How to Plan Your SF City Hall Wedding

This is a quick step-by-step planning guide for your upcoming San Francisco City Hall Wedding.  We receive many questions about what to do and how to prepare for a civil ceremony in this amazing historic building.    The obvious first thing to do is choose a wedding date, we would suggest avoiding Fridays if possible because there are so many tourists and other  weddings going on that day.  Also, the wedding photography portion of your day will be much more challenging with so many people everywhere.  Once you have your date you can:

  1. Decide whether you want a reserved space at city hall by paying $1,000 and putting a deposit down on either the Mayors Balcony or 4th Floor North Gallery.  You can do this by contacting the Events department at city hall by clicking the link.  The advantage of doing this is that you will have a 1 hour roped off section of city hall all to yourself, complete with chairs for your guests.  Most people only do this if they are planning on many guests.  San Francisco city hall limits it’s standard weddings to 8 guests.
  2. Book your marriage license appointment by clicking this link.  This appointment should be made at least 1 hour before your ceremony.  The County Clerk says you can just book it 30 minutes ahead, but my experience is that this is rushing it a bit.   Be prepared to bring your current Identification and any other legal forms you might want to present.  If you have a pending divorce, be sure to bring those documents just in case.  You can use a Passport or Driver’s license for identification, just be sure that they are unexpired.  City Hall will not accept out of date ID’s.
  3. If you decided against paying for the reserved space but still want your wedding here, its now time to book your civil ceremony at City Hall.   If possible, try to choose a Tuesday or a Wednesday for less crowds.  We understand that many people do not have this option, but if you can, its well worth the smaller crowds.  The time of your ceremony matters also, we suggest early morning or late afternoon for best access to all of the building without tourists everywhere around you.
  4. Hire a professional wedding photographer!  This is not just a pitch to have you book us, we are very passionate about the importance of recording this all important life milestone.  Why rely on your friends Iphone camera?  There are many great city hall wedding photographers available and some have excellent pricing.  Just look around or talk to us!
  5. On the day of your wedding, be sure to bring your ID and license if already obtained).  We have had some couples forget to bring their Identification or assume that they don’t need to again.  But you do!  We also encourage the bride to bring walking shoes, the floors are marble and will take their toll after strolling through the building for a while.
Bride and Groom at the County Clerks office at city hall
Bride and Groom at the County Clerks office
Ready to Check in at the County Clerks office in San Francisco
Ready to Check in at the County Clerks office

Enjoy your wedding day in this historical wedding venue!

Up in the City Hall Dome!

Toni and I were offered the unique opportunity to go up in the dome at San Francisco City Hall.  We were photographing a wedding at city hall and we were up on the 4th floor.  We were talking to one of the event staff while he was putting away chairs and he asked us if we wanted to go up into the dome area.  We of course said yes and proceeded to climb the spiral staircase that takes you up near the top of City Hall.  It was an amazing experience!  The view from up there was incredible, like nothing we have ever seen before.  Our couple enjoyed it as well.  We took just a few photos since we didn’t have much time.  This particular day also happened to be one of the hottest days in the history of San Francisco, so it was pretty hot up there, but totally worth the climb.

It just goes to show you how just being friendly to people that you work around can pay dividends.  I am sure we will never be able to go up there again, but it was nice to see how it looks.  I don’t think there ever any intention of using this upper area for visitors and certainly not weddings!

Columns in the upper dome Columns in the upper dome

Bride and Groom in the Upper Dome at San Francisco City Hall Bride and Groom in the Upper Dome

San Francisco Wedding Photography Destinations – Part 2

We also enjoy taking our couples to some of the less popular and also less touristy destinations.  In Part 2 of this blog post, we will discuss some of these areas:

Painted Ladies

One of San Francisco’s most iconic landmarks are the brightly painted Victorian houses that you will see throughout the city.   But there are 6 particular houses right in a row which have captured the imagination of many and have become relatively famous.  They were partially made famous when the appeared on the opening Credits of the popular San Francisco Based TV show “Full House”.  Located by Alamo Square Park, these beautiful homes attract visitors from all over the country.  There are a number of angles you can use to photograph the Painted Ladies

We prefer placing our bride and groom on the edge of the Alamo Square park and shooting from that angle.

