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photography, Weddings

February 20, 2020

The Complete Guide to San Francisco City Hall Weddings

I’m so happy to finally sit down and put this guide together for you all! After photographing many city hall weddings and elopements over the past few years (my wedding photography career started there!), I’ve learned the ins and outs of San Francisco city hall and a few tips and tricks about how to make your day flow smoothly. I hope that this guide will help you with your planning and make things a bit easier on your wedding day!

Marriage License

Let’s start by talking about your marriage license because you’ll need that first to be able to have your ceremony! Couples coming from out of town can obtain their marriage license from a different location within California and bring the licensing paperwork with them to their ceremony appointment at San Francisco City Hall. (See required documents here!)

Quick Tip: Make sure that your license is kept flat, without wrinkles, and in good condition when you bring it to your ceremony appointment at city hall! Consider keeping it in a folder, and make sure you don’t write outside the lines!

If you’re planning on obtaining your license from San Francisco City Hall as well as having your ceremony there, just make sure that your license appointment is before your ceremony appointment. You can schedule both appointments online here. Couples sometimes schedule their license and ceremony appointments back to back on the same day, but I’d recommend scheduling them on separate days, if possible, so that you can become familiar with city hall during your license appointment and so that you don’t spend a lot of time waiting in line at the County Clerk’s office on your wedding day. (It’s like the DMV where you get a number and have to wait in a hallway for your number to be called for your appointment.)

Also note that appointments aren’t refundable and that your marriage license must have been issued within 90 days of your ceremony date. There are also less ceremony appointments than there are license appointments so you’ll want to make sure there’s a ceremony time and date available that will work for you before booking your license. For civil ceremony appointments (rotunda ceremony) you’ll be able to schedule up to 90 days in advance, but you can schedule out longer if you’re reserving a ceremony space through the SF City Hall Events Department (see ceremony options below). If there’s a particular date and time that you want, I suggest you sign up as soon as you’re able because popular dates are often snatched up quickly! If you’re planning on having a ceremony not conducted by the County Clerk’s office, it’s considered a private event (see the 1 hour reservation, 2 hour reservation, and full evening weddings below).

Fourth Floor Gallery (one option for your ceremony, and a great opportunity to highlight the architecture in your photos!)

Ceremony Options

There are a few options for your ceremony at San Francisco City Hall. You can either go with the standard shorter rotunda ceremony, reserve a space in City Hall for 1-2 hours, or reserve a longer time in the evening for a full wedding. Let’s talk about each of the options!

Rotunda Ceremony
Rotunda Ceremony
Rotunda Ceremony
Rotunda Ceremony
Rotunda Ceremony
Rotunda Ceremony
Rotunda Ceremony

Standard Rotunda Ceremony

Mon-Fri 9am-3:30pm (no holidays) for up to 6 guests for $90 (marriage license is an additional appointment and fee of $110)

Booked through the San Francisco County Clerk’s Office

Performed by the County Clerk Deputy Marriage Commissioner at the top of the grand staircase in the Rotunda

Lasts about 2-5 minutes

Only allowed up to 6 guests including your photographer/videographer (but I’ve often seen more, it just depends on the Marriage Commissioner that you get)

If you have a group larger than 6, they may conduct your ceremony in a smaller room next to the County Clerk’s Office

Not roped off; the area will remain open to the public

There will likely be other people getting married immediately before and after you, so you don’t get much time to linger at the ceremony spot

4th Floor Gallery Ceremony
4th Floor Gallery Ceremony
4th Floor Gallery Ceremony
4th Floor Gallery Ceremony
4th Floor Gallery Ceremony
4th Floor Gallery Wedding shot from across the building
4th Floor Gallery Ceremony
4th Floor Gallery Ceremony
4th Floor Gallery Ceremony
4th Floor Gallery Ceremony
4th Floor Gallery Ceremony

1 Hour Reservation

Mon-Fri only 9am-4pm (last ceremony starts at 3pm) for up to 100 guests for $1000

Considered a private event and is booked through the City Hall Events Office

Location options: Mayor’s Balcony (3rd floor; can accommodate 40 chairs for an additional fee), or 4th floor gallery (can accommodate 60 chairs for an additional fee)

