Grand Staircase at City Hall

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?

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.  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

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

San Francisco City Hall Events

We always talk about how great San Francisco City Hall is for weddings and of course Wedding Photography.  There are so many iconic locations to shoot here, most notably the Grand Staircase, Rotunda and Mayor’s Balcony.  Wonderful backgrounds for wedding photography with amazing early 1900’s architecture.  However, were you aware that there are times that you will arrive at city hall to get married and some or all of these places are not available and roped off?  This is the big secret that The County Clerks office never tells you when you sign up to have your ceremony at city hall.  Brides and grooms are frequently surprised when they learn that the  most beautiful background in San Francisco is unavailable on their wedding day.  Why?  Because an event has been scheduled at the same time as your wedding!

San Francisco Events

San Francisco just happens to be one of the favorite places on the West Coast for companies to schedule their special events.  In addition, local entities such as the Opera House, The Symphony and even Google love to have their events in San Francisco.  Guess what is one of the most popular event locations for elegant events?  Yes, San Francisco city hall!  There have been times that we as wedding photographers have walked into the building ready to shoot a wedding only to see hundreds of people milling about wearing fancy clothes.  Half of the building can be closed off and they provide you a narrow path through the mess to get to the Clerk’s office to have your ceremony.  The fact is, SF City Hall does not guarantee you access to the whole building when you reserve your ceremony time.  The only thing they promise you is that you will have a legal marriage.  Nothing else is promised, but of course full access is implied.  So what does a bride and groom do to avoid this happening to them?

Scheduling is Everything

Through the years I have attempted to find a good web page that is kept up to date and lists city hall events in San Francisco.  I have never found one that is actually updated.  Most are just blank pages and some show past events.  Thus, the only thing an engaged couple can do is try avoid scheduling their wedding on the prime event days and times.

Days and Times to Avoid Booking

  • Fridays should be avoided, but if you have to, make sure it is early morning only.  The Staircase can often be closed all day or they start setting up late in the afternoon.  The building hosts music and some form of entertainment almost every Friday at Noon.
  • Thursdays, especially after 3 pm.  This day of the week is also quite popular for events.  Sometimes if San Francisco city hall is going to have an all day event on Friday, they will start the set up late on Thursday.
  • In general, any day of the week after 3 pm .  Even though it is rare, there are events early in the week.  If city hall schedules them, it will most likely be in the evening or late afternoon.

The tough part of all of this is that the late afternoon times are some of the best for wedding photography and no crowds.  So we often recommend that people book  the last ceremony of the day because city hall starts to become less crowded late in the afternoon.  For me, the best times and days of the week overall are Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons.  There is  a small risk of an event, but overall the experience is usually good on these days late.

San Francisco Wedding Photographer

This blog post is a little bit marketing oriented, but I decided to post it based upon considerable feedback I have received recently.  Quite a number of our city hall wedding photography clients have acted surprised that we also photograph large full scale weddings.  In fact, we were recently told that we missed out on a potential wedding because one of our city hall clients had no idea that we had experience with large formal weddings.   The fact is we have been photographing San Francisco and Bay Area weddings for over 20 years.  Our experience with City Hall photography has certainly helped us with our knowledge of some of the best places to take our bride and grooms.

Our San Francisco wedding experience has taken us all over the city and to many of the churches and venues available.  Some of our favorite places for ceremonies include Saint Ignatius Church  and the beautiful North Beach Church, Saints Peters and Paul.   We have photographed multiple weddings at these amazing and historic San Francisco Catholic churches.   Other Favorite venues of ours include The Bently Reserve and the Italian Athletic Club a North Beach favorite!

Once the wedding is completed there are so many great places to take our couples for some of the best wedding photography locations in Northern California.  As our regular readers know, we love to take out clients to The Legion of Honor, The Palace of Fine Arts, Russian Hill, Baker Beach and so many other fantastic San Francisco destinations!

Engagement Portraits City Hall Wedding

Many of our San Francisco City Hall wedding couples like us to photograph a formal engagement session prior to their marriage.  We can make a package for any couple that includes a San Francisco engagement session at any of the popular city locations.  Our most popular location continues to be The Palace of Fine Arts, but there are many others.  We take our couples to Russian  Hill, North Beach and the Legion of Honor to name just  few.  Believe it or not, we even sometimes do our sessions at San Francisco City Hall!

Engagement Session in Marin County

Our most recent engagement shoot occurred in Marin County at Cavallo Point close to Sausalito.  This was a fantastic location for the session especially with it’s unique angles to the Golden Gate bridge and the view of San Francisco.  In the image below, we placed our future bride and groom on  the Break Water with the bridge in the background.  It was about 1 hour before sunset when we set this up.

