On a rainy Saturday afternoon in July, dozens of people reunited in the back corner of opens in a new windowCha Cha Coconuts restaurant on St. Armands Circle in Sarasota. For most, it was about a year-and-a-half since they last saw each other. Across the country, reunions are commonplace as COVID restrictions lift. What made this one unique were the participants. They are the creative eyes behind stunning photos of Florida posted on Instagram and this was an Instameet. Specifically, a #FollowMeInstameet.
What’s an Instameet?
An Instameet is basically an in-person social gathering of Instagram users (Instagrammers) who create content and post it to their respective social media channels. These particular Instagrammers post inspirational images showcasing the best of the Sunshine State on the Gram (short for Instagram).
With this group, there’s no fee to join or participate in the Instameets. Just pick up your own dinner tab. Participants connect with each other virtually by tagging their images with hashtags relevant to their photo. A hashtag is used in front of a word or phrase to group specific topics together, like #FollowMeInstameet.
“The group is for people who love anything Florida, photography, meeting new people, and or Instagram. Which most people fall into one of those categories!” said Sheila*, whose Instagram handle is opens in a new window@followmetolongboatkey.
A Love of Florida Ties These Photographers and Instagrammers Together
These Instagrammers are shellers who share artful photos of their sea treasures. They are sunset queens and kings posting shots of vibrant orange skies and pink cotton candy clouds. Or, they are storm chasers documenting dramatic storms. They are nature photographers sharing poetically composed images of native flora and fauna. Perhaps they are professional and amateur photographers. They are the ones who inspire us to get out and explore Florida. Loving photographing anything having to do with Florida and sharing on Instagram is their common tie.
“It’s such a nice and lively group of people. You know right of the bat you have something in common with every person there. There’s always tons of laughter and conversation going on,” Sheila told me.
“I’ve met all these friends through Instagram,” said Lee Walkup as she motioned to the dozens of people sitting in the corner of the restaurant. An amateur photographer from Venice, her Instagram handle is opens in a new window@leewalkup and her feed is full of spectacular sunsets.
“You get to meet the people you’re talking to,” she replied when asked what she enjoys most about the Instameets.
I first met the group the summer of 2019 when about 40 Instagrammers met on Englewood Beach for dinner at the opens in a new windowSandbar Tiki & Grille followed by a walk to the beach for sunset. They traveled from as far as Marco Island and Tampa Bay and as near as Englewood and Venice. For many, it was their first-time visiting Englewood Beach and Stump Pass Beach State Park. Throughout the afternoon and evening, they shared smiles, laughs and photography tips all while photographing their meals, each other, and beach scenes.
He Drove 10+ Hours to Make Sure Sarasota is Like What He Sees on the Gram
The Saturday in July at Cha Cha Coconuts was similar with familiar faces but this time, there were more hugs. Participants were from all over Florida’s Gulf Coast but the person who won the “traveled the farthest” award went to Vance Penny whose handle is opens in a new email@example.com. From Surf City, N.C., this was his second Instameet with the group and his second trip to Florida’s Gulf coast. Inspired by Wendy’s @followmetosiestakey account, he first participated in the fall of 2019.
“The scenery [in Sarasota] is unlike anything I have ever seen. Not everything on Instagram is true and I had to make sure it is,” he told me when asked why he made the 10.5-hour-one-way-drive from his North Carolina home.
He’s now visited the beaches of Siesta, Lido, and Longboat Keys and said, “The sand is soft like talcum powder, there is nothing like this in Surf City.”
Why did he make a second weekend trip to attend the July Instameet?
“The people are genuine. What they post on Instagram is how they are in real life. That’s refreshing,” he said.
Tips for Beachcombing
Jill Runyen, whose handle is opens in a new window@floridaisforme_jill, is the owner and operator of opens in a new windowDomenick’s Blinds & Décor in Sarasota. She started attending Instameets in 2019 to meet people.
As a successful small business owner her free time is limited. Sunday mornings are when she beachcombs. Beachcombing is the act of searching the beach for items of value to the searcher. These items of value include seashells, driftwood, sea glass, and fossilized shark teeth.
