The 3F system

The revolutionary professional scanning system by Hasselblad

By Roberto Bigano


In 2000 Imacon, now Hasselblad, created a new proprietary format for the Flextight scanners, the Flexible File Format or fff. 3F, as we’ll call it has determined the biggest revolution in the field of film scanning since the introduction of the drum scanner.
A 3F allows one to obtain a file similar to a raw file from an analog original. This has changed my professional life, and more importantly my archive, and in this article, I would like to tell you why.

A 3F is Not a Scan. It's a Raw File. Totally Reversible

3F file is based on a concept both basic and revolutionary. The scanner’s software acquires all the information contained in the original without any intervention by the operator. The resulting file is a peculiar 16bit, flat, tiff file without any unsharp mask and not inverted. The 3F from a negative remains a negative.

Reversibility is the essence of the FlexColor System, allowing you to revert to your original 3F scan to make necessary changes in new tiff outputs while retaining the 3F digital negative’s retouching and any of the previous setting you wish to keep.

This is made possible by the unique Hasselblad 3F file format which retains the reversible settings in its metadata.
With the FlexColor software system, you can make your new tiff outputs independent of the availability of the scanner.
Thus having FlexColor software on your computer frees you from the outside source and allows you to output new tiff images at home.

The 3F format is, from a functional point of view, the equivalent of a raw file created from analog; its structure, however, is different because it is a flat tiff with an incorporated file containing the preview, the metadata and the history of all your savings.

Berlin (D)

Above, a detail of a 3F file, in its negative form. Please note that the incomparable tonal range of the original has been totally preserved. Below, the same detail saved as a tiff* from the 3F file with a custom setting that can be modified any time you need.

Berlin (D)

3F Scanning, Easy As Pie!

The ease of obtaining a scan of the very highest quality is the first strength of the system. 3F scanning is a mechanical operation during which the operator cannot and must not intervene in any way other than determining the final size of the scan. The system automatically acquires all the information stored in the original. There is no difference between a 3F made by a professional operator and one done by a first timer. A 3F scan cannot be “bad” or “wrong,” it’s always perfect. This system works for an extensive archive as well as a small one because it allows you to obtain the best possible quality without investing substantial resources in professional operators and to save the file in tiff later so to optimize the settings.

3F scanning offers the best quality and reversibility at the least cost. The scanning process is very simple; after inserting the frame in the correct position, all that is left is to push a button. The scanner will read, through the holder the format of the original, will focus the image and will crop the black border. At this time, setting the auto level option in the 3F windows, the scanner will analyze the color and density of the picture and will apply, if necessary, automatic levels to the preview in all the successive scans.


The above left FlexColor window shows how a 3F looks initially; on the left in the FlexColor window are the Save settings. In the above right, FlexColor window is the applied conversion from negative to positive. Below, a detail at 100% of a color negative showing the incomparable quality of a master file.


Working with Flexcolor

With this tutorial, I would like to explain some peculiar attributes of the system that, in my opinion, make it far superior to other systems.

First of all, forget all you know on scanners and scanning. Beside the quality that can be tested later, thanks to Flexcolor it is possible to become active users instead of passive.

Flexcolor allows photographers to take back an important phase of the image’s production flow that, until not too long ago, required the involvement of external pros, whom often were not synchronized with the photographers’ work. The only alternative used to be the use of recreational scanners often defined professionals, but that also had significant limits.

Personally, before Hasselblad Flextight scanners I used to use drum scanners with its many limits.
In the last few years, I have replaced with 3F scannings the entirety of my old archive, significantly increasing the operational flexibility and the quality standard.

Retouching the 3F originals

Another important and exclusive function of the 3F system is the ability of restoration of the originals once and for all. Scratches marks left during the developing process, spots of any kind that are left in the original can be definitively removed so that every following saved file come perfect.

Those who have worked on scanned originals know what it means when, after a long and complicated restoration, the job needs to be done once again because something is not satisfactory. Maybe while applying the scanning options, some details were lost in the shadows or the light; perhaps an excessive mask was applied during the scanning process; or maybe the file was saved as CMYK instead of RGB. A 3F digital negative allows you, by working directly on the retouched original, to apply all the desired changes and resave the file without retouching it again.

This means that the master file will be forever clean and retouched by eventual scratches or developing spots and ready for any necessity. It also allows to archive a copy of the digital files separately. I believe any photographer fears that a fire, a flood, a theft or an act of vandalism could destroy an archive and an entire life worth of work. I feel more secure now that I have a digital copy of my originals, mainly because I keep a second copy in a separate place.

Note: to retouch 3F files in Photoshop, one must install the “Imacon 3F Plugin in the Photoshop “Plugin” folder. The 3F file should only be retouched in Photoshop. It cannot be rotated, cropped or its dimension changed. If actions other than retouching are taken, the file cannot be saved on itself in 3F and must save as a standard tiff. Then, as a tiff, the file cannot be reopened in FlexColor, and 3F’s significant advantages and output options are lost.


Here you can see a 3F from a 4×5″ transparency. On the left, the file as it is coming out of the scanner, cleaned from spots or scratches. At first, it might seem bad without contrast or chromatic saturation. In reality, it is a file of extraordinary quality; its main quality being that it contains all the information from the analog original. On the right, the finished image.


