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Tutorial: Time Stack

Published by Alexandra Kim · March 7th 2014



Today I’d like to introduce the brilliant Matt Molloy, photography enthusiast and budding professional. He’s the author of those amazing impressionist inspired photos. So many people have asked how to do this technique, and he’s been gracious enough to share it here with us! Please enjoy this Time Stack Tutorial.


I've always been amazed by timelapse photography and the unique perspective of time it gives you. Once I got into photography, it was a natural direction for me to go. The more I explored timelapse photography, the more I realized how versatile it is. You can get so much out of a timelapse; an interesting video; the perfect shot (selected from several hundred photos of the same scene), enhanced details and distortion correction (often done in astrophotography); or removing elements from a scene (like cars or people). Last, but not least, my favorite is often what I call "time stacking". This technique of layering multiple still photos has been used for years to create "stars trails" from timelapse sequences.

Here is an example of a "star trail" image I created from a series of 305 photos.



Once I made a few star trail images, I wondered why I've never seen this technique used on daylight timelapses. I tried it and, after a little tweaking here and there, I was astounded by the resulting images! They are kind of like a super long exposure, showing a large chunk of time in a single image, which is very much like the Impressionist movement that some clever painters came up with around the year 1870.

Here is my very first attempt at a daylight "timestack".



Here's what you need to make a "time stack" yourself:


1. A camera and an intervalometer (a device to make your camera take pictures repeatedly at a given interval). If you have a Canon camera, like I do, there's a good chance that you can download free software called Magic Lantern that gives you lots of new features including an intervalometer built right into your camera. Perhaps there's similar software for other brands of cameras, and if not, most cameras will be able to use a remote control that includes intervalometer function. Here's a bunch of different remotes.

2. Something to fix your camera in position while it shoots multiple photos, such as a stable tripod. The sturdier the better! I've found that a weight on a rope attached to the center of the tripod helps a lot when it's windy. I am speaking from experience here! It doesn't take a lot of wind to blow your tripod over, sending your precious equipment for costly repairs. I use a good size stone block with a hole drilled through it hung on the tripod, just below my camera.

3. Photo editing software. I use Adobe's Photoshop, so that's what I will demonstrate in this tutorial, but I'm sure there's lots of other software that can achieve the same effect. I've even seen mobile apps that do everything you need to make a time stack.

4. A little time and patience. (Photography aside, I think most of us could use a little of both.)



Here are a few things to keep in mind regarding timelapse source material for creating great "timestacks":


1. Source Material.
I have found that my best results come from shooting a scene which contains both fixed and moving elements. For example, a field with a barn and clouds moving overhead. A sunset thrown in the mix makes for some beautiful, colourful, smeared clouds.

2. Exposure levels.
Your exposure levels play a significant role in the successful creation of a great "time stack". Set your exposure based on the brightest moving elements. For example, with bright moving clouds, expose for the clouds. Aside from the sun, the clouds are usually the brightest part of my photos, so I use them to judge my exposure levels. If they are overexposed your "timestack" will have pure white streaks in the sky. Add too many of those together and you'll have a solid white sky when it's all said and done.

3. Interval.
Figure out the speed things are moving. You don't need a radar gun, just take a few test shots (2 or 3) and take note of the interval (time between shots) I'll use clouds as an example, but this applies to any moving or changing elements in the timelapse.

The speed that the clouds are moving along with the interval between shots can drastically affect how a time stack will look. For smooth looking, painterly strokes (made by the clouds) you'll want to keep the distance that the clouds travel very short from one shot to the next. If the clouds are moving fast you'll want to use a shorter interval between shots.

If the clouds are moving slow, you'll want to user a longer interval between shots so you don't end up with a ton of photos that show little movement of the clouds. For a different look, you can set an interval that allows the clouds to move further between shots. This gives an interesting stepped, repetition to the moving elements in the resulting "time stack". I know this can sound a little confusing, but it all becomes very obvious once you try both methods.



Stacking multiple photos into one image


Like I said before, there's lots of different programs that can stack photos. I use Photoshop, so this is the program I'll be talking about, but some of this stuff might relate to other programs as well.

