San Francisco City Hall Wedding Ideas

UPDATED: San Francisco City Hall Wedding Ideas

We have been photographing weddings at San Francisco City Hall now for nearly 12 years and have learned some interesting ideas and helpful hints throughout this time.  I thought it would be instructive to share some of these thoughts with our readers to help engaged couples planning on getting married at San Francisco City Hall.

  • Hire a Professional Wedding Photographer –  OK so it is probably no surprise that I started with this hint since I am a City Hall Wedding Photographer. However, this is not strictly self-serving.  I would highly recommend that you hire ANY of the top wedding photographers that specialize in City Hall weddings.  Why?  Because the top 10 or so photographers will not only take wonderful photos of your ceremony and formal shots, but they will also guide you through the process.  Over these 12 years I have watched other photographers work with their clients and all of them are happy to help.  Conversely, when I see couples without a photographer, they appear confused and keep doing the wrong thing with regard to activities such as the County Clerk ceremony check-in.  Having a helpful professional there to guide you just takes one more stressful thing away to worry about on your wedding day.
  • Dress up and Bring Flowers – We often find that brides and grooms are surprised when they see other couples wearing formal attire.  Many of them are disappointed that they didn’t do the same.  I think people that are unfamiliar with SF City Hall don’t realize that people actually have formal weddings there because of the beauty of the venue.  But the biggest issue we see is brides not bringing a bouquet for photography.   The only negative thing I would ever say about City Hall is that the colors are all very monotone.  So even though our photos come out gorgeous with the amazing backgrounds and architecture, SO much is added simply be mixing in a splash of color.  It also gives the bride something to do with her hands!
  • Avoid City Hall Crowds – Yes, it really is possible to have your wedding at San Francisco City Hall and not have other weddings and tourists everywhere.  How do we avoid this?  You just need to pick your spots.  Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the best days to get married and by far the least crowded. Mondays are great also.   Some clients tell me,  “But we can’t get married in the middle of the week, it needs to be Friday to accommodate our friends and family”.    Well if you have ever been in City Hall on “Crazy Friday”, you wont be using the word “accommodate” and “Friday” in the same sentence.  Ask your friends and family, they might surprise you.  Also, if you really want to have the place to yourself, get married early morning (9:30 am slot) or later (3:30 pm slot).
  • Consider a Reserved Ceremony – Obviously one of the big draws to having your nuptials at San Francisco City Hall is the low cost.  Under $100 to get married in this beautiful historic building.  However, the rules state that you should only bring 6 guests.  Yes, most people ignore these rules, but you are still limited and the more people you bring the more others are disrupted. Note: The County Clerk’s office is now strictly enforcing the 6 guest limit rule.  Brides and grooms arriving at city hall with 7 or more will most likely be sent to the Private room for their ceremony.  Reserving the Mayor’s Balcony or the 4th Floor North Gallery only costs $1,000 and pretty much guarantees you privacy and 1 hour of no crowds.  Get married on a Friday, who cares now!  You have your own space, they rope if off, and even set up chairs for your 40 +guests.  In addition, your photographer now has at least one location to get great shots with no worries of tourists in the photos. Reserved Wedding at San Francisco City Hall
  • UPDATE:  I was looking through this blog post and realized that I forgot one very important suggestion to enhance your city hall wedding.   Bringing props!  In recent months it has become a bit of a trend.  Brides and groom have been bringing  “Thank you” signs to use on their gift responses.  The obvious sign saying: “Just Married” is another popular idea.  But we have seen all kinds of different  signs made from different materials. Some are homemade while others are obviously store bought.  Just another very good and fun idea to enhance your city hall wedding!

Grand Staircase at City Hall

The Grand Staircase at SF City Hall The Grand Staircase at SF City Hall – Side Angle

Everyone wants photos of the Grand Staircase at San Francisco City Hall.  It is the central theme in this amazing building and so consequently every bride and groom wants their photo taken  there.  Obviously this presents a massive problem…..  Not only do all 35 couples who get marred at city hall on a daily basis want there photo on the Grand Staircase, but the tourists love to hang out on the stairs and take their own photos.  It can be a huge challenge especially on Fridays to get a nice image with the Staircase not completely covered by other people.   So how do we as San Francisco city hall wedding photographers, handle this problem?