Painted Ladies of San Francisco
Painted Ladies of San Francisco

Russian Hill / North Beach

This is actually a district in San Francisco and not so much a photography location.  However, it is a great area to wander around and get some fantastic street photography.  We often take our newly married couples up to the top of Russian Hill to begin with so we can get some great views of San Francisco.   Once that is completed, we can wander down to the actual North Beach area and explore the many shops, bars and restaurants and take photos as you do it.  We have a few favorite spots we like to stop at including Sotto Mare which has outdoor seating.  What better place to get a natural photo of you and your spouse sipping Italian Wine!

North Beach Photography
North Beach Photography

Woodline at the Presidio in San Francisco

A hidden Gem in the Presidio in San Francisco is a little place we discovered called Woodline.  It’s basically a cut through of the thick and dense woods that you normally find when walking through the Presidio.  Few people know about it so it is rare that we run into tourists when we take our married couples there for wedding photography.  Rather than describing it, I think it would better to just post an example image:

Presidio wedding photography at Woodline
Presidio wedding photography

Ghirardelli Square / Cable Car

While it may be true that Ghirardelli Square IS a well known San Francisco destination, it’s not quite so famous as a wedding photography spot.   We love it!  Why?  Because it is such a great place to walk around and experience San Francisco!  By far one of the best places to get a Cable Car image because the cars sit there on Hyde Street waiting to be boarded.  In addition, you have the Famous Buena Vista Cafe which is an iconic pub that serves the best Irish coffees that you can imagine!  Ghirardelli Square is also just a nice area to have our couple walk around and enjoy while we photograph them!

San Francisco Cable Car wedding photography
San Francisco Cable Car

“2 Men and a Baby” at City Hall

City Hall Ceremony with Baby Watching City Hall Ceremony with their Baby Watching

I wanted to update this post from last year because I have some new photos to add to it.  I still love this first one (see above) because it is so classic! One of our favorite City Hall Weddings from last year!  We photographed the wedding of Steve and John with only 1 guest……  Their 5 month old little girl.  We met the 3 of them in the hallway directly outside of the County Clerk’s office to assist them with their Ceremony check-in.  After a brief meeting with their officiant we all headed up to the Rotunda to celebrate their marriage.  One of the most fun things about the ceremony was that the Deputy Marriage commissioner volunteered to hold the baby while John and Steve exchanged wedding rings!  This great idea helped create this classic photo that they will remember for the rest of their lives.  I just love how the baby is looking right at the ring exchange of her new dads!

Dad with daughter just before the city hall ceremony Dad with daughter just before the city hall ceremony

Once the ceremony was completed and the marriage sealed with a kiss, we took the happy couple around the building to take some photos.  We incorporated their daughter into some of the early photos, but it wasn’t long until she had fallen asleep in her baby stroller.  We took advantage of this lucky break to get some really nice poses of the couple, taking them on a tour to many of our favorite picture spots.  We ended our shoot at the city hall sign out in front of the building.  Perfect timing as the baby woke up and joined the couple for a posed shot in front of San Francisco City Hall.

Same-Sex Grooms posing with the Rotunda in the background Same-Sex Grooms posing with the Rotunda in the backgroundcity hall sign with baby city hall sign with baby

San Francisco Wedding Photography Locations

The month of January is always our slowest time period for city hall weddings.   It’s in the middle of the winter and there is no special event or holiday in January.  December of course is always busy due to the Beautiful Christmas tree and brides and grooms just like to get married at that time of the season.  February features Valentine’s Day and we always have weddings right around this date.  Many engaged couples actually choose to have their nuptials on this romantic holiday!  Given this slight lull, I thought it would be helpful to take the time to discuss some of our favorite destinations in San Francisco that we take our city hall wedding couples.

Iconic San Francisco Destinations

We take our couples throughout San Francisco after our city hall wedding photography sessions.  Here are some of the best san francisco wedding photographer locations:

Palace of Fine Arts

This is by far the most popular wedding photography destination.  Especially chosen frequently by our international brides and grooms.  It has a very large area for wedding photography with lots of options.  The beautiful building is obviously the centerpiece, but there are large columns  everywhere to use as a backdrop.  The only negative is the amount of tourists here.  Depending upon the time of day, it can be hard to find space without people looming in the background.

Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco

Legion of Honor

Another popular wedding photography spot, but fortunately MUCH less traveled by tourists.  The Legion of Honor offers beautiful Beaux-Arts style architecture which  many of San Francisco’s older buildings possess.  We love taking our city hall brides and grooms around the inner open area and pose them between the gray repeating columns.    The light is also fantastic here from a wedding photography standpoint.  This is because you have indirect light that comes in from the side, but is also reflected by the neutral tones of the building.  Perfect for a rainy day as well!

