5 Best Ideas for Your City Hall Wedding in 2019

If you are a San Francisco City Hall Bride-to-Be, you want the perfect wedding. I have been involved in over 400 weddings at City Hall since 2012 and created this guide just for you.

Idea # 1Treat your city hall wedding like you would any other wedding. City Hall is a formal venue. The elegance of this building lends itself to making your event fancy and at the same time fun. I can’t tell you how many times my city hall brides have been surprised when they enter the building and see so many formal dresses on others. Many feel that since their San Francisco city hall wedding is a so called “Civil Ceremony” that people will be dressed more casually. They soon find that brides will often go all out with their dresses and the grooms will wear tuxes. It works here because of the high class atmosphere at city hall. The other thing that frequently is left out is Flowers. Many of our brides do not bring a bouquet for the same reasons. They think of SF City Hall weddings as informal, so no flowers are purchased. From a city hall wedding photographer’s standpoint, I highly recommend flowers be included. Despite the obvious beauty of the building, there is one minor issue…. There is no color in the background at city hall, so adding some flowers provides some nice contrast and focus.

Idea #2 – Consider having a Reserved wedding at City Hall. For an extra $900 you can rent out either Mayor’s Balcony or the 4th Floor North Gallery and have a semi-private ceremony at San Francisco City Hall. The cost of $1,000 is actually a bargain in San Francisco for a wedding celebration. They can seat up to 60 people and you get a roped off private area to have your wedding for 1 hour.

Idea #3 – Book your city hall wedding Reception at a nearby Restaurant. There are a number of great places to eat walking distance from San Francisco city hall. Save money on transportation and have your wedding celebration at any one of them. It will be more convenient for your guests and will save you dollars! Some examples include: Soluna Cafe, Corridor, Jardiniere and Absinthe, but there are many more!

Idea #4 – Obtain your Marriage License the day before your city hall ceremony. Obviously it is much more convenient to process and receive your marriage license on the same day you have your civil ceremony and it normally works OK. However, as city hall wedding photographers we have witnesses many times where this procedure backfires on the engaged couple. One of the reasons relates to timing. If you don’t allow enough of it between the license processing and the actual wedding ceremony, you might end up feeling rushed. I believe a couple’s wedding day should be a celebration without too much time spent processing paperwork. The other issue that occasionally comes up are documentation problems. If you do not have the appropriate documents to process the license and your wedding is in 30 minutes, you have a big problem. However, if you do this the day before, it gives you a full day to fix any issues and it is one less thing to worry about on your wedding day.

Idea #5 – Hire a professional San Francisco city hall wedding photographer. OK, so you might have seen this coming since you happen to be reading a blog from a city hall wedding photographer. However, we would not be in this business if we didn’t strongly believe in what we do. I am not just talking about booking us for your wedding, I am encouraging SF city hall brides and grooms to hire any of the top wedding photographers out there. There are many good ones and all of them want to provide you with great memories. Don’t try to save money by hiring Uncle Steve to do you wedding with his really cool new DSLR camera (that he barely knows how to use!)

Checking in at the County Clerks office at San Francisco City Hall
The famous Grand Staircase at San Francisco city hall

Living in San Francisco

The San Francisco Life

Kissing in Front of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco Kissing in Front of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco

I am a rare breed, an actual San Francisco native.  I was born in the city and lived there for many years with my family.  Our neighborhood happened to be the famous Haight Ashbury District and I lived there in in the 1960’s during the Hippie era.  I remember walking through the Pan Handle and literally stepping over Hippies lying in the streets as I walked with my classmates to school.   It was quite an experience and a different time.   We used to play outside by ourselves with no fear.  I could walk home from school by myself and we didn’t think it was any big deal.  As a young adult I attended the University of San Francisco, which was walking distance from where I lived as a child.  So what does any of this have to do with wedding photography in San Francisco?  Keep reading to find out….

San Francisco as Inspiration

The San Francisco community fancies itself as an art society.   People here are very in touch with their “right brain”.  What does this mean?  Right brainers are focused on creative pursuits and art.  San Francisco inspires artists to create.  It’s hard to define, but I just know that many of the best San Francisco wedding photographers are concerned with providing their clients with more than just traditional images.   They want to use San Francisco as a backdrop for amazing creative and  historic images.  It is easy to do here, because the city offers so much.  Having grown up here, I find myself very much in tune with the beauty and history all around us.  We love taking our clients to beautiful places like The Palace of Fine Arts and the Legion of Honor.  We want to show our couples different aspects of living in San Francisco through wedding photography.   When we take couples on a photo tour of the city, we talk about the lifestyle and also show examples.  When it comes to San Francisco, it is more than just the beauty, it’s the culture and  the history.   I know it may be over reaching a little bit, I truly think that many of our brides and grooms like to  feel the whole San Francisco persona.