Christmas at SF City Hall on the Grand Staircase Christmas at SF City Hall on the Grand Staircase

Timing is Everything at City Hall

We have quite a few different techniques for getting the important Grand Staircase wedding photo.  Our most effective way of handling this is to just keep our eyes on the staircase as we take our brides and grooms around the building.  If we suddenly see the staircase clear of people, we change our  pattern and head straight down to it as soon as we can.  Many times when we do this, the staircase is already loaded with people again by the time we get there.  Mostly, though this technique works great, but requires a little patience.  We have discovered over the years that people tend to walk around city hall in large groups so when one group descends on the  Grand Staircase another smaller group may go in a different direction.  The idea is to be ready when the small group is nearby and the large group has left.  You can see from our photos that we are quite successful getting this shot at our various weddings.  Admittedly, some of the photos have been Photoshopped to remove one or two straggling tourists! 

Late night Staircase Image Late night Staircase Image

The image above was taken at a time which also illustrates the importance of timing at city hall.  We set this image up at around 5:30 pm and it was our final shot of the day.  The other technique for getting the Grand Staircase shot is doing it very late in the day after people leave.  So this teaches us that if the staircase shot is very important to you, book your wedding late in the day.   The last ceremony time is 3:30.  Book that one and by the time you get married and we complete our city hall photo tour it will probably be around 5:00 pm.  A very good time to take photos of the staircase with less people around!

City Hall Staircase shot from above City Hall Staircase shot from above

I wanted to add the view above to this Blog post because it is not one you typically see at city hall. Most wedding photographers shoot the staircase while facing it and for good reason. But I am always trying to come up with new ideas and I have not seen this angle too frequently. Never exactly like this. I love this view because it show the patterned floor really well but also lets you know that the Grand Staircase is there!

Navigating City Hall Guest Limit

We have already discussed the newly enforced 6 guest limit at San Francisco city hall, but it is worth further mention. To refresh your memory, the County Clerk’s office began to enforce the 6 guest limit effective May, 2019. You might ask, how can City Hall tell me how many people to bring to a public building? The answer is, they can not. Anyone is free to walk into the building and as long as they are not disruptive, the County Clerk’s office can do nothing about it. However, what they CAN do is limit the number of these wandering guests that can view your ceremony. This may seem harsh, but there is good reason. San Francisco city hall is a place of business. The board of supervisors meet here on a regular basis and of course the Mayor’s office is here too. Loud and disruptive celebrating wedding guests can turn the building into a very difficult place to hold some of these official proceedings.

County Clerk Alternative Locations

Of course the County Clerk and it’s marriage commissioners recognize that this can be an awkward situation. The fact is couples getting married will, in many cases, bring more than the maximum of 6 guests. In some cases the couple honestly doesn’t know about the restriction and so they invite too many people. Other couples know full well about the rule but figure they will find a way out of it. City Hall has to deal with both of these problems without actually kicking people out of the building. After all, it is the engaged couple’s wedding day!

So how do they handle it? Answer: It depends. At this point in time, as of January, 2020 city hall sends most of these weddings to the Private Room to get married. Is this a terrible place to celebrate your nuptials? Of course not. It is actually a very nice room and was recently redecorated to make it look more like a place to get married. Groups of 16 or less can fit in the room without too much problem. Brides and grooms sent to this room can still use the rest of the building later for pictures or wandering around. Some Marriage Commissioners will take their couple and extra guests to the 4th floor which is out of the way and a pretty large area. There even may be a few alternative locations that even I don’t know about.

Marriage Recommendations

So what should you do? There are a few options and ideas I will run down below. Please keep in mind that these are only suggestions, I am not making up new rules nor am I encourage couples to break existing ones.