The Legion of Honor
The Legion of Honor

The Golden Gate Bridge

This is an obvious one, but there are many options and decisions to make.  We try to help our newly married couples decide by providing them with the best possible information and ideas.  Late in the afternoon you can approach the bridge from Ocean by Baker Beach.  This provides nice warm light on the bridge and enhances the colors.  Earlier in the morning, we often like to take pictures of our brides and grooms from the San Francisco Bay side of the bridge.  This will often provide very nice dimensional lighting on the Golden Gate.  Listed below are some of the most common angles to approach wedding photography of the bridge

  • Baker Beach
  • Crissy Field
  • Fort Point
  • Legion of Honor
  • 17th Hole of Lincoln Park
  • Fort Baker
  • Lands End
  • Battery East Vista
  • Golden Gate Overlook
  • Marin County side
Baker Beach Angle
Baker Beach Angle
Crissy Field Angle
Crissy Field Angle
Fort Point Angle
Fort Point Angle

This completes part one of our San Francisco City Hall wedding photo destination options.  We will be adding more locations next week,  please stay tuned!

Ballerina Bride at City Hall

We love all of our brides and grooms and always make sure we work to get great images of all of them.  However, every once in a while we are lucky enough to book a couple that are naturals.   This particular couple included a groom who had taken Ball Room dancing lessons and a bride who was a Ballerina.  We had a fantastic time with them at San Francisco City Hall with them booking our City Hall PLUS package which provided them with 2 hours of coverage including the ceremony and family photos.

To make things even more fun, the bride wore a unique wedding dress that you don’t normally see at City Hall.  It was a totally fun dress and matched the personality of the woman wearing it.  Here is what it looked like:


Ballerina Bride at City Hall
Ballerina Bride
Bride by Window at City Hall

Once the ceremony took place in the Rotunda we photographed a few images of their family and friends.  The family members were all amazing and absolutely supportive of us and our wedding photography efforts.  We spent some time talking to them and discussing some of the finer points of City Hall weddings and then we took the bride and groom around the building for their photo tour.  We visited every single floor of City Hall starting with the Grand  Staircase and then up to the 2nd Floor to get some shots in the hallway.  We knew we had to make sure we took them up to the 3rd floor to take advantage of the beautiful window light so we headed there next.  Here is one of our window shots!

Bride looking out the window
Bride looking out the window

We finished up on the amazing 4th Floor North Gallery at city hall which is probably the most beautiful location in the building for natural light.  It was here that we took advantage of our client’s posing talents and tried some dance related poses.  The 2 of them pulled off all of our poses with relative ease.    We took a number of bride and groom shots on this floor including this one:

Dance Moves at City Hall
Dance Moves at City Hall

We also needed to include some romantic wedding photos to show the close connection between the bride and groom.  This kind of posing is quite easy when your couple has that type of bond.

Romantic kiss from groom to bride
Romantic kiss from groom to bride

We finished up our photo shoot in typical fashion by taking the couple to the Famous City Hall sign on the Polk Street entrance to the building.

Christmas Wedding at City Hall

Christmas at San Francisco City Hall is always a wonderful time.  The place is always very busy and the giant Christmas tree becomes the center point of this great wedding venue.  For the past few years the tree has been decorated with Origami which makes for a very unique look.  In addition, when evening comes the light reflects off of the Origami and creates patterns on the walls at city hall.  It’s a pretty amazing scene.  We photographed 6 weddings this year during the Christmas season and each one had it’s own unique feel.  The primary reason for this Blog post is to just display a few photos from one of our larger weddings this Christmas season.

Bridal Portrait by the 3rd floor North Window
Bridal Portrait by the 3rd floor North Window

We started our formal shoot on the 3rd floor because city hall was pretty crowded and we were having trouble finding places without people in the background.   This particular wedding was on a Friday which is definitely one of the most crowded days of the week.  We have learned over the years where and when to take our brides and grooms once things get crowded.  The 3rd floor is one of those places!

Wedding Kiss at City Hall
Wedding Kiss at City Hall

Once we completed our time on the 3rd floor, we headed back down to the Christmas Tree to get a few nice shots.  Again, there were people everywhere and virtually no room to photograph the couple in the traditional place facing the Rotunda.  Fortunately, we have alternative angles into the tree that is off to the side.  Even though it’s a pretty obvious angle, many photographers without experience at city hall don’t know about it.  We  were able to get some fairly private images in front of the tree before moving on to our next location.

