Helpful Hints for your San Francisco City Hall Wedding

We have been photographing weddings at San Francisco city hall for over 12 years and have learned quite a bit in that time. We thought we would share some of our insights and ideas for helping make your low-cost SF city hall wedding go as smoothly as possible.

Bride and Groom walking up the Grand Staircase at SF City Hall

Best Time to Book your Wedding at San Francisco City Hall

Yes, this is a common question and one that is not easily answered. After all, this is San Francisco, the weather and thus the light can change in an instant because of incoming fog and other reasons. We shy away from making specific recommendations because of the variability in not only the outside weather, but also the crowd flow. Assuming that there is no fog, the morning light can be quite riveting. It tends to be soft and mellow with useful spots coming in through the south facing windows. However, in the dead of winter, it can be quite dark in the morning at San Francisco city hall. As you can see this also is widely variable based upon the time of the year. My suggestion is that for privacy and good lighting, try the morning, but not too early. Despite the fact that we can easily light the Grand Staircase with our off-camera lighting when it is dark, it still gives the photo a different look.

Another interesting photo opportunity that only occurs in the morning during the early spring is when the the sunrise comes through the front doors of City Hall. For the brief time period that this occurs, the Grand Staircase is bathed in natural light. Mid-day offers slightly harsher light with a more neutral color. We will make good use of our off-camera professional lighting no matter what time of the day it is, but we especially like to use it around noon. As it gets later in the afternoon, the light becomes warmer and very controllable with some beautiful photo opportunities using the windows on the North side of the building.

Variables in SF City Hall Crowd Size and Weather Make it Difficult

There are almost too many variables to choose the best time to do wedding pictures at San Francisco city hall, but one thing is for sure, there is always an amazing place to go! This is one of the reasons that I let my future wedding clients know that they do not need to worry so much about the time of the day from a photography standpoint. I always inform them that they should book a time that is most convenient for them and their family. They can leave the wedding photography and lighting to us. My own opinion is that many couples try too hard to book wedding times that they think will result in less crowds or better light. Because of the variability mentioned above, this strategy seldom pays off and to me, not worth the inconvenience to you and your guests.

Crowd Timing At San Francisco City Hall for Photography

However, that being said, there is some merit to trying figure out the best times of the day to avoid the crowds at SF City Hall. Before 10:00 am there tends to be less tourists wandering around, though weddings have already started by this time. On a typical summer day, the tourist and wedding traffic begins to diminish after 3:30 pm. Of course later afternoon also brings the possibility of Special Events occurring at San Francisco city hall so this can sometimes close down certain parts of the building for wedding photography. Avoid mid-day and you will most likely have a pretty good privacy and less people in the building.

The Day of the Week is Important for Less Crowds

Not to worry, our professional experience at this historic building helps us navigate these challenges and we will always find wonderful spots to take you for your pictures. Of course the time of the day is not the only factor affecting the level of people at City Hall. The day of the week also plays an important part in this decision of when to have your wedding. Tuesdays and Wednesdays tend to be the most quiet with Fridays being the most busy. Here again, I would not worry too much about crowds at City Hall. We seem to always be able to find quiet places to take your wedding pictures no matter what time of the day or day of the week you choose. If all else is equal, try to avoid Fridays and shoot for mid-week.

Groom twirling bride - City Hall Wedding Photogaphy

External Factors Affecting City Hall Wedding Photography

As mentioned, all of these lighting nuances change with the fog. As it rolls in, our lighting changes with it and we have to adjust. You may walk into San Francisco city hall on an early morning foggy day and it seems so dark in the building you wonder if it's day time. This rapidly changes as the day wears on, but it is important to understand why you will benefit from hiring a professional city hall wedding photographer to deal with these challenges. We have been through these lighting changes many times and know how to deal with them.

During the winter, creative lighting opportunities emerge because of the low sun position. In December through February the low angled sun shines directly into the city hall windows and creates light patterns on the opposite walls. This allows us to place our couple right in the light spots and can make for very unique portrait images. I have included an example below since we are currently in this season. Please check it out!

Consider a Reserved Wedding at SF City Hall

Reserved weddings take place in either the Mayor's Balcony or the 4th Floor North Gallery. When booking either of these locations, you receive the added advantage of privacy and security. The Events Department ropes off the entire area for 1 hour and they set up chairs for the comfort of your wedding guests. San Francisco City Hall is a public building so paying the extra money and reserving one of these areas may be the best choice for you, especially if you have a large crowd of guests. The cost is $1,000 which is substantially more money then the standard civil ceremony booked in the Rotunda area. However, if you compare this price to other San Francisco venues it is an incredible bargain. The City Hall Events department has not increased this affordable price for over 12 years.

San Francisco City Hall is a Bargain Venue

Try to get married at any comparable locale in the greater San Francisco area for even 10 times that price. You can't do it! You could also make the argument that SF City Hall is prettier than any of them. It certainly is VERY photogenic! One thing to also remember with a reserved wedding is that you are responsible for hiring your own officiant. We can provide you with multiple referrals of amazing and experienced City Hall wedding officiants. These same officiants can also be used if you decide to do a private city hall wedding ceremony. Generally speaking, experienced City Hall wedding officiants range from $150 to $300. To research more great ways to save money on your wedding and photographers check out our main page for discount photography.

