Inkjet Paper Review: MediaStreet Papers
By: Dave Etchells
Review Date: January 2002
In the early days of inkjet technology, it was rare to find any third-party papers that worked (nearly) as well as the printer maker's own "house" products. The specialized coatings required to control the absorption and drying of ink on the paper's surface were keyed to the specific chemical formula of each manufacturer's ink. One early exception to this was the Pictorico brand of paper, which I reviewed some while back. Pictorico uses a proprietary ceramic technology to control ink absorption, an approach that works very well, but that also appears to entail higher production costs, resulting in higher retail prices for that paper.
Lately, inkjet manufacturers have moved toward paper-coating technology based on "swellable polymers", an approach that offers improved fade resistance, and that also seems to have reduced some of the compatibility problems between different coating formulations and ink chemistries.
Recently, a friend of mine who runs a well-known internet/mailorder photo products business asked me to evaluate a range of inkjet papers made by MediaStreet.com. He was interested in carrying the papers himself, but wanted an objective third-party test of them first. He needed to know how compatible they were with different printers, and how well they worked overall. Ever helpful, I said "Sure, I'll get right on it", completely ignoring the typically absurd backlog of other projects I had burning my toes at the time. It's thus now several months later, but I finally did have a look at the MediaStreet papers, and ended up quite impressed. Figuring that something approaching 100% of our readers are inkjet users, I thought I'd write up the results of my testing to show on the IR site.
This article is a brief digest of several weeks of off-and-on testing of a variety of MediaStreet's papers. The bottom line? I was so impressed with MediaStreet's papers that I invited them to become a site sponsor of the Imaging Resource: I'm very comfortable recommending them to all and sundry as an excellent line of third-party papers, offering both a wider range of surfaces and better prices than most manufacturer's proprietary formulations.
I'll be the first to admit that my testing here wasn't by any means exhaustive: A really in-depth test of multiple paper types across multiple printer models and brands would have been way beyond the time and effort I had available to devote to the project. What I did do though, was perform "spot checks" of a wide variety of MediaStreet's paper types in several different printers from three different manufacturers. I ran quite a number of sheets of MediaStreet paper through a Canon S800, and Epson 780, 785, and 1280 printers. Not having ready access to an HP photo printer, I don't have much detail available on the MediaStreet papers' performance in that brand of printer. I did run a few sheets through the HP printers at a local computer store with salutary results, but it's hard to tell anything of substance from the over-saturated photos on those little in-store "print actuators."
For the sake of consistency, I used the same image for all the prints, an outdoor family portrait shot that had a variety of skin tones (well, a slight variety, we're all Caucasian) as well as a broad tonal range and a nice assortment of colors. I compared the prints on MediaStreet's paper against prints of the same shot run out on the manufacturers' own premium photo papers.
Where the printer manufacturer had a paper-type setting that corresponded to one of the MediaStreet papers, I used that. (Eg, manufacturer's "photo glossy" paper setting used with MediaStreet's Aspen Extreme Photo Glossy, "heavyweight matte" used with the heavy matte papers, etc.) Following MediaStreet's recommendations, if there didn't seem to be a manufacturer paper type corresponding to a MediaStreet one, I used the default for photo-quality printing on "plain" coated bond paper. (Not to be confused with the "plain paper" settings, the settings I'm referring to here are those for the premium extra-white coated bond papers commonly sold as "photo quality" inkjet paper by the various manufacturers.) In many cases, the plain "photo quality" paper setting worked the best anyway.
I didn't spend much time experimenting with printer settings to obtain optimum results. There were just too many papers and printers involved to allow this, even though I'm pretty certain I could have improved on shadow or highlight detail in many instances, or removed slight color casts had I done so.
The question I was trying to answer in my testing was simply whether the papers in question offered a viable alternative to the manufacturer's own formulations. Put more bluntly, would I be satisfied if I bought these papers myself for use in my own inkjet printers?
Results in a Nutshell
While I found some variation across the paper types (not too surprising, considering the wide range of surfaces and substances they were composed of), and in some cases noticed less shadow detail than in the manufacturers' own papers, overall I was surprised by how well and consistently the MediaStreet papers performed. - For "advanced amateur" usage (meaning people like myself, printing mainly for family or personal enjoyment of the finished photos), all of the paper surfaces I tested produced very pleasing results with just the default settings.
