Why do my images look the way they do?

I want to get down to brass tacks in this article, drilling down into how my City Hall images are made (read this post for more about that!) and what factors affect the finished result.

A big part of what I do is education and generally making sure I’m the right fit for you before you book. So let’s dive in to figuring out how the following elements impact your wedding images!

My approach

My approach to photography overall is fresh and modern yet timeless. I try not to overthink it, just want to capture moments organically as well as the important moments of your SF City Hall wedding day.

It’s easy to take a great photo of people smiling at the camera, and we do that every day with our phones.

Capturing the moments

What’s more difficult – and arguably more valuable – is capturing the moments that are gone in a heartbeat. The ones you don’t normally get to see because they are so fleeting and that you didn’t even know were happening. The in-between moments.

I emphasize this with my couples before onboarding so there can be no doubt that this is where my strengths are. Sure, the approach is not for everybody. Some want a more traditional, posed, smiling-into-the-camera approach for every image.

That’s fine, but I won’t be the right fit for you if that’s the case. There are plenty of other City Hall photographers who happily put this forward as their strength.

The process

My photo-making process that I’m going through in my head is #1: light. #2: moment. #3: location. #4: composition. Great photos have all 4.

Once you’ve made your decision, the rest of the process is you trusting me to capture everything that will vividly bring the day back to you so you can relive both what happened and how you felt.

Let’s go outside

As part of what I offer with my packages beginning at 2 hours, I strongly recommend going outdoors for some portraits.

Even if we are right outside City Hall and not in the most epically beautiful location imaginable, I use light to create stunning images which is really one of my strengths.

City Hall clients don’t get to see this side of my work as much, because we’re sometimes indoors for 90% of the coverage!

I have had many former clients though tell me that their favorite images from the whole day were the 10 that we took outside on the steps. So as beautiful as the indoors of the building is, I say let’s make time to go outside.

Photography style

I shoot backlit when we’re doing portraits and the sun’s out. That means the sun is behind you, the subject, for the most part. This creates beautiful sunflare which is a signature style of mine, something I’m forever chasing.

You’ll be haloed by light with a soft glow around you. Lighting on your skin will be even with no shadows. You won’t be squinting. It’s a warm, flattering, wrap-around light.

Backgrounds that are light-colored such as sea and sky will be overexposed (also known as ‘blown out’). This is an intentional stylistic choice.

Backlit shooting produces less contrast and less saturation. Everything looks soft and dreamy, ethereal almost. It’s also known as a ‘fine art’ look as it emulates film, though I shoot digital.

Some City Hall weddings also include a reception. In a dark space, I use flash (mostly on-camera) to light up my subject while still preserving the ambiance.

My preference is to shoot as much as I can without flash (just bumping up the camera’s ISO, which creates photographic grain or ‘noise’, which I remove as much as I can in post-production).

montage of two bride and groom images from SF City Hall

Editing style

This is a biggie!

There are many editing trends in wedding photography that you may have seen in your search. Editing is like when you slap a filter on a photo – it changes the colors, tones, contrast, exposure and a whole host of other things.

Some of them make everything look very warm (orange, almost). Others make everything desaturated, or greens look brown. More dated editing styles actually add saturation.

My editing style is nothing crazy. I use one simple preset I created myself in 2016 and I’ve no intention of changing it. It creates images that are consistent, punchy with a slightly film-like look. I then make adjustments to each picture individually.

I change relatively little in post-production, and my straight-out-of-camera images are usually not dissimilar from the finished product. But other times, a lot of work is required in post to create the image that I saw in my mind’s eye when clicking the shutter.

For timeless wedding images that stand the test of time say no to trendy editing styles that will look dated quickly!

As you can probably imagine, the editing part of the work I do is what takes the longest and it isn’t possible to re-edit a gallery once delivered.

Shooting and editing are closely intertwined, so if there is an issue with the edits, it’s likely linked to the actual photography which cannot be changed after the fact.

later in the day Christmas ceremony at SF city Hall by tree

This ceremony was on the shortest day and the last time slot of the day, but you can hardly tell the quality of light being any different!

