Get hitched without a hitch & read this guide of unromantic but essential need-to-knows about your City Hall wedding photography experience.
If you’re reading this you must have already received my San Francisco City Hall Pricing & Info guide.
What follows is helpful info that may help to manage expectations and fill you in on things that you may not be aware of so.
There’s more than I can go over with you on a phone call or meeting, so I really appreciate you taking the time to have a little read.
Quality of light
Photos taken indoors at San Francisco City Hall or any indoor location for that matter will have ‘noise’ or grain. Nothing is as sensitive to light as our amazing eyes, even my top of the time cameras and lenses + photo skillz.
Definitely take a look at my previous galleries to see how this looks to your eye.
Afternoons and overcast or rainy days can be quite a bit darker than mornings at City Hall.
To retain a beautiful quality of light I tend not to use flash but on super dark days I may break one out for a couple of shots.
I urge all couples to take at least some photos outdoors in the gorgeous natural daylight. Whatever the time of day and weather conditions we can make it work. Even right outside the building – it’s stunning!
Natural light is HANDS DOWN the most beautiful. Interior lights appear yellow to cameras and it honestly isn’t as flattering.
City Hall ceremonies usually start 30 minutes after your stated appointment time – it can be longer on Fridays. So for a 2:30 ceremony, expect to be saying ‘I do’ about 3pm.
This is due to the intricacies of the check-in process and your officiant (judge) splitting their time between checking 3 couples in, then conducting 3 ceremonies.
Ceremony times are on the half hour, but there 3 couples booked for each half-hour slot. So instead of having a couple booked for 2:30, another at 2:40 and one at 2:50, they are ALL booked for 2:30.
Not one of the couples actually will marry at 2:30, and the last to check in will be much closer to 3pm, plus there are frequently internal delays that we can do nothing about.
It pays to be the first to check in for your booked slot!
Ceremonies only last about 3 mins, so savor every moment.
There is a lot of waiting around time between the moment you check in (10 mins before your booked time) and when your ceremony actually begins.
The first wait is in the corridor outside room 168 – County Clerk’s Office until your number appears on the screen.
Then after meeting the judge we move upstairs to the rotunda where we need to be within earshot of the judge who will call your names when it’s your turn.
As I would never want my couples to miss their turn, and we are essentially just standing around waiting for the first 30-45 mins of your coverage, it isn’t a time to take creative portraits then as we should stay put.
The time you book with me begins at the time stated on the contract, or agreed upon by email before the wedding date.
If things run late, or if you arrive late, you can either have me leave at the original time we agreed on or you can choose to extend the coverage (in half hour increments) and pay the extra within a week of your wedding.
Note: Hair and makeup is notorious for overrunning so if you can add in a buffer of at least one hour on top of the estimated time. The worst thing that can happen is you’re early and can grab a coffee before walking in.
Get in touch for my list of amazing City Hall HMUA’s that knock it out of the park with their skills and always give you realistic time estimates.
Another note: Traffic around SF City Hall is bad. Real, real bad, like all the time. Make sure you allow plenty of time for delays.
To keep my rates as low as I can, I do not retouch City Hall images in Photoshop except at my own discretion or for an extra per-image fee.
Unless the space around you is completely free of people, there are likely to be other people in the shot being a very busy public space and tourist destination.
I often use wide lenses to get a sense of the grandeur of the place. Sometimes these will have other people in the pics. I’ll assume that you want your day represented as it really was, with all the hustle and bustle that goes along with a City Hall wedding.
That said, I usually wait for times when people around you are out of the shot until I take the photo whenever possible.
If you want that Grand Staircase shot however, let me know in advance as it will take a little more time and patience that we’ll need to build into the timeline. On Fridays I will say it’s near impossible.
The best chance of an empty staircase and the best light is 8am – 8.30am most days, particularly Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Travel and parking
I don’t charge travel for me turning up to City Hall. However if we’re going different locations, that type of travel cost isn’t covered by me.
I recommend using Lyft/ Uber for maximum efficiency and I’ll ride with you. It cuts down on walking time or parking time.
