In this social-media obsessed town—where locals document seemingly every urban-fabulous moment of their lives, from Gold Coast lunches to Grant Park strolls—Instagram has created a new generation of Chicago celebrities. Wielding influence and racking up followers via their hyper-curated feeds, these power players show the Windy City in delicious, stylish, architecturally amazing detail. Each of the following five dynamic Chicago Insta-stars boasts their own unique lens, but their work has one thing in common: You can’t take your eyes off it.
If content truly is king, Wicker Park resident Nathan Michael is something akin to social media royalty. As the founder of boutique agency Low Res Studio, Michael boasts heavyweight clients like McDonald’s, Knob Creek, and American Express, who rely on the 32-year-old to help them “tell a better visual story” on social media. The Fort Worth, Texas-raised former freelance designer is an impressive storyteller himself on Instagram, where he guides his nearly 100,000 followers to Chicago’s hippest haunts, coolest cafés, and toniest interiors on a #FOMO-inducing feed of fastidiously curated compositions.
Tools of the trade: For personal use, iPhone 6+; for professional use, Canon Mark III and Sony a7R II.
Inspiration: Forward-thinking Dutch designer Stephen Alesch of design firm Roman and Williams. “There’s this [aesthetic] where they can elevate something, but at the same time it can feel really natural [and] comfortable.”
Growth strategy: “[I] started treating my Instagram like a culture guide, so I allowed people into the world that I was working with. That was definitely the thing that allowed that to take off.”
Eye candy: “I connect with environments that [have] a piece of nostalgia that makes you comfortable, but at the same time transports you to a new space.”
Most frequent comment: “People tagging other people and saying, “We should go here.” It’s cool to see people use [Instagram] as a resource.”
From sultry sunsets to long exposure light trails, Neal Kumar is the man behind the iPhone 7+ that captures some of the Windy City’s most picturesque architectural views on Instagram. A 31-year-old dermatologist and urban photographer who hopscotched from North Carolina to Boston to Venezuela before landing in Chicago, Kumar first began using the photo-sharing app shortly after its inception in 2010; since then, the Gold Coast resident’s artistic images of soaring skyscrapers, historic bridges, and traveling trains have gained him a following of more than 72,000. With smartphone cameras evolving to shoot ever-higher-quality images, Kumar finds it a fascinating challenge “to see how far I can push photography.”
Image inspiration: “I try to find either unique perspectives or capture the light of the city in a way that people haven’t seen before.”
Twenty minutes in Chicago: “I would grab some donuts from Do-Rite and walk along the Riverwalk.”
Secret of success: “Shooting as much as possible. The more photos you have, the more you’ll find [images] that really jump out and that you enjoy.”
Standout images: “[My photos] capture all aspects and all moods of the city, especially with how often the weather changes.”
Must-snap spots: “The John Hancock observatory and the Sears Skydeck, especially during fog… I also like Milton Lee Olive Park, which has a nice skyline view.”
Samantha Roby heard the criticism leveled at many an Instagram-inclined eater: “My friends told me they didn’t need to always see what I was eating.” Unlike most budding foodie photographers, though, the 27-year-old Michigan native has parlayed her passion for documenting the delicious into a successful brand with Chicago Food Authority, anchored by a 153,000-follower Instagram feed showcasing the city’s food and drink scene in drool-worthy detail. Between speaking alongside Sophia Bush at Lipton Chef Fest in October and being crowned as one of 24 must-follow accounts by Buzzfeed (“right under Michelle Obama”), the Gold Coast resident’s hyper-local lens has attracted the city’s eye—and appetite.
Tool of the trade: iPhone 6s.
Origin story: “I [thought] it was weird that people were expected to leave social media to find great food suggestions. I wanted [that] to be a part of social media so it took no work to find it.”
Digital determination: Before doing CFA full-time, “I’d get off work at 5:30 pm and work on my social till 3:00 or 4:00 am everyday.”
Local love: “The Chicago food scene is super-warm and welcoming. It doesn’t feel competitive; [it] feels like a great community.”
The aesthetic: “I try not to make anything look too styled, because I still want people to feel like they could still grab a bite of the dish they’re looking at.”
Favorite snap spot: “Logan Square. I love [to use] the fun art murals as food backdrops.”
In a sea of neutral palettes and faded aesthetics, Jenn Lake’s wildly colorful Instagram account—starring the petite brunette modeling playful outfits against bold Chicago murals and walls—is, in her own words, “a great escape” into the world of street art and personal style. Having joined Instagram in early 2012, the fashion influencer now brightens the days of nearly 100,000 followers (“not users, I hate that word”), many of which have flocked to the account from her blog, Style Charade, which launched in the spring of 2015. The 34-year-old Glenview native now posts from Logan Square, where she balances being a #girlboss as the SVP at Zapwater Communications with “deliver[ing] a curated collection of colorful and bright content” on her vibrant feed.
Tool of the trade: Canon 5D Mark III.
Signature style: “Bright and cheerful, [and] at the end of the day really positive—trying to create content that makes you want to go back and take a second look.”
Insta-inspo: “I really like classic movies and trying to modernize that old Hollywood feel.”
Biggest challenge: “Patience, growing the channel in the right way. It’s rewarding to watch my feed grow organically and authentically.”
Fave Instagram hack: “Planoly really helps me organize the photos to make sure there’s a beautiful flow to the look.”
Must-snap spot: The Wabash Arts Corridor.
Key to success: “You have to give to the community to get one—you can only truly be successful if you’re commenting and encouraging others.”
As a genre defined largely by spectacle, hip-hop is fodder exemplar for social media. Matt Marzahl is proof positive: With crisp candids of Rick Ross, A$AP Rocky, and other en-vogue emcees, the 25-year-old Richmond, Illinois native’s work is an addictive, insider look at contemporary rap royalty. Initially forging industry inroads by producing content for Beats by Dre on behalf of Wicker Park-based retailer RSVP Gallery, the Bucktown resident has since transported his 33,000-plus Instagram followers backstage to Lollapalooza, Sean Combs’s Bad Boy reunion tour, and more of music’s most titanic stages—all without the price of admission.
Tool of the trade: Sony a7.
Words of wisdom: “Shoot everything. Be ready for a lot of blurry and unusable shots. Once you sift through those, you’re going to come across moments where the spotlight, the artist, and the shot all line up perfectly.”
The approach: “I’ll catch myself shooting far enough away to see what the artist is wearing. What’s the outfit? Are we hanging out? Getting ready to [go] to the club? I want to be able to tell a story with one picture.”
Chicago scene: “Chicago has its own original vibe because the city never associated with East or West Coast rap, so the artists had to find their own lane in the industry.”
Favorite festival: “Lollapalooza is awesome because it combines so many different things: The landscape of the city, the backgrounds of the huge festival crowds, and all the different artists.”
Instagram hack: “Posting portrait-cropped pictures rather than square. The larger picture fills the phone screen and usually means more people will stop and look.”