If you’re in the throes of planning your San Francisco City Hall civil ceremony, you’re in the right place! In this article, I’m going to guide you through how to create your City Hall wedding timeline. Because great planning is the key to a stress-free, flawless wedding day.
Sure, a San Francisco City Hall civil ceremony is the simpler option. But even if you only have two hours of photography, it pays to have a plan locked down. You’ll thank me later!
Luckily, pinning down your timeline doesn’t need to be done until just a couple of weeks or so before the wedding day. But some couples like to get their plans smoothed out as soon as they’ve booked their photographer.
The wedding timeline is actually super helpful for figuring out how much photography coverage you’ll need for the big day. You’ll need to have this information when you’re booking a photographer. When you book with me, you can always add time on at any point in the process at the same rate as during onboarding. No gimmicky packages!
I definitely keep things real when it comes to SF City Hall wedding planning, and well – everything. My goal is that you have the kind of day you want, that is also achievable and realistic in the given time, too.
This sample timeline should help your San Francisco City Hall civil ceremony wedding day run smoothly. The name of the game is keeping things relaxed, fun and smooth – with plenty of time to savor. Let’s dive in!
A few general points to bear in mind when creating your City Hall wedding timeline
A packed timeline or a relaxed one?
Some couples really want to pack as much as possible into the photography coverage, both to get maximum bang for their buck, and to make time for other wedding day festivities.
Other couples prefer to keep things very relaxed and slow-paced with plenty of time to breathe and savor. They may even ask for a few moments when it’s just them and their partner without their guests and photographer around.
There’s no right or wrong way – just make sure your photographer is aware which camp you fall into. Most of my couples are somewhere in between!
Civil ceremonies only
All information on this page is given that you’re having a civil ceremony. If you’re doing any kind of area rental, you will have a bespoke timeline that we’ll collaborate on.
I recommend talking through your needs and preferences with your wedding photographer. Every wedding is different, and every photographer works differently. Everyone is at a different price point, operating with differing business models and offers varying levels of service and customization.
Go lower and add more time if you need it
If you are in any doubt as to how long you might need, you can always go on the lower side and then add time on as planning takes shape. My add-on hours are always the same rate whether you book them at the outset, sometime during the planning process, or even on the wedding day.
I will also point out that wedding time seems to go faster than normal time. 2.5 hours might seem crazy long when the ceremony only lasts 4 minutes. But you need to allow buffer times because, trust me when I say, things always take longer than you think!
More day-of tips
You’ll probably want more incredible day-of tips for maximizing your City Hall wedding experience.
I also have a bunch more FAQ’s including an ‘everything you wanted to know about SF City Hall weddings’ section at this link.
You can also check out my day-of tips for regular weddings, too.
Sample timeline for San Francisco City Hall wedding – ceremony at 11am or later
In this example, we’ll assume your booked ceremony time is 11am. By ‘booked ceremony time’, I am referring to the time stated on your official ceremony confirmation via the online booking portal.
With a later ceremony (late morning onwards) we’ll begin the photography just before the booked ceremony time.
10:30 Meet photographer in corridor outside room 168.
10:45 – 11:00 Photo coverage start. Check in in room 168, get your number then wait for number to be called
11:00 Booked ceremony time, head up to ceremony location on judge’s orders.
11:25 – 11:30 Probable ceremony time.
11:30 – 11:40 Candid congratulation time/ take a breather/ gauge which spot is available for group portraits and walk there.
11:40 – 12:00 Formal posed group portraits. This time slot allows for 6 groupings (can be extended if necessary).
12:00 – 12:10 Goodbye to guests + hand off of stuff.
12:10 – 12:40 Photos of the couple in City Hall (allow 30 mins for a minimal session, or 45 minutes+ for a longer session)
12:40 – 12:45 Iconic ‘just married’ shot leaving City Hall + outside
We could wrap it up there or, ideally…
12:45 – 1:05 Call Uber and depart city hall for portrait location
1:05 – 1:45 Photo session at portrait location
1:45 Photo coverage end
Sample timeline for San Francisco City Hall wedding – ceremony at 10.30am or earlier
7:45 Meet photographer at base of Grand Staircase.
8:00 – 8:40 Photo coverage start. Photos of the couple in City Hall.
8:40 – 9:00 Photos at Memorial Court on Van Ness side (back) of City Hall.
