Planning your San Francisco City Hall ceremony and need a guiding hand? In this article, I’m going to guide you through how to create the perfect SF City Hall timeline for your wedding. Because seamless, stress-free wedding days don’t just happen, they’re planned!

There are numerous benefits to creating your timeline, no matter how casual you’d like your San Francisco City Hall wedding day to be.

Firstly, you’ll be able to figure out how much photography coverage time you’ll need. 

Secondly, you’ll be able to design the day you want. The City Hall ceremony is just one part of your wedding day, so we totally understand the flexibility you need overall. 

Thirdly, a little advance planning means you’re free to savor your wedding day. You can focus on each other, knowing that the heavy lifting has already been done!

This guide is meant to help anyone planning a San Francisco City Hall wedding, but it’s mainly a reflection of how I work with my clients. I recommend talking through your preferences and priorities with the photography business you’ve chosen. Every wedding is different, and every photographer works differently, with varying business models and levels of service and customization.

photos from a relaxed san francisco city hall elopement
Photos from a relaxed SF City Hall elopement | Zoe Larkin Photography

Still looking for an SF City Hall wedding photographer? Find out more about our services at the link below:

How to structure your wedding day with photography in mind

Make sure your photographer offers flexible packages so you’re able to add time later if you choose to. Sometimes, when you’re at the start of your planning process, you don’t know exactly what you need.

With Zoe Larkin Photography, our packages begin at 2 hours for San Francisco City Hall ceremonies, with additional time available up to a maximum of 10 hours, in half-hour increments. We also offer split coverage – scroll down to find out more.

Most couples book ~2.5 or 3 hours for their SF City Hall photography on average. That’s either because they’re adding other events, or don’t want to feel rushed. 

This leads me to another point for you to consider as you plan your day. You can choose between packing in as many events as possible into your time, or having a more free-flowing timeline with built-in buffers. It’s your choice! Of course, we love to suggest more time, not less – this allows us time to get more creative and build a deeper relationship with you, which leads to more relaxed shots. 

A common truism in photography is that we always get the best shots toward the end of the session. There is always warm-up time, which takes longer for some couples than others. 

In addition, we’ve had many couples who have not wanted to get overstimulated, anxious, or overwhelmed by emotion and frantic activity within the building. They knew they’d want to take breaks and even have some private moments without the photographer present. If you fall into this category, I highly recommend going with more than the 2-hour base package. 

If however, you are confident that you’ll want to move swiftly through events, then that can definitely be done to save you both time and money! 

SF City Hall Civil Ceremony Sample Timeline

Assuming a 9am ceremony – can be adjusted for any time of the day

8:00                  	Photography start time. Meeting place: base of the Grand Staircase.
8:00 - 8:45        	Romantics inside City Hall (1 helper may be present for stuff carrying/ clothing placement only if needed)
8:15 - 8:30	        Guests’ arrival time. Guests to stand and wait at the bottom of the Grand Staircase.
8:45 - 9:15        	Check in at room 168 (the County Clerk’s Office). Take your witness with you. (Photography not permitted inside check-in room and corridor waiting area).
9:00                  	Your booked Civil Ceremony slot with City Hall 
9:15 - 9:20        	Actual wedding ceremony time (estimated)
9:20 - 9:25        	Guest congrats & move to 3rd or 4th Floor to set up for formal posed group portraits.
9:25 - 9:55        	Formal group photos (see this article. Time slot allows for up to 6 groupings). 
9:55 - 10:00      	City Hall exit photo / overflow time / (any remaining time) photos outdoors in natural light

SF City Hall Civil Ceremony Timeline FAQs

When should the romantic photos of the couple be done?

My preference is to obtain romantics done pre-ceremony. This gives us a chance to get comfortable with each other first, rather than to launch right into the ceremony the minute you walk in. It also acts as a buffer in case you’re late.

It’s natural to feel a little nervous when you walk in, but having your photographer there helps calm any jitters! However, this could be switched to post-ceremony for example if you have a meal afterward and want to pad out that time.

What time does the ceremony actually start?