Timeline advice is given assuming travel will be via Lyft/ Uber (or of course if you have a limo driver or friend-turned-chauffeur, sweet!).
If you are driving that’s fine just let me know so I can allow extra time for walking to the car and parking.
Entrance fees & photography permits
Any entrance fees to attractions and so on, or permits required for portrait locations must be paid for by the client.
You’ll be responsible for finding out about advance permits required for commercial photography whether spaces are private or public. But I can help out and share my expertise.
Usually it’s fine to just grab a few photos in most spots even if permits are *technically* required, and I’m down with that! However I always advise getting advance permission to avoid disappointment on the day.
Judge (officiant’s) standing position
My preference for rotunda ceremonies is to have the judge facing the back of City Hall, with the grand staircase behind him or her. About 50% of the time I noticed that the deputy marriage commissioner who marries you will face the opposite direction, so that instead of getting City Hall in the background (like the above) I’ll be shooting towards the back wall otherwise they’d be blocking your faces.
If this position themselves in the less desirable direction I will usually try to ask them if they would kindly switch direction so it will make for better pictures for you.
Judges are retired people that have spent their lives in a position of authority. It is not uncommon for my polite request to be ignored or refused, which is not within my control once I’ve asked them.
Sometimes we’ll get one that’s in such a serious hurry that they’ll begin the ceremony the second they are out of the elevator and there isn’t a chance for me to ask.
However whichever position the judge decides to stand in, we’ll get awesome pictures no matter what.
Engagement / ring styling
If you’d like photographs of your wedding and engagement rings, please let me know ahead of time. Styling the rings takes about 10 minutes and I’ll need to add this time to the schedule without compromising the time we’ve set aside for other things.
To take good photos of the rings, I need to switch to my macro lens, find a swatch of fabric from my case or use your florals to make a suitable background, be in a position with a ton of light, find a platform where I can set the rings up less than one foot from my lens, keep very still, try a number of creative compositions and finally take a few dozen shots before reviewing and finding one that I like which is also in focus.
It takes time for me to do this work! Just holler if your rings are an important part of your wedding day and you want photos. I never judge, as some City Hall couples don’t exchange rings and some, their rings are unimportant to them.
I wouldn’t cut short precious portrait time or family formals time to get these kinds of detail shots, but if you let me know ahead of time I can do my best to get some good pics.
With a traditional 8-10 hour wedding day, there’s always time (and light!) to shoot the rings, but not so much when your coverage is only 2 hours and completely packed to the brim, and we’re in a darker space.
The best laid plans
Often City Hall is chosen because of the idea of it being so quick and easy. However, I’ve rarely seen a day – or even just a couple of hours of photo coverage – go exactly as planned.
There are many things that cause delays, and it only takes a couple of things to run a few minutes late and suddenly we are an hour behind.
The most important thing is to roll with it. Maybe we have to trim down the family portrait grouping list, skip a few City Hall spots or cut out a portrait location. Or maybe you’ll choose to add half an hour to the time you’ve booked.
Just keep in mind the timeline is the ‘best case scenario’ and it’s good to have a specific and detailed plan, but due to so many factors beyond our control (you’ll see!) it will likely diverge to whatever degree from our timeline.
The nature of it being City Hall
City Hall is home to much activity.
It’s an important public building and there are frequently protests, press conferences, maintenance work, busloads of tourists, school visits, gala event set-up and motion picture filming.
Plus the dozens of others getting married, sometimes with very large groups of guests.
The best thing to do is roll with it! Maybe the spot you were hoping for is out of bounds on the day or something huge is being set up at the exact time we’re shooting.
It happens very frequently. I’ll always try to provide an alternative solution or if you’re cool just waiting, we can!
Want more info? Check out my 10 City Hall Weddings Tips, guide to the complete process of getting married at City Hall, and all my City Hall blog posts!
Zoe Larkin is a San Francisco-based wedding photographer originally from London. She specializes in City Hall weddings. Zoe creates images that combine documentary photography with a stylized edge. Her work has been published on A Practical Wedding, Offbeat Bride, Equally Wed and Catalyst Wed Co among others. Read more about Zoe here.