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How to open and retouch Hasselblad 3F scanner files in Photoshop CS6

Davide Barranca —  — 42 Comments

If you try to open in Photoshop CS6 a 3F (a file with extension .fff, the raw format for Hasselblad and Imacon scanners) coming from the Imacon/Hasselblad FlexColor software, you’re going to run into troubles (but there’s plenty of workarounds!):
AdobeCameraRaw 3F errorThat’s because the Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) that ships with CS6 expects the file to belong to a digital camera – which is not. Actually, the 3F is just a plain, bitmap TIFF file with some extra proprietary tags, that ACR can’t manage properly.

This didn’t happen back with CS5, unless you’ve installed some beta version of ACR. Check it out from the menu: Photoshop – About Plug-In – Camera Raw… (CS5 version should be 6.x).

There’s of course a workaround, but first let me review briefly why you do want to open a 3F in Photoshop bypassing ACR.

Why opening a 3F in Photoshop?

In order to retouch it! Think about the 3F as a scanner raw file – you can tweak each parameter in the Hasselblad FlexColor software and finally export a TIFF. Alas, scanned film has to be retouched: dust, scratches, blotches, hairs, chemical halos, you know what I mean. Unless you’re willing to retouch the TIFF each time you export it with different parameters from FlexColor (you aren’t), the best workflow is:

  1. Open the 3F in Photoshop CS6 in order to retouch it.
  2. Save the retouched 3F.
  3. Open the retouched 3F in FlexColor (tweaking the parameters to your taste).
  4. Export the (usually) TIFF file from FlexColor.
  5. Open the TIFF in Photoshop and let the fun begin.

Why should I export many time a 3F, isn’t one time just enough? Fair question, but consider that:

  • People get more experienced over time, and you may want to elaborate a second time a scan you’ve acquired and processed in the past (and you’re not really satisfied with the old result).
  • You may want to sandwich two or more FlexColor versions (say, one corrected for the highlights, one for the mid-tones and shadows) in Photoshop.
  • You may be a service provider willing to return the client a flawless 3F scan.

So your goal is not to open a 3F with Adobe Camera Raw (which can’t export nor save a 3F), just to open it as a TIFF-like file to retouch it in Photoshop.

1. The easy and smooth way

I’ve discovered this one very recently. Provided you’ve installed the  Imacon 3F Plug-In for Photoshop (see the section 2, below), just File – Open in Photoshop, and select a 3F:

Photoshop open 3F 01

Now, just select the Imacon 3F format as outlined below:

Photoshop open 3F 2

And voilà it will open smoothly and easily!

2. The old tricky way

Imacon plug-in versionThat’s how I did it before discovering the above method. First thing is the Imacon 3F Plug-In for Photoshop, that you can download for free here. It should be installed by default by FlexColor, so you can check if you have it already. The right place to look into (and/or to copy the downloaded plugin) is the following folder:

[MAC] Photoshop CS6/Plug-ins/File Formats/imacon3f.plugin
[PC] Photoshop CS6/Plug-ins/File Formats/Imacon 3f.8bi

Second thing is to temporarily get rid of Adobe Camera Raw. It’s ACR that intercepts the 3F opening and fires the “Photoshop cannot open this file” error. You do this by closing Photoshop and moving away the following file:

[MAC] Macintosh HD/Library/Application Support/Adobe/Plug-Ins/CS6/File Formats/Camera Raw.plugin
[PC] Program Files/Common Files/Adobe/Plug-Ins/CS6/File Formats/Camera Raw.8bi

You can move it to the Desktop or some other folder – then restart Photoshop CS6. If you look in the menu Photoshop – About Plug-In there shouldn’t be any mention of Camera Raw anymore.

Now, if you’ve correctly installed the Imacon 3F plugin and got rid of Camera Raw, open a 3F and it should open correctly. Remember to move it back in the correct position when you’re done!

Automatize file moving

Apple AutomatorIf you’re on a Mac (maybe there’s a Windows equivalent, please suggest it in the comments) you can use the OSX built-in Apple Automator application.

Open it and choose File – New – Application. Then, from the Library column select Utilities, then drag the Quit Application in the workspace. There, select the Adobe Photoshop CS6.app from the dropdown menu – just to make sure Photoshop isn’t open when you move files around.