Here's the basic idea. Open the first photo of your timelapse, this will be your bottom layer. Add the second photo from the timelapse on a new layer. Change the top layers blending mode to lighten. Merge both layers together. This adds only the parts of the second image that are brighter than the same area on the original image. Repeat with as many photos from the timelapse as you like. You will get used to selecting the right number of pictures for the effect you want.

That method takes a long time! (Trust me, I've done it a few times.) I tried to write a script to automate the process, and I got pretty close, but in the end I couldn't figure out how to make it work. Luckily, I found a website called starcircleacademy.com that offered a photoshop script that did exactly what I wanted. I bought it for a small fee and I've been using it ever since. It's faster than stacking photos manually and you can do other things while it's running.

I usually try stacking all the photos from a timelapse first, and if that's too much (they can get messy sometimes) I take some out and try again with less photos. I'll keep doing that until I find the sequence of photos that look best.

Once I've got the photos stacked, I make a few adjustments with shadows/highlights to bring back some details in the bright areas, and I add some contrast, or use levels to make the blacks darker, because things can get a little washed out when stacking with the lighten blending mode.

There you have it. Now go shoot some timelapses, and try it for yourself if you like. I'm curious to see how your time stacks turn out, so head over to my Facebook page and post a link to a time stack you made. Also, feel free to send me a message if your having trouble, and I'll do my best to help you out.

Best of luck and happy snapping!

     

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AliE-f
Ali E.  about 19 hours ago
Thank you so much for this. YOU ROCK :)
soumitrainamdar
Soumitra Inamdar  3 months ago
Thank you so much Matt for giving us inspiration to do something new.
I tried the time stack last weekend.
Here is my image: https://500px.com/photo/93110597/monet-in-the-sky-by-soumitra-inamdar

Planning to do more of such stacking in future. Thanks a lot :)

MattMolloy
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Matt Molloy  3 months ago
You're welcome Soumitra! I'm happy to hear I've inspired you. Thanks for sharing, and best of luck with your future time stacks!
AnnelieD
Annelie D  5 months ago
Awesome, thank you so much for sharing this! /Annelie
MattMolloy
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Matt Molloy  5 months ago
You're welcome Annelie!
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andrew reimer  6 months ago
http://500px.com/photo/83354003/bognors-fen-by-andrew-reimer

My first attempt

ihsanazhar
Ihsan Azhar  8 months ago
Thank you for the tutorial. I will try it out as soon as the weather allows. Follow http://500px.com/ihsanazhar
MattMolloy
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Matt Molloy  7 months ago
Best of luck!
domreardon
Dom Reardon  8 months ago
my first time stack, only timelapse i had in my documents, great tutorial!
http://500px.com/photo/77125435/grange-time-stack-by-dom-reardon
beton_breaker
Beton Breaker  9 months ago
Thanks for the great tutorial! You're time stacks are very inspiring.
Here is my first try:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/beton_breaker/14480651080/
MattMolloy
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Matt Molloy  7 months ago
Happy to hear I've inspired you!
Pinguin
Daan  9 months ago
Hi Matt,

I've tried one myself, it's the sky above a lake in Norway.
What do you think about it? Do you have any advice?

http://500px.com/photo/74269381/timestack-in-norway-by-daan-verbiest

Greetings Daan.

