Photo Credit: FineDiningLovers.com

Photo Credit: FineDiningLovers.com

One evening, at dinner at a trendy steakhouse downtown, you catch a deep, tantalizing whiff of your friend’s charred sirloin as it is set down on the table. You comment on how delicious it looks, and she agrees, grinning as she pulls out her smartphone from her bag. “I have to post this!” she says, lighting up your corner of the restaurant with the flash from her iPhone as she snaps a photo.

Sound familiar?

It seems at times like the smartphone has found its place as the fourth dining utensil alongside the spoon, fork, and knife.

This social media phenomenon of people posting photos of their meals online has become so widespread that ‘#food’ has become the 22nd most popular hashtag of all time on Instagram, with close to 58 million photos and counting. Beyond smartphones, this trend manifests itself on websites like Reddit, where over 213,000 self-proclaimed ‘Hungry Hungry Hippos’ subscribe to the ‘Food Porn’ Subreddit, and Flickr, where the ‘I Ate This’ group has over 600,000 photos of dishes from its 31,000 members.

The personal motivations behind this practice vary: some want to share a special dish with friends and others simply want to digitally immortalize the culinary beauty before them. One thing is clear, however, this all came about because of the rise of mobile digital technologies and the proliferation of social media, of which sharing is a central function.

Ruta Ziukaite, a senior undergraduate student at NYU, admits that she is an avid food photo sharer online. “I do it because if I’m eating something good, I want my friends to know about it,” she says. “But also sometimes the food is presented so prettily that you just find yourself wanting to take a photo to preserve it in that state before you eat it. It’s like a piece of artwork sometimes.”

Indeed, like many others in her millennial cohort, Ziukaite has taken up amateur food photography, enabled by her smartphone and social media apps. The trend is so popular that some professional photographers have started offering classes in iPhone food photography. Brian Samuels, a Boston-based freelance photographer who blogs about food, gives iPhonography classes like these. He says that the majority of his students do not see food photography as an art form, but do it because they are proud of their photo work. “The iPhone works really nicely in low-light environments,” he explains, “and it’s small enough that it’s great for restaurant photography.” Samuels’ weapon of choice is his professional-grade DSLR camera – a far cry from the simplicity and casual usability of the average smartphone.

Samuels, who commands a robust social media presence with more than 22,000 followers across Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest, explains that social media was the main driving force behind this trend. “Amateur food photography has exploded the way it has because of Instagram, and it definitely started with Twitter and Facebook,” he says. “Being able to express yourself all the time and have people be able to listen and react to it is what started it.”

With all these photos being taken in restaurants of all shapes and sizes, there was bound to be some pushback. Popular upscale restaurants, such as New York City’s Chef’s Table, have been on the defensive, prohibiting all photography in their dining rooms, Yet, some places have decidedly embraced the practice, recognizing the marketing benefits that arise from the use of social media as the trend’s platform. Chicago’s Bang Bang, a bakery, rewards its customers with a free pastry if they share a photo of one of Bang Bang’s foods to more than 500 contacts. As Nathan Michael, a food diarist and Bang Bang regular, explained to CBS News, “I am providing them, in a way, with advertising that is authentic word-of-mouth.”

OpenTable’s acquisition of the Foodspotting mobile app earlier this year validates this trend as a commercial opportunity. Since its launch in January 2010, users of Foodspotting have posted more than 2.5 million photos from around the world. By tapping into diners’ desires to share meals online, OpenTable, which seats nearly 10 million people every month, is poised to truly capitalize on this food photo sharing trend and promote it’s services in the process.

In New York City, known globally as a food lover’s wonderland, one can observe this trend almost anywhere. At New York University, Emelyn Chew, a senior, runs the student Restaurateur Club’s Instagram account, where she posts photos of gourmet meals and food truck treasures from outings. “I think it’s a pretty harmless practice but, in doing it, people have to observe social etiquette,” she says, “I think it’s really absurd when the flash goes off in a really fancy restaurant, or when you take forever to take a photo and everyone just wants to eat!”