Golden Gate Bridge from Cavallo Point

Golden Gate Bridge from Cavallo Point

From this angle we found a great looking cliff that was right up against the San Francisco Bay.  We placed our couple up on the cliff and took a series of images of them with a few different suggested poses.

Engagement portrait session overlooking San Francisco
Engagement portrait session overlooking San Francisco

We finished up our shoot in the bar at the Cavallo Point Lodge.  A very cute bar and one of our couple’s favorites. It turned out that this bar was one of their favorite stopping points over the past few years.  So what a great place to finish up the session.   We look forward to photographing their San Francisco City Hall wedding in May of 2018.  To see more images of city hall weddings and engagement sessions click on our City Hall Gallery Link

Cavallo Point Lodge bar
Cavallo Point Lodge bar

 

City Hall Weddings are Affordable

Great Wedding Value

San Francisco City Hall Weddings are a great value!  Where else can you have access to an amazingly beautiful Wedding Venue for under $100?  Yes, it is true!  It only costs $83 to have your wedding in the Rotunda area in city hall and the County Clerk even provides a free Wedding Officiant to perform your ceremony.  They call these officiants Deputy Marriage Commissioners and they dress up in robes and look like judges.  The fact that they are all volunteers is unknown to many, but it is part of the reason that you can get married in this building for such a great price.  Many of the other venues available throughout San Francisco can cost thousands of dollars and still do not match the beauty of City Hall.  The obvious downside of City Hall weddings is that you have to share the building with the general public, but even this is not such a terrible thing.  In this wedding photographer’s opinion, it can be part of the fun.  The only problem comes when City Hall schedules a special event on your wedding day.  This is rare and the building is so large, you can go to other places and still have a nice wedding ceremony even if a large event is set for your day.

Convenient Wedding Receptions

A big part of the expense of any San Francisco wedding is the reception.   When you book a wedding you generally need a venue that can supply you with both a place to get married and also somewhere to eat.  The exception to this is if you get married in a church.  Obviously, if you are planning on a church wedding, this article doesn’t apply.   What many of our City Hall clients like to do is schedule their city hall nuptials in the Rotunda and then book us for wedding photography after.  Meanwhile, their guests gather at one of the many nearby restaurants that specialize in city hall wedding receptions.   There are many fantastic  places to celebrate and all our walking distance away from San Francisco city hall.  We have mentioned these eateries in other blog posts, please refer to Places to Eat Near City Hall for more details.

Inexpensive City Hall Wedding Photography

This is one of the key features of city hall wedding affordability.  One of the major expenses of any wedding is the professional wedding photographer.  The best photographers in San Francisco can run anywhere from $2,000 up to $6,000 for full wedding coverage.  These same wedding photographers offer their services to City Hall brides and groom for a fraction of this cost.  Many San Francisco City Hall photographers have discount pricing that starts at $500.  Yes, you are only getting them for an hour or 2, but that is really all you need.  The most experienced professionals will take you on a tour of the building and follow that up with the chance to be driven around  San Francisco for more photos.   A fantastic opportunity to work with some of the most accomplished wedding photographers in the Bay Area at this very picturesque venue!

Here are a few samples of the types of photos you can get at this amazing venue.

North Gallery Dance Dip Image

North Gallery Dance Dip Image

City Hall Grand Staircase Image

Best City Hall Wedding Photography

What are some of the best ways to approach City Hall wedding photography?

  1. Challenging Lighting. One of the trickiest things about taking pictures at San Francisco city hall is the lighting.  Depending upon where you are in the building the lighting can either be amazing or extremely tough to deal with.  For example, the Mayor’s Balcony is difficult because just about any angle shooting away from the balcony towards the rotunda involves heavy back lighting.  The Mayor’s Balcony is not only fairly dark, but everything around it is bathed in natural light.  We often see amateur wedding photographers attempting to shoot their subjects by the railing with out any lighting and ultimately they will mostly just get silhouette images or blown out backgrounds.  Another challenging place to shoot is in the Rotunda area where the city hall ceremonies occur.  The predominate light in this area is from overhead.  So if you shoot in almost any direction your subjects will have “raccoon eyes”.  If you are taking pictures in the Rotunda, position yourself with your back to the Mayor’s Balcony and you will get some nice light.  If you have flash, use it!
  2. Crowd Control.  We jokingly refer to this as crowd control but there is some truth to this city hall wedding photography challenge.  The fact is that San Francisco city hall is a public building.  Every single person in the building has the same right to be there as you.   Yes, even if you are getting married!  The best way to handle this simply is to go where people aren’t.  It sounds simple, but virtually every non-professional wedding photographer we see ignores this advice.  They spend the whole photography session on the Grand Staircase as though this was the only place in all of city hall for wedding photography.  The fact is, there are 4 floors that ALL have great backgrounds and architecture to explore.    As you take your couple around the building, keep your eye on the Staircase so when it clears off, you can run down and get some pictures.  Meanwhile, you might find that there are some very nice other locations to photograph.
  3. Leave the Family Behind. We often see amateur city hall wedding photographers taking their whole wedding party around the building with them when shooting the bride and groom.  This is not a good idea for several reasons.  Most importantly, it will make your couple inhibited as they pose for their city hall wedding pictures with an audience. Inevitably, some of the relatives with shout out suggestions and make comments.  This is distracting to the photographer and the subject.  The other issue is that the family and friends will get in the way of your backgrounds.  You will spend more time trying to move the group then actually posing the couple.  Ask the Wedding Party to either wait in the Mint Cafe or just in a neutral area somewhere.  It will make your city hall wedding photography session go much smoother.
  4. Timing is Everything.   I understand that not everyone can control the timing of their San Francisco city hall wedding photography session.  There are many factors that get in the way, most importantly the time of the wedding ceremony.  Also many couples are restricted because of work schedules and can not choose the best days of the week.  However, if some of these things ARE in your control, then by all means choose the best times of the day and best days of the week.  Avoid Fridays if possible because of extreme city hall crowds.   Tuesdays and Wednesdays seem to be the best days of the week for less people.  If you have control of your booking time, then try for early times or late.  There will be less people and especially tourists at those times.