Pros printing their work for commercial sale will likely want to spend some time tweaking printer settings, and might even want to invest in a custom ICC profile for a paper they plan to use for significant work. The payoff for investing the time in developing a custom set of printing settings for MediaStreet's specialty papers could be pretty significant though, as they let you offer your clients with something a little different than what they might see elsewhere. (Whether from another pro's inkjet prints, or from any photographic process.) Some of the paper types (Royal Plush, Royal Weave, and Royal Jazz in particular) really put the inkjet prints into the "fine art" category, IMHO.
(A few of) The Paper Types
MediaStreet manufacturers an incredible variety of paper types and surfaces, ranging from lightweight bond paper to "Royal Plush", a very heavy matte-finish paper. (It weighs in at 310 g/sm (grams/square meter), heavier than any other inkjet paper I've seen personally.) There's even a canvas based "paper", with MediaStreet' inkjet coating on it, if you want to try for an oil-painting character in your inkjet prints. Here's what I thought of the few different paper types I looked at in this brief test, arranged according to paper surface and in approximate order of paper weight:
Gloss & Semi-Gloss Papers
Aspen Photo-Realistic Semi Gloss (Double-Sided)
This was a very interesting paper, one of several "double-sided" papers MediaStreet makes. True to its name, it has a semi-glossy finish, on both sides of the sheet, letting you make double-sided inkjet prints. - Very handy for situations where you need double-sided pages, but don't want the hassle of trying to line up two sheets of paper in a laminating press. (I imagine there are other double-sided papers out there, but the double-sided products from MediaStreet are the first that I've personally come across.) The finish is tough to describe, for lack of a common standard for what constitutes "semi gloss". The best analog I can think of for it is the sort of slightly opalescent surfaces many laptop computer screens have on them. - There's a slight sheen if you hold it such that it reflects a light source directly, but it's quite a bit more subdued than the gloss of typical "glossy" photo paper. (I'd rate it as slightly less lossy than many "satin finish" photo papers as well.) The paper substance is slightly warm-toned, making for nice portraits, with healthy-looking skin tones.
Aspen Extreme Photo Glossy (9 mil)
This is MediaStreet's entry in the "photo glossy" market segment, a nice, heavyweight (9 mil thickness) paper with a high gloss finish. The paper is a slightly cooler shade of white than the Photo-Realistic Semi Gloss, and so tends to produce slightly cooler skin tones. Its surface compares well with Epson's Glossy Photo Paper, although both it and the Epson paper don't attain quite the glasslike sheen of Canon's Photo Paper Pro. This paper worked extremely well on the Canon S800, while on the Epson printers, it had a tendency to magnify very slight color and tonal variations, making image noise more apparent than with Epson's own papers. Highly recommended for the Canon printer, on the Epsons it tends to emphasize the image noise, unless you have "squeaky clean" original images.
Artist Grade Canvas
Yes, this does qualify as a "glossy" paper, even though it's a sheet of actual artist canvas. - The coating on it has a glossy sheen, perhaps intended to match the sheen of artist's oils applied to canvas. This definitely qualified as the most interesting paper I looked at, as there's no question it's a canvas substrate. With an appropriate paint-effects software program, you could produce very convincing-looking "oil paintings" from your digital files. The substrate is rather warm-toned, with an almost ivory hue. It took the ink very well, with both the Epson and Canon printers, although deep shadows tended to plug up a bit. Feeding was pretty problematic with it though: The canvas substrate tended to curl a bit as it entered the throat of the printer, leading to frequent jams. It pretty well refused to feed reliably at all in the Canon S800 (I could get it to go, but it took endless fiddling and several ruined sheets), and required some care to use with the Epson 780 and 1280. One trick that helped was to roll the canvas over a table edge or other hard edge to apply a little reverse-curl before inserting it into the printer. Recommended (with appropriate care and pampering) for the Epson printers, but not for the Canon S800. (Unknown behavior in the HP printers, as I wasn't willing to risk the wrath of the store personnel if I jammed their display printers.)
