We worked with a great couple last week and I wanted to talk about it while it was fresh in my mind. Yuan and Tracy chose our Golden Gate package which provided them with 1 additional San Francisco photography location after we finished at City Hall. They choose to go to the Legion of Honor and we drove them there. One of the things I offer couples who choose this location is the chance to take a quick photo of the Golden Gate bridge in addition to the Legion of Honor. This is because it so close by and easy to access with just a short drive. In fact, if it is a nice day, you would actually walk to the second location. We often take couples to the 17th hole at Lincoln Park golf course to get the bridge picture, but this time we went to Lands End. What a great place to get a photo of the Golden Gate Bridge! Also present at Lands End are nice walking trails and beautiful tall trees. The Lands End location is not walking distance away however. Update: With the road being under construction next to Lincoln Park Municipal Golf Course we have been taking all of our couples to Land’s End for the Bridge picture. Not sure how long it will take for the construction to be completed, but until that time we will not be taking our couples to the 17 Hole. It doesn’t really matter, however, because the Lands End view is spectacular.
City Hall Photography Tour
Before we embarked upon our journey to the Legion of Honor we of course needed to complete our wedding photography tour at San Francisco City Hall. It was very important to Yuan and Tracy to get a shot of their entire wedding party in front of City Hall’s famed Grand Staircase. Fortunately, they booked a later ceremony (3:00 pm) and thus city hall was starting to clear out shortly after we were ready to start their professional wedding photography. This is something to keep in mind when planning your wedding. If possible, choose a ceremony time NOT in the middle of the day when things are the most busy. We suggest 9:00 am and 3:30 pm. After completing some smaller family combinations, we took everyone down to the bottom of the Staircase including the Bride and Groom. We managed to have some moments where the staircase became relatively clear of tourists and other weddings allowing us to get a clear shot! See below to check out their image. Very luck to capture an image like this with no other people in the background. No Photoshop needed!
Once we recorded this all important photo, we took the couple around the building to take more formal wedding photography. The shot at the top was done in the 2nd floor hallway. We always like to do some fun shots with our brides and grooms to get them warmed up. We also wanted to figure out if they were interested in doing some more fun photos or preferred to keep it more simple. We ask our clients to let us know the style of wedding photography they want.
The package that Yuan and Tracy choose provided them with 2.5 hours of coverage with that extra location already discussed above. This is the least expensive of our Tour Packages. Once we completed their wedding photography we took them to the San Francisco location of the reception, Jardiniere. Note: Unfortunately Jardiniere is no longer in business. Such a great food destination for our couples, it is a shame it closed. Fortunately, there are a number of good places to eat in the Hayes Valley area close to SF City Hall. One of our favorites, Absinthe, is highly recommended and caters to wedding parties! It is also walking distance from your wedding at City Hall.
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
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, but requires a little patience. 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. Admittedly, some of the photos have been Photoshopped to remove one or two straggling tourists!
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
I wanted to add the view above to this Blog post because it is not one you typically see at city hall. Most wedding photographers shoot the staircase while facing it and for good reason. But I am always trying to come up with new ideas and I have not seen this angle too frequently. Never exactly like this. I love this view because it show the patterned floor really well but also lets you know that the Grand Staircase is there!
Many wedding photography Blog posts tell their readers how to choose the best wedding photographer. Certainly a good thing to know and very important, but in this post I want to help you FIND the best San Francisco city hall wedding photographer. Let’s go over some practical steps that will assist you in locating and ultimately booking a premium photographer for your wedding at SF City Hall.
Google Search – When it comes to finding the best City Hall wedding photographers many people use Google with good results. Do top search results guarantee a great wedding photographer? No, but it is a start. Chances are, you will get a nice list of some of the more experienced San Francisco city hall wedding photographers. Once you have that list, start carefully researching each company. Don’t assume that top ranked sites are the best wedding photographers. Look at the photos, read the content, then decide!
Yelp Research – Another thing you can do with the list that Google helped you develop is check each of the results out on Yelp. You may learn some interesting things about each company. Whenever looking at Yelp results of any kind, be sure to not just focus on the ratings. It is just as important to read about each prospect and see what people like best about them. The quality of the city hall wedding photographs is important, but how does the professional act at your wedding? Are they easy to work with? These types of questions can usually be answered on Yelp. In addition, you can actually do your search right on Yelp and check out those results!
Contact other Brides and Grooms – Start asking around and you might be surprised at what you discover. SO MANY people get married at San Francisco city hall, I find that just about everyone locally either knows someone who has been married at city hall or has themselves! You will be pleasantly shocked to hear how many of your friends know something about finding great wedding photographers. I just met a couple through mutual friends and told them I was a professional SF city hall wedding photographer and they told me that they had been married there themselves less than 4 years ago!
Talk to the City Hall Event Department – The Event department has a list of approved wedding photographers that they can refer if you ask. Generally, they won’t offer up recommendations, but are happy to provide you with options should you choose to inquire. Their suggestions are based upon years of working successfully with a few professional city hall wedding photographers.
What NOT to do: In general, it is best to avoid asking other wedding vendors for photography recommendations unless you know the person well. Many wedding vendors trade referrals in order to help each other out. So this really tells you nothing about quality or dependability.
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.
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.
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!)
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.
San Francisco City Hall Wedding Photography for over 8 years with 400+ marriages creatively photographed
Asian Wedding at the Palace of Fine Arts
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.
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!