Chasing the tack sharp mirage

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Is this image tack sharp? Is that anywhere close to the right question? I do know the water was absolute glass on the lake.

Do some phrases bug you after you’ve heard them a few times? Perhaps a commercial you’ve seen too much?

Many years ago I went through a phase of reading books on photography. One phrase that kept coming up was the idea of making photos that were tack sharp. Initially I thot it had a nice ring to it! It also made sense since I’m not usually aiming for dull murkiness. That requires little effort!

I worked hard to improve my skills and spent a lot of money replacing equipment trying to achieve it. I wanted entry into the tack sharp club!

While I made considerable progress and still highly value a sharp image, I now find the term a little annoying. Tack sharp seems to infer some sort of objective, measureable standard when it’s really just an unforgiving mirage.

A professional wildlife photographer I met last spring talked about never going beyond 300 ISO. He used a 48-inch monitor to make sure there was no grain whatsoever on his wildlife photos and to ensure his images were sharp. Later I got to thinking – what made him stop there? Why not get an even larger monitor?

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There are lot of things I like about this photo – the forlorn look of the calf, the open space around the calf, the leading lines created by the vegetation, the gently sloping terrain behind the calf, the contrasting colour of the calf and the spring greens just starting to come to life, the texture of the calf … and oh yes that it’s sharp enough.

As I looked closer and zoomed in on my much smaller monitor, my hard-fought sharpness started to fade … and then faded some more. When I added more sharpening in post processing, it still seemed a little soft or looked completely artificial. The whole thing was starting to drive me crazy.

I could feel myself turning into the dreaded pixel peeper – that annoying person who focuses on the technical aspects of photos instead of the beauty. That’s not why I started taking photos. I recall another photographer commenting that when he asked his wife what she thot of a photo, she never mentioned the technical aspects, only whether she liked the photo.

So forget the elusive dream of tack sharp. Yes I want a photo that is sharp enough to look good. But the real goal isn’t technical perfection but capturing and sharing beauty. That’s the path I started down at the beginning but it turns out there are a lot of distractions along the way.

A few weeks after meeting that professional wildlife photographer, I ran across a description for photographers who never go above 500 ISO. It was a special photography term – “sissies.” There’s another phrase I’m not too crazy about!

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I was so hoping he would stop in front of that bush and this time he did.

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Latest Comments

  1. artsifrtsy says:

    You know – I’ve gone in search of that sharpness too – and lost spontaneity in the process. Composition is more important. Connection to your subject is more important – catching the magic – more important. Sharpness is overrated. I see photogs brag about it and wonder if they ever step back and look at the composition.

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  2. mflahertyphoto says:

    Great pics Lyle! I’m partial to the last one, what a beautiful animal! Sharp is as sharp does, and no landscapes are perfectly sharp. Well, some people take a bunch of images focused front to back and blend them so it looks very sharp throughout, but that looks somehow unnatural to me. The trend is for technical aspects to be more important than artistic ones, but the truth in photography is that both are important. The artistic aspects (storytelling, emotion evoking, etc.) will always be the reason people buy a picture, but if there are serious technical errors that might get in the way of appreciation. But many photographers go way overboard in judging whether or not a small technical flaw interferes with the picture’s message. I always take other photographers’ feedback with a grain of salt (no matter how big their name is), while I almost always take a non-photographer’s simpler opinion (i.e. how long they look at it and how enthusiastic they are about it) much more seriously. When I give feedback I try to offer opinions on both aspects, but it’s hard to not get too analytical. By the way, I like the way your feedback trends Lyle.

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    • Lyle Krahn says:

      I really appreciate your thotful comments. I like your perspective on the technical vs artistic. It’s funny you discount photographers’ feedback but take others’ more seriously but when you think about it, that makes sense. It’s hard to keep a balanced perspective when you know a lot of the details of how a photo is made. I guess this post was part of my rebalancing.

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  3. Inspired and pretty says:

    I so agree with you about this quest of having the most sharp image as possible. A beautiful photo is not just about its sharpness, there is so much more… Beautiful photos Lyle 🙂

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  4. liamgreensphotography says:

    Chasing the tack sharp mirage: I really like the top one!!!

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  5. liamgreensphotography says:

    Chasing the tack sharp mirage: Great Photo!!! Love it!

