!:-),
    Kind Regards,
    Christine , New Zealand.

    • Noam Kroll
      April 28, 2014 at 6:32 pm

      Hi Christine,

      So glad to hear you enjoyed the article!

      When I talk about rolling shutter/micro jitters, I’m referring to the fact that CMOS sensors can have a ‘jello’ like effect when you move them. Think about how iPhone footage can look really wobbly at times… That’s what we get from even professional level CMOS sensors (just not as extreme), so it’s important to know how to work around them.

  • prasanna
    March 14, 2014 at 11:37 am

    i am impress about your article can you give information about sponsors for documentaries. i Have Great concept and ThanQ for given such a important information.

    • Noam Kroll
      March 22, 2014 at 5:58 pm

      Hi There, I don’t have much info as far as sponsorships for documentaries, but there is always kickstarter!

  • shekhar srivastava
    March 1, 2014 at 3:46 pm

    hey Noam,
    please do tell me is it okay to shoot a documentary with a canon power shot A2300 camera.
    I’m so confused, please tell me how is it going to look. here’s the link plz tell me.

  • Steven Workman
    February 26, 2014 at 1:15 pm

    Hi Noam. I’m new to all of this so your article was a great help. Thank you!

    I plan to make a documentary so the Blackmagic sounds like the option I’d like to go with.

    If I’m filming mostly indoors i.e. home, office, gym, bars and restaurants (think Come Dine With Me), what lenses would best suit the Blackmagic and what additional lighting would I need?



    • Noam Kroll
      March 5, 2014 at 6:30 pm

      Hi Steven – The lenses and lighting will be specific to the look that you’re going for, but for starters, look into the Rokinon Cine Prime Lenses and Lowell’s 3 point lighting kits.

  • Einar Røyne
    February 14, 2014 at 12:44 pm

    Hi Noam, thanx for a great article. I work as a filmer at a ski resort i Norway. I have used the HVX-200 for some years now, but we plan go upgrade our gear. Canon 70D with a rig looks nice, but audio and ergonomics is still a problem as far as I can see. Do you have any experience with the Sony NX3?
    We work a little “run n gun” so so far I believe we need a traditional camcorder. Limited budget as well.. 😉

    • Noam Kroll
      February 15, 2014 at 2:21 am

      Thank for visiting Einar. I haven’t shot much with the NX3 myself, but since you come from a Panasonic background, it might be worth checking out the GH3 or GH4 – both very capable and affordable!

  • Qayyum
    February 5, 2014 at 2:37 pm

    i read your great article about the best camera for shooting a documentary. thanks for the sharing but i want to know about underwater camera because I will carry out the project on a crocodile and I need to record the movements and behavior of crocodiles. so what kind of camera do you think is suitable for me to use if I want to shoot a crocodile in the water but I was not close to the them? there is any camera like periscope and have a good video quality?

    • Noam Kroll
      February 15, 2014 at 2:15 am

      If you are on a budget, try getting a go pro, they are hard to beat! But if you need something with interchangeable lenses, you can look into buying underwater housing for any DSLR or video camera that you may be interested in.

  • Sandy
    January 24, 2014 at 9:48 am

    I am stuck with a NIkon Coolpix P510 that I purchased essentially for still photography – it is not a lost case when it comes to video. However I am seriously moving into documentary production – and was told to buy a DSLR camera – would a canon 7D be alright (I know the 5D is the better choice – but it is expensive) and would a zoom lens (70-100mm) suffice?

    • Noam Kroll
      January 27, 2014 at 5:32 pm

      Hi Sandy – The Canon 7D is a nice camera, but a little outdated now. If you’re into Canons, have you looked at the 70D? As for lenses, if you’re going with a zoom, I would recommend getting something wider than the one you described, as having only a telephoto lens will be quite limiting. A 24-70 for instance would be a great option!

  • Emily Taylor
    December 13, 2013 at 11:26 am

    I love the Canon XA20 you listed :3 I used it a lot before and it works great. And it’s flexibility is nice, i can take the handle off, and take off the hood if need be and its close in size to my handycam practically. Fan-god damn fucking- tastic quality and low light quality and build quality and and compactness, and coolness and sexiness hehehehe

  • Gaurav Bajaj
    November 28, 2013 at 6:40 am


    I read the whole paragraph you have written about low budget cameras for doc. I would like to ask you if we can shoot a doc with a normal Sony handy cam?


    • Noam Kroll
      December 3, 2013 at 9:25 pm

      Hi Gaurav,

      A Hanycam could work very well for a doc – in fact just about any camera could. I’ve seen docs shot with cell phone cameras and old mini dv cams that worked well since with a documentary it really is all about the story. If you were going to purchase a camera though specifically for a documentary, you might want to decide which camera based on the type of shooting you’ll be doing.

  • Rusty Earl
    October 14, 2013 at 5:48 pm

    Thanks for another great article. I came across you site a few weeks ago and love coming back once a week for updates. Very good info on GH3/ Black magic experience!

    I think a lot of people really underestimate the power and ability of shooting a doc with small cameras. Audio workarounds have steadily gotten better over the last 3+ years and the light package is definitely a plus when you don’t want to draw a lot of attention to yourself.

    Last year I shot a 30 minute doc on special education efforts in a remote part of Tanzania. It was filmed with two low budget Canon T2i’s and h4n recorder. Story wise it went on to play locally and regionally on PBS. Big gear or not story really does count.

    Please check out my trailer when you get a chance.
    Humanity looks good on Everyone:


    • Noam
      October 16, 2013 at 6:22 am

      Thanks for visiting Rusty – I appreciate the feedback!

      Your documentary sounds fantastic. Congrats on having it aired on PBS, I know that isn’t an easy task to say the least. I’ll be sure to check out the trailer this evening.

      Please continue checking back as the site will be expanding to include video review/tutorials shortly!


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