This is part 2 of my own perspective of what it is like to photograph weddings at San Francisco city hall. In the first part of this post, I talked about the lifestyle changes and advantages of being a San Francisco city hall wedding photographer. Now let’s explore the actual benefits in terms of the daily routine.
More Time with the Bride and Groom
This certainly is the part we like best! A typical wedding on a weekend can last about 9 hours from Bridal prep until the last dance. So one would think that there are all kinds of opportunities to capture wonderful pictures of the bride and groom Well, when compared to city hall weddings, this could not be further from the truth. When engaged couples book us for San Francisco city hall, they choose a level of coverage. Even our lowest package in terms of price and coverage time gives us more time with the bride and groom then we would get at a big wedding. It is not uncommon for us to be able to spend 45 minutes with the happy newlyweds after their city hall ceremony. We would LOVE to have this amount of time with our couple at a full weekend wedding. Ask any full scale San Francisco wedding photographer and they will tell you the same thing. We are lucky to have 20 minutes with the bride and groom for photos. This 20 minutes is usually sandwiched between the family pictures and dinner service at the reception. It is frequently very rushed and stressful to all involved. A typical full wedding day is loaded with events and yes, they all need to be covered by the wedding photographer. But what I really love about city hall weddings is the amount of time devoted to JUST taking pictures of the bride and groom alone.
Our San Francisco City Hall Couples WANT Photos
If a San Francisco city hall couple books us to photograph their wedding, they are doing it because they really want great photos. You might be asking, doesn’t every couple? The answer to this is, sometimes. Many couples who book us for a big wedding do it because they are either forced to by relatives or feel that it is important to record the event for the future. It is more about documenting all that happened during the day instead of capturing artistic photos of the bride and groom. A couple that books a city hall wedding photographer pretty much knows that are not going to be that many events to document throughout the day. There is no cake cutting and no first dance. There is no bouquet toss and know speeches. The coverage they book us for includes ceremony coverage (5 minutes tops) and then photos around the building. So we know that our City Hall couples want great wedding pictures and we are more than happy to oblige.
Affordable San Francisco Wedding Photography
I honestly love giving my clients bargains. I really feel that San Francisco city hall wedding photography is a great deal compared to large wedding coverage. It makes us feel good as photographers to provide our clients with so much more coverage time for their money. So this benefits both the client and us. We have for a long time explained this to our clients and we want them to understand it and take advantage of it. Our clients have the opportunity to book some of the best San Francisco city hall wedding photographers for under $1,000. Everybody wins!
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.
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.
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 # 1 – Treat 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!)
Often times there is more to photographing a San Francisco city hall wedding then just making nice pictures. The day of the wedding can be stressful and it is no different at city hall. Though truthfully, there is less to go wrong because with a civil ceremony you avoid problems with setting up the reception, food issues and choosing the perfect wedding favors. We recently photographed a wedding a city hall where we are able to help both the bride and groom prepare for the ceremony. There were a few minor complications and we were there to help!
Groom’s Pants Too Long
The groom asked me while waiting to check in at the County Clerk if I thought his pants were too long. They did seem to be a bit long, but what could be done this close to their civil ceremony? I remembered back to how I used to “hem” my own pants temporily with tape and suggested that to the groom. After some discussion, I went into the Clerk’s office and asked one of my friends who works the front desk if we could borrow some tape. After some visual measurements and approval by the bride we managed to put a nice temporary hem on the pants and they looked great!
Bride’s Eyelash Problems
As this was going on, I noticed the bride struggling with getting her eyelashes looking the way she wanted them, but there was nobody to hold the mirror for her because the Groom was busy “hemming” his pants. So without the bride asking me, I grabbed the mirror for her and held it while she did the finishing touches on her eyes. Just a simple gesture really and in no way heroic, but it was much appreciated by both of our clients.
I never really gave it a second thought until a few weeks later I received a 5 star review from the newlyweds about their SF city hall wedding. One of the highlights of this Yelp review was the bride mentioning both of the problems above and how we helped. Again, these were relatively easy tasks, but it reminded me how important it is to be there for your city hall wedding photography client in all ways possible. Of course, we still needed to deliver great photos of their wedding, but the sometimes the little things get noticed and appreciated the most!