City hall remains open to the public, but your area will be roped off for 1 hour

Officiant is not provided

Can play acoustic music with advance approval

Mayor’s Balcony Ceremony
Mayor’s Balcony Couple Portraits
Mayor’s Balcony Ceremony
Mayor’s Balcony Ceremony

2 Hour Reservation

Saturdays only 9am-2pm; last start time is 12pm) for up to 200 guests for $5000

Considered a private event and is booked through the City Hall Events Office

City hall will be closed to the public during your event

Includes folding chairs and use of the grand staircase for the ceremony

Load in and out time is included in the 2 hours

Advance approval required for outside vendors

Officiant is not provided

Top of the Grand Staircase in the Rotunda
Couple Portraits on the Grand Staircase
Bridal Details on the Grand Staircase
Couple Portraits on the Grand Staircase
Wedding Details on the Grand Staircase
Couple Portraits on the Grand Staircase

Full Evening Weddings

Any evening except Tuesdays for up to 2,000 guests for $10,000-$30,000+

Considered a private event and is booked through the City Hall Events Office

Allows use of the Rotunda, Grand Staircase, and one or both Light Courts

City hall will remain open to the public until 8pm on weekdays

Load in begins at 4pm (2pm for the North Light Court)

Event must conclude by midnight and load out must be completed by 2am

Labor, insurance, equipment, and security are an additional cost (see fees and expenses)

Couple Portraits on the 3rd Floor

Wedding Details Photographed on the 4th Floor
Couple Portraits on the 4th Floor (left) and Bridal Portrait in the 3rd Floor Windows (right)

Photography

On any given weekday when city hall is open to the public (8am-8pm Mon-Fri), there are often many people working and wandering around the building. There are photoshoots happening all over the place and tourists in large groups meandering up the stairs. It can sometimes be challenging to find a quiet corner for photos, so on busier days you can expect that we might have to wait in line for more popular photo locations or wander around a bit before finding a good spot. Though sometimes we really luck out with smaller crowds and all of the great spots open just waiting for us to use them!

Some of my favorite photo locations within city hall are as follows: 4th floor gallery (absolute favorite because of the natural light), 3rd floor windows and 3rd floor hallway, Mayor’s Balcony from below, Grand Staircase from almost any angle (but it’s particularly fun to get shots from above), and the entrance/exit doors. You’ll find photos from all of those spots and a few others throughout this blog (all photos have the location mentioned below).

Mayor’s Balcony Shot From Below
Couple Portraits on the 4th floor (left) and in front of the 3rd floor windows (right)
Wedding Day Details Photographed on the 4th Floor
Couple Portraits on the 4th Floor
Couple Portraits on the 4th Floor
Wedding Day Details Photographed on the 4th Floor
Wedding Details on the 3rd Floor
Wedding Details and Bridal Portraits on the 4th Floor

Because there are so many photo locations and possibilities within and around city hall, I would like to know if there are a few spots that you really love and want to have your photos taken in. Feel free to share all of your Instagram and Pinterest inspiration images or let me know the photos that you’ve seen and love the most (such as the large rectangle windows, grand staircase, entrance/exit doors, etc). Then I’ll be able to concentrate our time on the locations that you really love! If you don’t have a preference, then we’ll just find great spots that are available at the time!

Portraits and Details on the 4th Floor

One of the most requested locations for photos is the grand staircase. This can be the hardest location to capture without any other people present. If having a photo of the two of you in a wide shot alone on the grand staircase (like the photo below) is a priority, I would suggest scheduling an early ceremony time and arriving beforehand at 8am when city hall opens so we can catch that staircase while it’s empty. That being said, sometimes we really luck out and can find at least a part of the staircase empty on even the busiest of days.

Grand Staircase
Couple Portraits on the Grand Staircase

We can schedule your couple portraits for either before or after your ceremony (depending on what time your ceremony is and what your photo priorities are). It’s often nice to be able to have some quiet time to yourselves before the ceremony to take photos when your smiles and hair/makeup are the freshest. Sometimes it gets quite hot in city hall so you may end up sweating if we wait until later or your smiles may feel tired if we’ve taken a bunch of group photos before we get to your couple portraits. Just a few things to consider!