  • Follow the rules and only bring 6 guests
  • Bring a few extra guests but let some of them know that they can’t watch the ceremony. They can wait in the wings and then be available for family photos after the ceremony is complete.
  • Bring a larger group and just understand that you will be getting married in the private room. It really isn’t the worse thing and as mentioned, does not prevent you from walking around city hall after the ceremony for pictures.
  • Personally, I think the best alternative for couples with lots of guests is to pay to rent out one of the reserved ceremony areas. For $1,000 you can have your marriage performed inside this beautiful building with a private ceremony. They rope off the area and keep it tourists and other people out. Your guests can even sit down!

Do Wedding Photographers Count?

I get this question often. The SF city hall website says that the 6 guest limit INCLUDES your wedding photographer. So if you are going strictly by the rules having a your own photographer limits your guest list to 5! The only thing I can tell you is that in 9 years, I have never had city hall wedding officiant tell me that I had to leave the ceremony because I was the 7th person. It’s not surprising to understand why!

Bride adjusting dress close to the Mayors Balcony.
Beautiful city hall bride fixing her dress
Bride Resting before  reserved wedding 4th floor
Bride resting before her city hall reserved wedding on the 4th floor

Robyn and Jeff’s City Hall Wedding

City Hall Window Shot

Note:  This wonderful couple was one of our first at San Francisco city hall.  We just found out the the bride very tragically passed away.  One of our favorite couples ever so we were very sad to hear this.  Condolences to Jeff He was such a loving husband throughout Robyn’s struggles. 

Since this is a new blog, I thought it would be fun to go back in time and feature some of our more memorable weddings in addition to keeping up with new ones.  When Toni and I think about past city hall wedding experiences, Robyn and Jeff always come to mind.  We probably overuse the term “fun couple”, but with them it totally fit!  Neither the bride or groom seemed at all nervous, but they were definitely excited to get married.

They had a large gathering of family and friends who watched their nuptials in the Great Rotunda at San Francisco City Hall.  After photographing them with with their guests we took them around the building for a fun-filled tour.  Robyn knew how to pose for the camera and seemed to be having fun doing it.  In many cases, they improvised on our suggested positioning, adding their own personal twist.  We have included a photo of them standing in the city hall window, a practice that is no longer allowed on the 3rd floor.

SF Cable Car on California Street.
SF Cable Car on California Street.
Bride and Groom with Tesla in San Francisco
Bride and Groom with Tesla

Next it was off to Nob Hill to get some Cable Car shots on California street.  We got an unexpected treat when the newly married couple informed us that THEY would be supplying the transportation and we would be riding with them in a brand new Tesla Model S!  Yes, that’s the one with a temporary performance setting that electronically puts out around 700 Horsepower.  The car goes from 0-60 mph in under 3 seconds in that mode and we pretty much experienced it on California Street.  A fun filled ride ending with some fantastic Cable Car shots.  Then we took them closer to Market Street and did some “street photography” with them just walking around.  Great stuff and a fun way to end the trip.

Weddings Cancelled or Delayed at SF City Hall

What happened today at San Francisco city hall? Toni and I are never surprised at what we face doing weddings in this great building. Every day it’s a new adventure. Today we thought it was going to be a typical day with a shorter coverage wedding booked. We arrived at the building typically early and went to the Mint Cafe to have some coffee and breakfast. It didn’t take very long for us to hear the rumor floating around the building… A water main had been broken and cut off all the water to City Hall. This of course means that none of the bathrooms were functioning nor were the water fountains. Right away I am thinking that they can’t have weddings today if there are no bathrooms and yet city hall was still letting people in the building including brides and grooms.

