Meet some of the Instagrammers shaping Baltimore's food scene. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)
Baltimore is awash in foodies with a following.
These social media influencers give diners a first glimpse at what’s on the menu in Charm City, often toting portable lights in pursuit of the perfect Instagram photo.
“If you have poor lighting, then it doesn’t matter how good your camera or anything is,” said Dan Ahn, a food photographer and aspiring blogger. “You don’t even need a fancy camera. If you have good lighting even an iPhone will give you amazing photos.”
Although many of these foodies are invited to restaurants and events, they say they’ll only post photos of dishes they loved. Comfort food resonates with their followers, and some food trends are fail-safes.
“If I post something with avocado toast, I’m pretty sure I’m going to get a pretty good response,” Ahn said.
Although it looks like fun from the follower’s perspective, they say it’s hard work to keep up with the daily posts and interactions necessary to build a following.
But many do it for more than the food.
“Food is so much more than itself,” Lena Tashjian of Dine Well Bmore said. “It’s like symbolic, it’s a vehicle, it’s something that we can all collectively gather around and use to start conversations about culture and diversity, and I think that’s what I’m most excited to see people like really exploring food in that way.”
Here are a handful of foodstagrammers — a mix of trained photographers, social media pros and foodies for fun — who influence how we eat with our eyes.
Arli Lima was tired of repeating herself when her friends asked for restaurant recommendations, so she started a blog, Arli’s Appetite, followed by an Instagram account highlighting the area’s newest foodie destinations.
“I’m all about the new because I want to try it before anybody else does,” Lima, 37, said. “I want to form my own opinion about it before I read about it from someone else.”
Lima, who lives downtown, said she continues to learn about food photography through experience. Connecting with other Instagrammers has helped.
“I’ve been known to climb on a chair or get down on my knees to get that shot,” she said.
Dan Ahn aims to honor the creators behind restaurant dishes through his photos.
“Even if you go to McDonald’s, there are hands making that food,” said Ahn, 32.
A teacher who lives in Parkville, Ahn took college photography classes and combined his skills with his love of food. Whether he’s shooting avocado toast or Korean seafood pancakes with his Sony A7RIII, he sees his images as vessels for stories.
“It’s almost like a fleeting type of artwork where it’s meant to be consumed, but there’s a lot of thought that went into making it look pretty, making it taste good,” he said.
For a while, Leandro Lagera was hesitant to use a traditional camera at restaurants — it was less subtle than his iPhone. But now he doesn’t hesitate to snap shots of food on his Sony A6000.
He maps out the images that will fill his Instagram page about a month in advance.
“I try to post pictures that have experiences that really resonate, or meals I really like,” said Lagera, vice president of operations for the Real News Network. “I get invited to social media events where food and drinks are complimentary. You feel some sort of responsibility to post some pictures.”
He views Instagram like a video game. Users are always keeping score, said Lagera, 42.
“As soon as you post, it’s like everyone is trying to get the highest-score kind of thing rather than attracting new people to like your picture,” he said.
Jordan Zelesnick, 27, started a blog and Instagram account as a way to build professional experience for a career in social media. An avid cook, friends often asked for her recipes, so she compiled them in a blog.
The Federal Hill resident said it’s important for Instagrammers to find their niche. For her, it was cooking. She recently started the Whole30 diet and was surprised to see her meals resonate with followers.
“I’m now learning that they enjoy healthy more than, like, mass amounts of desserts or the yolk porn from a breakfast sandwich,” she said.
As a professional photographer and stylist, Kate Grewal knows we eat with our eyes.
“So what I try and do when shooting food is try and find those, like, special little moments — whether it be the juiciness of a peach or the drippy bits of honey — that really, like, speaks to people,” Grewal, 35, said. “That really creates an evocative sense of longing.”
She keeps edits to a minimum, and finds that her messier photos — “the ones that have that ooey-gooeyness” — drive the most engagement on her Instagram.
“Being authentic and being yourself ... is the best way to approach how you’re going to put yourself out there in the world,” she said. “People can tell when you’re being fake, and it’s not really going to resonate with the people you want to attract.”
Megan Fish and Caroline Ponsi started their joint Instagram account spotlighting Baltimore’s best eats from afar, and that’s how the account has grown. The childhood friends and neighbors started the account while they were in college — Ponsi was in Pennsylvania and Fish was in Copenhagen — using photos they had stockpiled during visits back home. Now Ponsi, 22 , lives in New York and Fish, 23, is preparing to move to Croatia, destinations where they will continue updating their feed with their own photos and guest posts.
“We’re almost returning to our roots in a way in that we started this,” Ponsi said.
Tacos and crabs are among Fish’s favorite food photo subjects, and “guilty pleasures” always play well to followers, Ponsi said.
“We really started this for fun, but it’s become so cool and rewarding seeing everyone we know using our page as a dining guide for all kinds of occasions,” Fish said.
Official Food Group got its start after a group of seven friends graduated from the University of Central Florida about five years ago. Jason Mellman, now a Canton resident, said they started a group text message thread to stay in touch.
“It just became all food pictures,” Mellman, 28, said. “I don’t even think my friends knew what I did for a job or knew who I was dating, but they knew what I ate.”
After seeing other Instagram food accounts, they started their own page. Official Food Group culls photos from Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Florida — the home bases of its members.
“When you have seven people doing one person’s job, you can do it much faster,” Mellman said.
Editor’s note: Follower counts are as of press time.
Find The Baltimore Sun’s latest food and dining coverage on Instagram: @baltsunfood.