Beyond Wedding Photos

Checking in with the County Clerk
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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!

Happy Bride and Groom with Marriage Certificate and officiant
Happy Bride and Groom with Marriage Certificate and officiant

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!

Groom kissing bride on the 3rd floor of SF City Hall
Groom kissing bride on the 3rd floor of SF City Hall

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.

Bride and groom in front of city hall sign while twirling her dress.
Bride and groom in front of city hall sign while twirling her dress.

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!

Best City Hall Wedding Photography

San Francisco Wedding Photography at City Hall
San Francisco Wedding Photography at City Hall

Asian Wedding at the Palace of Fine  Arts
Asian Wedding at the Palace of Fine Arts

What are some of the best ways to approach City Hall wedding photography?

  1. 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!
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Asian Wedding at SF City Hall
Asian Wedding at SF City Hall

Flowers at SF City Hall

I am writing this blog post because we have had a number of brides at city hall show up without flowers. San Francisco city hall is an amazing place to have your wedding ceremony. The architecture alone is incredible but there is even more to this story. Because of the way the building is oriented, the natural light can pretty amazing at times. As a City Hall wedding photographer, you learn where to go at certain times of the day to capture this light. The windows are also incredible, not only because of the light they let in, but also the designs on the windows themselves. The only small problem with photographing weddings here is that the backgrounds are all very neutral. You have a mixture of white and gray and many shades in between. For this reason flowers make an incredible difference. Just adding that little splash of color can really enhance a wedding photo here.

City Hall Image with Flowers
City Hall Image with Flowers

As you can see from the above photo, the image is enhanced by the color added from the bride’s bouquet. Even the boutonniere worn by the groom makes a difference. We are able to produce wonderful images even without flowers, but we highly suggest you consider bringing even a small arrangement. I honestly think that some City Hall brides dont even think about the possibility of flowers because its a civil ceremony. But San Francisco city hall is so different because of the elegance of the building! Here is a link to a city hall florist that we have liked in the past just in case you need ideas.

Another fun thing about bringing a Bouquet is you can throw it.

Another fun thing about bringing a bouquet to your city hall wedding is that you can throw it! Its kind of obvious who was going to catch it this time, but still a fun shot. For more information about our SF City Hall Wedding Photography service check out our Yelp Reviews. We feel that it is more important to carefully read the reviews than to look at the rating. We always try to help our brides and grooms out with the process of getting married at City Hall and this is reflected in our Reviews. Providing advice on flowers is just one aspect of how we try to assist our Newlyweds.

Valentines Day at San Francisco City Hall

Checking in on Valentines Day

Valentines Day is coming soon and City Hall is going to have it’s usual mass wedding party.  The last few years at city hall in San Francisco, the County Clerks office has made Valentines day into a fun marriage celebration.  Rather than have Brides and Grooms check in at the County Clerks office they set up a booth in the North Gallery on the 1st floor so they can handle the larger volume of  people expected.  On Valentines day, City Hall gives engaged couples 2 options:  1. You can set an appointment to have your wedding at the time you want it and go through the normal process, but just in a different location or, 2. You can walk in with no appointment and still get married, you may just have to wait a bit.  In the past, they have offered this service for free.  I assume that it will be the same on February 14, 2019.

On normal weekdays, the County Clerk’s office supplies 1 officiant to do weddings throughout the day.  They are able to perform 3 ceremonies in the Rotunda every 30 minutes or so.  However, on Valentines Day, City Hall brings in multiple marriage commissioners to handle the larger work load.  It will not be unusual to see 5 or 6 of them at any given time.  They are all volunteers so it is very nice of them to do this for the public on this special occasion.  I expect to be photographing at least one wedding  on Valentines Day if not more.  I still have not quite figured out how the general public finds out about this special service offered on the 14th.  There is no mention of it on the San Francisco city hall website.  In any case, it is certainly a fun event and maybe I will see you there!

San Francisco City Hall Crowd Control

City Hall Crowd Rules

The city hall website specifically states that the maximum number of guests allowed at standard civil ceremonies is 6.  The rules go on to explain that if you DO bring more than 6, city hall reserves the right to have them removed from the building.  The rules also talk about your guests being a nuisance and disrupting city hall business.  Everyone seems to know that this rule is not enforced so people often bring large numbers of guests to city hall weddings.  I recently photographed a wedding where the couple brought close to 30 guests including bridesmaids and groomsmen.   The guest were loud and didn’t really care about anyone else including the other weddings going on.  In fact, they had a guy who played a trumpet when the couple came out of the clerk’s office.

So the question is, should you as an engaged couple violate the rules and invite anyone you want and as many people as you want?  My opinion is that couples getting married at San Francisco city hall should, at the very least, respect  the spirit behind the rule.  So if you are going to go over the 6 guests, don’t go way over.  Talk to your guests about not being disruptive and make sure they understand that others are getting married at the same time.   If every couple brought 25 guests the place would be a mad house.  The rules are there for a reason, to try to keep the environment safe and quiet.