Closing San Francisco City Hall

I walked out to the front entrance to see if I could figure out what to tell my bride and groom who had not yet arrived and found that now they wern’t letting people in the building. But what about me? I was still here. Not for long it turned out. Eventually, Toni and I were both kicked out with no real understanding of what was to become of our scheduled wedding coming up in about 1 hour. We took our couple along with their family down away from the crowds and did their family photos. The idea being to head to another location to at least get some bride and groom pictures. Just as we were beginning to leave one of the County Clerks came out and found us and said they would let just the couple in with 2 guests for a ceremony only. No pictures after. This was fine except that city hall also decided to restrict the couple to only have 1 set of parents with them to watch their ceremony. This was not going to work! With a little bit of time and some convincing, Toni talked the security guard into letting both parents it to watch the wedding.

San Francisco City Hall Wedding Pictures

The ceremony went off without a hitch and we were able to take pictures of the proceedings. We did manage to take the couple to get a few nice wedding pictures, but certainly not our usual repertoire. Eventually, we were strongly encouraged to leave the building since it was still technically closed off to the public. Our bride and groom were relieved, however to at least have a wedding that day! We offered to come back another day to photograph the couple around San Francisco city hall in our normal way. They agreed, but were not sure if they wanted to dress up again.

About 2 weeks later, we returned to SF City Hall and actually finished what we started! The couple dressed back up and we did our full building shoot. It was a happy ending to a difficult wedding day! This picture below was the couple making the best out of a hard situation as they waited for the ceremony.

Bride and Groom waiting at the County Clerks office at city hall

How To Search for a City Hall Wedding Photographer

City Hall in San Francisco wedding couple
Railing image at the Grand Staircase at SF city hall

Many wedding photography Blog posts tell their readers how to choose the best wedding photographer. Certainly a good thing to know and very important, but in this post I want to help you FIND the best San Francisco city hall wedding photographer. Let’s go over some practical steps that will assist you in locating and ultimately booking a premium photographer for your wedding at SF City Hall.

  1. Google Search – When it comes to finding the best City Hall wedding photographers many people use Google with good results. Do top search results guarantee a great wedding photographer? No, but it is a start. Chances are, you will get a nice list of some of the more experienced San Francisco city hall wedding photographers. Once you have that list, start carefully researching each company. Don’t assume that top ranked sites are the best wedding photographers. Look at the photos, read the content, then decide!
  2. Yelp Research – Another thing you can do with the list that Google helped you develop is check each of the results out on Yelp. You may learn some interesting things about each company. Whenever looking at Yelp results of any kind, be sure to not just focus on the ratings. It is just as important to read about each prospect and see what people like best about them. The quality of the city hall wedding photographs is important, but how does the professional act at your wedding? Are they easy to work with? These types of questions can usually be answered on Yelp. In addition, you can actually do your search right on Yelp and check out those results!
  3. Contact other Brides and Grooms – Start asking around and you might be surprised at what you discover. SO MANY people get married at San Francisco city hall, I find that just about everyone locally either knows someone who has been married at city hall or has themselves! You will be pleasantly shocked to hear how many of your friends know something about finding great wedding photographers. I just met a couple through mutual friends and told them I was a professional SF city hall wedding photographer and they told me that they had been married there themselves less than 4 years ago!
  4. Talk to the City Hall Event Department – The Event department has a list of approved wedding photographers that they can refer if you ask. Generally, they won’t offer up recommendations, but are happy to provide you with options should you choose to inquire. Their suggestions are based upon years of working successfully with a few professional city hall wedding photographers.
Golden Grand Staircase at San Francisco city hall

What NOT to do: In general, it is best to avoid asking other wedding vendors for photography recommendations unless you know the person well. Many wedding vendors trade referrals in order to help each other out. So this really tells you nothing about quality or dependability.

Get the Most out of your City Hall Wedding Experience

3rd Floor Window Bride at SF City Hall

So you are getting married at San Francisco city hall and want to make the most of it. You and your future spouse have agreed that to save money you should have a civil ceremony without all the fuss and expense of a large San Francisco wedding. But this is your wedding and you want it to be memorable and fun. What do you do?

