This article is intended for anyone getting married at San Francisco City Hall, but primarily couples considering working with me, Zoe Larkin Photography.
It’s intended to help to manage expectations and fill you in on things that you may not be aware of, or have had no reason to ever think about before!
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. Hopefully it all makes sense but please let me know if you have any questions.
Here’s what you need to be aware of that will help you get the best of your San Francisco City Hall wedding photography experience.
Bear in mind the quality of light inside the building
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 eyes.
Definitely take a look at my previous galleries to see how this looks to you. Sure, the building has a ‘light and bright’ feel. But to get this, photographers need to apply a lot of noise reduction to the images, which has an artificial smoothing effect.
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 quite as flattering.
Allow enough time for your wedding ceremony, given that it will start later than you think
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.
It pays to be the first to check in for your booked slot! Ceremonies only last about 3 mins, so savor every moment. The key takeaway is: allow enough time!
Though the ceremony is quick, the waiting time can add up
There is a lot of waiting around time between the moment you check in (10-15 mins before your booked time) and when your ceremony actually begins. During the process of working with your photographer, they should give you realistic estimates concerning how much time to allow for the various parts of the day.
I have compiled a sample City Hall timeline linked below!
The first wait is in the corridor outside room 168 – County Clerk’s Office until your number appears on the screen. During the checking-in process, I have been told to wait outside before during heavy times.
Photography is technically allowed, but if there are too many people in the office, the officials will step in. July 2021 edit: Since reopening, City Hall is now not allowing photographers to enter room 168 or the corridor leading up to it. I’m offering a bonus 15 minutes of photo time at the end of the package you’ve booked with me to try and offset this 20 – 30 minute period without photos.
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 and wait.
Understand the booked time with your photographer
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 so you don’t end up going into overtime when it could have been avoided simply by being early.
Avoid the busy times at City Hall, unless you don’t mind people in the background
I will take care of most ‘people zapping’ (in Photoshop!) because I want you to be really thrilled with the results!
But if you’re in the middle of a super crowded area, there are likely to be other people in the shot. It’s simply not possible to make it look like it was empty in certain situations.
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. (Sorry!)
The best chance of an empty staircase and the best light is 8am – 8.15am most days, particularly Tuesdays and Wednesdays. But if you’re early, there’s more of a chance any day of the week!
Allow time, and have a plan, for travel and parking
I don’t charge travel for me to be at City Hall. However if we’re going different locations, that type of travel cost isn’t covered.
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 just let me know so I can allow extra time for walking and parking and build this into the timeline.
Budget for 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.
My regular recommendation is to choose photography locations that are publicly accessible, not private property. The good news is, there are so many around San Francisco! Get some ideas from my guides linked below:
I even have a guide that details specifically awesome portraits locations that are close to San Francisco City Hall for when timing is tight.
Take into account the 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 them. About 50% of the time I notice that the deputy marriage commissioner who marries you will face the opposite direction. So instead of getting City Hall in the background (like the above) I’ll be shooting towards the back wall otherwise they’d block your faces.
If they position themselves in the less desirable direction I will try to ask them to switch direction.
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, refused or on occasion, mocked.
Sometimes these people will be in such a serious hurry that they’ll begin the ceremony the second they are out of the elevator!
However whichever position the judge decides to stand in, we’ll get awesome pictures no matter what.
Prepare your photographer if you would like styled photographs of your wedding rings
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.
To take good photos of the rings there are a few things I need to do! Pop on the macro lens, grab a suitable swatch of fabric, or your florals for background. Then also find a light-filled position and find a platform where the rings are at eye level less a few inches from my lens. I’ll try a number of creative compositions and take a few dozen shots before reviewing and finding one that’s cool and 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 presume, as some City Hall couples don’t exchange rings and others, 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 because people are always more important.
With a traditional 8-10 hour wedding day, there’s always time (and light!) to shoot the rings, but not so much for City Hall – so make sure you communicate this to your photographer.
Keep in mind that the best laid plans sometimes don’t go quite as planned
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. 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, or skip a few spots. Or maybe you’ll choose to add time to your coverage.
Just keep in mind the timeline is the ‘best case scenario’. Things often don’t run quite as smoothly. The key is to keep a positive attitude and roll with it.
Getting married at City Hall means expect the unexpected
City Hall is home to much activity.
It’s an important public building. There are often protests, press conferences, maintenance work, busloads of tourists, school visits, gala event set-up and motion picture filming.
Hopefully not all on the same day.
Plus many folks getting married, sometimes with large groups of guests. Did you know on Fridays, San Francisco City Hall marries up to 60 couples?!
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 frequently. I’ll always try to provide an alternative solution or if you’re cool just waiting, we can! Even when you rent out the whole building, the building will not really be empty as guests always start arriving early, musicians set up and the chairs and florals are being installed.
Hopefully this City Hall fine print guide was helpful! It’s never fun to talk about but my goal is to prepare you as much as possible. Really, there are a ton of things that can help you out that as a first-timer to this process you won’t be aware of. That’s why I find it super valuable to share my expertise so it can help future City Hall couples that want some tips that will help them get the best photos on their SF City Hall wedding day!
Also check out my guide to getting married at San Francisco City Hall! Always up to date, my guide takes you through it step by step and is the planning resource you need!