Nokomis on Casey Key is her favorite beach where she finds fossilized shark teeth and sea glass. I had always heard early mornings are the best for beachcombing because it’s a quiet time to collect what the sea deposited on the shore. Runyen sees some validity to that but reminded me Gulf waves are always depositing something on the beach.
Fossilized shark teeth are ancient treasures on local beaches. They are millions of years old. When looking for these teeth, Runyen recommends looking for black or brown triangles on the beach. She prefers mornings for beachcombing because it’s a great way to “beat the heat.”
“Walking the beach is like going to a different movie every day. It’s never the same and always a new experience,” Shelia responded when asked for her beachcombing tips, “I generally keep my head down looking for shells, while others keep their head up looking for sea life or just watching the waves roll in. I never go shelling knowing what I’m looking for. You let Mother Nature tell you what’s going on and you choose from that. You’ll have much greater success that way.”
She typically walks the beach on Longboat Key and brings a “smaller bucket for fragile sand dollars and a bigger bucket for the rest of the shells.”
Tips for Instagram-Worthy Photos
When asked for her tips on capturing the perfect Instagram photo, she alluded that it comes to personal preference, “There are so many talented photographers in our area. Each have their own style, technique, and camera or phone of choice. The beach is an awesome place to photograph. There’s so much to capture whether it’s birds, shells, sand patterns, sunsets, etc.”
But, capturing an Instagram-worthy photo comes down to good lighting “so you must time it just right.”
From personal experience, I agree about utilizing perfect, natural lighting for inspirational Instagram images. There are several ways to hone your photography skills ranging from YouTube tutorials to in-person classes. Of course, you can connect virtually with the Gulf coast Instagrammers to understand how the magic works. There is always the option of participating in an Instameet and asking for assistance when it comes to best practices.
Digital Friendships Lead to In-Person Friendships
About an hour before sunset on this Saturday in July, the rained stopped and clouds parted. Armed with cameras with lenses of varying sizes, the Instagrammers headed to Lido Beach for a spectacular sunset. Once dusk rolled in, some set up their beach chairs to sit down and catch up with each other.
“Real friendships are made through our Instameets. People make plans together outside our Instameets and that’s what it’s all about, making new friends,” Shelia said.
Instagram Hashtags to Follow
Interested in connecting with some of these Instagrammers? Following are some of the hashtags they tag their images:
#swflorida, #shellingflorida , #iloveshelling, #seashelladdict, #beachcombing, #lovefl, #sunsets, #seashells, #beachtherapy, #floridabeaches, #longboatkey, #siestakey, #manasotakey, #floridasunset, #exploreflorida, #staysaltyflorida, #bestofflorida,#followmetoflongboatkey, #followmetosiestakey
Some Instagrammers to follow for gorgeous and inspirational images of Florida:
opens in a new window@followmetolongboatkey
opens in a new window@followmetosiestakey
opens in a new window@pinkgemlife
opens in a new window@leewalkup
opens in a new window@floridaisforme_jill
opens in a new firstname.lastname@example.org
opens in a new window@amandas_oceantreasure
opens in a new window@antkaybe
opens in a new window@azhippiechick2
opens in a new window@captbriancaptiva
opens in a new window@csheffield73
opens in a new window@denisemouse_photo
opens in a new window@emilysfotosss
opens in a new window@everwaterchartersandtours
opens in a new window@florida_has_my_heart
opens in a new window@fossilguy407
opens in a new window@friends_of_stump_pass
opens in a new window@gunillaphotodesign
opens in a new window@iamthemechelle3
opens in a new window@kissedbythesunandwaves
opens in a new window@kochyli_bliss
opens in a new window@paige_byers
opens in a new window@nautigirlonthegulf
opens in a new window@outdoorsydiva
opens in a new window@sarasotadream
opens in a new window@shellekelle
opens in a new window@shutterbug_debi
opens in a new window@sunshinesheller
opens in a new window@tampabayphotographer
opens in a new window@tbenderphoto1
opens in a new window@the_essential_beachcomber
opens in a new window@treasureseekersshelltours
*Last names intentionally omitted.