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 quinceaƱeras , 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.

Specifics on Enforcing Guess Limit Rule at SF City Hall

Many of our clients, friends and even other City Hall wedding photographers have been asking us about how the new 6 guest limit rule is being enforced. I use the term “new” because despite this rule being in existence for many years, it was never enforced by anyone. Not the County Clerk, not SF city hall security and certainly not the officiants. It’s sudden enforcement has taken many by surprise not only because of its newness, but also because of the inconsistency of how the rule is applied. To summarize, as of May, 2019 San Francisco city hall is only allowing civil ceremonies with 6 guests maximum in attendance. This rule is stated on the San Francisco city hall website and has now become strictly enforced. But how is it enforced?

3rd Floor Ceremony with private officiant at San Francisco city hall

What Happens?

So of course, that has been the question. Let’s say you walk into the County Clerk’s office with your 12 guests. The first question that is now asked when you check in is: “How many guests do you have today?” You let them know that you have 12 and that’s when the discussions start. Depending upon the officiant you have or the time of the day there are a number of things that may happen. With all of the uncertainty, I decided to go to the top person I know in the County Clerks office and asked them. What IS the rule? The answer came back swiftly and strong. If you have more than 6, you will be forced to have your ceremony in the Private room. They will no longer allow you to have that large of a ceremony in the Rotunda. Period. I went further and asked what happens if they have so many guests that they will not fit in the private room (fits about 20, but very crowded). Basically the answer came back that we will stuff as many people in the private room as possible and the rest just have to wait outside. In practice, we have seen other ways of handling larger crowds, but its probably because they were still trying to figure out how to fairly treat brides and groom getting married at city hall. It seems now that the rules are going to be strictly enforced.

What are our Options?

You have showed up to your San Francisco city hall wedding with too many people, what can you do? One option that some people are doing is to just bring 6 people into the Rotunda and the other will have to watch from afar. You can also use the Private room, but then do your own celebration later in other parts of SF city hall. If you have the time and the money, you can book a reserved ceremony at the Mayors Balcony or 4th Floor North Gallery for the price of $1,000 for 1 hour. But this would have to be done well in advance of your wedding date.

Guide to New SF City Hall Guest Rules

I had reported about 3 weeks ago on this blog that it appeared that the San Francisco county clerk’s office had been asked by the Mayor’s office to start enforcing the 6 guest limit rule. At that time, we were not sure how city hall planned to enforce the new rules, especially given the short notice for all married couples affected. To summarize my prior blog entry, the decision was made to hold any large weddings up on the 4th floor since there is more room up there and it is far enough away from things to not be disruptive. The problem with this solution is that in many ways, it rewarded couples who brought large groups with them because being banished to the beautiful 4th floor North Gallery was actually a great thing. The issue is that the Rotunda which is the default location for all San Francisco city hall ceremonies is adjacent to the Board Of Supervisors meeting room. It’s also just across from the Mayor’s office.

Marriage Ceremonies in Private Room

Starting last week the SF County Clerk’s has created a new solution to this issue. Couples who go over the 6 guest limit are now required to have their Marriage Ceremony in the Private room. The Private room is a relatively small city hall ceremony location that affords the bride and groom privacy and relative quiet. It’s not particularly a popular location for city hall marriages because engaged couples that come here are mostly looking for the beauty and architecture that makes SF City Hall Famous. In fact, just to give you an idea, I have photographed about 450 city hall marriages over the years and I have only set foot in that room about 6 times. A very low percentage indeed!

The new procedure occurs at your County Clerk ceremony check-in . Now they specifically ask you: “How many guests for your wedding?”. If you say 9, for example, they tell you that you are going to have your ceremony in the private room. No exceptions! Obviously this can be a problem for the couples that have been bringing 20 plus guests to their San Francisco city hall wedding. The reason is that there is no way that 20 can fit in that tiny private room. In fact, I would venture to say that only about 8 people can fit comfortably. At this point, if you are planning on having a large group for your San Francisco city hall wedding, I would suggest you consider reserving more space in the building. 2 locations are available and you can research and even book them by clicking on this link to the City Hall Events Department.