Choose the Reserved Ceremony Option

Yes, I know that SF city hall reserved weddings costs $1,000 instead of around $100, but this is your wedding. What is another $900? This will allow you to invite lots of guests (up to 80 people) and have some privacy. But most of all, it will provide you with your own area in San Francisco city hall to call your own. For 1 hour you can spend time with your guests and not have to worry about tourists walking through and being disruptive. You don’t have to worry about the County Clerk telling you when your nuptials will be performed. As long as the ceremony occurs within your 1 hour time window, you have complete freedom. For those who don’t want the 3 minute standard ceremony, this is the way to go. You can create your own vows and add religious references to your ceremony if that is important to you and your spouse. San Francisco city hall civil ceremonies cannot include privately recited vows. There just isn’t enough time since they are trying to do 3 weddings at every half hour.

San Francisco city hall bride adjusts her wedding dress

Take a Mini Tour of San Francisco City Hall

A tour on your wedding day? Allow me to explain. San Francisco city hall DOES in fact have its own self guided tour or you can actually do one of their Docent tours. You want to make sure everyone is on time to your wedding? Let your wedding guests know that there is going to be a tour before the ceremony and give them the time. This accomplished 2 things: 1. It gets your guests parked and through security early and ready to attend your wedding; 2. It is a very interesting tour and you and your guests will learn some interesting facts.

It’s not so odd to do something like this on your wedding day. Many weddings that now take place in wineries and special restaurants or other famous places will include tastings or tours. It’s all in fun!

Hire an Experienced Professional City Hall Wedding Photographer

This is a no-brainer. You need to have your special memories recorded for all time, but you also owe it to yourself to take a wedding photography tour of San Francisco city hall with somebody who knows all the best spots to take photos in this historic building. In addition, if its a busy day or an event going on, a professional wedding photographer will know how to handle adversity.

Summer in the City Hall

Summer at San Francisco city hall is a fun time. Lots of weddings and unpredictable weather. It could be foggy and cold with dark lighting or it can be hot and bright in the building. This past week we had a rare mid August heat spell in San Francisco and it created some pretty tough conditions for brides and grooms wearing heavy clothes. One of the things about all of the Marble present in the construction of SF City Hall is that if you have a number of hot days, it tends to hold the heat. So for example on Friday it wasn’t really that hot outside, but City Hall was still burning. Why is this important information? It helps wedding participants know how to prepare for the conditions on their wedding day. For example, if it is going to be hot, don’t wear a vest if you are a groom.

Lighting and Fog Outside of City Hall

Yes, San Francisco is known for foggy summers. How does it affect the lighting for wedding photography? The answer is, not that much. Despite the fact that it’s possible to get some really nice shots with the natural light in the building, there are other ways to get amazing pictures without it. We bring in our own professional lighting and we can often mimic the soft lighting that comes from the North side windows at City Hall. Most of our lighting techniques make it nearly impossible for the average person to even know that professional studio lighting was used. We go for subtle lighting that doesn’t interfere with the beautiful backgrounds and architecture at SF City Hall.

City Hall Bride and groom in Romantic pose in the Summer

Summer Weddings in San Francisco

Sutro Baths in San Francisco
Sutro Baths in San Francisco

What about summer weddings in San Francisco? Some people might question the sanity of planning a wedding during the months of June, July and August. Why? Because everyone knows about our famous fog which is at it’s very worst during these months. My feeling is, who cares? Yes, your San Francisco wedding may not be marked by clear skies typically found in the summer, but San Francisco offers so much that it makes the fog irrelevant. As a native of this great city, I pretty much ignore the fog and appreciate all that SF has to offer. Let’s talk about why you should have your Wedding in San Francisco in the Summer.

San Francisco Wedding photography in the fog

Outdoor Wedding Photography

Want to have an outdoor wedding in the summer? It sounds romantic and fun, but if you are almost anywhere in California in the summer you could be in for a very hot time. We have photographed outdoor weddings in the Bay Area that were absolutely miserable for everyone involved due to the heat. Especially the poor groom with his heavy full coverage tux on. The guests can’t wait for the ceremony to be over and will frequently hide under the trees until the ceremony starts. But have your wedding in San Francisco and you would enjoy the natural air conditioning that the fog brings in. Once the wedding is over, take advantage of all that the city offers. Some of the best restaurants in world are in San Francisco. This provides a typical newly married couple with dozens of venue options with some great food! Of course wedding photography is so much better when the couple is comfortable and not sweating profusely.

