For more examples of the discussion below, check out our City Hall wedding website
I thought I would share my opinions on the various kinds of professional camera and lighting equipment I like to use for San Francisco city hall wedding photography. These are just my opinions and not meant to be a guide for other wedding photographers. There are many different photographers taking pictures at city hall and they all have their own way of doing things successfully. Camera preference is very subjective and in many ways ends up being just that…. a preference. If my dad had not given me my start in photography with a Nikon Camera, I probably would be shooting with something else now. For me, the familiarity of the layout and controls makes it the camera of choice. I don’t feel that Nikon is better then the rest, I just like their cameras and always have. I see no reason to switch even as other camera technologies emerge.
Nikon D780 at San Francisco City Hall
After using a Nikon D4s for many years for all of my wedding photography, I finally graduated to the D780. Pro photographers familiar with Nikons understand that the D4s was the flagship camera for a few years and cost over $6,000. The D780 is less than half the cost, but with digital photography, newer technology is much more important than price or perceived level of quality. I have owned a number of Nikon Digital cameras including (in order of purchase and use) the D100, D200, D300, D700, D3s, D4s, D750 and now the D780. Back in the film days, I also used a variety of different cameras including a Nikon FM, Nikon 6006, and N70. Each of these cameras offered a moderate amount of increased picture quality at each new purchase. High ISO performance was one of the things I was always looking for and the differences between each successive purchase and use at city hall were barely noticeable. Then came the Nikon D780 which was what I would call a “game changer”. Suddenly, I was able to shoot at ISO 3200 with no noticeable grain or “noise” This really changed everything and allowed me to use less off-camera lighting and shoot in places I wasn’t able to approach in the past within the building. While I prefer the use of professional lighting in all of my photos, it is a tremendous benefit to not have to use it so much to light the image. Instead, we can use lighting to enhance the photo and create dimension and direction. For DSLR’s both the Nikon D6 and D850 are higher end cameras, but for me, the size, weight, and ISO performance win the day!
Best Lenses for SF City Hall Wedding Photography
I come to every wedding with 4 lenses and I usually use all of them. The 24-70mm F2.8 is usually the lens I start with mounted on my camera. This is because it’s a very versatile lens and great for the City Hall ceremony in the Rotunda. I can zoom in close the for the ring exchange, but then back off quickly for full length shots to show the wedding dress and for the first kiss at the end of the civil ceremony. The City Hall ceremony is so short that I need a lens that I can adjust quickly because things happen so fast. My next most used lens is probably the Nikon 85mm F1.4 portrait lens. This glass is very complimentary to subjects because it is slimming and softens the background. It’s a great lens for pictures that really feature the bride and groom and not so much the architecture. When it comes to capturing beautiful San Francisco architecture, there is nothing like my 16-35mm F4 lens. When held in Landscape mode, this lens has very little distortion which renders the amazing building backgrounds true to the way they look in person with minimal bending of architectural lines. A low distortion lens is even more important when it comes to the type of early 20th century architecture at city hall. The repeating lines and evenly patterned designs need to be shown without distortion. This lens is also very sharp when used at F5.0 which is fantastic for capturing the building backgrounds. Lastly, I use a famous older lens from Nikon, the ultra sharp 180mm F2.8. One of the few older lenses that completely stands up to todays high resolution cameras. I use the 180 for taking pictures across the city hall building of our fun brides and grooms. NOTE: Recently, I have been using my 85mm 1.4 for across the building shots. It gives me more light and also the ability to show more of the background or zoom in if needed. Plus it is a much lighter lens.
Mirrorless Cameras Instead of DSLRs
Many people reading this will ask, what about mirrorless? Isn’t that the future camera technology? For natural light shooting, there is nothing better then mirrorless. Why? Because it allows the wedding photographer to see exactly what they are shooting and adjust accordingly. It’s all right there in front of you. However, for photographer’s like me who still rely on professional lighting, you still need to check out the LCD screen after you take the picture to make sure light levels are accurate and lighting ratios are complimentary. That being said, I actually DO have a mirrorless camera and it’s a pretty good one! I have recently purchased the Nikon Z6II and absolutely love it. It actually has the same picture taking sensor as my D780 so the ISO performance seems to be identical. It handles great and feels very much like any Nikon does. It is a bit lighter, but not substantially so. Why am I not using it exclusively at this point? No particular reason, except that I am quite happy with my current camera and the way it performs at San Francisco city hall. My second shooter, Lilly James, uses it quite often so we are actually working with both cameras. I will go completely mirrorless and get some of Nikon’s very nice Z lenses in the near future.
Off-Camera Lighting at San Francisco City Hall
As mentioned above, now that I have a camera with such great high ISO performance, I usually have sufficient light for almost any location in the building. However, I still use lighting on about 80% of my shots because it adds a nice dimension to the photo that isn’t there with natural light. If done properly, you cannot even tell that I used the flash. I normally bounce it off the neutral walls at city hall and this provides a nice even, yet directional lighting pattern. Honestly, some areas such as the Grand Staircase and the Mayor’s Balcony really need this directional, yet subtle lighting. Much of the light that illuminates the Grand Staircase comes from above the 4th floor which means it is what we refer to as Overhead Lighting. It is not complimentary to the couple in the least, providing ashy looking skin and racoon eyes. The Racoon eyes come from the head shading the eyes from the primary light source. Using a powerful light coming in from the side tends to mirror studio type lighting and makes the bride and groom look great.
To summarize in a simple fashion… Just because you have enough light for a wedding picture, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use some! These are the choices San Francisco city hall wedding photographers need to make every day. I use the very powerful Profoto off-camera flash which provides high quality light even when aimed directly at the subject. This unit is powered by a rechargeable battery that is good for about 500 flashes. On my camera, I use the Profoto “Air” radio trigger which send the signal to the flash. I can adjust the flash in 1/10 stops for extremely accurate San Francisco City Hall Lighting. Here is a link to an excellent YouTube video on Natural light vs Off Camera Flash