Best Wedding Florists in San Francisco

We constantly are asked before our San Francisco city hall wedding photography bookings to suggest great local florists.  Although there are none that we work with exclusively, we can give you some of the more popular names that our brides have used in the past.

  • Rose Bowl Florist is by far one of the most frequently used wedding florist close to San Francisco City Hall.  Probably the main reason for this is just that, their proximity to SF city hall.  In fact, they were walking distance away.  We have seen nothing but great reviews for this company including on their Yelp page.  We can recommend this florist without hesitation.
  • Bella Fiora is another very well known local wedding florist.  They are not as close as Rose Bowl, but do an exceptional job.  Their proximity to San Francisco’s famed Nob Hill makes them a little more pricey, but with great quality.  Another shop with great Yelp reviews and quite popular with city hall brides.
  • The Floral Loft is not a florist that we have personal experience with, but we have heard good things.  They are located fairly close to city hall and have incredible Yelp Reviews with over 85 experiences documented.  Even though we cannot personally recommend them, the writing seems to be on the wall for this fine San Francisco Florist.
  • Nob Hill Florist is another San Francisco Wedding florist that we are not sure that we have personal experience with.  It definitely seems like we have had brides tell us about this company though!  Again, just looking at their Yelp page I see a couple of things.  First of all, they have nothing but 5 star reviews which is pretty incredible.  Also important is the fact that as you go through the reviews, you see many pictures of city hall weddings featured.  Not sure about the pricing on this company, but they are definitely worth checking out!

Wedding Photography at City Hall with Flowers

One of the reasons we are providing this information is that it kinds of goes along with our very strong recommendation that all brides have a bouquet for their city hall wedding.  Despite San Francisco city hall’s amazing beauty there is one small flaw – not much color.  The walls and floors are either white or gray.   Beautiful architecture for sure, but very neutral colors.  We have found that the perfect thing to set off these gorgeous backgrounds is a splash of color that is provided by a nice bouquet.  It also gives the bride something to do with her hands!

Past Favorite City Hall Weddings

I thought it would be fun to do an ongoing series on some of our favorite past weddings and couples.  We have had so many great experiences in our 300 plus San Francisco city hall weddings that it is really hard to focus on just a few, but some do stand out due to the fun time we had.  We will feature 2 weddings with each blog post.

Tracy and James – City Hall 2013

This couple was one among our first 10 San Francisco city hall weddings and was really one of our best to that point.  We were just starting to learn some of the secrets to finding the best spots at city hall and what time of the day to shoot at particular locations.  Tracey especially was up for anything and wanted to try lots of new poses and ideas.  We did extreme dip poses,  Window shots and some new Grand Staircase ideas.  A bonus for this wedding is that Tracy submitted some of our shots to the J. Crew catolog and got our wedding featured on that publication for a few years.  Here are a few shots from this great wedding.

Deep Dance Dip Post at City Hall
Deep Dance Dip Post at City Hall
San Francisco window image at city hall
San Francisco window image
Leg Kick on the Mayors Balcony
Leg Kick on the Mayors Balcony

April and Michael –  City Hall 2014

This wedding was one of our first marriages where the couple asked us to provide them with extensive yet affordable wedding photography coverage that also included taking pictures at their Reception.   We provided  April and Michael with a special package that included full city hall wedding coverage and 3 locations around San Francisco.  We finished up in Downtown SF at their reception site.  Throughout this extensive wedding photography tour they were always a delight to work with and so much fun.