Next, from the Library column select Files & Folders, and drag first the Get Specified Finder Items, then the Move Finder Items components, selecting respectively the camera raw plugin file and the destination folder (the Desktop or a temp folder, for instance).

AppleAutomator moving

Now File – Save the application to the Desktop. If you double click on it, the camera raw plugin file moves from its original location to the temp folder. You can build in the very same way an Automator application that moves it back into place. Keep both apps handy, so with a double-click you can move files without having to remember who needs to go where!

Retouching a 3F in Photoshop

If you’re new to 3F, I suggest you to visit the excellent Roberto Bigano’s 3F resources page first. My current workflow, when I’m in need of 3F retouching (which is basically… always), is as follows. Click on the thumbnails for a bigger version.

3F Retouching 01

1. Open the 3F and save a .PSB

Say that you’ve a myScan.fff file. Open it in Photoshop and immediately save a copy as a .psb (Photoshop Large Format document), myScan.psb. Leave alone the original .fff file, you’ll be dealing with it again when the retouching is done.

2. Retouch the PSB

One thing to keep in mind is that you’re not (at this stage) dealing with noise reduction or color correction – here you just do the always-boring, zen-like practice of manual dust and scratches removal. Clone tool, Healing Brush, time and patience will be your friends.
Duplicate the background layer, call it “Retouching” or something else, zoom in and start retouching. If you happen to have a negative scan (which opens as a caramel pudding), I suggest you to add an Invert adjustment layer (which turns everything into a cyan flat-land) and above it a set of Curves adjustment layer (rough curves, just to restore a decent tone and color and make the retouching easier).

Mind you, do not make the Clone tool and the Healing brush sampling “All Layers”. Either “Current Layer” or “Current & Below” will be ok – if you wonder why, try it yourself.

When you’re done, remove the now useless adjustment layers and flatten the myScan.psb.

3F Retouching 02

3. Paste the retouched layer in the 3F

Open both the original myScan.fff and the retouched myScan.psb. Drag the Background layer from the .psb and shift-drop it (i.e. do that pressing the shift key in order to auto-align it) into the 3F. You should have two layers in the myScan.fff now: the original below and the retouched above.

3F Retouching 014. Save a copy of the retouched 3F

Flatten the myScan.fff. Leave it without any embedded ICC profile (remove it if necessary: Edit – Assign Profile – Don’t Color Manage This Document) and double check that it has a single Background layer only.

Now save the file as 3F (if you don’t find the Format: Imacon 3F in the saving options the 3F plugin hasn’t been installed correctly) with a different name, say myScan_clean.fff. If you have FlexColor already opened and pointing to the folder where the files are, close and reopen it in order to let the software read them again.

FlexColor Detail Window

Caveat

FlexColor preview (at least when your 3Fs are very big – say a 6×12 cm at full resolution) isn’t based upon the actual file reading, but upon an embedded low-res image. Which is not affected by your retouching any way, so the 3F will keep showing dust and scratches. If you want to make sure your retouching has been applied, check it opening the Detail window (it’s the button with the magnifying glass icon): this forces FlexColor to read and show a portion of the actual file. Anyway, when you’ll export and the TIFF, it’ll be clean!

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42 responses to How to open and retouch Hasselblad 3F scanner files in Photoshop CS6

  1. Hi there – this is a very helpful article, and I’m having a little trouble simply because I never see the Imacon 3f option in the open dialogue drop down file format menu. I’ve followed your directions, but still it does not appear as an option. Your help would be great appreciated!!

    Many thanks!

    • Hello McNair, thank you for the kind words!
      Have you double-checked to have the 3F import plugin correctly installed (a Photoshop reboot is needed) – as suggested in the “Old Tricky way” section?

      • Had the same problem – The imacon3F.plugin was in a folder named File Formats within the Plug-ins folder. Moved the Imacon3F.plugin from the File Formats folder to the Plug-ins folder. The Imacon 3F option should then appear in the dialogue drop down file formate menu.