Bridal Portrait on the 4th Floor
Couple Portraits on the 3rd Floor
Wedding Details
Couple Portraits on the 4th floor (left) and the Rotunda/Grand Staircase taken from above (right)

I often prefer to take family and friend group photos immediately after the ceremony so that they don’t have to arrive early or stay too late. Plus they’re already present in a group after the ceremony, which makes it easy to organize. I think the 4th floor provides the nicest light for group portraits, so I’ll often bring everyone there for photos. If you have a bunch of guests and/or want a lot of group photos, I recommend writing out a list of the different group photos you want ahead of time with the names of those involved so that I’ll be able to easily call out names and organize everyone and you don’t have to do a thing. It can sometimes be a scramble if you have a larger group and wait until the moment to decide! I can help you with creating this family/friend photo list if you’d like (I have some templates I can send you where you can just check the photos that you want).

Wedding Party Photos on the 4th Floor
Family Portraits on the 4th Floor
Family Photos
Group Photo Post Ceremony on the 4th Floor
Family Photos on the 4th Floor
Group Photos on the 4th Floor
Family Photos on the 4th Floor
Wedding Party Photos on the 4th Floor
Wedding Party Photos on the 4th Floor

Last photo tip: Don’t forget to take advantage of locations outside of city hall like the beautiful park and trees across the street (Memorial Court and Civic Center Plaza), as well as the entrance/exit steps and doors! You might even consider checking out another location for photos around San Francisco such as Lands End, Sutro Baths, Crissy Field, the Presidio, the Legion of Honor, Golden Gate Park, Baker Beach, the Marin Headlands…and the list goes on and on! Let me know what type of scenery you’re looking for and I’ll send you over some ideas that will fit your aesthetic!

Couple Portraits at Memorial Court
Post Ceremony Celebration at Baker Beach
Couple Portraits at Civic Center Plaza
San Francisco City Hall Wedding Photos at Sutro Baths
Post Ceremony Portraits at Sutro Baths and Lands End
San Francisco City Hall Wedding Photos
Post Ceremony Portraits at Sutro Baths and Lands End
San Francisco City Hall Wedding Photographer
Post Ceremony Portraits at Sutro Baths (this is where they read their personal vows to one another)
San Francisco Elopement Photos
Post Ceremony Portraits at Sutro Baths
Post Ceremony Celebration at Top of the Mark (InterContinental Mark Hopkins Hotel, San Francisco)
Post Ceremony Photo Session at Pier 7 in San Francisco
Post Ceremony Couple Portraits at the Lyon Street Steps in San Francisco
Post Ceremony Photos at Baker Beach in San Francisco
Post Ceremony Photos at Crissy Field
Post Ceremony Portraits around San Francisco
Post Ceremony Photos around the Presidio in San Francisco
Post Ceremony Photos at Baker Beach (left) and Brix Napa Valley (right)
Exit Door Photos
Post Ceremony Photos at the Palace of Fine Arts (left) and Brix Napa Valley (right)

Random Bits of Advice & Information

…for all Ceremonies

Friday afternoons are often the most crowded, as couples are looking to have the weekend off before returning to work on Monday.

In general, schedule mid-week for the smallest crowd

Keep in mind there may be random special events on any day of the week that restrict access to certain areas in city hall.

Couple Portraits on the 4th Floor

for Standard Rotunda Ceremonies

As I mentioned before, I recommend already having your marriage license before the day of your ceremony. That way you’re all set for the ceremony appointment (don’t forget to bring your marriage license and IDs for the ceremony appointment!) and don’t have to worry about spending so much of your wedding day waiting in line and filling out paperwork.

Even though you may like to get in line for your ceremony appointment ahead of time, they will only let you in 10-15 minutes before your appointment time, so don’t bother trying to get in line super early!

City Hall often runs behind (especially toward the end of the day), so don’t be surprised if you’re waiting 20-45 minutes for your ceremony appointment.

The hallway where you have to wait in line for your appointment has the absolute worst light for photography (extremely yellow/orange), so I prefer to use the time waiting in line to get to know you and your family, or I might even take some of your wedding day details (rings and bouquet) up to the 4th floor for some detail photos while you wait for your number to be called.