You’ll notice the booked timeslot in this example is 9am, yet the actual ceremony start time is an estimated 15 minutes later. This is due to the nuances of the check-in process. You should aim to check in 15 minutes before the booked ceremony time (your appointment). The total time spent checking in can be anything from 5 minutes up to 40 minutes.

The average is 30 minutes in total from entering the check-in area to the ceremony actually beginning. This is what I’ll put on your Photo Planning Doc but it could end up being slightly more or less. The longest I’ve seen a couple have to wait is 50 minutes but anything more than 40 minutes is rare.

Can photographers accompany couples into County Clerk’s office?

During the check-in time, photographers are permitted to enter and would be happy to act as your witness free of charge if requested. However, they are not allowed to take photographs in the waiting corridor or in Room 168 itself. If you have guests, it’s best if the photographer stays with the guests to obtain shots of them and ensure everyone is together in one place. 

What time should our guests arrive before our Civil Ceremony?

The ideal guest arrival time is while we’re doing the romantic photos. This works out to be 30-45 minutes before your booked ceremony time. If you have guests who are always running late, feel free to tell them an earlier target arrival time.

Due to how open the building is, they may well notice us taking photos and want to come up and talk to you. Totally understandable – they’re excited! 

Please, tell them in advance to wait all together near the bottom of the staircase. During photos isn’t the time to say hello. Your photographer is busy working hard taking photos and getting the best out of these few moments together. We need your undivided attention without distractions during this time. It’s a good idea to appoint a point person to field phone calls and ensure everyone is present and correct. 

Where should guests wait before our Civil Ceremony?

For this reason, guests must stay together in one place (ideally the bottom of the staircase), so they can be easily gathered up once you emerge from the check-in area. This is the little graphic I use to show folks the meeting place:

Annotated photo showing ideal meeting place for guests at San Francisco City Hall

Where do we take photos with our guests?

For the formal group photos, your photographer will guide you through the area that would work best. I love the 4th Floor because there is beautiful, even natural light. However, the area is available for private rentals on the 4th Floor North Gallery at 9am, 11am, 1pm and 3pm (sometimes the guests arrive earlier). During these times this area is off-limits. The South Gallery can be overly congested and oftentimes too bright due to the angle of the sun.

There are many factors to consider when determining a suitable place for your formal groupings. Your photographer will make a determination. Sometimes, stepping outside to an outdoor location such as Memorial Court might be the best option if you like that vibe!

Will we get the iconic exit photo?

The exit photo is one of the most important moments of the day. It marks the end of the 2-hour session – sometimes even slightly past the 2-hour mark if there have been any delays. The exception to this is if you’re eloping (that means only the couple is present – zero guests), we may be able to do some outdoor photos near City Hall and still keep to the 2 hours. 

Couple on the steps of City Hall after getting married
Couple on the steps of City Hall after getting married | Zoe Larkin Photography

SF City Hall Private Ceremony Sample Timeline

Assuming a 3pm ceremony – can be adjusted for any time of the day

2:15                  	Photography start time. Meeting place: base of Grand Staircase
2:15 - 3:00        	Romantics inside City Hall (1 helper may be present for stuff carrying/ clothing placement only if needed)                
2:30 - 2:45	        Guests’ arrival time. Guests to go directly to your private rented area.	
3:00 – 4:00       	Rental of space at City Hall 
3:05 – 3:30       	Ceremony time (usually around 15 minutes duration, but allowing for late-running) 
3:30 - 3:35	        Congratulations moments with guests. Photographer to clear space of chairs. 
3:35 – 3:55       	Formal group photos (see this article. Time slot allows for 6-8 groupings)
4:00 - 4:15        	Overflow time/ City Hall exit photo / if time permits, a few outdoor photos on the steps 
4:15                  	Photography end time 

SF City Hall Private Ceremony Timeline FAQs

Do we have to check in for a private ceremony at SF City Hall?

No! There is no check-in process needed. There is also no need to turn in your license straight afterward. Once your witnesses have signed, the paperwork can be dealt with at a later date. 

Why are the romantic photos taken before the ceremony?

Just like with the civil ceremony above, front-loading proceedings gives us a chance to get comfortable and warm up, plus provides a buffer in case you arrive late. It also means that you’ll be with your guests from the ceremony onward. You will not have to awkwardly say goodbye to 50+ people after the family groupings! 