  2. This is a super helpful and very well explained article – thank you! 🙂

  3. hello

    fff or 3f Whats stand for ???

    and thnx

  4. Hi Davide,
    Thanks a lot for the great article!
    I created a folder “File Formats” in the Plug In folder –
    However, I am unable to find the Adobe Camera Raw plugin file I am supposed to move..
    PS does not open the 3f file..
    Do you have any idea what I could try?
    Thanks a lot!
    Cheers,
    Annika

    • Hello Annika,
      you should be able to avoid moving back and forth the Camera Raw plugin if you:

      Istall the 3F plugin from Hasselblad (see the instruction in part 2)
      Open the 3F in Photoshop choosing “Imacon 3F” as the file format in the Open dialog (see screenshot)

      Feel free to ask if you get stuck!
      Davide

      • Hey Davide,
        Thanks a lot for the quick answer!
        I could not find the option “3F” in the window although I installed it.. However, I was able to open the document choosing “TIFF” as format.
        Does that make any difference?
        All the best,
        Annika

        • Don’t do that!! Really, opening/saving as TIFF will “kill” the 3F (i.e. get rid of all the proprietary tags of the Format).
          Apparently there’s been something wrong with the 3F plugin from Hasselblad – you can try to download it again from their website in order to have the latest version (just in case…)
          Kind regards

          Davide

  5. Thanks David, very much for your great advice above Retouching a 3F in Photoshop. As I am currently only using this for digital post production of my film archive it is a love job and I really could do with a few more hours in the day to practise these techniques. Can’t wait!!

    • Thank you Craig! Yes, on one side it’s a unique job and a skills set that hopefully is going to be precious in the future – on the other I’ve been seeing all kind of “analog” (as opposed to digital) issues in film. Images that 20 years ago seemed perfect, now under the magnifying glass of an Hasselblad scanner show their defects: view cameras with bad film planarity, metric scale badly calibrated, not to mention chemicals issues due to aging and (that’s the worse part of all) scratches all over the film due to clumsy photolab operators back in the ’80 and ’90.
      Nonetheless I agree with you, after all it’s a fascinating job!
      Davide

  6. Hi there,

    WONDERFUL!!! Thank you so much, it’s been a while now and we were struggling with flexcolor, which is not as handy as photoshop for adjusting colors.
    Just one question though: What is the use of then after dusting of moving back to .fff ? Couldn’t all the final adjustments be done in PS6, then saved as Tiff and .psb with all layers?
    Thank you so much for your answers.
    Yours,

    Steph and Nico

    • Hello,
      thanks for the kind words.
      Your question is a fair one, and would need a blogpost to answer! In brief:
      1. You can do it – of course, provided you assign the right Scanner ICC profile and immediately convert to the RGB workspace of your choice (then do the required color correction). This is quite effective when dealing with slides (i.e. positive film) – trickier when dealing with negatives.
      2. Flex Color – being an old, almost dismissed application (no new features in years, alas) – has some nice peculiar little things. Take the Layers adjustment: compared to Photoshop’s Layers, it works differently (each R,G,B slider work as if they were in Color blending mode, not affecting Luminosity). Color Correction might be (in some cases) more effective when done in FlexColor
      3. When dealing with negative films, the inversion and color correction done entirely in PS might lead to dull color rendition – while FlexColor is most of the times richer. That’s my experience, but I usually deal with quite difficult originals.

  7. Hello, I tried opening a 3f file by changing the open format to Imacon 3F in the open window in photoshop and when I imported the 3F file into Photoshop it looked very flat and lifeless. I was able to correct this by using curves but I was wondering if this is a normal situation. When I look at the 3F file on the desktop it looks robust but when I open it in Photoshop it looks lifeless. Is this normal?

    • Hi Steve,
      yes, it’s definitely normal – and by the way it is a good thing because you’re looking at a raw acquisition. The fact it looks flat means that the scanner can easily deal with the film’s tonal range (if the file had more contrast, it would have meant that the scanner couldn’t handle all the information contained within the original with ease).
      We are supposed to open the 3F in PS just for “cleaning” purposes, but nothing prevents you to use it as a source for color correction (provided you first ASSIGN the scanner ICC profile then CONVERT to your RGB working space, like AdobeRGB, sRGB, etc). FlexColor does a good job at massaging the color of the 3F, so most of the times I just do a first round of rough color correction on FlexColor, then I open the TIFF in PS for the “actual” post production.