Catching the Bouquet in front of San Francisco City Hall

Reserved Ceremony Option

So what do you do if you have a large crowd but still want to get married at SF City Hall?  Contact the Events Department and talk to them about reserving a space to have your city hall ceremony.  It only costs around $1,000 and you get to have all nice section of city hall all to yourself.  They even give you 2 choices.  You can have your nuptials on the Mayors Balcony or The 4th Floor North Gallery.  Both locations are exceptionally beautiful and provides plenty of room for the couple and their guests.  You can seat up to 60 people on the 4th floor and up to 40 at the Mayors Balcony.  If you bring more guests than those numbers, the remaining guests can stand. They also rope of the area to keep others out which provides your wedding a certain amount of privacy.

Keep in mind these types of options before you decide to bring your whole family and friends to a small civil ceremony.   It will make your special day more enjoyable for you and your guests!

Why Book a Professional Wedding Photographer at City Hall

Yes, I know you are probably thinking that you have seen this type of article over and over again.  It is usually written by frustrated  professional wedding photographers who are begging  you to understand why it is so important to hire a pro.  The author will usually go on and on about the quality of work, the superior equipment and sharper and clearer pictures.  They will also spend considerable time discussing the pitfalls of having a friend do your wedding photography because they are likely to mess things up and/or take blurry images.  When I sat down to write this article for my blog, I decided I wanted to approach it differently.  Rather than stating the obvious, I wanted to provide my audience with some unique issues that they probably didn’t realize.   This blog post is also specifically about City Hall wedding photography since that is what this blog is all about!

Safety and Security

What are some of the nightmare issues I have heard about from clients about their friends shooting weddings for others?  Corruption of data, bad Flash Cards, hard drive crashes and insufficient backup systems are among the problems we hear the most about.  Professional City Hall wedding photographers including myself have a pretty complicated back up system.  Most of our pro cameras write each image photographed to 2 cards simultaneously.  This helps to lower the odds greatly that a Card Failure or corruption will wipe out your wedding memories.  Many of the so called “Prosumer” cameras do not have this feature.  Every photo I take is written to 2 cards with one being a backup for the other.  I hold on to one of the cards without deleting it until my clients have their images in their own possession.  This eliminates the possibility of loss or other failures.

If you have Uncle Bob do your San Francisco city hall wedding photography, chances are he will take your photos and then put them on a hard drive at his home.  Or he may just give you the cards.  Does this sound like a safe way to handle your precious memories?  Certainly not!  What if you lose the cards that he gives you?  What if his Hard Drive crashes or he has a house fire?  Does he have off-premises back up?  I am sure he does not.   When I shoot a city hall wedding, my cards go directly on my Computer hard drive.   Within seconds, they are also copied to my external hard drive.   They are simultaneously backed up to an off-premises location and then eventually uploaded to your secure site for viewing.   As I previously mentioned, I also keep one of the cards until the client receives their images.  So when you hire me as your wedding photographer, your images are basically backed up in 5 differently places temporarily and 3 places permanently.   Your wedding is a precious memory, it is not worth the risk of losing everything.

Tricky SF City Hall Lighting

Yes, this is a beautiful wedding venue and a great place for wedding photography, but is it easy to take pictures here?  Not really.  The huge windows and uneven lighting can give you fits.  There are some places that are impossible to shoot without a flash because of the strong backlighting.  We often wonder how some of the people we see shooting weddings without any professional lighting can get anything resembling a good result.  There are certain places in City Hall that are very dark.  Other places have unattractive overhead lighting.  This type of natural lighting will give all of your subjects “Raccoon Eyes”.    While it is true that there some some incredible locations at the city hall venue with amazing natural light, it’s not always easy to capture it.  It takes practice and experience to master the interior photos taken at city hall.

City Hall Major Events

One of the unknown things about San Francisco city hall is that they schedule large events throughout the week during the same time that weddings are occurring.  This is often surprising to many people and they don’t know how to handle it. When events are scheduled, City Hall frequently ropes off the Grand Staircase making it impossible to take photos in the area.  Since this is probably where about 75% of all photography takes place within city hall, this can be a problem.  The advantage of hiring a professional city hall photographer is that they will know other places to take you that are also beautiful and historic.  Some of these other areas may not be obvious to your amateur “friend” wedding photographer.  I know the first time I did a wedding at city hall, I had no idea about some of these other areas.  This one of the huge advantages to hiring a pro.  Not only do they know where to take you to avoid the crowds, but they also know about the “secret” locations around the building.

City Hall Staircase roped off and closed.
City Hall Staircase roped off and closed.

The above image shows what it looks like when the Grand Staircase is closed and you cannot go in.

We will post Part 2 of this article tomorrow.  Stay tuned!