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  6. dweezer19 says:

    I know what you mean. I was always thrilled at my “captures” until I delved more deeply into the wonderful world of magnificent photographers. I understand the desire for perfection, magnificence and HD quality. But it continues to be the moment that I long to capture, and now and then I feel some get lost in the magnificence rather than the moment. You capture great moments, my friend. Whatever happens after that is between you and the camera.

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    • Lyle Krahn says:

      I really like what you said about capturing great moments. Being in those moments is a wonderful experience that begs for more. I’m pleased that you think I capture great moments – what more could a person want?

      Like

  7. caleephotography says:

    I fully agree with you, but I’m just an amateur. Surely the tech part would be important for professionals. 🙂 Great pictures, I especially love the last one.

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    • Lyle Krahn says:

      If you are selling photos as a professional, then I agree theoretically the technical part is more important but then probably all aspects would be more important (though some of the so-called professional shots don’t seem to follow that at all). At the end of the day it’s still a continuum of sharpness and everyone needs to decide where they want to land.

      The last one seems to be quite popular. Thanks for your comments.

      Like

  8. Steve Gingold says:

    There is a time and place for everything. I am not ready to dump all my old photo books just because the images of yesteryear were not always sharp corner to corner ( see what I did there? 🙂 ). There are many images that have soft spots published every day and many that are painfully sharp as well. I go by what is being accomplished by the image and how the photographer wishes to express his or her intention….assuming they had an intention to start with.

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  9. nbsinclair says:

    First, the waterfall picture is breathtaking!!! I love the mixture of sharp and blurred. You can really see the water moving. Second, I live in Florida and do not get to see fall colors. Reading this on a hot day (90 degrees) brought some crisp weather my way (in my mind). Thanks for sharing!!

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    • Lyle Krahn says:

      That waterfall is in a special place. Glad you liked it.

      When you live in a place where the trees always change colour in fall, it just seems natural. A number of people have mentioned that they don’t get to see the fall colours because of warmer climates. That’s another good reminder of the differences of each climate zone. I’m happy to send a little crisp imagery your way – 90 is too hot for me even in summer!

      I appreciate your comments.

      Like

  10. dapontephotography says:

    What are we doing taking photos or nailing down a carpet!
    Ya might put someones eye out with that tack sharpness… 🙂

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  11. Mike Powell says:

    You have really managed to stimulate (or incite or provoke) a fascinating discussion on a subject that is a sensitive spot for most photographers. How sharp is sharp enough? I was particularly intrigued that you chose to use three very different images as part of the discussion, images that, in general, appeal to different audiences. Some people are endlessly drawn to the beauty of falling water and others aren’t. Some are drawn to images that tell a real story, like the second one. Others appreciate the beauty and majesty of big game. Of course, the lines are blurry (and certainly not tack sharp) between these groups and individuals in a group will evaluate an image differently. Eventually, for me, it comes down to the question of who I am trying to please? If I were a professional and wanted to be paid, I’d have to adhere to the standards of others, no matter how arbitrary or unfair they may seem, but I am not. It sounds selfish, but I decide for myself how sharp is sharp enough and generally share the images that I like. Sure, sharpness is part of the process, but I try to balance (a word that you used) the factors so that the “unforgiving mirage” and pseudo-scientific standard of sharpness does not play a disproportionate role in my evaluation of my photos. For the record, I really like all three photos in your posting, but am especially drawn to the first one.

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    • Lyle Krahn says:

      The question about who you are trying to please is a good one and is worth coming back to at least for me. I don’t think deciding on your sharpness standard is selfish – everyone ultimately has to make that decision whether they choose to go along with other people’s standards or their own. It’s not like we are providing health care here!

      I’m guessing one reason why this topic continues to draw interest and discussion is because it is the place where technical and artistic considerations meet. Even on a good day that is an uneasy alliance which is why I expect to keep grappling with it in the future.

      As usual, I appreciate your thotful comments.

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  12. photographybycalliec says:

    That a WOW !!!!! a truly calming images just beautiful.
    cheers Callie

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  13. vanbraman says:

    A great photo does not always have to be great technically. To me photos convey an idea or mood. Sometimes that grainy, low light or badly focused picture is exactly what you need.

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  14. Lara Armes-Venter says:

    Love this article! As a photographer who is just starting out, it’s nice to hear that it’s not all about the technical aspects (especially since I don’t have the most high-tech equipment by any means) – in the end the goal is to capture something beautiful or interesting.