9:00 – 9:10 Walk back to City Hall, photographer must enter through Grove St loading bay due to camera equipment. Reconvene in corridor outside room 168.
9:15 Check in at room 168, get your number then wait for number to be called
9:30 Booked ceremony time, head up to ceremony location on judge’s orders.
9:55 – 10:00 Probable ceremony time.
10:00 – 10:05 Candid congratulation time/ take a breather/ gauge which spot is available for group portraits and walk there.
10:05 – 10:25 Formal posed group portraits. This time slot allows for 6 groupings (can be extended if necessary).
10:25 – 10:30 Iconic ‘just married’ shot leaving City Hall + outside
We could wrap it up there or, ideally…
10:30 – 10:50 Call Uber and depart city hall for portrait location
10:50 – 11:30 Photo session at portrait location
11:30 Photo coverage end
Notes about the ‘early morning ceremony’ timeline
In the example above, we’ll assume your booked ceremony time is 9.30am. By ‘booked ceremony time’, I am again referring to the time stated on your official ceremony confirmation, not the time you’ll actually be saying “I do”.
For an early morning ceremony, I suggest front-loading the coverage so we get the couples’ photos all done prior to the ceremony.
The reason for this is two-fold. Firstly, the iconic ‘empty Grand Staircase’ shot can only really be done at 8am or late in the day at 4pm or later. However, 8am is preferable as the light is better and it’s far likelier to be free of other people.
Secondly, we can utilize my favorite area behind San Francisco City Hall for the most incredible light in your outdoor photos. If you choose this option, a secondary portrait location is not necessary (unless you’d like to, of course!)
This light is only available in the morning (the earlier the better!) if you want to get City Hall in the background with my signature photography style.
Specific timeline points to note
Photography coverage starts 15 minutes prior to booked ceremony time
I recommend the photography coverage for civil ceremonies begins 15 minutes before the booked ceremony time.
Some photographer begin their coverage half an hour before, but I don’t see the point. There’s not a lot to photograph while you’re sitting in the windowless corridor surrounded by other couples. There is an exception to this, which I’ll touch on later.
15 minutes before the ceremony is also the ideal time to check in for the ceremony! It’s also the earliest permitted time. I meet all my couples well before this, just so we have a chance to meet and catch up.
The photography itself begins at the time you’re just about to get in line to check in. This is what I recommend. Unless others beat you to it, you’ll likely be the first to marry for your timeslot!
Your ceremony does not begin at the ‘booked ceremony time’
Your civil ceremony will not actually commence at the time that’s stated on your appointment booking.
It will kick off quite a bit later due to the intricacies of the checking-in system at City Hall. The Deputy Marriage Commissioners do not stay in one place and marry couples non-stop. They split their time, marrying (up to) 3 couples, then checking 3 in.
You’ll actually be saying ‘I do’ about 20-30 minutes after the time you’ve booked for your civil ceremony.
I’ve seen things run up to 45 minutes late on a rare occasion, but usually it stays squarely within that 20-30 minute range.
The wait can seem unbearably long with the nerves of the occasion, but please try to relax and savor this time of excitement. Don’t worry, there’s meant to be a wait, and yes it might be a full 30 minutes. It’s not running late, it’s designed this way!
Want to know what vows you’ll be saying during your SF City Hall ceremony? Check out this article which goes over the vows in full!
There is a lot of pre-ceremony waiting, which requires staying close by
The first wait you’ll encounter will be the wait to check in at the information desk of room 168.
Then after that initial check-in, you’ll be sent back out to the corridor and there’ll be another wait. This time, to meet your Deputy Marriage Commissioner – that’s judge who’ll be officiating your wedding.
Once that’s done, there’s – yep, you’ve guessed it, another short wait. This time we’ll be hanging close to the ceremony location which 95% of the time will be the rotunda. Everyone who will be part of the ceremony will make their way upstairs and stand next to this area.
You’ll need to be within earshot, as when you’re up they’ll simply shout your names from the rotunda. If you’re not there, I’m not sure what happens, but I think after a few minutes they would have to move on to the next couple that’s waiting.
This is the reason I don’t recommend using the time between check in and ceremony start to take any couples’ photos, as I wouldn’t want you to risk missing your ceremony! It’s a great time for candids and some casual couples’ shots.
