How To Search for a City Hall Wedding Photographer

City Hall in San Francisco wedding couple
Railing image at the Grand Staircase at SF city hall

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.

  1. 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!
  2. 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!
  3. 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!
  4. 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.
Golden Grand Staircase at San Francisco city hall

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.

Specifics on Enforcing Guess Limit Rule at SF City Hall

Many of our clients, friends and even other City Hall wedding photographers have been asking us about how the new 6 guest limit rule is being enforced. I use the term “new” because despite this rule being in existence for many years, it was never enforced by anyone. Not the County Clerk, not SF city hall security and certainly not the officiants. It’s sudden enforcement has taken many by surprise not only because of its newness, but also because of the inconsistency of how the rule is applied. To summarize, as of May, 2019 San Francisco city hall is only allowing civil ceremonies with 6 guests maximum in attendance. This rule is stated on the San Francisco city hall website and has now become strictly enforced. But how is it enforced?

3rd Floor Ceremony with private officiant at San Francisco city hall

What Happens?

So of course, that has been the question. Let’s say you walk into the County Clerk’s office with your 12 guests. The first question that is now asked when you check in is: “How many guests do you have today?” You let them know that you have 12 and that’s when the discussions start. Depending upon the officiant you have or the time of the day there are a number of things that may happen. With all of the uncertainty, I decided to go to the top person I know in the County Clerks office and asked them. What IS the rule? The answer came back swiftly and strong. If you have more than 6, you will be forced to have your ceremony in the Private room. They will no longer allow you to have that large of a ceremony in the Rotunda. Period. I went further and asked what happens if they have so many guests that they will not fit in the private room (fits about 20, but very crowded). Basically the answer came back that we will stuff as many people in the private room as possible and the rest just have to wait outside. In practice, we have seen other ways of handling larger crowds, but its probably because they were still trying to figure out how to fairly treat brides and groom getting married at city hall. It seems now that the rules are going to be strictly enforced.

What are our Options?

You have showed up to your San Francisco city hall wedding with too many people, what can you do? One option that some people are doing is to just bring 6 people into the Rotunda and the other will have to watch from afar. You can also use the Private room, but then do your own celebration later in other parts of SF city hall. If you have the time and the money, you can book a reserved ceremony at the Mayors Balcony or 4th Floor North Gallery for the price of $1,000 for 1 hour. But this would have to be done well in advance of your wedding date.

Best SF City Hall Wedding Photography Locations

Best SF City Hall wedding photography locations - the 2nd Floor Hallway
Second Floor Hallway at San Francisco City Hall

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.

Grand Staircase at San Francisco city hall
Grand Staircase at SF City Hall

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.

Mayors Balcony at San Francisco City Hall
Mayors Balcony

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.

Easy Wedding Photography

Candid city hall ceremony image
Fun Walking shot at City Hall in San Francisco

What do we mean by “Easy Wedding Photography” and how is it accomplished? Why even try to make it easy? Easy for who?

I decided to write this blog post in response to a very common concern among engaged couples looking for a city hall wedding photographer. These types of concerns are especially prevalent with grooms:

  • Will wedding photography dominate our day?
  • Are we going to have to do a lot of silly poses?
  • Is the wedding photographer going to be difficult to deal with?
  • Will we feel uncomfortable during the formal shoot?
  • Will the wedding photographer listen to our concerns or suggestions?

Notice that none of these VERY common questions have anything to do with the quality, quantity or cost of the wedding photos. Yes, you would think that our clients would be more concerned about those types of issues. After all, isn’t that the most important thing? We all want great photos and lots of them for a low price. Oddly enough, however, we receive a great many emails and calls asking questions that are more related to the how the shoot will go and what will be required. I recently almost lost a wedding booking because the groom decided that he didn’t want to go through with hiring a professional city hall wedding photographer because he thought it would make him feel uncomfortable to pose for pictures. After some reassurance that I would strive to make the photo shoot “easy” the couple went ahead and booked.

San Francisco City Hall couple waiting to get married

Keeping Wedding Photography Comfy

So it is obvious that this is a valid concern among our clients. Who wants to have no fun on their wedding day? Who wants to spend the entire day taking wedding photos? With a few exceptions, the answer is nobody. Most people want to have brilliant wedding photos with a small amount of fuss and time spent. Is this realistic? The answer really depends upon the expectation of the couple. Consistent with this same topic, many of our engaged couples let us know that they want mostly candid photos on their wedding day. I always let them know that we are happy to provide them any type of photography coverage that they prefer, but I am also quick to point out that San Francisco City Hall weddings may not have as many candid moments as a typical wedding would have. There is no dancing, no cake cutting, no toasts and often times no guests. The candid moments need to be created by the wedding photographer in most cases. We do this by having the couple walk hand-in-hand through out the building and interact as though they were just touring the building. But obviously not all of the photos can be walking shots. We mix it up and try to put the newlyweds in other interactive situations. We even might sit them down on the Grand Staircase and just have them interact and talk. Some of our best images can be born out of these contrived situations. Keep the wedding photography easy and you will end up with great final images!

Laughing while posing for pictures at SF city hall

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!

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!

Embrace the Crowds at SF City Hall

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!

SF City Hall Wedding Photographer

Dance Dip at SF City Hall
Dance Dip at SF City Hall

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.

The Grand Staircase at city hall in Sepia Tone
The Grand Staircase at city hall in Sepia Tone

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

Some SF city hall wedding photography
Some SF city hall wedding photography

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.

Affordable Package

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.

The Legion of Honor in San Francisco
The Legion of Honor in San Francisco