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    • Lyle Krahn says:

      That’s exactly right. There are a lot of side trails on the technical part of photography but I think it’s so important to remember why you take photos in the first place. Thanks for the comment and good luck with your photography. There are so many rewards on the journey.

      Like

  15. melodylowes says:

    BTW, LOVE the perfection of the perfectly still water above those rapids – what a contrast!

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    • Lyle Krahn says:

      I still remember sitting there looking out over that completely calm water and being completely amazed. It was a wonderful place to be – at the lake above Nistowiak Falls in Northern Saskatchewan.

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  16. melodylowes says:

    Hmmm. Methinks there is much yet to learn. I haven’t heard of ‘tack sharp’. Not true – now I have! 🙂 Anyway, whatever you’re doing, whatever the label, I love the character of the images you churn out. That massive buck is so majestic! And the bison calf is adorable.

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    • Lyle Krahn says:

      I think you hit the nail on the head. The labels and process are secondary to the character of the photos and whether they appeal to the photographer and others. I appreciate the comment.

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  17. toughlittlebirds says:

    Interesting! I’ve never heard that phrase – any idea where “tack” comes from? All I can think of is horse tack, which doesn’t seem like it could be related, unless I guess it’s as sharp as horse spurs or something.

    What happened to the calf? (Who looks incredibly soft…) Did you manage to photograph him without spooking him? It seems weird for him to be hunkered down in such an open place.

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    • Lyle Krahn says:

      That’s funny, I never thot about where the phrase originated. I did a quick internet search (the internet never lies right?) and a couple of places mentioned that it was a reference to sharp tacks that were used to hold down carpets. That seems to make sense.

      The calf was close to its mother and a number of other bison in a valley in Yellowstone this spring. I was able to isolate the calf with my telephoto lens when the bison moved around so I got a clear view of the calf. A wider view would have given a much different perspective. I was still reasonably far away so the calf and the other bison didn’t pay much, if any, attention to me. They were still in the same spot when I left.

      The calves were a special treat during our visit. The first few days there were none and then suddenly there were calves all over the place. They do look incredibly soft.

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  18. Victor Rakmil says:

    Lyle,

    Could not agree more and I think you commented on my post on the same issue. http://rakmilphotography.wordpress.com/2013/05/17/so-you-want-sharp-photographs/

    You can see some of the older and famous film photographers did not care as much about tact sharp, and as technology improves size makes no difference new software up sizes what every the original frame looked like perfectly and new shake reduction software also helps. For early digital prints it was always how close you thought people would be to them decided the sharpness. Many of the photographs in the museums that I visit might as well be out of focus for the lousy glass and lighting they are placed under. oNe of our local camera stores has monthly displays of successful photographers works under gallery glass and poorly light. I would be much more concerned about tat than a soft photograph.

    The photo of the calf is great!, best of three wonderful photos!

    Victor

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    • Lyle Krahn says:

      Thanks for your comments. Technology continues to change and it will be interesting to see where it goes. You make an excellent point about the glass and lighting. Even in my home, I have become frustrated at looking at all the reflections on the glass on top of my photos and have chosen other options. So many factors go into a viewer experience. Even images posted online look quite different depending on how they were saved, the type of monitor and calibration.

      Glad you liked the photos. That calf was one I kept coming back to and figured I should include in a post.

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  19. Phil Lanoue says:

    I really enjoyed seeing the soft water effect you captured in the first pic. (Wait! Uh oh, I said “pic” 😯 there was recently a heated discussion on a photo forum where many were trying to make a point that real serious photographers would never use the word “pic” because that is demeaning to their, um, I guess ‘images’) So would pic fall under a similar category as ‘tack sharp’? I don’t know.
    I know in my pics, uh I mean images, I kind of go for a gritty realism so all may not always be tack sharp (oh jeez I used that phrase 😉 ) if viewed at 100% but that’s OK.
    But in any case your photos always do look, ah, plenty sharp on my monitor.

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    • Lyle Krahn says:

      Funny! I see I may have created a monster and you will now be calling all my photos tack sharp! I should learn that these rants do come back to haunt me! Then again if my photos aren’t sharp enough, perhaps I’ll use that gritty realism phrase.