Time of day for City Hall

City Hall has marginally better light in the mornings than afternoons, but I would not want to overstress that, as it isn’t a huge difference to my eye.

The only real difference is if you selected a time during the winter months when the sun had already set. There would be little daylight, and more artificial light.

However due to the relatively early time of the last appointment slot of the day, and the earliest the sun sets in December, it really isn’t that much of an issue.

Time of day for portraits

I try to show only images that were taken at actual SF City Hall weddings, so you can get ideas of what’s actually possible for your wedding day.

Oftentimes we are not dealing with the most stunning sunset light on the most beautiful beach, but we are utilizing areas that are nearby and I’m using the light in a favorable way.

Light makes the photo, and it’s the light that I’m most concerned about. If it’s the middle of the day when we’re doing your couples shoot, I’ll likely position you in the shade or so the sun is behind you if it’s low enough in the sky.


Shakespeare Garden wedding photo at first light

After this early morning ceremony we were able to capture beautiful light at Shakespeare Garden, Golden Gate Park


The most important consideration here is indoors vs. outdoors.

Even what we consider ‘light-filled’ buildings like SF City Hall require a very high ISO on the camera, which results in photographic grain in the photos and a yellowish color cast that is just never as beautiful as natural light.

Anything outdoors (even midday sun) allows for more beautiful, natural colors without that yellow color cast.

It’s why many photographers deliver only black and white photos from parts of the day with challenging lighting such as indoor light that the camera sees as yellow.

Also bear in mind, if you choose a dark location, you won’t get light-filled images. Even what looks light and bright to our eye can be seen as dark to even the best professional cameras.

Whatever the case, we can make it work, but using flash or a high ISO will give a different feel. That is something to ask your photographer about if you want to find out more.

wedding couple on baker beach on rainy SF wedding day

This couple had rain on their City Hall wedding day when we were on Baker Beach for their portraits


During rainy wedding days, we could get darker skies and darker ground where it’s absorbed water, or reflective surfaces on the ground if there’s still water there. Rain gives everything a sparkly freshness, that I think photographs well.

I’ll typically bring my big see-through umbrella that you can both get under during the couples’ pics. I encourage getting out into the rain!

Aside from golden hour sun, my favorite lighting condition is overcast (including cloudy/ foggy/ rainy) when we can shoot in just about any direction without causing harsh shadows and blackened eye sockets. The sky acts as a giant softbox, so it’s very flattering light.

It also allows for maximum flexibility as we’re not as limited by sun position but there are other technical considerations when shooting on overcast days.

So much choice!

You as the customer have so much choice these days when it comes to wedding photography. You can, and should, find the photographer whose work and style you really, really love – no ifs or buts.

You can find someone that’s right for you without compromising your budget, style or preferences.

I have a huge network of trusted pros at every price point and experience level. Each has a different set of skills and artistic sensibilities that I am able to tune into and pass my customized recommendations to you.

images showing mayors balcony at sf city hall and bouquet

Right-fit clients = happy clients

I serve clients who love my work, know what to expect and trust me. The first step of that trust is built through understanding. The next step is making sure you’ve seen complete wedding galleries from recent weddings just like yours.

Sharing this article today because it’s in both of our interests to make sure that you’re going to be thrilled with your wedding pictures! If anything you read here sparks a thought, concern or question please get in touch!

Be sure to share and leave a comment if you found this article helpful!

san francisco wedding photographerZoe Larkin is a San Francisco-based wedding photographer specializing in San Francisco City Hall weddings. Zoe creates images that evoke a range of emotions, combining documentary photography with a stylized edge. Her work has been published on A Practical Wedding, Offbeat Bride, Rock n’ Roll Bride, Equally Wed and Catalyst Wed Co among others.

What affects the look of my City Hall wedding images?

city hall tips

August 2, 2019


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