Cheese is for Sandwiches by Amy Medina


Cheese is for Sandwiches by Amy Medina

I’m notoriously bad at taking family photos. What I mean is that even though I always have a camera with me, and even though you’ll often find me contorted in the grass trying desperately to get the perfect shot of some obscure object, I don’t often think of taking shots at family functions. I’m great at watching and absorbing what is going on around me, but when I’m with loved-ones, I don’t always think to take pictures. A good example was this past weekend at a family party. My niece was partaking in some great imagination adventure, moving rocks from her little toddler car to the garden, and I watched in amazement. It never occurred to me to take a picture of this bizarre ritual.

And you will NEVER find me asking people to pose; to stand in a row, grouped all together facing the camera, commanding them to say “cheese”.

I suppose those standard, “everyone line up now” shots have their place in family photo albums, and we do all appreciate seeing them years later. However, for me, when I do decide to hold my camera up to my face during a family function, I like to capture the spirit of the memory (if I can). I don’t want to wonder exactly which family gathering it was, because there’s no context in which to identify what was happening that day.

I love when I see a photo I’ve taken of family members, and the day comes flooding back to me… I can remember the laughter, or the significance of the day, or even the fear.


I suppose I don’t shoot as many family photos as most because I like to challenge myself to shoot something that would be interesting to anyone, even a complete stranger. Filtering it through my own bias, of course I probably don’t accomplish that as often as I like to think I do, but I believe it’s a good challenge none-the-less.

Another contributor to this site, Peter, is an expert at this — a master of family photos that could be presented as beautiful art. It’s something to strive for, to have a collection of photos of family and friends that is a little more intriguing than a group of people shouting “cheese” at the camera.

We live in an age where snapping the photo itself is easy to do, since nearly everyone has an iPhone or some pocket device that will take a picture. At every family function I go to, there are lots of loved-ones with cameras, shooting away taking tons of photos, but all I need is one or two well-timed, well-executed shots to remind me of the day.



The silent beauty of photography is that ability to capture a moment in time, and all the little details that can so easily be forgotten. Those little details get lost in our memory, but they tell a complete story when you see them again months or years later. They remind us of the conversations we were having just before, or the feelings we had just after. If the photo lacks any context and could easily just be any sunny day on the lawn posed under a tree, while it may make you happy to look at, it won’t be accompanied by the same wondrous thoughts that arise from the specific elements missing.


My own family photos rarely show a group shot posed with everyone smiling. I mean, sure, I probably have a few, but the ones that are the real keepers are the ones where everyone is sticking out their tongue, or the moment just after when they all relaxed and started joking around, poking each other.

The absolute best ones are always those photos when the subjects don’t even realize I’m there, or are basically ignoring the fact that I’m pointing the camera at them.

It’s like shooting street except with people you love.

You aren’t hiding the fact that you’re there with a camera, but you’d prefer they go about their business and forget about you and your equipment. Candid, unposed people photography is when the magic can happen, and what better subjects to make magical than the family and friends you love most.



There’s also something funny about those forced, over-the-top camera smiles my family occasionally graces me with. My daughter has been caught more than once making a face she’d kill me for if I shared here today — but you can bet they pop up on my screen saver or television slideshow from time to time… and they always end up in a year-end photo book on my coffee table.

A corny grin, or an animated gesture just for the purposes of that photo in that particular setting, always bring a big smile to my face.


And don’t forget the surprise photos as well… you know the technique, which works best on teenagers who want to be defiant about you taking a shot of them. Just call their name and when they turn around, steal the shot. I’ve had more than one teenager tell me to “delete that!” right after… but I don’t always (evil grin – LOL).




I’m mostly a seascape, still-life, random street scene type of photographer… and that’s where I enjoy taking my photography seriously. But it wasn’t until recently that I really started to appreciate what family photos mean to me. I just can’t be the “say cheese” type of photographer.

Though we, as photographers, may be out photographing street, or landscapes or some other subject, our family photos are some of the most important ones we will take in our lifetime. We may want to be recognized for our other work, or hope to be taken seriously in the art world or more commercial venues, but photographing our loved ones shouldn’t be left to posed, after-thought snapshots.

On any given day with my loved-ones, there are a sea of impressions left upon us, by the people themselves and the scene in which life plays itself out. I like to try to capture all of it, not everyone outside of that moment thinking about having their photo taken. I want the photos to depict what was actually happening, and to be able to relive that tale in a single glimpse, having it spark an hour of reminiscing.

Telling your subjects to “say cheese” ends up being some kind of warning, or cue to pose in the exact same way they always pose for pictures, and I know that’s not what I want. Maybe it goes back to the days when people had to stand still for a long time to get that portrait photo taken, but we’re well passed that now… and I want my subjects to do anything but stand still.


…except maybe when I’m taking a photo of myself and my husband… LOL


See more from Amy below:


  1. Thanks for sharing Amy.

    Your story resonates with me. I’ve found over the years that I’m just not interested in taking pictures at family events. My mother always says ‘bring your camera’, I do, but I feel so uncomfortable walking around and snaping at everyone, everything. More and more I find that individuals are hiding from the camera. And I hate to be the ‘camera guy/geek’ who show up at every event with the biggest camera like I have some different purpose than everyone else with the camera phones. The only time folks concede is when someone yells, ‘let’s take a photo’ before we go our separate ways. At the weddings and funerals taking non-candid photos, we line up in 2 or 3 rows, ‘Ready!, 1, 2…”

    Just not cool.

  2. The problem I have is I am the only photographer in my extended family. Rather than several of us roaming around with cameras, it is usually just me. It tends to make grabbing the documentary/unposed shot a little more difficult but it is something that my experience as a newspaper staffer helps with. Now as I enter retirement, I am shifting away from the heavy pro DSLR equipment that makes me a little more obvious to a Fuji X100S. I am hoping this will make me a little less obvious in the future to grab the shots that family can look back on and say “when did he shoot this? We had such a great time that day.”

    I just wish I had done more of it earlier in my family’s lives…..

  3. First, I love the title of this! I grew up with a mom who always wanted the kids to pose in front of one particular wall in the house and often cut our heads off in the picture anyway. I wish I had more pictures from growing up that weren’t cheese ones. Family pictures that are lots of “in the moment” ones rather than line up and smile ones are such a gift. Great article, Amy, thanks for writing it.

  4. Thank you! The easiest subjects are our family – and I forget that sometimes. Thanks so much for your contribution. Loved your pics too!

  5. I love this post!

    Not a single mention of gear used, camera settings, etc.

    Very refreshing and lovely work.

  6. A very nice article and photos! I’m always getting a hard time from my wife when many of my photos don’t have family members in the frame. But then when I do put the camera at them they all seem to want to run away. Oh well.

  7. Dear Amy,

    Whether you’re photographing special family moments — or seagulls 🙂 — there is a sensitivity emanating from your images that speaks of you. It’s intangible but it’s real, and it’s consistently there.

    You know my view on “just” family moment photography, so it was with great delight that I opened this post, and read your beautiful words… and viewed your beautiful images.

    Always a pleasure,


  8. Great shots Amy.
    The snapshot / street / family art-form is the most accessible to most of us. However, because of this very normality, it can consequently be the hardest environment to capture truly pleasing shots; shots of the sometimes mundane happenings of everyday life. However when captured just so, it produces such moving and inspiring images they speak out to all who see them – this is why I love it so much.
    Great shots here – and the swimming pool one at the top is an absolute classic, both technically and artistically.
    well done and all the best,

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