Can we do the romantic photos at City Hall after the ceremony?

Yes, you definitely can. This works best if you want to fill in time between the City Hall portion of your day and going to your reception event. If you are interested in going to an external portrait location (for example the Palace of Fine Arts of the Golden Gate Bridge), you might choose to have the two romantic sessions back to back while the guests have their own plan to follow. 

What time should our guests arrive before our Private Ceremony?

The ideal guest arrival time is while we’re doing the romantic photos. This works out to be 15 – 30 minutes before your rental start time. If you have guests who are always running late, feel free to tell them an earlier target arrival time.

The chairs are usually set up as much as 45 minutes before your rental time starts. Don’t worry, your guests will not run into another wedding there as the available slots for each private area are only every 2 hours. 

Due to how open the building is, they may notice us taking photos and want to come up and talk to you. Please, tell them in advance to wait together within the private ceremony space you’ve booked. During photos isn’t the time to approach you. Your photographer is busy working hard taking photos and getting the best out of these few moments together. We need your undivided attention without distractions during this time. It’s a good idea to appoint a point person to field phone calls and ensure everyone is present and correct. 

Also ensure you let guests know in advance where your private area is! There are no signs at all within City Hall, so it’s best to send a memo out to everyone instructing them exactly how to get to the Mayor’s Balcony or 4th Floor North Gallery.

couple's first kiss on Mayor's Balcony
A successful wedding concludes on the Mayor’s Balcony | Zoe Larkin Photography

What if our ceremony starts late?

You have complete control over when you start! Your officiant and your musician should coordinate to ensure promptness as this is their area of expertise. I’ll be focusing on candids of guests, details and photographing your final moments of anticipation. 

I highly recommend starting your ceremony right on time – a maximum of 10 minutes after your rental time begins. In the example above, that would be 3:10. The reason is that there is only one hour to do your ceremony AND the formal group photos. A wedding ceremony usually takes around 15 minutes, so with a late start time (or a longer ceremony) it would end around 3:30. Then, there are candid moments of congratulations, the photographer needs to clear all the chairs out of the way. Then it’s about 25 minutes to get your 6-8 desired formal groupings. 

In recent months, I’ve noticed City Hall staff members will try to clear the space of your guests right at the end of the rental period. We can of course move to a different place (as it is a public building) to finish your groupings after we’re asked to vacate the rented area. However, this takes more time and can cause frustration to get everyone to other floors seeking a suitable photo area. 

Will there be time for candids of our guests?

Honestly, not a great deal. I’ll take photos of them right before the ceremony starts as everyone takes their places while you’re sequestered away. When we’re with you, we’re shooting all the time,so you have as many moments captured as humanly possible!

There’ll be one more opportunity for candid photos – right after the ceremony but before formal photos.

However, as this time is so limited, I do advise having your photographer capture your reception event, even if it’s just the first half-hour or so of that event (meaning an extra hour is needed on top of the two at City Hall). 

Candid photos of guests before a 4th Floor ceremony at SF City Hall | Zoe Larkin Photography

Will we get the iconic exit photo?

Absolutely! As you’ll see from the timeline, there should be time at the end of our session to revisit locations within City Hall or spend a bit more time on the exit photos in natural light. Both are great choices! And whatever the case, we will get the exit photos to finish off your City Hall photography session.

You can even opt to have one set of photos with just you two, and another with your guests lining the steps, cheering you on. Please note that depending on the busyness of the door/steps at the time we’re there, and how on-schedule we are, this can require extra time, but is usually fairly quick! 

Find about more about the specific private ceremony (weekday) options below:

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READ MORE  Mayor’s Balcony Weddings – San Francisco City Hall 

If you’re having a full buyout, I have a guide on this below (though this article you’re reading now focuses more on weekday events):

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Optional Additions to the Timeline

These are a few optional extras! Don’t be constrained by these ideas – we can truly do whatever you’d like! It’s your day. This is just what other couples have asked us to cover in the past, and how we usually organize these events. The most common add-ons are a portrait location and/ or reception coverage. I want to give you the full picture!