City Hall Lights with Brides Veil

Marriage Commissioners at City Hall

I wanted to take a moment to discuss these amazing people wearing robes who are officiating the civil ceremonies at San Francisco City Hall. Who are they? Are they judges? Do they work at city hall? How much are they paid to do this job? You might be surprised to learn that they are definitely not judges despite the fact that they may look like it. These great people are deputized marriage commissioners that volunteer on a weekly basis to enhance your marriage experience at this Town Hall. Some of them have been doing this for close to 20 years, but many have just started recently. They all have one thing in common, however... They want to help make your wedding day special. Otherwise, why would they be doing this for free?

Subtle Differences Among City Hall Officiants

The County Clerk's office provides each Marriage Commissioner a script to read from while they perform your marriage ceremony. Some stick very close to the script, but many others add their own little nuances to the proceedings. Why do they do this you might ask? I have had the occasion to query many of them on this exact question and the answers vary, but there is a common theme. They all seem to want to be around happy people while performing a vital community service. Many of them are retired and just want to have some fun activities in their lives. As a San Francisco city hall marriage commissioner, you have the pleasure of meeting people of all cultures and nationalities. People come from all over the Earth to have their nuptials at SF city hall. It is nice to make each wedding ceremony unique and special and not always follow a script.

Customize Your Wedding Vows

We have also seen some officiants who are willing to allow San Francisco city hall wedding couples the opportunity to say their own vows. If this is something you would like to do, my suggestion is to keep the vows short and tell the officiant about it ahead of time. If you do both of these things you have a very good chance of being allowed to say personally written vows to each other. The time to discuss this with your Marriage Commissioner is right before the ceremony during the County Clerk Meeting. If you are able to convince them to allow you to do your own vows, you have managed to create the ultimate Wedding Celebration while only paying the affordable fees for a Civil Ceremony. If for some reason, there is no time for personal vows, we will find a nice place and take pictures of you reciting them in front of your guests.

Summary of Helpful Planning Hints for your SF City Hall Wedding

  • Don't Be Late For Your Own Wedding! San Francisco City Hall is notorious for making people late. Whether it's the traffic, a special event or an unexpected closed parking garage, the engaged couple faces some challenges making it to their own ceremony on schedule. The simple solution is to allow extra time. As your professional wedding photographers, we know we can't be late so we always plan our Breakfast, Lunch or Coffee at Philz nearby. This puts us at SF city hall much earlier than necessary to photograph the wedding, but also gives us cushion time. If things run late, we only miss our breakfast and not the wedding! We suggest you do the same! This advice is especially important if you happen to have a 3:30 pm ceremony time. Couples that miss this time will not be able to have their marriage at city hall that day. The County Clerk's office closes at 4:00 pm and the marriage commissioners go home after their 3:30 ceremonies

  • Remember to Bring Snacks and Water. Wedding ceremonies at San Francisco city hall seldom occur on time and can be up to 30 minutes late on busy days like Thursday and Friday. It's important to stay hydrated on this stressful day and to also have a small protein bar handy if needed. Bring some sort of small container that can be used to carry these items and can double as a place to store your paperwork as well. We also try to provide our clients with some of these helpful things, but you may prefer to bring your own food especially if you have dietary restrictions. Protein bars are suggested or anything you like to snack on.

  • Take Care of the Marriage License Before your Big Day. The County Clerk's office will allow you to obtain your marriage License and have your ceremony on the same day. We think this is not the best idea. If for some reason you experience technical problems, or documentation issues with your marriage license you will not have enough time to fix them before your ceremony. If possible, come in the day before and take care of the paperwork, it will cause less stress on your wedding day and it's one less thing to worry about!

  • Guests Don't Need to Check-in. Before every standard San Francisco city hall wedding the couple is required to check-in at the County Clerk's office prior to the ceremony. Try to check-in about 10 minutes before your ceremony time. This is when you will meet your marriage commissioner and get the marriage license signed by your witnesses. So of course your witness DOES need to be there with you when you check-in. Guests do not need to be there and are not allowed in the office anyway.

  • Brides Bring your Walking Shoes! Brides almost always wear new shoes on their wedding day and of course they hurt! Once your ceremony is over, we will take you throughout this beautiful building photographing you at various locations. We are happy to allow you the time to change back and forth between comfortable shoes and your "photo shoes". You will be very glad that you did because there is going to be quite a bit of walking to get from location to location in SF City Hall!

  • Bring a "Wedding Survival Kit". You never know what you will need on a wedding day. Wedding coordinators have created clever kits that contain many of the things that might be needed when small things go wrong on your special day. Examples of potential contents include: Sewing kits, hair pins, scissors, safety pins, cough drops, pain relievers, bandages, duct tape, and other miscellaneous items.

  • Keep your Guest Count close to 6. Unless you booked a reserved City Hall ceremony, the County Clerk will no longer allow large wedding parties to have their marriage ceremony in the Rotunda. All couples with large guest counts (over 6 guests) may be sent to alternative locations. It seems pointless to get married in the gorgeous building and be stuck in a small stuffy room. Keep the guest list low and have a party right after at a nearby San Francisco restaurant and invite everyone!

  • Allow Extra Time for Post Wedding Celebrations. As mentioned previously, San Francisco city hall weddings rarely occur on time. In addition, there are other factors like traffic and parking to contend with. We counsel all of our brides and grooms to allow cushion time if they are planning an after wedding lunch or dinner reception. This is especially important to us, because if things run late and the couple needs to leave early, the wedding photography session is adversely affected. Thus, one of the first questions we ask our couples when we meet them is if they have a lunch or dinner planned and what time.

  • Have Fun!