AlNaJii3
Mariam AlHusseini  10 months ago
Hey Matt this is my first trial with cloud stacking
http://500px.com/photo/71763233
I used 40 HDR images for this there's a little noise on the lens but it's just a trial
hope you can check it out
thank you!
nickbraunmedia
Nick Braun  11 months ago
This is my third try at a stack. Had a couple issues with tripod movement and poor focus. This is 148 images.
http://500px.com/photo/69913685/cloud-lapse-by-nick-braun?from=user_library
MattMolloy
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Matt Molloy  11 months ago
Thanks for sharing Nick!
toral2000ca
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Al Hillman  11 months ago
Love your work,,going to give it a try,,thanks for the tut
Al
MattMolloy
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Matt Molloy  11 months ago
Best of luck Al!
Joshin_IT
Josh Thompson  11 months ago
Incredible work, Matt! Thanks for sharing your technique.
Here's my first attempt:
http://500px.com/photo/67607409/tatanka-pond-timestack-by-josh-thompson?utm_source=transactional&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=photo_added_to_favorites_B&utm_content=link
MattMolloy
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Matt Molloy  11 months ago
Thanks Josh!
Sim-B-n
Simon Ba  12 months ago
Matt! Thank you so much for this nice tutorial! My first try went out: http://500px.com/photo/6722457 - because of the sundown i need to adjust the brightness of every layer. Is there a way to avoid this? I'm work with Photoshop Elements 9. Btw your 'shattered rainbow' is mind blowing...!
MattMolloy
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Matt Molloy  11 months ago
One minute is a pretty long interval time. I most often use 5 second intervals.
Sim-B-n
Simon Ba  11 months ago
Here the actual link again- http://500px.com/photo/67224573/painting-clouds-by-simon-barta

My timelapse was underexposed too, but when i'm merge the layers most of the details getting missed. The bulb ramper is a interesting solution.
The interval was 1 minute.

Chewstar
Elisabeth Titulaer  12 months ago
Would it work if you set the camera in one of the auto modes?
So the camera changes the exposure.
MattMolloy
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Matt Molloy  12 months ago
I just let the timelapse underexpose as the sun goes down. You could get a bulb ramper to slowly adjust your camera settings as the sun sets. What was your interval? (the time between each shot)
dipanjan
dipanjan (inactive)  12 months ago
Really helpful for time lapse enthusiasts. Thanks.
MattMolloy
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Matt Molloy  12 months ago
Happy to help!
eveaebi
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Eve Aebi  12 months ago
That's really awesome! Thank you for the tutorial. I will try it out as soon as the weather allows.
MattMolloy
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Matt Molloy  12 months ago
Best of luck Eve!
gnezdilov
Alexandr Gnezdilov  about 1 year ago
Thanks for the tutorial, Matt. Your work is really inspiring! I am rather a follower of the single shot fraction, so all my images are single (sometimes very) long exposures, but I have written a light painting software couple years ago, which also applies "lighten" stacking logic to the web camera output. But I applied it only to "light in darkness" situations, and not vice-versа, like here. Both methods have their advantages and it feels good to understand the difference and makes fun to experiment with both. It's a pity that modern DSLRs don't have such a mode built in.. kinda "stackless lighten mode" (even no hardware changes would be necessary to make such mode available)
MattMolloy
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Matt Molloy  about 1 year ago
You're welcome Alexandr! I'm glad you enjoyed the tutorial. I too am surprised they don't put more functions into cameras. It's clear that my camera is capable of so much more, by simply installing Magic Lantern firmware, it provides all kinds of new functions. It makes me wonder what else my camera can do, without making an physical changes.
toddmoyer