Celebrating after the Wedding! Bride and Groom Kissing at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco
I have been photographing city hall weddings now for over 8 years with 350 weddings under my belt (Check out my City Hall Home Page for more information). I have made friends with many of the other City Hall wedding photographers and have tons of respect for them. We often talk in the cafe and exchange ideas and problems before or after our weddings. I find that I learn a lot from having these types of discussions with my fellow wedding photographers and have started to form some strong opinions about what makes a particular San Francisco City Hall wedding photographer the best! I will share some of these thoughts below:
Newlyweds leaving SF City Hall Happy
Friendly Service is Super Important! As I have discussions with the best SF city hall wedding photographers I find one common denominator among them…. They are all nice people! Fun to be around and upbeat. Reading their Yelp reviews reveals that many of their clients take the time to talk about their demeanor and friendliness and not just the quality of the wedding photography. Another often discussed aspect of this attribute is that it actually results in better pictures. I believe the reason for this is that the bride and groom feel more at ease with the photographer and thus display their more natural side.
Expensive Equipment Barely Matters. I have seen wedding photographers at SF city hall use all types of camera equipment. They range from super expensive all the way down to cheaper consumer level cameras. I honestly see no correlation between the amount of money a photographer spends on their camera and the quality of the pictures. However, it IS important to have proper lighting equipment including an off-camera flash. But even this does not have to be expensive to get the job done. The bottom line is that with today’s technology even the most basic cameras take amazing photos. The different in quality of the end product has much more to do with the wedding photographer. We recently added some better off camera lighting and it has improved some of our photography in the darker areas of city hall like the Mayor’s Balcony. This new lighting system also recycles faster giving us the ability to shoot faster.
City Hall Experience is huge! There is no doubt in my mind that the best wedding photographers at San Francisco City Hall are mainly the most experienced. The lighting in the building is super tricky and can changes in a matter of minutes as the fog rolls in and out. More important are the curves that city hall will often throw Brides and Grooms. Special Events, closing down of certain areas, protest marches and unexpected arrivals of a huge tour bus are just some of the things we all have to deal with at city hall on a daily basis. The more experienced professional wedding photographer know how to make adjustments on the fly no matter what the current circumstances are. You have to know alternative beautiful spots and the best ways to get around area closures. We have learned these things over the years and are still learning new tricks to this day!
The Best City Hall Wedding Photographers help their clients with every aspect of the event! We take a lot of pride in helping our brides and grooms deal with the somewhat confusing process of getting married at San Francisco City Hall. We offer many pointers on our website and try to act as a guide when it comes to check-in time at the County Clerks office. We see this with many of the other experienced professional wedding photographers at city hall also! We just received a Yelp Review from a great client who complimented us on helping the groom with shortening his pants (with tape). I also held the mirror so the bride could put on her eyelashes. These little things make a difference on how you become the best wedding photographer possible.
We photographed Cheri and Wesley’s San Francisco City Hall wedding on 10/13 and had never met them prior to the wedding. When I arrived at City Hall, I contacted Cheri so we could meet prior to the wedding. During our phone conversation Cheri told me: “Don’t worry, you will recognize me, I am pretty sure that I am the only bride in the building wearing a dress with black and white polka dots!” She was definitely correct, we spotted her right away! San Francisco City Hall is a great place to wear an outfit like this, everything seems to work here and the more colorful the better.
Polka Dot Wedding Dress at SF City Hall
Cheri’s attitude matched the fun in her dress and we had a great time at their wedding. Wesley and her came all the way from Alaska to have their nuptials at one of the best wedding venues on the west coast. They talked about the affordability and historic beauty of city hall and how they really wanted to have their wedding here. They chose our City Hall Tour Package which provided them with 4 hours of photographic coverage and 3 locations in San Francisco. They choose to go to the Palace of Fine Arts, the Golden Gate Bridge and then finish up at Ghirardelli Square.
Fun Wedding Dress at the Grand Staircase
The weather was gorgeous in typical October “Indian Summer” fashion in San Francisco. We drove the couple to each location and had a fantastic time. We love it when our clients choose the San Francisco Tour package. It’s affordable, fun and you really get to know the client. We find that the end of the Hyde Street Line is one of the best places to take good Cable Car photos. The Cable Cars line up here to wait to go in for their next load of passengers and so there is a nice opportunity to post the newlyweds while waiting. In the image below, we asked the couple to hang out a little from the Trolley to make it appear like they were riding. Definitely a fun shot to go with our bride’s fun dress.