      At least I’m not fussed about the pic or image or photo or whatever anyone wants to call it. Maybe I’m not a serious enough photographer to join the anti-pic club.

      I’m happy to hear you liked that soft water effect and that my photos are plenty sharp. Just don’t buy a better monitor:)

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    • mflahertyphoto says:

      That forum you read was filled with pretenders. Pic is short for picture. What is wrong with calling your picture what it is? Amazing how weird it gets with photogs. these days.

      Like

  20. Scott Marshall says:

    Yes Lyle you have hit on the head – for me it is about the art and not the technicality – that said to fully enjoy the experience we the photographers have to remove the distraction – recently for me it was dust on my sensor – got myself to point of putting the image on the blog to find some dust I had missed – so I completely get the obsessive part that can creep in to work but reading blog like your keeps your feet on the ground and trying to deliver interesting stuff over technically perfect – I think I have made myself completely unclear 🙂

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    • Lyle Krahn says:

      I’m glad I could help in some way to keep your feet on the ground – that’s a good place to be! The technical aspects of photography can be frustrating enough for me that they draw me in and steal the fun if I let them. I seem to keep needing these readjustments from time to time to get a better perspective on why I enjoy photography. Then I wander off course again. Maybe this time is different!

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  21. Deb W. Trotter says:

    I know what I like, and I like your photos!! In the first one, I really like the “sharp” (lol) contrast between the falling water and the mirror surface of the lake behind it. The animals in the other two photos are beautiful.

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    • Lyle Krahn says:

      It’s great to know what you like and I’m happy to be on the receiving end of it. Your description of the first photo was exactly what drew me to it. So in this case I like what you do too!

      Like

  22. Gunta says:

    My latest pet peeve are all the folks insisting I have to carry a tripod. I suppose there’s a time and a place for one, but I enjoy meandering and shooting whatever happens to catch my eye. Going through all the song and dance of setting up that tripod (much less carrying it) would quickly take the fun out of shooting…. though I have to admit there have been the occasional misses for that “tack sharp” rating. 😉

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    • Lyle Krahn says:

      I understand where you are coming from since I have a love/hate relationship with my tripod. The freedom to just go and have fun with the camera is how I started and keeps pulling me back. The challenges of low light conditions and ending up with blurry photos keep driving me back to the tripod. Two other options have often bridged the gap for me. A bean bag on the open window ledge of my truck has helped a lot and is quite comfortable and a monopod (especially leaned up against a tree) can also work well. Now if only the animals were in great light all the time, none of this would be necessary.

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      • Gunta says:

        I suppose any old beanbag might do, but I recently stumbled across a beanbag that had the screw thingee embedded so you could actually attach the camera to the bag. Looked intriguing. Then again, a homemade job ought to be easy enough to do. There have been times when I’ve leaned on a tree or other solid object and let it substitute for tripod. It is a balancing act. For now, I choose the freedom from tripod. At some point, I might find a reason to carry one… perhaps to use as a walking stick? or to fend off mad dogs? 😉

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        • Lyle Krahn says:

          The monopod and tripod have multiple uses including warding off crazy dogs! My wife was kind enough to sew me up a bean bag from old jeans. I didn’t know what would work well so we thot it would just be prototype but I love it.

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  23. Katherine says:

    I agree with you.I use my phone mostly…not that I am in your class but I’m happy.
    Did you have to lie sown to get this shot?I like that feeling that it gives me of being on a level with the water

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  24. northerndesert says:

    Loved this post. I belong to a forum where the standards are so high that I rarely post a photo because the criteria for acceptable photos is so high. While all of us strive for perfect photos so many good photos would not meet the pro or experts standards. There are degrees of skill, ability and access to great equipment that separate everyone. Like every art form, the finished product is in the eye of the beholder. Does it please you? Does it please others? Good enough for me. 🙂 Does not mean I won’t keep trying to get the very best photo I can but lets not be too hard on ourselves. Lately when I look at a lot of published work I can see imperfections but the photo is still beautiful enough or good enough to convey what it was meant to.

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    • Lyle Krahn says:

      I think we strive for perfect photos but I don’t think I will ever get there when I can’t control the natural elements or which way the wildlife will look. As we try to get better, we are somewhere on the journey. Like you, I am continually surprised how photos with obvious (to me) imperfections are viewed so favourably by others, including professionals. The beholder has tremendous say on how the beauty stacks up. I appreciated your thots.