Christmas at city hall in San Francisco Christmas at city hall in San Francisco

San Francisco Landmarks

The city has so many amazing landmarks and historical locations to take our couples.  The Grand Staircase in the photo above is one of these San Francisco Landmarks.  Tourists flock to see it and take pictures of it.  It makes for a great wedding photography background as you can see.  On any given day, you will find many San Francisco residents enjoying the beauty and elegance of these places not only in city hall but outside.  This is part of the San Francisco lifestyle, a very easy going pace when compared to other large cities.  Hanging out in Golden Gate park, spending time by the Painted Ladies or just  walking on Baker Beach.  These activities are all part of how people live in the City by the Bay.  The fact that I grew up here makes me even more motivated to show visitors what a fun place it is to live.  It certainly is a great place to be a wedding photographer.

experiencing the San Francisco lifestyle Experiencing the San Francisco lifestyle

We look forward to sharing our vision of San Francisco with all of our clients, brides and grooms or engaged couples whether they live here or are visiting from other countries.

Embrace the Crowds at SF City Hall

This short blog post is going to run counter to everything you read and hear about San Francisco city hall wedding photography.  All we ever talk about as wedding photographers at this venue is how to avoid the crowds and trying to not have people in the background of our photos.  While there is some merit to this,  I am going to discuss a different approach.  Yes, city hall is a public building and the tourists have every right to be there even if they sometimes seem to not notice that they are in the way.  My brides and grooms are always asking me the best times of the day to avoid people and also the slowest day of the week at city hall.   I certainly understand their concerns and I do try to accommodate their wishes.  But there is another option……

Love the Crowds at City Hall

No I have not gone nuts.  But recently something happened that made me think.  We were in the middle of a wedding photography shoot and suddenly got disrupted by a protest march.  Normally the reaction would be for me to take my couple and go somewhere else to avoid the noise and the people .  But the groom had different ideas…. He wanted a photo of him and his wife right in front of the protest gathering.  In fact, when I took the picture he raised his fist as though he was part of the protest.  I have to admit that this picture turned out great and was not only fun, but also instructive.  Sure, the goal is to get creative and romantic photos in this great building.  But why not get some pictures that show very clearly that this is a public building.    When I think about it, I see lots of crazy and fun things that happen every day we are at city hall taking pictures of our newly married couples.   What kinds of things?  Here is a list:

  • Quinceneara Photo Shoots – These brightly colored 15 year old girls come into city hall with their photographers and take over certain parts of the venue.  Their photographers often take way too long on the Grand Staircase and bring large lighting equipment.  We avoid them as much as we can.
  • Protest Marches – San Francisco city hall is a popular place for protests and at times they come in the building.  Even if they don’t they can often easily be found right outside at the entrance.
  • School Tours – City Hall is “invaded” quite frequently by mobs of school kids touring the facility and learning about government.  Depending upon their ages they can be an unruly bunch!
  • Dramatic Portrait Shoots –  Professional photographers will often take their subjects to city hall to get photos.  The subject matter can range from ballerina dancers to people dressed as animals.
  • Service Dogs – City Hall allows Service dogs to enter the building with their companions.  Sometimes causing some pretty crazy moments as the dogs react to their surroundings.
  • Political Speeches –  Yes, San Francisco city hall attracts and arranges for candidates and politicians to come in the building and make their case.

There are many more examples, but you get the point.  Rather than trying to always avoid these things, we can sometimes use them as a backdrop to our wedding photography shoot.  Putting the couple in a natural setting and showing what was going on that day can add yet another memory to their special day.  The humor in the situation will also help the couple not feel so unhappy about the disruption.  We will still get their great romantic pictures, but we will also add a little fun!

City Hall Sign Entrance Photos

Celebrating at the Main Entrance to San Francisco City Hall
Celebrating at the Main Entrance to San Francisco City Hall

One of the first things our clients ask us when we begin our City Hall wedding photography shoot is the sign picture.  They all ask: “Can we do the City Hall sign photo?”  I always let them know that of course we will, but it is best to save it for last because we avoid having to through building security twice.  I remember one particular groom seemed agitated during the whole city hall photography tour and I finally asked him if he was OK.  He told me he couldn’t understand why we were not taking a photo with the sign, but didn’t want to seem pushy.   Once I explained to him why we save it for last he felt a lot better.

Carrying the Bride out of San Francisco City Hall
Carrying the Bride out of San Francisco City Hall

There are many variations to this ending shot.  You can do a simple posed shot and walking shot or celebration photo.  No matter what we end up doing with each couple, I think it is important for this photo to say something about the bride and groom.  Some couples want to be animated and be celebratory.  Others prefer a more traditional posed image.