Christmas tree with bride and groom
Christmas tree with bride and groom

We spent over 1.5 hours at San Francisco city hall touring around taking photos and having fun.  We managed to get all of the shots that most people always ask us about including the Grand Staircase and the 4th floor North Gallery.  This despite the fact that City Hall had scheduled 7 reserved weddings that day, which usually brings a large number of people into the building.  We were lucky to walk up to the beautiful North Gallery just when one wedding was ending and another was about to be set up.

Golden Gate Bridge with Wedding Couple
Golden Gate Bridge with Wedding Couple

Once we completed our City Hall photo tour, we drove the couple to Fort Point to get some professional wedding pictures  with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.  The couple’s family also showed up at Fort Point allowing us to include them in many of the photos.  It was a fantastic way to end our day.

Italian Weddings in San Francisco part 2

Once we completed the formal bride and groom photo shoot in the Marina District, we headed back to North Beach to begin the reception.  The party was at the  Italian Athletic Club which is a well known place for Italian wedding parties.  In fact, my own parents had  their wedding party there over 50 years ago.  They always makes sure that there is a  Pasta served and lots of other good Italian food.  The dancing was mostly contemporary music with a few old Italian standards mixed in.

Bride and Groom laughing
Bride and Groom laughing

They did all the normal traditional dances including the first dance and the father daughter dance.  Then they went into normal dancing and the party got fun and wild.  Lots of fun dancing and partying.  This group seemed to be very close and really enjoyed each other.  There was also a very strong family sense that I often see at Italian weddings.

The bride and groom cutting the cake
The bride and groom cutting the cake

After the wedding, we stayed in touch with Jayne and Bobby and have seen them a number of times since.  One of our favorite couples!

Italian Weddings in San Francisco – Part 1

I will admit to having a soft spot for big Italian weddings in San Francisco.  As an Italian myself who grew up attending large Italian parties, I have experienced the amazing food and fun traditions.  Through the years we have photographed quite a few Italian weddings in San Francisco and have enjoyed every one of them.  They most often occur in North Beach with a Catholic Ceremony at Saints Peter and Paul Church followed by a reception at the Italian Athletic club.   Other notable spots for Italian weddings include any of the fantastic restaurants in the North Beach Area that can accommodate large groups.

A more recent wedding that we really enjoyed being a part of was Jayne and Bobby Carini’s wedding.  One of the most fun couples we have photographed and we are still in touch with them today.    This entire wedding and ceremony took place in North Beach, but then we took them to the Marina for some photos.  Here are a few sample shots from this great wedding in San Francisco.

Jayne Bridal Prep
Jayne Bridal Prep
Dad helping the bride into the limo
Dad helping the bride into the limo
Catholic Wedding Ceremony in San Francisco
Catholic Wedding Ceremony in San Francisco fun moment

San Francisco Marina District

Once they completed their ceremony at San Francisco’s famed Church, we headed off to the Marina district to capture some nice photos.  We also brought the entire wedding party with us so we could include them in the photos.   It was a hazy day, but we were still able to catch faint glimpses of the Golden Gate Bridge in some of the backgrounds.  After photographing the wedding party and best man and maid of honor, we focused on the bride and groom only.  Here are a few shots from this section of the wedding.

Bride and groom toasting in the Limo on the way to the Marina District in San Francisco
Bride and groom toasting in the Limo
Wedding Kiss at the San Francisco Marina with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background
Wedding Kiss at the San Francisco Marina
Bride and Groom hanging out enjoying the Marina
Bride and Groom hanging out enjoying the Marina

Part 2 coming soon…… The Reception and Italian Party!


Modern Wedding Photography

Post Modern Wedding Photography

Why Post Modern?   I believe that we have already gone well beyond the concept of Modern Wedding Photography.  In my opinion, the modern wedding photography era started with the emergence of quality digital cameras.  As a wedding photographer who has spanned both the film and digital eras, I feel like I can speak with a certain amount  of authority on the subject.  With over 1,200 weddings photographed, I have still shot more weddings with film!  I can certainly say that the difference between the film and digital eras are enormous.  I thought it might be fun to explore this in more detail in a blog post.  So here goes……

Great Wedding Photography – Film Era

OK, so I used to photograph weddings with a 2 1/4 Hasselblad film camera.  It was manual focus, manual exposure and the largest film magazine only held 24 exposures.  The biggest challenge in those days was getting the exposure right and producing sharp, well composed wedding photos.  It took considerable skill and tons of practice. Clients were generally pretty happy if you delivered about 500 final photos that were in-focus and nicely posed.  If you caught a few special moments, even better!  There was a certain fear back in those days of hiring a friend or having Uncle Bob shoot your wedding.  Why?  Because of the horror stories  involving amateur photographers delivering  blurry photos or no photos at all!