Getting ready 

Getting ready is not usually a part of City Hall wedding coverage, but may be a nice addition for couples that are looking for more full-day coverage as part of a larger more traditional wedding event. For some, there is something particularly special about the preparations, especially if you’re getting ready with your girlfriends/bridesmaids or family members. You can even get ready together with your spouse. We need to normalize this! 

If you’ve booked an amazing hotel, it’s a shame not to include some time for photos in the gorgeous surroundings. Check out my guide to the best SF hotels below!

READ MORE  27 best hotels to get ready at before your San Francisco City Hall wedding

Time to allow: 

Getting ready: 30 – 45 minutes per partner ideally, plus a few minutes to reset between your hotel rooms. 

Travel time by Uber: Usually around 20 minutes for most hotels you might be staying at including walking/pickup time. 

First look on site: 5-10 minutes to set up, plus 20 minutes taking romantics around hotel location.

To ease logistics, I recommend having your first look on-site at the hotel rather than taking two different cars to City Hall and having to position each of you there without seeing each other. 

Furthermore, as we’re already in this pretty location, it makes sense to capture your hotel rooms and the space we’re in. That might include a hotel’s terrace or patio, and street locations. For example at the Fairmont, there’s this pretty roof terrace, plus an ornate lobby, an iconic facade of the building, and then an opportunity to jump on a streetcar for photos. This would take perhaps another 35-45 minutes to obtain. 

Getting ready photos at the Fairmont SF
A montage of moments from getting ready photos at the Fairmont SF | Zoe Larkin Photography

First look

I have a separate article about adding a first look specifically at San Francisco City Hall as there’s a lot to consider including timing, logistics and locations. The post is linked below:

READ MORE  A wedding day 'first look' at San Francisco City Hall? Pros, cons and how to!

Time to allow: 

A first look takes about another 15 minutes. As our time is available in half-hour increments, I advise adding on a half-hour and we can use half that time for a first look and the remainder tacked on to the end of your experience. Alternatively, you can use the half-hour for a first look at nearby Memorial Court, which flows nicely into a quick photo session there, then on to City Hall!

Portrait location

There are two options I have up my sleeve that work well and serve most couples.

Memorial Court

The first idea is to use the stunning Memorial Court. It’s an elegant little park located directly behind City Hall between Van Ness and Franklin. It’s quiet, clean, and well-maintained with elegant London Plane trees and pretty gateposts. It affords phenomenal views in which City Hall is framed perfectly. 
The best time for photos here is in the morning as early as possible. The light remains pretty good up until around 11am. 

wedding photos from Memorial Court, San Francisco
Photos early in the morning at Memorial Court, behind San Francisco City Hall | Zoe Larkin Photography

Time to allow: 

An extra half-hour. It takes 7-10 minutes to walk from the places we’ll be shooting to the front entrance of City Hall where we can all enter. I’m usually working quickly there as there are a lot of great photo backdrops. 

A San Francisco location

Another option for your portrait location is to anywhere you want in San Francisco! There are so many ideas to choose from, with 36 of my favorites listed below:

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The best of the best are as follows in order of popularity:

  • Crissy Field (my favorite place to take photos with the Golden Gate Bridge) 
  • Palace of Fine Arts 
  • San Francisco Botanical Gardens
  • A particular neighborhood (for example, where you live/met!) 

Time to allow: 

An extra hour is fine for most locations. For locations with extensive walking (such as the Botanical Gardens) or possible waiting (such as Golden Gate Park’s Stow Lake Boathouse), or over a half-hour of driving/walking (such as Lands’ End / Sutro Baths), please note an extra 1.5 hours is recommended so we can comfortably cover everything. 

lgbtq wedding photos at Crissy Field with Golden Gate Bridge
A Golden Gate Bridge location can be added to your SF Cty Hall wedding experience | Zoe Larkin Photography

For my most-visited locations such as the Botanical Gardens and Crissy Field, I actually have a set route I follow that encompasses the best photo spots and is the most efficient. I have it down to a science, so you’re in good hands! Photographing in new places and learning about different neighborhoods is also super fun too! 