Some of these papers had significant surface textures to them: Despairing of describing them verbally, I've included small sidelit macro shots of their surfaces, to give some visual idea of what the textures look like.
Aspen 31-lb Bond
This is a good, inexpensive, moderately heavyweight, smooth-surfaced bond paper, probably about half again to twice as heavy as a sheet of standard copier paper. A fairly bright white matte surface, with a pretty neutral overall tone. (Neither cool nor warm in hue.) This looks like a great, inexpensive paper to use for routine printing where a gloss finish isn't called for: Good for high-quality photo prints for the family, or high-volume printing where you'd like to economize a bit without compromising image quality. This paper had a slight tendency to emphasize image noise with the Epson printers, and a slight tendency to plug shadows with the Canon unit. Very nice results overall though. (This would be a good, heavier-weight substitute for the typical matte-finish "photo paper" sold by most manufacturers.)
Mogul, 150 g/sm
This is one of my favorite matte-finish papers. It's a bit heavier than the 31-lb Bond, and has a slight texture to it, a sort of an "orange peel" effect, although the texture is both broader and softer than that description would suggest. Its printing characteristics were very similar to those of the 31-lb Bond, but it produced warmer, more natural looking skin tones. (Even though the background color of the paper itself was no warmer than the Bond.) Overall, a very pleasing, medium-weight matte-surface paper.
Aspen Dual-Sided Matte
This is another of MediaStreet's dual-sided papers, with the ink-receiver coating applied to both sides of the sheet. Like the bond paper, it has no significant surface texture, just a very smooth, matte finish. This paper was interesting in that it produced cooler tones on the Canon than it did on the Epson. Skin tones on the Epson had a pleasant warmth to them, while those from the Canon were a little cool for my tastes. (The Canon also had a bit of a tendency to plug the shadows with this paper, although that no doubt could be handled with a little curves work in Photoshop, or a little tweaking in the printer drivers.) The paper itself is about the same weight as the Mogul, what I'd call a "medium weight" paper. Good image quality in a medium-weight, dual-sided stock.
Jazz, 190 g/sm
As the 190 g/sm weight designation would suggest, this is a heavier weight paper. It's apparently also an "archival" paper, with neutral pH so it won't yellow or get brittle over time. It has a grainy, random texture on its surface that makes me think of "soft sandpaper". (Hard to explain, I just don't have the vocabulary to describe surface textures adequately, but see the inset photo above for an idea of what it looks like.) Overall, I think I like Royal Jazz about the best of the MediaStreet matte finishes I looked. (The Aspen Mogul above is my second-favorite, although it's very different in its character.) Similar color rendering to the Aspen Mogul, perhaps just a tad warmer.
This paper has a fabric-like texture to it, although it's entirely paper. Not a strong impression of woven threads as with the Canvas, but rather a texture that the paper picked up from the screen used to make it. Somewhat suggestive of canvas, without the strong texture of the Canvas "paper" itself. Slightly warmer-toned still than the Royal Jazz, also slightly more contrasty. (Shadows look a little deeper.)
The "Super Heavyweight" of the MediaStreet lineup, with a substance of 310 g/sm. It's also an "archival" paper, with neutral pH so it won't yellow or get brittle over time. About the heaviest-weight inkjet paper I've seen, with a very rich, soft look and feel. Surface texture is somewhere between the Jazz and Weave surfaces, overall looking a lot like conventional "watercolor paper." Slightly cooler-toned than the Royal Weave. Probably the least emphasis of image noise with the Epson printers of any of the papers that I looked at. Very nice for special projects that you want to look more expensive than they really are. ;-)
So there you have it: Actually only a very small sampling of the broad range of papers MediaStreet offers. All took the ink very well from both Epson and Canon printers, and (as far as I could tell from very limited testing), HP as well. I noted a range of minor differences in image color and tonality when printing on the different papers, but for the most part these differences would only be evident in side-by-side comparisons. All were excellent, among the best third-party inkjet papers I've seen to date.
Here are some links to the papers on MediaStreet's site:
"Trial packs" of some of their popular papers
MediaStreet "Photographic" papers (Variety of surfaces)
MediaStreet "Generations" archival media (Mostly mattes, all archival-rated)
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