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!
I wanted to update this post from last year because I have some new photos to add to it. I still love this first one (see above) because it is so classic! One of our favorite City Hall Weddings from last year! We photographed the wedding of Steve and John with only 1 guest…… Their 5 month old little girl. We met the 3 of them in the hallway directly outside of the County Clerk’s office to assist them with their Ceremony check-in. After a brief meeting with their officiant we all headed up to the Rotunda to celebrate their marriage. One of the most fun things about the ceremony was that the Deputy Marriage commissioner volunteered to hold the baby while John and Steve exchanged wedding rings! This great idea helped create this classic photo that they will remember for the rest of their lives. I just love how the baby is looking right at the ring exchange of her new dads!
Dad with daughter just before the city hall ceremony
Once the ceremony was completed and the marriage sealed with a kiss, we took the happy couple around the building to take some photos. We incorporated their daughter into some of the early photos, but it wasn’t long until she had fallen asleep in her baby stroller. We took advantage of this lucky break to get some really nice poses of the couple, taking them on a tour to many of our favorite picture spots. We ended our shoot at the city hall sign out in front of the building. Perfect timing as the baby woke up and joined the couple for a posed shot in front of San Francisco City Hall.
Same-Sex Grooms posing with the Rotunda in the background city hall sign with baby
Christmas at San Francisco City Hall is always a wonderful time. The place is always very busy and the giant Christmas tree becomes the center point of this great wedding venue. For the past few years the tree has been decorated with Origami which makes for a very unique look. In addition, when evening comes the light reflects off of the Origami and creates patterns on the walls at city hall. It’s a pretty amazing scene. We photographed 6 weddings this year during the Christmas season and each one had it’s own unique feel. The primary reason for this Blog post is to just display a few photos from one of our larger weddings this Christmas season.
We started our formal shoot on the 3rd floor because city hall was pretty crowded and we were having trouble finding places without people in the background. This particular wedding was on a Friday which is definitely one of the most crowded days of the week. We have learned over the years where and when to take our brides and grooms once things get crowded. The 3rd floor is one of those places!
Once we completed our time on the 3rd floor, we headed back down to the Christmas Tree to get a few nice shots. Again, there were people everywhere and virtually no room to photograph the couple in the traditional place facing the Rotunda. Fortunately, we have alternative angles into the tree that is off to the side. Even though it’s a pretty obvious angle, many photographers without experience at city hall don’t know about it. We were able to get some fairly private images in front of the tree before moving on to our next location.
We spent over 1.5 hours at San Francisco city hall touring around taking photos and having fun. We managed to get all of the shots that most people always ask us about including the Grand Staircase and the 4th floor North Gallery. This despite the fact that City Hall had scheduled 7 reserved weddings that day, which usually brings a large number of people into the building. We were lucky to walk up to the beautiful North Gallery just when one wedding was ending and another was about to be set up.
Once we completed our City Hall photo tour, we drove the couple to Fort Point to get some professional wedding pictures with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. The couple’s family also showed up at Fort Point allowing us to include them in many of the photos. It was a fantastic way to end our day.
We have been photographing weddings at San Francisco City Hall now for nearly 10 years and have learned some interesting ideas and helpful hints throughout this time. I thought it would be instructive to share some of these thoughts with our readers to help engaged couples planning on getting married at San Francisco City Hall.
Hire a Professional Wedding Photographer – OK probably no surprise that I started with this hint since I am a City Hall Wedding Photographer. However, this is not strictly self-serving. I would highly recommend that you hire ANY of the top wedding photographers that specialize in City Hall weddings. Why? Because the top 10 or so photographers will not only take wonderful photos of your ceremony and formal shots, but they will also guide you through the process. Over these 10 years I have watched other photographers work with their clients and all of them are happy to help. Conversely, when I see couples without a photographer, they appear confused and keep doing the wrong thing with regard to activities like the County Clerk ceremony check-in. Having a helpful professional there to guide you just takes one more stressful thing to worry about on your wedding day.
Dress up and Bring Flowers – We often find that brides and grooms are surprised when they see other couples wearing formal attire. Many of them are disappointed that they didn’t do the same. I think people that are unfamiliar with SF City Hall don’t realize that people actually do formal weddings there because of the beauty of the venue. But the biggest issue we see is brides not bringing a bouquet for photography. The only negative thing I would ever say about City Hall is that the colors are all very monotone. So even though our photos come out gorgeous with the amazing backgrounds and architecture, SO much is added simply be mixing in a splash of color. It also gives the bride something to do with her hands!
Avoid City Hall Crowds – Yes, it really is possible to have your wedding San Francisco City Hall and not have other weddings and tourists everywhere. How do we avoid this? You just need to pick your spots. Tuesdays and Thursdays are the best days to get married and by far the least crowded. Some people tell me, “But we can’t get married in the middle of the week, it needs to be Friday to accommodate our friends and family”. Well if you have ever been in City Hall on “Crazy Friday”, you wont be using the word “accommodate” and “Friday” in the same sentence. Ask your friends and family, they might surprise you. Also, if you really want to have the place to yourself, get married early morning (9:30 am slot) or later (3:30 pm slot).
Consider a Reserved Ceremony – Obviously one of the big draws to having your nuptials at San Francisco City Hall is the low cost. Under $100 to get married in this beautiful historic building. However, the rules state that you should only bring 6 guests. Yes, most people ignore these rules, but you are still limited and the more people you bring the more others are disrupted. Reserving the Mayor’s Balcony or the 4th Floor North Gallery only costs $1,000 and pretty much guarantees you privacy and 1 hour of no crowds. Get married on a Friday, who cares now! You have your own space, they rope if off, and even set up chairs for your 40 guests. In addition, your wedding photographer now has at least one location to get great shots !
Georgie and Keron traveled clear across the world to get married at San Francisco City Hall. They have no friends or relatives in town, nor have they ever been here before. They just noticed online what a beautiful wedding venue city hall is and decided to elope. They rented out the entire Mayor’s Balcony so they would have privacy and not have to worry about tourists wandering through their ceremony. It is rare that couples do this, but we have seen it before and it can be a great idea. Even at $1,000 (the cost to reserve the Mayor’s Balcony for 1 hour) having your wedding at City Hall is a bargain! Where else can you have access to this beautiful old building; choose from some of the best wedding photographers in the San Francisco area; and also have your own intimate wedding ceremony? Pretty tough to find, especially in the Bay Area.
After the ceremony we took Georgie and Keron throughout the city hall building to make sure we made their trip from Australia a memorable one. They booked our Golden Gate Package so we had plenty of time to tour around the building and take some great photos. One of our first stops was the 3rd floor on the north side of the building. The light there at mid day is amazing, it’s like having your own photo studio at city hall. Artists understand that northern light is preferable due to its softness and mild intensity. We took the photo below with minimal lighting, just mostly using window light.
After spending more time in the building, they wanted to go to the Golden Gate Bridge (who doesn’t?). We drove them there in our car and the weather was amazing. We chose Crissy Field on this particular day since the air was relatively clear and the bridge was in plain site with no fog getting in the way. We put them on top of one of the little mounds of grass and got this amazing shot below. Wedding Photography at Crissy Field