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
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!
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.
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. 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
Once we got this all important photo, we took the couple around the building to take more formal wedding photography. The shot below 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 always allow 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.
I am going going to go out on a limb here and guess that you have rarely read one wedding photographer recommending another unless they were personally booked for your wedding date. That is about to change….
City Hall Wedding Photography by Michael has been shooting weddings for many years and we have discovered that it is more important to make sure the couple finds the right photographer for them rather than trying to gobble up all of the business we can. If after talking to the bride and groom and assessing the type of photographic styles they prefer it turns out we are not a match, we will tell them. I would say something like: “I am not sure we are the best city hall wedding photographer for you.” Why do we do this? We have plenty of business and would rather see the engaged couple work with an appropriately styled photographer for them. One that matches their preference and vision for their wedding.
Versatile Wedding Photographer
So the obvious question becomes: “Arn’t you versatile enough to adjust your style or demeanor to match your client?” The answer to this question is, yes we are are. However, if we sense that we are way off and have to completely change the way we approach your city hall wedding, then it is not fair to the bride and groom to mislead them. More importantly, there are quite few professional city hall wedding photographers out there that who probably will fit what you are looking for. After 10 years of city hall wedding photography we have met many of the top photographers and have come to respect and enjoy them. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them and often do. We also receive numerous referrals from them as well.
San Francisco City Hall
In conclusion I would just tell you that the most important thing is that you hire a professional wedding photographer. You have heard us say this before, but San Francisco City Hall, despite all it’s beauty, remains a challenging photographic venue. Even for professionals it remains a lighting challenge. Crowd control can also be difficult. Obviously, we would love it if you tried us first. If we don’t think we are a match, we will tell you so and suggest a city hall wedding photographer who is!
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. 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
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!