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  25. Sheldon says:

    Sharp or dull a beautiful photo still gets the Ooooo’s and Awwww’s and thats what its all about for me, capturing that beauty and sharing it…. Lyle you get all A’s on your report card….

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  26. Stefano says:

    Good points, but truth be told pro photographers (and published amateurs) are sometimes required to abide by certain of those “rules” as a result of submission guidelines or the demands of certain photo editors or agencies, so I think you should cut them some slack there. 😉
    Plus, regarding sharpness, it really depends on where you want to draw the line (and of course here I am not referring to your images, which I find consistently great and sharp). I mean, I agree if we are talking about not nitpicking or going crazy about it like the pixel peepers do, but personally I think that (beside some deliberately blurred images to achieve a certain effect) an image needs to be sharp or else you risk ending up in the camp of those people who post blurry pictures only to add “I know it is not very sharp, but…” – I mean, nothing wrong if it is a personal memory or a casual snapshot (but then I see less of a point for wanting to share those with the remaining 6.9 billion or so of people out there), but I would be hard pressed calling those quality images. 🙂
    Love the last shot, BTW!

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    • Lyle Krahn says:

      I appreciate your thotful response and providing a different perspective. It is entirely possible that I don’t cut enough slack in the middle of a good rant:)

      I completely understand the need for a minimum degree of sharpness. I employ a subjective standard to myself on my blog and bump up against it regularly. Photo editors and agencies need to have a higher professional standard to ensure quality. All of this points to a sharpness continuum. I was reacting (over reacting?) to the inference that there is some mythical standard where tack sharp and beauty begins. Sharpness is a continuum, that never seems to end, and good photos don’t all end up on the same spot on the continuum. There is a danger of being obsessed with sharpness (pixel peeper) and missing the beauty – I think I was edging into that. So perhaps this post was a reflection of my own rebalancing and reacting to calls for adhering too closely to the “rules” of photography.

      A few posts ago I commented on the unnecessary apology which included the apology for images that weren’t sharp. So I completely agree that posting blurry images with an apology is never going to be a quality image even if it is good personal memory. Your comment about sharing them with the 6.9 billion people was quite funny!

      Glad you liked the last image. Ironically for this discussion, I seriously debated whether it was sharp enough to post. And that’s why I added it to this post.

      Like

      • Stefano says:

        Thank you for your detailed reply.
        Just so you know, I didn’t mean to interfere with a good rant! 😉 Just trying to contribute my own take on an interesting subject.
        By all means I agree with you regarding the “tack sharp” obsession – years ago, in the “analog days”, photographers used to talk about “acceptable sharpness” in relation to depth of field… But gone are those days, mostly swept away by technological advances such as much sharper lenses, high MP sensors that have pushed 35mm photographers into medium format territory and software “trickery” such as focus stacking: all that contributed to create the myth of tack sharpness no matter what.
        In my view, technical proficiency is only one of the components of a successful image. No matter how “tack sharp” and well exposed, a photograph that lacks creativity and artistic merit is not going to be a successful image. 🙂
        One last thing: I did not mean to say that I only liked the last image in your post: I liked them all, but my personal favorite is number 3 🙂
        Thank you for an interesting discussion.

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        • Lyle Krahn says:

          Just so you know, I get a little bored if everyone entirely agrees with me since there’s no chance I’m right on everything and a short post can’t possibly cover all the relevant issues. I value and encourage your perspectives (especially when they are different than mine) since it makes me think a little more about what in the world I was talking about and brings up relevant issues. Good interaction like this is a great learning experience for me so I really appreciated your longer response. I thoroughly enjoy healthy debates with my friends but it’s a little more challenging to always find the right tone in online discussions when I don’t know the people or their backgrounds. I suspect I may appear to push back too hard at times since I enjoy the discussion.

          Your comparison to the analog days is interesting. I wasn’t aware of the changing definition of acceptable sharpness. Who knows where this will go? Whatever happens to the technical side, the creative side will always be necessary as you mentioned.

          You actually didn’t say that you only liked the last photo – I worded my response poorly. It’s always interesting to me which photos people like better since they’re often not the same and typically for different reasons.

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  27. sagescenery says:

    Whatever you call it…I love each of these photos!!!!!

    Like

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