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.
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.
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.
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 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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
We spend a lot of time on this blog talking about all the reasons our clients should consider holding their nuptials at San Francisco city hall. I thought it would be interesting to present a different view point. A perspective that has nothing at all to do with the potential benefits and advantages of City Hall weddings to the general public. Instead today, I present a photographers view of the joys of shooting weddings here. Why do we like it and are there actually a few things that we dislike.
The first time I ever set foot in San Francisco city hall, I was greeted by multiple brides walking around. Understand that at this point I had already been a wedding photographer for many years. In my world, brides only existed on weekends or maybe an occasional Friday. Weekday brides? This can’t be, I thought! I investigated further and realized that yes, people DO get married during the week. Not just a few people but many, many people. A further investigation revealed that, in fact, San Francisco city hall hosted approximately 35 weddings per day! A wedding photographer’s paradise!
Wedding Photography as a Career
Before I get into what I did after making this amazing discovery, I think it is important to share a few quick words on Wedding Photography from a business owner’s perspective. In many ways, being in the wedding and event business is very rewarding and it can be lucrative if you have the right niche. However, anyone in the Wedding / Event business will tell you that once you become successful your weekends are mostly shot. Especially during the summer months. When my business was at it’s peak, I would sometimes go 6 or 7 weekends in a row without being able to do anything in the summer that didn’t involve pointing my camera at pretty brides. My wife was always having to make excuses for me and explaining to family members why I could not attend events and parties. “Mike has a wedding that weekend”.
Investing In San Francisco City Hall
It didn’t take too long for me to figure out that I should try to explore the possibility of photographing more weddings at city hall and less big weddings on weekends. So before it was popular to do so, I made a City Hall Wedding Photography website and also added a City Hall section on my main website. I am not saying I was the first of many San Francisco wedding photographers to make these changes because I wasn’t. However, I certainly was among the first pioneers to specialize in weddings here. Many other wedding photographers have followed and now there are dozens that claim it as a specialty. Not so long after I made these changes, the weddings started to pour in and we found ourselves busier than ever. It didn’t take long for me to be able to cut back on my big weekend weddings and now I am happily one of the leading wedding photographers shooting weddings at this amazing venue.
When checking in to San Francisco city hall for your civil ceremony, please remember to bring your current Identification and your marriage license. You will not be allowed to have your civil ceremony that day without these documents. We strongly recommend obtaining your marriage license the day before your city hall ceremony rather than doing in on the same day. This will make your wedding day less stressful!
This won’t be my typical blog post, but I just had to talk about this today. We had a quite a crazy day for our most recent San Francisco City Hall wedding, but our couple handled it amazingly well. This is the story of the day, March 11, 2019.
County Clerk Line
It all started with an unusually long line at the County Clerk’s office for our soon to be married couple . What was normally about a 3 minute line was actually closer to 20 minutes. How did this happen? We are pretty sure it was mostly due to some bad timing coupled with the fact that the other doorway that handles Birth Certificates happened to be closed that morning. Anyway, we got in line to check-in and we waited. It was not that big of a deal at this point because everyone was in the same boat. No weddings were going to happen until brides and grooms were able get through that line. We casually talked about nothing special mostly, with a little bit of discussion about the upcoming shoot and how we were going to handle things. I also asked the couple if they had lunch plans so I could determine the amount of time I would have for wedding photography after the ceremony. Unfortunately, the couple DID have reservations and the place they wanted to go to was only able to hold their reserved time until around 2:30 to begin their party.
Timing Unfortunate – Ceremony
After waiting for all of that time the couple finally made it to the front of the line and were just about ready to be summoned in to meet with their marriage commissioner and then it happened….. The Fire Alarm sounded and we received the order to evacuate City Hall. The engaged couple were already about 20 minutes late and this delay would prove to be so much more. We spent a good 1 hour outside waiting to get cleared to return to the building once the Fire Department arrived and departed having determined that it was a faulty Smoke alarm that was at the route of the problem. Of course a certain city hall safety protocol had to be met before visitors were allowed back into the building. This included allowing the employees in first!
Happy SF City Hall Ending
After all of this waiting and worrying, the ending was happy. The couple not only had their San Francisco city hall wedding ceremony, but they made it to their lunch on time. The venue decided to stay open a little later just for them! Toni and I felt like we did a nice job keeping the couple calm and the family informed. We tried to turn a potentially stressful situation into a positive marriage experience. The newlyweds will probably look back on this day and smile!
Another fun Valentine’s Day at San Francisco city hall! For those of you who are unfamiliar, city hall has been staging a celebration on Valentines Day the past few years. They allow walk-ins to get married at no cost! You might have to wait a while, but its all part of the fun. They set up a Photo Booth and bring in pretty much all of the Marriage Commissioners to deal with the overflow.
Cute Places for Wedding Photography
To further enhance your Valentines Day wedding experience the County Clerk’s office sets up cute, Valentine’s themed Backdrops for photo opportunities. I think this is particularly important because if you are getting married on this special day, it is appropriate to have some wedding pictures that will remind you of the day. As San Francisco city hall wedding photographers, we would also photograph you around the building to take advantage of all that this destination has to offer. But I love the idea of getting a few shots in the giant Heart for example and in front of their many other decorations.
Fun Day at San Francisco City Hall
The other thing I need to mention is just the overall mood present this day among all of the workers in the County Clerk’s office and the brides and grooms. A positive mood is created for all to enjoy and I always look forward to being involved in it. In fact, this year I didn’t even book a wedding, but showed up anyway to be involved and to get a few nice photos for this blog.