Reception event 

One of the best additions to your San Francisco City Hall wedding photography coverage is to add on photos from your reception! Most of our couples keep things pretty casual and low-key, with a simple meal at a private or semi-private area of a restaurant. You might decide to include more guests for this event or the same folks who attended your ceremony.

36 of the most popular San Francisco restaurant reception venues that we return to time and time again are linked below:

READ MORE  23 Top Restaurants After San Francisco City Hall For Wedding Receptions

Whether you have 6 people or 65, your reception offers an opportunity for candid photos that many of our couples want. (As well as posed groupings if you have additional folks coming.) In addition, you can incorporate as many or as few wedding traditions as you’d like. Maybe you’re having brunch at a diner, or a full, traditional wedding reception. The choice is yours, and we’re always happy to offer advice or an ear. 

Time to allow: 

As far as photography goes, we do not expect you’ll need us for the entire event duration. For a simple meal, an hour of extra time will cover the time spent getting there, some scene-setting shots, maybe cake-cutting, and candids until you’re seated. 

To help you visualize it, here are some ideas. Not all will be relevant but it may be useful to consider what you do and don’t want. The timing of an event like this are more bespoke, but usually when we cover receptions a rule of thumb that suits most casual events is an additional hour or 1.5 hours. 

  • Romantics of the couple in/ around reception space (recommend doing this prior to entering the reception, especially if it’s just photographer and couple present) – 15 -20 minutes
  • Scene setting/décor/place settings & the space while empty and pristine (for example if guests are standing in another area for cocktail hour) – 5 – 10 minutes 
  • Grand entrance (only if your guests will all be in the space prior to your arrival! Allow photographer to enter the space first and set up equipment before you enter) – 5 minutes
  • ‘Grip and grins’ with guests – throughout cocktail hour 
  • Formal guest photos (working through a list of must-get posed groupings) – only if you have more guests attending the reception that wouldn’t already be captured in the City Hall formal groupings session – 3 mins / grouping including wrangling time 
  • Table visits (either candid or posed with every group) – depends on size of group 
  • Toasts/speeches (prepared speeches only is recommended, 2 -3 toastees and <3 minute speeches recommended) – 15 – 20 mins with late-starting/breaks/overruns 
  • Food being served – depends on restaurant’s own timeline 
  • Cake-cutting (this can actually be done prior to food service to save on photography time!) – 5 mins
  • First dance & parent dances – 5 -10 mins, timing depends if room needs to be flipped prior to dancing 
  • Open dancing – usually only a part of traditional full receptions 
wayfare tavern reception after sf city hall wedding
Reception events after your San Francisco City Hall wedding | Zoe Larkin Photography

Split coverage for your reception event 

We offer something very special and unique for our San Francisco City Hall couples only. When there is a gap between your events (the City Hall portion and the reception), what do you do? You don’t want a photographer for the whole day, but might have a morning ceremony and a dinner reception. 

This is where split coverage comes in! You can have an associate photographer from my team capture the later event. Alternatively, it could be used for sunset photo sessions to take place on the same day. Please check out the full post below for more information to see if it’s a match for your event. There are some conditions that must be met, as well as additional fees: 

READ MORE  Split photography coverage - when you want non-continuous hours

To wrap up

Thank you for reading my guide to creating your wedding timeline for your San Francisco City Hall civil ceremony. My hope for you is that you create a plan for your day that fits with your vision!
I hope your SF City Hall wedding day goes smoothly, is incredibly fun and filled with love!

About Zoe Larkin Photography 

Looking for a San Francisco City Hall wedding photographer? You can learn more about our services at the links below: 

To stay connected, be sure to follow along on Instagram and reach out when you’re ready to book your photography for your San Francisco City Hall wedding ceremony. 

Pin a graphic to your Pinterest board to bookmark this blog post! Follow @zoelarkinphoto on Pinterest!

Zoe Larkin

I’m Zoe, a wedding photographer based in San Francisco! My style is candid, capturing authentic moments for my couples all over the Bay Area and Northern California. Creating content is my passion! Follow along the blog and Insta!

Plan your timeline for your San Francisco City Hall wedding ceremony

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Timeline for San Francisco City Hall wedding ceremonies

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