Walking from City Hall out into beautiful San Francisco
Walking from City Hall out into beautiful San Francisco

Recently we have starting doing a few photos of the couple inside the building behind the sign.  Of course taking the photo from this location causes the words to be reversed.  Sometimes we keep them reversed, but others we have to flip it around using Photoshop.  The 2 images below were both flipped:

Inside of City Hall with the entrance sign
Inside of City Hall with the entrance sign

Maternity photography at San Francisco City Hall
Maternity photography at San Francisco City Hall

Some of our couples prefer to do more natural photos in front of the sign.  We will ask them to walk out of the building and raise their arms in a celebratory fashion.   “Yay, we did it! We got married at San Francisco city hall!”   These types of shots always give you the most bang for your buck in terms of showing emotion and fun.

We also try to match our couple to the type of San Francisco City Hall sign pose.  For example, in the photo below, we thought it would be fun to spoof the famous movie “An Officer and a Gentleman.”

A Officer and a Gentleman Movie
An Officer and a Gentleman Movie Pose

September Weddings in San Francisco

September is underway in San Francisco and it is one of the most beautiful times of the year.  San Francisco residents tend to call the time period between early September and mid October “Indian Summer”.  I will skip the technical explanation of why the fog is so thick during the summer and starts to gradually go away in September, but for those interested check out this link about San Francisco Weather .  The most important thing to know is that September is a great month to explore the city and head to the beaches.   If you happen to be getting married at San Francisco City Hall or anywhere else in the city for that matter, you owe it yourself to have your wedding photographer take some outside pictures.   For those couples who were worried about trying to visit the Golden Gate Bridge during the summer, feat not!  By mid month, there will be very little fog along the coast and the bridge will be as bright and beautiful as ever!  Fall winds will make the air super clear also, leading to some amazing photo opportunities.

September Photo Opportunities in San Francisco

Everyone always thinks about the Golden Gate Bridge, but what other great locations become more visible in September minus the fog?  Here is a list of  recommendations for places in San Francisco to visit in the fall months:

  • Baker Beach – We tend to avoid Baker Beach during the summer because of the fog.  It is the most risky place to take our brides and groom that time of the year because the view is from the Ocean looking in.  Since the fog tends to roll in from the water, the bridge is often covered from that angle, but still visible from the Bay side.  But in September with the fog mostly gone, The Golden Gate bridge can look spectacular from Baker Beach. Wedding Photography at Baker Beach on a clear day
  • The Marin Headlands –  This view is actually not in San Francisco, but it is a quick trip across the Golden Gate bridge and just like Baker Beach, is on the ocean side.  Here are some photo examples of this angle to the Bridge along with others: Favorite Places for Golden Gate Bridge Gazing
  • Lands End – This is one of my new favorite places to look at the bridge.  It includes a nice short hiking trail and some amazing scenery.  For more information regarding this spectacular view point, click the Lands End Link provided.

To summarize, September is an amazing month to be in San Francisco!  Take advantage of this great time and explore this beautiful city.

Grand Staircase at City Hall

The Grand Staircase at SF City Hall The Grand Staircase at SF City Hall – Side Angle

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?

Christmas at SF City Hall on the Grand Staircase Christmas at SF City Hall on the Grand Staircase

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.

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

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.

Parking for your Wedding at City Hall

It can be a challenge to park in San Francisco, especially anything close to Downtown.  We often get asked asked by our brides and grooms about the best places to park around city hall for their wedding.  There are a number of options and I will start with the most simple one:

  1. The Civic Center Parking Garage.  This is probably the most convenient of all of the nearby options at City Hall.  There is ample room and the lot rarely fills up.  Recently they have raised their pricing so it’s no longer the bargain it once was.  However, it is still less expensive than parking downtown and it is walking distance from the the entrance to City Hall.  It’s also covered parking which provides an extra level of safety.  For more details including parking rates and closing times, click this link:  Civic Center Parking
  2. The War Memorial Opera House Garage.  Another nearby option is at the Opera House behind San Francisco city hall off of Van Ness.  It may appear to be a little farther away, but in reality it’s about the same distance assuming you use the back entrance to city hall.  Just cross Van Ness street and you are there.  It also offers covered parking and decent pricing.   It’s usually available unless there is a big event going on there (like the opera!).  But since most city hall weddings are during the day, you should be able to park here with no problem.  Click here for details on Opera House parking.
  3. Civic Center Street Parking.  If you don’t need covered parking, there are quite a few spots on the street around City Hall.  The pricing is better but some are limited in time.  If you are going to be in the building for less than 2 hours, this might be a good option.  Just remember that city hall weddings rarely occur on time so you need to allow some cushion.  Its actually quite possible to find spots right across the street from city hall.  There is also a nice service available to help you locate and reserve street parking.  For more information click here:  Reserved Street Parking
  4. The above options are the most common ways that brides and grooms find parking for their wedding.  But there are many other possibilities.  This article shows some other great places to park so check it out and happy parking!

Entrance to the City Hall Parking garage
Entrance to the City Hall Parking garage

Parking Garage Walking Entrance for City Hall
Parking Garage Walking Entrance for City Hall