  8. is there an advantage to using the 3F format over regular scanning color wise or detail wise? I get really good scans using the regular scanning on my 646 but it has been suggested that I would get better quality using the 3F setting. I also can’t find where to change the 16 bit resolution, I am on a mac with Mavericks. When I open preferences in Flexcolor there is no setting for a 16 bit setting. Any ideas. Thanks Steve cohen

    • When you perform a “regular scan” you’re actually acquiring a 3F, applying the settings you’ve set in the Preview (Levels, Curves, Saturation, UnSharpMask, etc), saving a TIFF and trashing the 3F.
      Of course this is not happening under your eyes, but it’s what FlexColor does behind the scenes. Say that yesterday you’ve scanned a batch of 30 slides; today you open the TIFFs and notice that, gosh, you made a mistake and got burned highlights on one file. You’ve got to go to the archive, find the box with the slide, clean it, mount it in the holder, start the scanner, etc etc.
      Conversely, if you scan a 3F you’re actually acquiring all the information the scanner could possibly get (this sentence is only 99% accurate, but for the sake of simplicity we’ll forget that). Then you kiss bye-bye the original slide, put it into a time capsule for your grand-grand-children and each time you happen to be in need to “scan” that slide again (i.e. want to output a TIFF) you just load the 3F in FlexColor, set it (Levels, Curves, Saturation) and bake the TIFF.
      In a sense, the 3F is the “perfect” archival file format – it’s kind the Digital Negative of scanned stuff.
      And for this reason you’ve (almost, this is the 1% I mentioned earlier) nothing to set when you acquire a 3F: it’s monkey work. Put the original in the holder, get the 3F: no 8bit, 16bit, other tweaks. The actual job is done later.

  9. One last question, what should the output ppi vein addition to the 16bit output size? thanks Steve

    • It depends on your needs. I usually keep the Zoom to 100% (i.e. the actual scanner’s optical resolution – which as you know varies depending on the format 6×6 is different from 24×36, etc) and I do downsampling (when required) as the last step.

      • Thanks for the replies this has been very interesting. I may have more things to deal with but you have been a tremendous knowledgable person. Do you work with Imacons a lot? OK, thanks again Steve cohen

        • Thank you for the kind words Steve!
          I’ve been using Imacon (now Hasselblad) scanners since about 2001, when I got an old model as a payment when the photolab I was working for ran out of business…! Feel free to keep in touch via email (see the icon in the navigation bar in the top right corner). I usually deal with negatives more than slides, but yes, it’s something that I still do on a regular basis.
          If I may suggest you a link, the photographer Roberto Bigano is a well established scanner expert, and Hasselblad… “something” (damn, each company has its own naming convention: I can’t remember whether he’s an Hasselblad Master, Hasselblad Partner, or Hasselblad something else). I’ve learnt from him many of the things that I know, so you might find interesting resources there too.
          Best from Italy!
          Davide

  10. Hi, i can’t install correctly the plug-in. I did all you recommended in this post but it isnt still working. I don’t know what to do more. I could did it on CS5 but not in CS6 extended.

    Do you know any solution?

  11. Hey Davide, first I want to thank you for this great tutorial !
    I’m working with this work-flow for quite a while now. (Mostly in PS CS6)
    Now I switched to Photoshop CC (2014.2.2 / OSX 10.9) and can’t find a way to save fff files.
    Opening fff files still works the way you describe it here.
    When you try to save the fff-files though, Photoshop brings up this message:
    ” The Imacon 3f plugin doesn’t support file format conversion. ”
    For now I have CS6 installed parallel just to save these files – but obviously this is not ideal.
    Do you have found a solution for this yet?

    best from Berlin, Hans

  12. Did you say that its easier to open / spot/ and save back to fff with photoshop 5 or 5.5 than with CS 6? I would prefer to use 5.5 if its possible or even 5.

  13. Hello,

    Thank you for a very good and educational article. I have previously created “RAW” TIFF ‘s with FlexColor. That is to say, 16bit TIFF files without any adjustments at all except that I embedded the colorprofile I use as workingspace in Photoshop. Are there any disadvantages to this way of working?

