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!

Grand Staircase at City Hall

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

Everyone wants photos of the Grand Staircase at San Francisco City Hall.  It is the central theme in this amazing building and so consequently every bride and groom wants their photo taken  there.  Obviously this presents a massive problem…..  Not only do all 35 couples who get marred at city hall on a daily basis want there photo on the Grand Staircase, but the tourists love to hang out on the stairs and take their own photos.  It can be a huge challenge especially on Fridays to get a nice image with the Staircase not completely covered by other people.   So how do we as San Francisco city hall wedding photographers, handle this problem?

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

Timing is Everything at City Hall

We have quite a few different techniques for getting the important Grand Staircase wedding photo.  Our most effective way of handling this is to just keep our eyes on the staircase as we take our brides and grooms around the building.  If we suddenly see the staircase clear of people, we change our  pattern and head straight down to it as soon as we can.  Many times when we do this, the staircase is already loaded with people again by the time we get there.  Mostly, though this technique works great.  We have discovered over the years that people tend to walk around city hall in large groups so when one group descends on the  Grand Staircase another smaller group may go in a different direction.  The idea is to be ready when the small group is nearby and the large group has left.  You can see from our photos that we are quite successful getting this shot at our various weddings

Late night Staircase Image Late night Staircase Image

The image above was taken at a time which also illustrates the importance of timing at city hall.  We set this image up at around 5:30 pm and it was our final shot of the day.  The other technique for getting the Grand Staircase shot is doing it very late in the day after people leave.  So this teaches us that if the staircase shot is very important to you, book your wedding late in the day.   The last ceremony time is 3:30.  Book that one and by the time you get married and we complete our city hall photo tour it will probably be around 5:00 pm.  A very good time to take photos of the staircase with less people around!

City Hall Staircase shot from above City Hall Staircase shot from above

San Francisco City Hall Events

We always talk about how great San Francisco City Hall is for weddings and of course Wedding Photography.  There are so many iconic locations to shoot here, most notably the Grand Staircase, Rotunda and Mayor’s Balcony.  Wonderful backgrounds for wedding photography with amazing early 1900’s architecture.  However, were you aware that there are times that you will arrive at city hall to get married and some or all of these places are not available and roped off?  This is the big secret that The County Clerks office never tells you when you sign up to have your ceremony at city hall.  Brides and grooms are frequently surprised when they learn that the  most beautiful background in San Francisco is unavailable on their wedding day.  Why?  Because an event has been scheduled at the same time as your wedding!

San Francisco Events

San Francisco just happens to be one of the favorite places on the West Coast for companies to schedule their special events.  In addition, local entities such as the Opera House, The Symphony and even Google love to have their events in San Francisco.  Guess what is one of the most popular event locations for elegant events?  Yes, San Francisco city hall!  There have been times that we as wedding photographers have walked into the building ready to shoot a wedding only to see hundreds of people milling about wearing fancy clothes.  Half of the building can be closed off and they provide you a narrow path through the mess to get to the Clerk’s office to have your ceremony.  The fact is, SF City Hall does not guarantee you access to the whole building when you reserve your ceremony time.  The only thing they promise you is that you will have a legal marriage.  Nothing else is promised, but of course full access is implied.  So what does a bride and groom do to avoid this happening to them?

Scheduling is Everything

Through the years I have attempted to find a good web page that is kept up to date and lists city hall events in San Francisco.  I have never found one that is actually updated.  Most are just blank pages and some show past events.  Thus, the only thing an engaged couple can do is try avoid scheduling their wedding on the prime event days and times.

Days and Times to Avoid Booking

  • Fridays should be avoided, but if you have to, make sure it is early morning only.  The Staircase can often be closed all day or they start setting up late in the afternoon.  The building hosts music and some form of entertainment almost every Friday at Noon.
  • Thursdays, especially after 3 pm.  This day of the week is also quite popular for events.  Sometimes if San Francisco city hall is going to have an all day event on Friday, they will start the set up late on Thursday.
  • In general, any day of the week after 3 pm .  Even though it is rare, there are events early in the week.  If city hall schedules them, it will most likely be in the evening or late afternoon.

The tough part of all of this is that the late afternoon times are some of the best for wedding photography and no crowds.  So we often recommend that people book  the last ceremony of the day because city hall starts to become less crowded late in the afternoon.  For me, the best times and days of the week overall are Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons.  There is  a small risk of an event, but overall the experience is usually good on these days late.

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!