If the judge tells us they have two couples ahead of you, then I would consider this enough time to get a few photos as that’s at least 10 minutes. However, with frequent no-shows, it’s always best to be safe than sorry as the judge might be ready for us sooner than anticipated!
Posed family photos should be kept as minimal as possible
This is your choice ultimately but my professional recommendation is to keep this to a maximum of 6 groupings for a City Hall wedding. The first one should be a group shot of everyone, then we’ll work our way through simple groupings of your family/ friends.
I’ve prepared a super helpful resource to help you create this list.
The list must be prepared in advance. So that your photographer isn’t chasing you for it the night before the wedding, I recommend submitting your final list to your photographer at least 2 weeks before the big day.
If there are too many photo variations on this list, I may advise you to make some changes. However, if you are set on every single photo we may have to extend the coverage or cut something else. It is really hard to stay forced-smiling for so long, so I would always prefer to see a well-curated family list than adding more time.
When we part from guests make sure they already know the plan
A big aspect of parting from your guests is to make sure they know what’s going to happen. They’ll need to know that you’ll be away from them, busy taking photos.
They’ll need to know where they should be going and what time to meet you. Try to communicate all of this well before the wedding, preferably by email or via a wedding website so they can easily pull up the information rather than asking you to repeat the plans. Are you going for a reception afterwards? If you’re still trying to figure out what might be a nice touch for your special meal, check out my dedicated guide below.
Do you know how you’ll be getting around? This is another key logistical aspect that needs planning. Winging it may be stressful!
We need to guard this precious time to take photos as we won’t have too long left. The couples’ photos are the most important and beautiful ones of your whole wedding day.
During this guest departure time, make sure you hand off any personal items to a guest. We’ll want to move around the building and any other locations unencumbered. I love getting shots of just walking and all the in-between shots, so I may carry the personal items you have with you to keep them out of the shots.
Please be mindful of the amount of personal belongings that your photographer will have to carry on their back or hide in every photo! You can check out more day-of tips at the link below.
Your photographer will tell you whether to use the front or back of the building for the ‘leaving City Hall’ shots
I’m a real stickler for great light. It comes with the territory, honestly. However, I’ve noticed some photographers don’t make much of a distinction between the morning light vs. afternoon light when it comes to the outdoor shots.
For me, this is huge and where my intimate, advanced understanding of light comes into play. I’ll guide you to the correct side of the building that makes sense given where the sun is in the sky at the time we’re ready to take those shots.
I assume you don’t want high-contrast, unflattering photos with squinty eyes and shadows under your nose! The ability to use light beautifully in photos is one of the main reasons to hire me to shoot your City Hall wedding!
Couples’ portraits outdoors in natural light
I really recommend photos outdoors in natural light after your City Hall wedding. Even just for 10 minutesI feel so strongly about this! You will definitely want to carve out time for gorgeous photos outside in great light – whatever the weather or time of day. Ideally a couples’ photo session lasts 30 minutes, but any time is better than nothing.
Why? Photos taken indoors have a yellow/ orange color cast that’s unavoidable. To most people, it isn’t very noticeable but when you see how flattering and true-to-life outdoor photos are, you’ll see.
As well as this, photos taken indoors require cameras to push their settings to make use of any available light. Though to our eyes, San Francisco City Hall seems bright, to even the best cameras it’s dark.
This means you’ll see more photographic ‘noise’, which even when corrected will never look as good as photos taken with no grain.
Bottom line is that natural light is the most flattering to all skin types, tones and colors. Also when we have such a beautiful city right on our doorstep, it’s a no-brainer. No time? No problem, we can just stick to the immediate vicinity of City Hall.
Or, for locations within 3 miles of San Francisco City Hall that don’t require walking, check out my guide linked below.
To wrap up!
Thank you for reading my guide to creating your wedding timeline for your San Francisco City Hall civil ceremony. I hope your day goes smoothly, and is incredibly fun and filled with love!
Remember, you have many different options when it comes to your wedding at SF City Hall. The full guide is below, plus a few other options that may be of interest below that.
Hopefully, this will be useful whoever you choose as your San Francisco City Hall wedding photographer. If you are still looking for a photographer for your civil ceremony, you can find out about my SF City Hall wedding photography services here and read all the other helpful City Hall wedding planning articles here.
Not ready to book? Pin this article to your San Francisco City Hall wedding planning Pinterest board! Check out my City Hall Pinterest boards here.