    regards Anders

    • Hi Anders,
      thank you for the comment. It depends of what you use FlexColor for. Lately, I’ve been disregarding FC completely (that is, opened the 3F in PS, retouched, saved a cleaned 3F copy as a safety net, then just inverted the negative in PS, curved, post-processed as usual, no in-between TIFF from FC). Many people seem scared when it comes to inverting a negative, yet if you know your Curves there’s no Voodoo involved, really. For such a workflow, saving back the 3F could appear redundant. Yet I’ve found that in FC I sometimes can get a good result (let’s say “a better starting point for further corrections”) compared to PS, so to have the 3F is really handy.
      Be aware, also, that FC handles the single channels R, G, B “Levels” adjustments differently than PS (kind of in Color mode), so it’s a nice extra option.
      Finally, since the retouching (dust, scratches, blotches, develop stains, corrosions and the like) is equally painful in a TIFF and in a 3F, I would suggest to leave all doors open and retouch the 3F – one never knows 🙂

  14. I wrongly assigned a flextight input profile and then converted the PSB file to ProfotoRGB before cleaning it. Now it does not match the 3f file I want to paste it into. Is there a way to undo the profile switches to get the PSB back to the original 3f colors without cleaning it again?

    • Hi Peter,
      I’m afraid there’s no way that comes to my mind – you should assign an ICC which has the reversed curves of FlexTight Input (I just tried, out of curiosity, inverting, assigning, converting but to no avail).
      My best suggestion is to put the retouched version as a layer on top of the original 3F, Luminosity, then merge and save – this way you retain the original color of the 3F and the hours of work you’ve done. Possibly you need to curve the Luminosity layer in order to match the original brightness as close as possible.
      Hope this helps!
      -Davide

  15. Hi David Thanks this helped me. I scanned some negatives on an Imacon in fff format as I wanted to use ColorPerfect for the conversion to positive.

    But when I got home and tried to install the Imacon plugin into Photoshop I couldn’t get it to work. I’m on 64 bit Windows 7 using Photoshop CS. I discovered though that if you download and install the Flextight scanner software (currently 4.8.9) from the Hasselblad web site there’s a file called Imacon 3fX64.8bi in C:\Program Files\Hasselblad\FlexColor v4.8.9\PluginsX64 (on my system). If you copy this to C:\Program Files\Adobe\Adobe Photoshop CS6 (64 Bit)\Plug-ins\File Formats (I had to create the File Formats directory) then the plug in is available and you can open the files.

    Hope this helps someone else.

    Chris

  16. Pablo Villlegas February 9, 2016 at 7:21 PM

    Hi, thank you very much for this guide. I can ask the photo lab to scan my 6×7 negatives this way, and then correct them at home.
    But what are the settings yo use to scan to 3f?

    What size? how many ppi? Do you just send it to 3F without any correction? or use the Automatic correction? whats the normal workflow to scan to 3F?

    Thanks in advanced

    • Hi Pablo,
      there’s really no setting on their side to apply, that’s the beauty of the system. The only thing that they should do is to handle your negatives with care (no fingerprints, a clean room with as less dust as possible, etc), but this should be their duty anyway. Then, there’s just a “3F” button to press, a “.fff” file is saved on disk and that’s it.
      This is also why they should price a 3F scan less than a traditional scan, since it doesn’t involve any color correction skill whatsoever, it’s manual work. If you don’t find a 3F service near you, you can try this one.

      • Thanks Davide,

        I don’t have a scanner here so I cant access the 3F menu, but from what I recall, there are some options in that menu, and I’m interested in what they have to input in those options, specially in 16-bit size and Output resolution?

        Does it make a difference?

        Thanks again!

        • Hi Pablo,
          there’s plenty of settings in the FlexColor software (the one the service would use to make the 3F), but when it comes to the 3F they’re of no use except for the preview. They could even treat the negative as it were a positive (a slide), 8 or 16 bit, keep it pitch dark or overexpose it – it would make no difference at all on your side. IF they deliver a 3F.
          I’ve not the scanner handy right now (scanned a lot last week), but when you create a 3F you have to specify if you want it 100% of the resolution (which is the default – go for it), the filename and folder where the 3Fs are going to be saved, the film holder (6×6, 6×9, 24×36, etc) that matches your negatives and that’s it.

          • Thank you very much! it seems it will be my workflow, the lab didn’t do a great job scanning my test roll.

  17. Thanks Davide! I really liked this workflow, it took a while getting used to flexcolor, and my first try didn’t go as well as I’ve would liked. I’m gonna have to redo that photo, but then I found a way to get neutral colors within Flexcolor.

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/32577294@N06/24986207505/in/album-72157662271890623/

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