You’re required to have at least one witness unless you’re presenting a confidential marriage license (not common). I’m happy to be your witness if you don’t plan on having any family or friends present!

There is often only one Deputy Marriage Commissioner working on a given day, so he/she will usually meet with a few couples in a row in the county clerk’s office for their appointments, and then he/she will head up to the top of the stairs in the Rotunda and perform the ceremony for each of those couples in the order they were seen in the county clerk’s office. This means that you will also be doing some waiting in line at the top of the stairs for your ceremony and that other ceremonies will likely happen immediately before and after yours. Make sure you’re nearby and ready when your name is called for your ceremony! They like to keep things moving quickly!

The words in the ceremony and the feel of it can change depending on which Deputy Marriage Commissioner is working that day. He/she may or may not allow you to read your own vows depending on his/her personality and how far behind he/she is running. But we can always find a quiet corner elsewhere in city hall for you to read your personal vows afterwards!

The exchange of rings is not required during the ceremony, but if you will be exchanging rings, have them ready and out of the boxes during the ceremony.

If you’re planning on going out to a meal or celebration after your ceremony, make sure to give yourself a bit of a time buffer since everything takes longer than you think and there are often delays of up to 45 minutes.

Couple Portraits in the Rotunda (left) and Civic Center Plaza (right)

…for 1 Hour Reservations (Mayor’s Balcony or 4th Floor Gallery)

Your reserved area will be roped off for 1 hour, restricting the public access.

I recommend having your ceremony toward the start of your 1 hour reservation to allow us time to use the space for photos afterwards. As soon as the hour is up another couple may have their ceremony, or it may be opened up to the public and other couples/photographers looking to use the space, so it will be nice if we can use the space while it’s still reserved for us!

The San Francisco City Hall Events office will likely want your photographer’s proof of insurance, which names the City & County of San Francisco as additional insured. I’m happy to provide this for you; just let me know!

If you’d like to take some couple portraits before your ceremony while you’re still feeling freshly made up, I’m happy to help arrange a “first look” to capture that moment before we take photos around city hall!

Remember that you’ll need to provide your own officiant for your ceremony. Click here to read some California marriage officiant FAQs and don’t forget to sign your marriage license with your witness!

Couple Portraits on the 3rd Floor (left) and Memorial Court (right)

…for Longer Weddings

For weddings with longer reservation times, we’ll have less restrictions and often more time and options when it comes to your photos! Yay!

Couple Portraits on the 4th Floor
Pre Ceremony Portraits in San Francisco
Groom Details Photographed on the 4th Floor
Exchanging of Personal Vows Post Ceremony on the 4th Floor
Post Ceremony Photos at Pier 7 in San Francisco (left) and Baker Beach in San Francisco (right)
Post Ceremony Couple Portraits at Crissy Field
Bridal Portraits on the 3rd floor (left) and 4th floor (right)
Couple Portraits on the 4th Floor (left) and 3rd Floor (right)
Couple Portraits on the 2nd Floor
Post Ceremony Portraits and Details at Pier 7 in San Francisco
Pre Ceremony Photos at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco
Bridal Portraits on the 4th Floor
Portraits on the 4th Floor
Groom Details Photographed on the 4th Floor
Couple Portraits at Memorial Court Across from City Hall
Exiting Photos
Couple Portraits in Front of the 3rd Floor Windows
Couple Portraits at the Exit (left) and 4th Floor (right)
Groom Details Photographed on the 4th Floor
Portraits on the 4th Floor

Summary

I hope that this post will be a good resource for you in planning your San Francisco City Hall wedding! Please feel free to reach out to me if I can be of any additional help or if you’d like to chat about photography for your own wedding day! I’d love to get to know you and learn about your plans! I’m happy to send you my list of recommended vendors (florists, hair/makeup artists, videographers) for your wedding day as well! Shoot me an email at Sarah@SarahEichstedtPhotography or contact me here!

If you enjoyed this post you might want to check out this elegant blush and lace city hall wedding, this chic and modern city hall wedding and Presidio reception, or this joyful San Francisco elopement!

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