Group Photos at San Francisco City Hall

by Megan on April 28, 2020


As a part of my studio manager job, I get asked lots of questions. Some of them are very simple, others are more complex and require a level of imagination. What I never been asked is: “what is your approach when it comes to group photos” – and its a bit strange as at least 70% of our couples require certain group photos – so why no one really cares how, when and where should these images be taken.

One may think as what is a big deal? Asking a small group to look at the camera does not require that much skill and pretty much anyone can do it. You probably did it with your phone and it looked just fine. The reality is a bit more complex and here is why:

Professional Approach

True professional photographers don’t like to cut corners since the results of their work will be reviewed not only by those who hire them but by their client’s families, friends, coworkers or even random people many years down the road. What’s even more important is that these results will be seen by future generations. This may sound a bit exaggerated but I am sure most professionals would agree with that statement. As a result, experienced professionals will make sure that the group session is properly organized and executed.

City Hall is a busy place

Directing the family and friends to a certain spot can be harder than it seems as City Hall hosts 30+ weddings each day. Additionally it’s a workplace for hundreds of City and state employees but what is more important it’s a public building that is visited by hundreds of tourists on each day. On top of all that City Hall hosts special events and often experiences demonstrations and protests in and outside.

A group of people posing in front of an ornate building.
A group of people posing in front of an ornate building.
A group of people posing for a picture in an ornate building.
San francisco city hall wedding.

Yes, it is still a large 4-floor building that feels spacious even when packed with people and yet, there are not that many places that can comfortably fit a family photo session. By “comfortably” I mean that your group will not end up in the middle of a busy area blocking hallways or otherwise restricting traffic. To put it simply: if you don’t get your own spot, you won’t get good family portraits.

Of course, the ideal situation would be renting out the Mayor’s Balcony or the 4th floor but not everyone can spend over a thousand dollars on it. I am planning to write about renting City Hall on a weekday in the near future but for now, let’s focus on group photos for those who can’t or don’t want to spend more money on rentals.

The 4th Floor

San francisco city hall wedding.

In my previous article about friend acting as a wedding photographer at City Hall, I’ve suggested that the 4th floor is an ideal place for group shots.  Both North and South sides feature large glass windows that provide a very consistent and soft light throughout the area. A North side can be used 365 days a year as a harsh sunlight never really reaches that area of except occasional sunspots. Sun itself is not a problem and in fact, one of the most creative photos we like to take on that side in a wintertime but since we are discussing formal photos, it is important to mention that sun and group photos are rarely a good combination unless of course, you are on a beach in Maui.

There is another big advantage in having the formal photos taken on the 4th floor: it can accommodate very large groups. The only problem with the 4th floor and particularly with the North side is its limited availability. It’s often booked or otherwise taken by another party. So where do we go if this happens?

The 2nd Floor

San francisco city hall wedding.

For those who end up having a wedding at the Rotunda (95% actually) and especially for those who have hired a professional photographer, the 2nd floor North Hallway maybe even a better choice compared to the 4th floor mostly thanks to its proximity to the Rotunda. This means that your group does not have to cramp into the elevator in order to get to the 4th floor only to find out it’s not available. In right hands group photos taken on the 2nd-floor look just as good as on the 4th floor.

There are two problems at that spot. First of all, on a cloudy winter day, it is getting pretty dark which turns this spot into a backlit location. Secondly, the 2nd-floor corridor is fairly narrow which does not allow “all the guests together” photos if the group setup is bigger than 10-15 people. Don’t get me wrong: it is possible but it will require a use of wide angle lens which may distort these on the edge of the frame. To conclude, the 2nd floor is good on a sunny day if you have a smaller group of invited guests.

The Grand Staircase

SF City Hall IG feed

Even though the City Hall’s Grand Staircase is a main attraction of the building, my general advice when it comes to group shots on the Grand Staircase is simple: stay away from it. Getting a clean shot without any tourists, brides, photographers, walking up and down the staircase is practically impossible unless you are willing to wait a very long time. If there a sudden opportunity and you are nearby, then Yes, go for it. But otherwise, it is simply not worth it. If you ABSOLUTELY MUST get a group photo on the staircase, your best bet would be between 8-9AM before the couples and tourists arrive.

The Mayor's Balcony

San francisco city hall wedding.

Another location that requires certainly needs a mention is a Mayor’s Balcony. Its a “rental spot” but unlike the 4th floor is less popular. Overall its darker (except certain times when the sun directly hits it), noisier and less private. But if it’s available, it may be a good candidate for a formal session. The Mayor’s Balcony is an area in front of the SF Mayor’s Office entrance and often used for press conferences. Its also used as a backup spot in case the Rotunda is not available.

All that means it can fit a pretty large group. The main disadvantage is that its pretty much back-lit and without proper lighting equipment group photos will not look great. Photographer will most likely overexpose the background and some people actually like this vintage faded look but not all. Overall, with some exceptions, lighting is preferable for this location when it comes to group photos.

The Rotunda

San francisco city hall, san francisco, california.

Yes, it is possible to get a portrait at the same place you are getting married at the Rotunda. Here is what you need to know. First of all, Rotunda is a place for at least 6 weddings per hour. However while each wedding doesn’t usually take more than 3 minutes, it is constantly packed with tourists who enter it after passing the Grand Staircase. From the lighting perspective, it is mostly similar to Mayours balcony however with some variations. From time to time it offers almost “angelic light” from above. Amazing when it comes to Ceremony but problematic when it comes to portraits. Overall recommendation is to use professional lighting if you end up getting your portraits there. See the difference between natural light vs strobe light in below’s slideshow.

Other locations

A woman in a white dress standing in front of a window.

I’ve mentioned recommended locations in which we personally prefer and know how to work. It doesn’t mean that other locations are bad or useless. Smaller groups can easily use the 3rd floor or 2nd-floor south hallway. These spots might be more limited for family portraits but they can be useful for bridal portraits or sessions with 4-5 guests. I’ve added a slideshow of random natural light and strobe-lit portraits below.

Finally, the light inside the building is constantly changing: a simple cloud above it will dramatically change how portraits would look and can certainly affect the feel of the portrait. Tourists can suddenly run into the background forcing you to change the entire setup. The area you just settled for a session may become unavailable due to a special event setup and much more. Your photographer’s instincts and experience can help not only in getting you a professional quality group photos but in making the entire experience a bit less traumatic.