This fear became relief from clients when  professional wedding photographers were able to deliver  500 +  proofs in a nice preview album.  I am certainly not suggesting that brides and grooms didn’t expect great photos back then.  Yes, even then there was always hope for something better than simply “in focus” prints.  There has always been different levels of wedding photography excellence and most of us strived to reach that type of success.   My point is the pressure was not as great back then and you would be forgiven if you didn’t produce any great shots.  This type of mediocre performance would not place you in the elite division of professional wedding photographers.  But it  would allow you to have a career in wedding photography and make a decent living.

Digital Photography Comes of Age

To avoid boring my audience with a long and tiresome history lesson on Digital Photography, suffice to say that in the late 90’s advanced types of digital cameras were starting to become available.  For those readers who want more details, here is an excellent digital photography history for your perusal.  Exceptional yet affordable digital cameras being made available to the public basically killed the old wedding photography industry as we knew it.  The mystery was gone!  Anyone could now take wedding photos and know that they would at least turn out.  Professional wedding photographers throughout the San Francisco area and beyond began to see their bookings drop!  I actually remember comparing notes with my fellow photographers regarding the number of weddings we had booked for the year.  As each year went by, the numbers went down.  Many wedding photographers closed their businesses.  There were just not enough weddings to go around for all of us because so many potential clients felt confident in “Uncle Bob” shooting their wedding with his cool new digital SLR.

Surviving the Digital Photography Era

For a professional wedding photographer to survive in what I call the Modern era, we had to offer our clients something more.   How did we do it?  Well, digital photography had one major advantage over film…..  You could take all the photos you wanted and it didn’t cost a penny.  This allowed pro photographers to take more photos and as a result, produce more candid photos. Thus, Wedding Photojournalism was born!  Now we could shoot thousands of photos at every wedding and capture all the special moments and we didn’t have to pay $1.00 for each photo (approximate film era cost per photos was always said to be $1.oo each!)   Books were published about this new phenomenon of Documentary wedding photography.   Brides started asking us if our style was traditional or photo journalistic.  I could go into a great detail about all of this and perhaps will in a future blog post, but for the purpose of this article suffice it to say that this was the hot style  in the 1st decade of the 21st century.

Death of the Wedding Photojournalist

What I am about to write will be somewhat controversial among some of my fellow wedding photographers.   It is my opinion that after a decade marked by  thousands of brides having their weddings covered in a purely documentary style the result was considerable disappointment among many clients.  As it turned out, it really wasn’t that difficult to take 3,000 photos at a wedding and catch dozens of “moments.”  In fact, armed with a fully automatic digital camera and about 1 hour of training, virtually anyone could be a wedding photojournalist.  Unfortunately this ease allowed hundreds of wedding photographers to enter the industry with no knowledge of lighting or posing.   Clients soon grew tired of having to wade through thousands of candid wedding photos with no images really standing out.  Did the wedding photographer capture some great moments? Of course they did!    But how were the family photos, how was the lighting, were there any fun poses?  Too often the answer was no!

Wedding Photography as Art

I believe that the post modern era of wedding  photography began in the early part of this decade.  It’s emergence was gradual yet definitive.     We began to approach wedding photography as an art form and not just an assignment.  In fact, we even started calling ourselves artists!  Randomly check out some professional wedding photographer’s websites and you will see that many people have changed  the “About” section to “About the Artist”.   Many  now refer to wedding packages as “Collections”.  If you could still see wedding photography websites from the film era you would not see any of this terminology.

To stand out in the post modern era, wedding photographers need to provide their clients with creative photos with beautiful light and gorgeous backgrounds.  The posing needs to be correctly done and grab the viewers attention.  Do these attributes sound familiar? Of course, it’s some of the same things you hear about other forms of art such as paintings.   Even Pinterest has collections of wedding photos called Fine Art Wedding Photography 

The Post Modern Wedding Photographer

If you aspire to be a professional wedding photographer in this era, you will need to be able to produce creative images with impact and beauty.  You will also need to understand lighting, composition and posing.  Machine gun candid photo shooters are still out there, but they will not be considered in the upper echelons nor will they command top dollar for their work.  In a sense, the industry has come full circle.  As was true in the film era, a successful wedding photographer will need to possess great skill, but with a difference……  The old Technical skill needed to operate ancient film cameras has now been replaced by the skill of an artist!