Todd Moyer  about 1 year ago
Hey Matt. Thanks for the new obsession.. Anyways, I am wondering about cloud direction. I have had POOR results shooting a sunset with the clouds moving toward me. Any success I have had, the clouds are flowing away, and I get similar results that you show. Is that part of the trick? I have even taken the photos where they are coming at me in the sunset and reversed them in the stack with no luck. Pointers on cloud direction?
MattMolloy
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Matt Molloy  about 1 year ago
Cloud direction will change the look of the shot, mainly which way the lines (paths of the clouds) are going, as well as the position of the changing colours, if shooting at sunset. Other than that it shouldn't make a big difference. Do you have a few examples I can look at? (one that worked and one that didn't) I suspect your problem is something other than cloud direction, but it's hard to say for sure.
toddmoyer
Todd Moyer  about 1 year ago
http://500px.com/photo/64723981
megaritzimagery
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Susan Lugar Oliver  about 1 year ago
This is awesome, in both the modern and original sense of the word! I just graduated from point-and-shoot cameras to a Canon EOS 70D in late October and am still learning about which f-stops to use. I just started messing with HDR photos. Once I master my camera's basics, your technique will be the next thing I try. Thank you so much for sharing this with everybody.
MattMolloy
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Matt Molloy  about 1 year ago
Once you figure out the basics, installing Magic Lantern (if it works on your camera) will give you a whole new set of things to learn. I haven't gone through it all yet, but I love the timelapse function. It gives you all kinds of interesting new features. Best of luck Susan!
marcodelellis
Marco de Lellis  about 1 year ago
Thanks a lot for sharing!
Really interesting technique :)
MattMolloy
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Matt Molloy  about 1 year ago
You're welcome Marco!
dancornock
Dan Cornock  about 1 year ago
Very creative, never considered this technique before your post. Thanks for the inspiration.
MattMolloy
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Matt Molloy  about 1 year ago
Always happy to inspire and/or be inspired!
karimchedid
karim chedid  about 1 year ago
Great post, thanks, I will try my soon
thanks again
MattMolloy
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Matt Molloy  about 1 year ago
Best of luck Karim!
rland
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Roland Maria Reininger  about 1 year ago
yeah, great! congratulations matt on your blog feature here!
MattMolloy
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Matt Molloy  about 1 year ago
Thanks Roland!
jeff185
Jeff Jaquish  about 1 year ago
Matt, more than your incredible creative abilities, I really am thankful that you are sharing your techniques. Your generosity by sharing and helping others is outstanding. You are inspiring others as you share. Thanks so much.
MattMolloy
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Matt Molloy  about 1 year ago
You're welcome Jeff! I'm happy to help when I can. I think it's more important to share knowledge than to try and keep it for oneself.
shahrie
Shahrie Saleh  about 1 year ago
Thanks Matt! I've tried it today. I converted it to b&w. My first timestack here http://500px.com/photo/64381485
MattMolloy
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Matt Molloy  about 1 year ago
Good one Shahrie! Thanks for sharing!
AmezulAmin
Amezul Amin  about 1 year ago
Very fantastix bro!!
MattMolloy
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Matt Molloy  about 1 year ago
Thanks Amezul!
wolfnowl
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Marcia and Mike Nelson Pedde  about 1 year ago
Thanks for the tips, Matt! I find time stacking a great way to work with moving water (like this: http://www.wolfnowl.com/2010/12/photographing-moving-water/) but I'd not thought of doing sequences for clouds and moving light. Will have to try it out!