Best SF City Hall Wedding Photography Locations – Part 2

This is part 2 of our blog post about the best San Francisco City Hall wedding photography locations. We have already explored the Grand Staircase, the Mayors Balcony and the 2nd Floor hallway. Here are a few more favorites:

3rd Floor window light on bridge at city hall

3rd Floor North Windows – City Hall

Why do we love the 3rd floor so much for city hall wedding pictures? It’s definitely the light. The soft light that comes in from these north facing windows is soft, warm and complimentary. We can do so many things with this when it comes to posing the newlyweds. Here are some of our favorite options:

  • Bride and groom in front of the window with soft back lighting
  • Bride looking out the window with natural light on her face
  • Separate bride and groom on each side of window
  • Bride and groom in the hallway using the window for natural lighting
  • Full length bridal portraits using window light to highlight veil
4th Floor Architecture with wide angle lens at San Francisco city hall

SF City Hall 4th Floor North Gallery

Besides the Grand Staircase, this is probably one of the better city hall wedding photography locations in the building. It certainly is the favorite of many couples because of the beautiful architecture and direct light. The huge windows become a primary light source that literally wraps around your subject. In portrait photography terminology, it is like having a giant Soft Box to light your subjects. You can shoot portrait style close images on the 4th floor and blur the background or you get out the wide angle lens and display the amazing ceiling architecture and the city hall dome. It really is one of San Francisco’s most iconic picture taking spots.

Front Entrance with City Hall Sign

This is the photograph that virtually all of our couples want. They see it on other websites and they always request it. Since we usually save this background for the end of our shoot, we sometimes will receive questions from our bride and groom. “What about the City Hall Entrance?” As though we might forget it or don’t normally make it part of our normal portfolio of shots. They are always quite relieved to hear that we are saving one of the best shots for last! There are SO many photos we often do outside of the building in front of this famous doorway. Here are a few samples:

  • Groom Lifting Bride
  • Groom and Bride happily walking out through the door
  • Bride and groom cheering
  • Bride and groom jumping
  • Newlyweds kissing
  • Funny / silly poses
San Francisco city hall wedding picture at the front entrance - groom kissing bride

Best SF City Hall Wedding Photography Locations

Best SF City Hall wedding photography locations - the 2nd Floor Hallway
Second Floor Hallway at San Francisco City Hall

Admittedly, SF City Hall offers a bit of an embarrassment of riches because there are so many locations that could be considered the best. The actual purpose of this Blog post is to share my 8 years of San Francisco city hall wedding photography experience to help you understand WHY each of the locations are preferred. I will provide a brief description and some of the attributes of each location and provide a photo. This is Part 1 of what will be a 3 part series.

Grand Staircase at San Francisco city hall
Grand Staircase at SF City Hall

The City Hall Grand Staircase

As I have said many times, this is most of our client’s best location for their wedding pictures. If anything, we try to encourage our brides and grooms that yes, the Staircase is amazing, but there are other beautiful spots in SF City Hall as well. Why? Probably because the Grand Staircase is the first place that the City Hall events department closes down when there is going to be a big event. Most events in the building are centered around the Staircase so its natural that they would close it down. We try to be keenly aware of what is going on at SF city hall to prevent us from not getting Staircase images if its going to be closed down soon. Over our many years photographing weddings here, we have learned the warning signs that a big event is coming. Is the Grand Staircase better than all of the other photography locations at San Francisco city hall. I will let you be the judge.

So why do we all love the Grand Staircase so much? I think its mostly because it is the centerpiece of the beautiful Architecture present at San Francisco City Hall. It’s smooth curves and nicely patterned floors creates an amazing backdrop to city hall wedding pictures. Yes, it can be difficult to get a free shot without tourists and other photographers in the background. You also have to deal with the occasional tourist group that feels like it is a great place to rest all of their bags, jackets and themselves! Fortunately the Grand Staircase is large and can be approached from many angles, so the best city hall wedding photographers can figure out how to capture an image with a minimal of distractions. No doubt the Grand Staircase deserves its spot as one of the top city hall wedding photography locations, but let’s look at some of the others.