April and Michael posing at San Francisco City Hall
April and Michael posing at SF City Hall
Ring Exwedding ring exchange at City Hall ceremony
Ring Exchange at City Hall ceremony
Wedding Reception in San Francisco
Wedding Reception in San Francisco

Places to Eat Near SF City Hall

We often are asked by our clients to suggest restaurants near to San Francisco City Hall.  Many of our brides and grooms want to  celebrate their wedding vows at a nearby eatery without having to get in the car and fight traffic.  As luck would have it, there are quite a few local restaurants in the vicinity of City Hall.  Some are only a couple of blocks away.  Listed below our some of our favorites in no particular order:

  • Jardiniere – Exceptional upscale cuisine with French influence.  They feature small bites elegantly prepared with a fantastic environment.  If you are looking for romantic dining this is the place to go.  They also have an amazing wine list and dedicated wine expert who will serve you the wine and discuss it with you.  A great dining experience and only 1 block from San Francisco City Hall.  Check out the Jardiniere website for more information.
  • Absinthe – Another personal favorite in the Hayes Valley area.  Absinthe is probably the place that most city hall couples choose when they want a nearby dinner celebration.  The wonderful thing about Absinthe is that it has a dedicated wedding reception facility right next to the eatery.  This spacious dining area provides the couple with excellent privacy.  The service here is amazing and the food if wonderful.  Try the French Onion Soup, it’s fantastic. The Absinthe website has a lot of excellent information.
  • Patxi’s Pizza – It is a pretty good walk from San Francisco City Hall but well worth it.  If you are looking for something much less expensive but still good food, this the place.  A much more casual dining experience, but with nice decor.  Patxi’s is known for their Chicago style pizza, but I actually prefer the smaller signature pizzas they serve.  Some Italian influence makes for some great individual style Pizzas.  Get 2 and share!  This is probably not the ideal place to bring a large wedding party, but it might be fun for a quick late lunch bite.   Patxi’s Pizza San Francisco
  • Soluna Cafe – Definitely a favorite of the city hall wedding crowd.  They host  wedding receptions there or small parties.  This is probably the closest eatery to city hall.  It’s basically right across the square and less than a 5 minute walk.  Known for the innovative cuisine and great bar set up.  This place receives very high marks from Yelp and is a personal favorite.  To obtain more information please check out the Soluna website.

Why Book a Pro Wedding Photographer Part 2

Continuing from our most recent post about why to hire a Professional City Hall Wedding Photographer:

Guiding you through the Process

This is one advantage that most brides and grooms don’t think about.  Yes, we know how to help you with the whole city hall wedding process.  From procuring your wedding license to checking in at the County Clerks’s office and then finally the ceremony.  Is this kind of assistance really necessary?  Probably not, but if you want to truly enjoy your wedding day, it makes sense to let someone else handle the complicated process of having your civil ceremony at city hall.  We find that most of our couples really are at a loss of where to go and what to do on the day of their ceremony.  When do you bring in the witness?  Why are we checking in?  Where do we get married?  These are common questions we are asked when we first meet our engaged couples on the day of their wedding.  To make the day go smoothly, we simply guide the couple through each step and stay with them the whole time.  Our couples love this and it makes their special day care free.

Posing the  Married Couple at City Hall

While it is true that your friend or relative who is “really good with a camera” may be able to take high quality images that are in focus, chances are they will not know how to pose the couple.   This is where most amateur wedding photographers fall down on the job.  Not coming up with fun and unique poses and more importantly, not knowing how to make the bride look her best.  Brides come in all kinds of shapes and sizes and each one of them deserves a professional wedding photographer who knows how to accentuate the good parts and hide the less than perfect aspects of the bride’s look.  This is not something that just anyone can do without any training or experience.  A professional wedding photography can take one look at the couple and know exactly how to handle the posing.   Your wedding day is too important of an event to leave to chance.

Final Products – Wedding Albums and Prints

What happens when your San Francisco City Hall wedding is over?  If you hired a professional wedding photographer, you will receive edited images within a month or less in most cases.  We deliver ours to our married couples in 3 weeks.  If you have your Uncle Bob photograph your wedding, when will you receive the photos?  When will he get to it?  With they even be professionally edited?  There are many reading this article right now thinking, big deal, we can do all of this ourselves.    The truth of the matter is that statistics show that most wedding couples do absolutely nothing with their wedding digital files.  Sure, they may post a few on Social Media and maybe even make a print on their home Inkjet printer.  But is this really how that should be handled?  We offer our couples retouched professionally  processed prints and beautiful wedding albums as options.  Many of our clients take advantage of this.  Even those that do not are assured of receiving a finished product after their wedding.  Fully edited and perfectly exposed wedding pictures!

Elegant pose at SF City Hall done by a professional wedding photographer
Elegant pose at SF City Hall