Mike.

MattMolloy
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Matt Molloy  about 1 year ago
Yeah, it's a very similar effect to long exposure, only not quite as smooth in certain scenarios. One benefit (like you mentioned) is that you don't need to buy an expensive ND filter. Another is that you can effectively get a longer exposure, by combining multiple photos, than you could doing it with filters and one exposure.
hairlessbeachape
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Ray S.  about 1 year ago
Great tutorial and pretty dang simple to get some awfully brilliant results. Thanks so much!
MattMolloy
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Matt Molloy  about 1 year ago
You're welcome Ray!
BradleyHoughton
Bradley Houghton  about 1 year ago
This is awesome! Definitely going to have to give it a try! Ive been experimenting with a similar technique lately, the walk-a-bout or '360' technique where you take photos from different angles and combine them in to one image. http://www.impressionistaddict.com/ if you want to check it out
BradleyHoughton
Bradley Houghton  about 1 year ago
Thanks Vic - only these 4 are http://fineartamerica.com/profiles/bradley-houghton.html?tab=artworkgalleries&artworkgalleryid=401670

Thanks again Matt - could hardly sleep thinking of all the spots to try this!

vicarious1
Vic Stapelberg  about 1 year ago
Thank you that fountain pic is VERY nice are you other 11 pics in the gallery also 360 treatments? I want to try that definitely.www.visualenses.smugmug.com
MattMolloy
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Matt Molloy  about 1 year ago
Thanks Bradley! I've been meaning to try that technique, but I haven't got around to it. Thanks for the reminder!
ryanrichard
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Richard Ryan  about 1 year ago
I would love to give this a go :)
MattMolloy
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Matt Molloy  about 1 year ago
You should Richard! One thing I forgot to mention in the tutorial... It's highly addictive, so be careful! ;-)
BradleyHoughton
Bradley Houghton  about 1 year ago
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eugen18ro
Eugen Mihai  about 1 year ago
this is awsome i will try it...
MattMolloy
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Matt Molloy  about 1 year ago
Best of luck Eugen!
PaulSnow
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Paul Snow  about 1 year ago
fantastic, thanks the info :)
MattMolloy
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Matt Molloy  about 1 year ago
You're welcome Paul!
FranciscoCabrita
Francisco Cabrita  about 1 year ago
Many thanks for sharing, congratulations on to creativity.
MattMolloy
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Matt Molloy  about 1 year ago
You're welcome Francisco!
fordsfotos
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Doris Ford  about 1 year ago
Thanks so much for sharing--you are very inventive!
MattMolloy
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Matt Molloy  about 1 year ago
You're welcome Doris!
DarrenCurtis
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Darren Curtis  about 1 year ago
A moment of brilliance! Abs.Fab thanks for sharing your great work and creative ideas.
MattMolloy
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Matt Molloy  about 1 year ago
You're welcome Darren!
wktseenep7
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wendy 60  about 1 year ago
I will definitely give this a try - thank you so very much for sharing your knowledge, experience and wisdom :) you're a great guy.
MattMolloy
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Matt Molloy  about 1 year ago
Thanks Wendy, best of luck!
flashpool
Sarah Teveldal  about 1 year ago
So awesome, thanks for sharing!
MattMolloy
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Matt Molloy  about 1 year ago
You're welcome Sarah!
JudyRichmond
Judy Richmond  about 1 year ago
Thank you for sharing this. I can't wait to give it a try.
MattMolloy
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Matt Molloy  about 1 year ago
Best of luck Judy!
DaniLew
Danielle Lewis  about 1 year ago
Great tutorial, Matt, and amazing images!
MattMolloy
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Matt Molloy  about 1 year ago
Thanks Danielle!
MarkusKrammer
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Markus Krammer  about 1 year ago
very interesting - daylight "timestack" is something new for me - i will give it a try too !!
MattMolloy
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Matt Molloy  about 1 year ago
Best of luck Markus!
ManishPatel3
Manish Patel  about 1 year ago
Amazing tutorial....cant wait to try this.......Thanks Matt.
MattMolloy
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Matt Molloy  about 1 year ago
You're welcome Manish!
vikkee
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Vignesh Dhakshinamoorthy  about 1 year ago
Awesome matt, shared this to all my followers on facebook. Did you use an ND Filter? What shutter speed do you use for each click? I think this technique is the opposite of long exposure. One pic long exposed against a "merge of multiple pics shortly exposed"
MattMolloy
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Matt Molloy  about 1 year ago
I have used a ND filter before, but I usually don't. You don't need to shoot with long exposures, but you can. If you do shoot with long exposures, you'll probably want to make your interval between shots 1 second or less. (for exposures that are 5 seconds or longer) The technique is a little different from long exposure because there is missing time between each exposure, but it can achieve very similar effects, and one benefit is that you can get more time in one photo. I hope I explained that well enough. It's a little tricky for me.
CarolMarieHanlon
Carol Marie Hanlon  about 1 year ago
pretty sure an ND filter is required for any daytime exposure over 30 seconds or so. at least in my experience. i work with daytime long exposure. even with time lapse, the exposure is bound to be more than a fraction of a second.
petemcw
Pete McWilliams  about 1 year ago
Has anyone tried this technique using an iPhone? Any recommended apps that can handle the many layers needed?
MattMolloy
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Matt Molloy  about 1 year ago
I've seen an app for iPhone that does the same thing. I bet there's at least a few out there. Sorry I'm not sure what the name was. Perhaps StarStaX has one.
SomeDude
Some Dude  about 1 year ago
Very cool. Thanks for sharing
MattMolloy
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Matt Molloy  about 1 year ago
No problem Dude!
olvikor
Olga Berlin  about 1 year ago
Thanks a lot, Matt! very interesting to try...
MattMolloy
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Matt Molloy  about 1 year ago
You're welcome Olga!
AntonioTassone
Antonio Tassone  about 1 year ago
Thanks for the mind-opening article. I'll try it out ASAP
MattMolloy
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Matt Molloy  about 1 year ago
Best of luck Antonio!

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