Mayors Balcony at San Francisco City Hall
Mayors Balcony

The Mayor’s Balcony- Better?

In addition to one of the favored locations for reserved weddings at San Francisco City Hall, the Mayor’s Balcony also is a beautiful spot to bring the bride and groom for wedding pictures. In a sense, the Mayor’s Balcony is the best central viewing location for the entire building. It faces the Grand Staircase and is located directly across from the Rotunda. In addition, the Mayor’s Balcony is high enough to afford better views of the 4th floor galleries as well as the beautiful windows on the 3rd floor. All in all, it becomes a wonderful place to pose the newlyweds and we can basically choose any background you want!

Second Floor Hallway at City Hall

I kind of feel like we were one of the first San Francisco city hall wedding photographers to really take advantage of the gorgeous repeating lines in the Second Floor Hallway. One of the hallmarks of Beaux-Arts architecture is the symmetry and repeating patterns. Well it just so happens that repeating lines is a classic photography background so no wonder City Hall is so fabulous for wedding pictures! The Hallway allows us to place our newlyweds in the center and the background shows behind them with beautiful patterns and colors. We will sometimes back light the bride and groom as you see in the photo above. This helps provide a dramatic glow in the image and especially the bride’s veil.

SF City Hall to Enforce 6 Guest Rule

In a somewhat surprising turn of events, the San Francisco city hall County Clerk’s office has decided to begin enforcing the maximum 6 guest rule. I personally spoke with officials at the County Clerk’s office and they understand that this rule may cause some hardship for brides and grooms, but their hand was forced. For years, SF City Hall has looked the other way as couples seeking a civil ceremony have violated the rule of 6 maximum. Many couples took the rules seriously or only invited a few people over the maximum. Well behaved groups of 10 or 12 people did not cause much concern or problems and so the Marriage Commissioners were able to allow the overage. However, in recent years couples were increasingly attempting to take advantage of the 6 person rule, because it was reportedly “not enforced”. We began to see groups of 20, 30 and even 36 for our city hall weddings. As these groups became more and more disruptive, there were rumblings of a possible crack down on the rule.

The Final Straw at City Hall’s Rotunda

The moment of truth occurred a couple of weeks ago, when an extremely large crowd of guests attended what was supposed to be a small civil ceremony. In addition to the noise and disruption caused by this group, they also had small children running around. Ultimately, the County Clerk’s received complaints from both the Mayor Office and the Board of Supervisors. Excess noise and the sheer volume of people affected important meetings and other city hall activities. So now the County Clerk’s office has no choice but to act. My own speculation is that weddings could be suspended or reduced in the future if this problem cannot be controlled. As a temporary solution, City Hall will be accommodating previously booked weddings on the 4th floor if they are larger than the 6 maximum. Meanwhile all newly booked weddings will see the rule enforced along with changes to the San Francisco city hall website with additional warnings.

Alternatives to a San Francisco Civil Ceremony

Fortunately, SF City Hill does offer alternatives for couples seeking a wedding with more guests. You can reserve the Mayors Balcony or 4th floor North Gallery for 1 hour at the very low price of $1,000. They set up chairs for your guests and allow up to 60 guests depending upon location. We have performed many such “reserved weddings” and they work out great. Despite the fact that this option costs considerably more than a simple civil ceremony, it is still a relative bargain when compared to other San Francisco venues. You have the added advantage of one of best destinations in the Western states for wedding photography. The one hour reservation time also provides you with time for doing your group and family photography in an enclosed environment without tourist roaming through your shots.

“Wedding Photography by Michael” is one of the leading San Francisco city hall wedding photographers. To learn more check out our home page for city hall weddings.