Working in Virtual Drum Mode

We have seen how 3F scanning is the equivalent of transferring analog into digital information.
This fact represents the main advantage of this system and what differentiates it from all the other systems available. 
First of all, 3F allows you to work in “Virtual Drum” mode. Whether you purchase the Flextight or obtain 3F files from a private service, you are the owner of virtual drum scans in the 3F format which can be retouched and saved as a pristine digital negative. From this retouched 3F negative file you can save working images in tiff or jpg on a laptop or at home.
The second significant advantage of this system is that, with Flexcolor, you can have a digital file without the defects of grain and noise, and with almost no loss of detail. Finally, before the tiff producing scan, the system allows you to visualize in actual pixels, a real pixel file exactly like one in Photoshop. This is a great advantage because it allows you to control every last detail; for example, when applying a contrast mask at 150, one can immediately see what it will look like.

Another notable aspect of Flexcolor is that you can perceptively evaluate the result; the settings, in fact, can be changed until perfect. This is normal when working on a raw file from a digital camera but exceptional when using a file coming from analog originals. At the same time, Flexcolor offers extremely precise and versatile instruments that allow you to measure RGB values and attend to every last detail. If a result is not satisfactory, you can change it easily in Flexcolor.


Flexcolor allows you to preview the final result in very fine detail so every nuance can be evaluated. Also, the different instruments allow you to precisely measure the values. Below, is the saved tiff file and the one opened in Photoshop, they are almost identical.


Below are the main Flexcolor adjustment tools, very similar to those in Photoshop. An important difference being that they can all be used simultaneously. These are comparable in use to Photoshop’s different adjustment tools. An RGB file can even be corrected in CMYB depending the preference of the user.


Watch and Download the Hi-res Files

Here below you can watch and inspect the original .fff raw files as they come out of the scanner and the same files saved in tiff format. Viewing the files in hires, you will be able to appreciate their quality. You can notice that the 3F file coming from a negative is still a negative, not a positive, and in its negative form, retains the full, rich, tonal range of the original. The file from transparency seems to be poor, but it’s a file of the greatest quality that has retained all the information in the original.

All our customers and subscribers can also download the Flexcolor package, together with the software to modify and export them in tiff.

3F raw scan file from b&w 35mm negative

Film Ilford FP4, as it comes out from the scanner.  Click on the in image to watch or download the hi-res file.


Saved tif from b&w 35mm negative

The tif exported from Flexcolor with any other intervention.

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3F raw scan file from color negative

Film Kodak Vericolor HC, as it comes out from the scanner.  Click on the in image to watch or download the hi-res file.


Saved tif from color negative

The tif exported from Flexcolor with any other intervention.

Budapest (H). Atrium Hyatt, Koszmetika

3F raw scan file from 4x5 Transparency

4×5″ Film Kodak Ektachrome Professional 64 as it comes out from the scanner.  Click on the in image to watch or download the hi-res file.


Saved tif from 4x5

The tif exported from Flexcolor with any other intervention.

Helsinki (SF) h 2.30

Detail of the famous ceiling of the “Stanza Degli Sposi,” “The Room of the Spouses” by Andrea Mantegna in the Palazzo Ducale of Mantova.
© Roberto Bigano 1992 – Franco Maria Ricci Editore
Some of Our References

A brief presentation of some of the most impressive archives we have scanned and optimized.

FMR – Franco Maria Ricci Editore

The complete historical archive of the renowned editor. We scanned the entire archive, about 80.000 originals, in the 3F format in collaboration with Bontex, a Milan-based company specialized in digitalizing large archives, (Among others digitalized were the archives of Vogue-Condè Nast Italia, Ferrari, Editoriale Domus.)

Optimizing the 3F files allows for obtaining tiff files of extraordinary quality, within an entirely reversible process that can be adapted to all needs.


Armor owned by Wolf Dietrich Hohenemens, leader of Lancenets (1507-1538) – Southern Germany c. 1525/1530 Wien Kunsthistorisches Museum – KHM inv. A342 Archduke of Tirol Ferdinando D’Asburgo (1520-1595) collected in his castle in Ambras, near Insbruck, Austria, a rich art collection that brought about the admiration of the people of his time. His masterpiece was his armory, which comprehended armors worn during tournaments or battles by the most famous knights of the time.



Reproduction of the Bugatti historical archive, which comprehends factory drawings, original photographs, original negatives, posters, brochures, and memorabilia. Some from 3F scanning of 4×5 inches slides from the 1990s, some from the direct scanning of original photographs, some from original in multishot with a digital camera.


Dessin N.4092. Berline sur chassis Type 57. Bugatti factory drawing. The Bugatti technical drawings are often masterpieces. Ettore Bugatti pretended an almost extreme precision from his engineers and designers. In my opinion, they are masterpieces.


3F scanning of the entire historical archive comprised of original prints, drafts and technical drawings, advertisements, archive pictures and memorabilia.


A beautiful picture, “tres Parisienne” Gitzo from the late 1960s. In this case, it was important to maintain the warm and soft tones original on Agfa Portriga Rapid Paper.


Free trial of 3F raw files coming from our scanning service

We are offering the unique opportunity of seeing for yourself the quality and versatility of this system. Download a package containing:

  • 35mm b&w negative 3F
  • Medium format color negative 3F
  • 4×5 inches transparency 3F
  • Flexcolor installer MAC/WIN
  • The “Imacon 3F” plugin to open and retouch the 3F in Photoshop
  • The user manual

  These 3F files have some spots, and you can try to retouch them. Download the 3F Package here >             3F_package_400