San Francisco City Hall Wedding Photography for over 8 years with 400+ marriages creatively photographed
What are some of the best ways to approach City Hall wedding photography?
Challenging Lighting. One of the trickiest things about taking pictures at San Francisco city hall is the lighting. Depending upon where you are in the building the lighting can either be amazing or extremely tough to deal with. For example, the Mayor’s Balcony is difficult because just about any angle shooting away from the balcony towards the rotunda involves heavy back lighting. The Mayor’s Balcony is not only fairly dark, but everything around it is bathed in natural light. We often see amateur wedding photographers attempting to shoot their subjects by the railing with out any lighting and ultimately they will mostly just get silhouette images or blown out backgrounds. Another challenging place to shoot is in the Rotunda area where the city hall ceremonies occur. The predominate light in this area is from overhead. So if you shoot in almost any direction your subjects will have “raccoon eyes”. If you are taking pictures in the Rotunda, position yourself with your back to the Mayor’s Balcony and you will get some nice light. If you have flash, use it!
Crowd Control. We jokingly refer to this as crowd control but there is some truth to this city hall wedding photography challenge. The fact is that San Francisco city hall is a public building. Every single person in the building has the same right to be there as you. Yes, even if you are getting married! The best way to handle this simply is to go where people aren’t. It sounds simple, but virtually every non-professional wedding photographer we see ignores this advice. They spend the whole photography session on the Grand Staircase as though this was the only place in all of city hall for wedding photography. The fact is, there are 4 floors that ALL have great backgrounds and architecture to explore. As you take your couple around the building, keep your eye on the Staircase so when it clears off, you can run down and get some pictures. Meanwhile, you might find that there are some very nice other locations to photograph.
Leave the Family Behind. We often see amateur city hall wedding photographers taking their whole wedding party around the building with them when shooting the bride and groom. This is not a good idea for several reasons. Most importantly, it will make your couple inhibited as they pose for their city hall wedding pictures with an audience. Inevitably, some of the relatives with shout out suggestions and make comments. This is distracting to the photographer and the subject. The other issue is that the family and friends will get in the way of your backgrounds. You will spend more time trying to move the group then actually posing the couple. Ask the Wedding Party to either wait in the Mint Cafe or just in a neutral area somewhere. It will make your city hall wedding photography session go much smoother.
Timing is Everything. I understand that not everyone can control the timing of their San Francisco city hall wedding photography session. There are many factors that get in the way, most importantly the time of the wedding ceremony. Also many couples are restricted because of work schedules and can not choose the best days of the week. However, if some of these things ARE in your control, then by all means choose the best times of the day and best days of the week. Avoid Fridays if possible because of extreme city hall crowds. Tuesdays and Wednesdays seem to be the best days of the week for less people. If you have control of your booking time, then try for early times or late. There will be less people and especially tourists at those times.
I thought it would be fun to do an ongoing series on some of our favorite past weddings and couples. We have had so many great experiences in our 400 plus San Francisco city hall weddings that it is really hard to focus on just a few, but some do stand out due to the fun time we had. We will feature 2 weddings with each blog post. To see more wedding please go to our CITY HALL HOME PAGE
San Francisco City Hall Staircase Waving Goodbye
Tracy and James – City Hall 2013
This couple was one among our first 10 San Francisco city hall weddings and was really one of our best to that point. We were just starting to learn some of the secrets to finding the best spots at city hall and what time of the day to shoot at particular locations. Tracey especially was up for anything and wanted to try lots of new poses and ideas. We did extreme dip poses, Window shots and some new Grand Staircase ideas. A bonus for this wedding is that Tracy submitted some of our shots to the J. Crew catolog and got our wedding featured on that publication for a few years. Here are a few shots from this great wedding.
Deep Dance Dip Post at City Hall San Francisco window image Leg Kick on the Mayors Balcony
April and Michael – City Hall 2014
This wedding was one of our first marriages where the couple asked us to provide them with extensive yet affordable wedding photography coverage that also included taking pictures at their Reception. We provided April and Michael with a special package that included full city hall wedding coverage and 3 locations around San Francisco. We finished up in Downtown SF at their reception site. Throughout this extensive wedding photography tour they were always a delight to work with and so much fun.
Ring Exchange at City Hall ceremony Wedding Reception in San Francisco