North Beach Wedding in the Summer

Locals know that some of the best weather in the summer is in downtown San Francisco and the North Beach area. I particularly love North Beach because of all the excellent Italian restaurants throughout the district. Check out Tony’s Pizza for some of the best in town and also Sotto Mare if you love fish done Italian style. Get married at the Italian club or some of the other venues in the area. If you want more specific information, please contact me and I am happy to help you out.

San Francisco Wedding Photography Locations

Once the wedding is complete, you have so many options for great wedding photography. Everyone knows about the Palace of Fine Arts and The Legion of Honor, but what about Sutro Baths? Gorgeous! Crissy Fields with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background? Amazing! To top of it all off, you can go to San Francisco City Hall and get some spectacular wedding photos! Even with the fog, great photos are possible of The Golden Gate Bridge. You just have to get close to it. It actually makes for an amazing and appropriate effect to have the fog spilling over the bridge in the background.

Summer Weddings at SF City Hall

Summer is officially here at San Francisco city hall and with it comes all of the tourists. One of the challenges of photographing weddings at SF City Hall is effectively dealing with all of the crowds that get in the way of our pictures. Granted, these peoples have EVERY right to be there since this is a public building. For that reason, as City Hall wedding photographers, we remain courteous to everyone no matter how difficult it can be working around them.

Being Aware of your Surroundings

As mentioned, I have no problem with the rights that everyone has to be at San Francisco city hall and as a wedding photographer, we have no greater reason to be there then anyone else. But admittedly it can be frustrating to be lining up a nice photo with our bride and groom and have people stand right in front of us or behind us without any regard to what is happening. We always try to be very aware of our surroundings and will not move into other people’s wedding pictures (or any type of pictures) whether they are being photographed by a professional photographer or their Uncle Bob. I feel it is common courtesy to not step into another photographer’s shot. It is no different than going on vacation in Yosemite and seeing someone in the middle of a photo. People will wait a second and not ruin the photo. It’s pretty much all we ask at SF city hall. Just common courtesy to wait for others.

City Hall Wedding Photographer’s Code

One of the great things about being a San Francisco city hall professional wedding photographer for so many years is that we have met and got to know many of the other professionals. The nice thing about this is that they all understand the challenges that exist. So when we see each other during a photo session, we are cordial and ask each other how much time we will be spending at a certain location. In general, the majority of the photography professionals will make an effort to complete their shoot in that area quickly and efficiently and also tell us how much more time they will be in the area. This is super helpful and needed. We handle the situation the exact same way if we are the wedding photographers in the area first. This allows more photography to take place in less time and makes more people happier!

What Can be Done at San Francisco City Hall?

Well, like many problems, there are no clear solutions. Nobody at SF City Hall really wants to try to enforce any kind of fairness when it comes to wedding photography time. Unfortunately, it is more than just City Hall weddings causing the problems with photography. Many people come to this beautiful building to do professional photography. Some Wedding Photographers actually bring models. Photographers often conduct what are known as Pre-wedding shoots at city hall. This is very popular with Asian brides and grooms. Recently we had many High School graduates using the staircase for photos. All throughout the year we will see professional photographers doing quinceañeras , These photographers will often set up on the Grand Staircase and stay there for 20 minutes or longer. They really have not paid any money to city hall or need a permit or insurance to be there. As professional wedding photographers our couples HAVE paid to be there and most of have registered with San Francisco city hall with our insurance documents, etc. But really all I have done in this post is raise more questions and no provided many answers. I would suggest, however that professional photographers NOT shooting a city hall event should have to pay some sort of a small permit fee which could be charged to their models or couples. This would keep the less serious photographers out of the building and perhaps make it slightly less crowded.