Can a friend photograph your City Hall Wedding with a smartphone?

It’s not uncommon for engaged couples to ask themselves: can a friend photograph our wedding? It’s very simple and small at San Francisco City Hall and we only need few pictures. The simple answer is yes, it can be done largely thanks to evolving technology that is forgiving to amateur photographers and given of course, that you have reasonable expectations.

We’ve put together an in-depth article will essential details that should help you and your friend get the job done. So for those who can’t afford a pro, here is what you need.

Who is the right person for the job?

First of all, you need someone who knows some basic photography, has a sense of style and got steady hands. Secondly, that person has to have the freedom and motivation to actively move around. He or she needs to be able to give clear instructions to your family and friends during the group photos (if you have any). That person has to scout the locations inside the City Hall prior and perhaps even watch how other photographers work. A single Friday spent at City Hall should be enough to get a basic idea as its full with couples and their photographers. And he needs to be able to guide your guests during family portraits (more about it later). However, if he is lazy/bored/easily distracted/unable to focus or simply shy, he is not a good candidate for a job (no matter how good is his Instagram travel collection) as all you will get will be the backs of people and awkward angles. The good candidate must be able to anticipate the flow of the people. Sort of ninja style.

Let’s start with some logistics.

First of all, allocate three hours for the project even though the Ceremony takes only 5 minutes. Your friend will have to compensate the inexperience with extra time. Smartphones take great photos and with perfect lighting, they can do a decent job but City Hall is a busy place and you may need to wait for the smartphone-friendly places to become available. A good example is the 4th floor with a gigantic window that provides natural soft daylight.

 

 

If you have not scheduled your Ceremony yet, do not schedule it on a busy Friday. Even during November, you risk being overrun by tourists, couples, other photographer or even City Hall employees. I’ve even seen some couples actually bring the entire bridal party with 20 or more members to City Hall. Best locations can also be reserved and not available to the public. That means that remaining couples will have to “compete” for limited available spots. And finally, on busy days the County Clerk office may get overwhelmed with weddings and may be way behind the schedule. Best to schedule your Ceremony for an early morning or for 3:30PM to be the last couple to get married. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are highly recommended.

Let’s talk about the actual photography.

Be surprised but the easiest part of the job is to get a decent set of portraits. As long you have some sort of daylight and your figure does not require you to spend an hour in front of the mirror to find yourself somewhat photogenic (apologies for my sarcasm), your friend can get you a decent set of portraits (otherwise, you definitely need a pro). What is harder is to capture a story. For that, your friend has to be very quick to react to be able to capture the fleeting moments. But that’s a different story.

For now, let’s assume that your friend is somewhat familiar with taking portraits. So going back to what was previously mentioned, the extended amount of time will be required. You have to be very patient and proactive as you don’t really know if your friend can take a lead during that session. So first of all, get to the best part of the City hall where the light is the easiest: the 4th floor north side. If needed, wait for it to become available. Once it is free, start with widest possible images to capture a bit of unique SF City Hall background architecture. Simply hug each other or kiss or look at each eye and let your friend take series of images with slight reframing.

Get someone to help.

It is advised to have another friend who is watching from a side to see if nothing is falling apart, such us groom’s boutonniere or your own bouquet. Make sure your hair is not messed up either. The professional and experienced photographer can see a lot of things at once but your friend may need some assistance. It is also very important to monitor the background. City Hall can be very crowded with people are in and out of your shots. Even a pro may not always see everything so imagine how many things a friend can miss. So let me repeat this one more time: time, patience and a lot of photos.

As soon as you are done with classic wide-angle full body images, ask your friend to get closer and focus on close-up portraits. Depending on your height difference you may need to improvise a bit and perhaps look at the results right away to determine if the angle chosen by a friend is indeed a good angle. As soon as you are satisfied with the result, do not assume that you got the shot, but instead ask your friend to keep shooting the exact same image but this time add slight variations or change your expressions a bit. Moving or tilting your head 10-15 degrees can make a huge difference. There also at least 6 types of happy smiles for an average person, so don’t assume that saying cheese is enough. Keep working on your expressions unless you are the most charming couple ever that makes people’s heart skip a beat when looking at you. You can talk, smile, kiss, rub noses or do whatever you feel like doing.

Okay, after taking a number of close-up portraits, switch your attention for a few moments to get the back of your dress. Be surprised but some of the best photos come out photographing the bride’s back. You can experiment with holding your dress and walking away or if you have a long train, spread it out nicely and walk away as well. Monitor the background for bypassers and keep your eye on trash cans or exit signs while doing that. In some images simply walk away looking forward, in others, you can glance back at your friend photographer. Repeat the same set with your fiance. If you like jumping shots, its also a good place for these.

The group portraits.

The 4th-floor area is the best spot for group portraits when it comes to a cell phone camera. The large window makes everyone’s skin look softer. Your friend may need some help in organizing the groups. Start taking photographs with your immediate family, namely a shot with both sets of parents following by individual parents with the couple. Continue with your siblings. An important thing worth mentioning: get these portraits done first (before the bridal photos) so the family can leave for the dinner or lunch reception. You definitely don’t want everyone chasing you at City Hall along with their belongings.

Overall it makes sense to have a family portraits shot list. Some people need a set of simple portraits, others have extended family, divorced/separated parents or relatives. Your friend may not be able to fully control this situation. Think about this in advance and make sure everyone is aware that they need to cooperate with your photographer.

When taking group shots it is important to look for the shy guests that tend to hide behind the others. A professional photographer can spot these kinds of minor issues easily but a friend needs to be very vocal/clear about any “misalignments” during the group shots cannot be fixed later in photoshop. Group shots have to be good, to begin with as you can’t fix half heads.

Make sure that your guests do not hold their purses, bags, or other items during the group shots. City Hall is a safe place and their belongings can be put aside. Also watch for sunglasses, phones or other distracting items that may affect the images and of course don’t forget to spread the train/veil nicely if the style of your dress allows it. Ask the groom to move his phone and keys to the back pocket too.

A final note on group shots. Ask your friend to click that red shutter button multiple times – I mean it. People tend to blink, scratch noses, get distracted, starting to talk, look at their babies or simply decide to fix hair or clothes while your photographer friend looks at his phone screen and can’t notice all of it. Taking a large number per set helps to get at least one good shot. Your friend is not a pro and he may assume that one or two shots per group are enough. It is not.

Avoid larger group photos.

One more thing: I don’t recommend taking larger groups with the phone. While phones are pretty good these days. I am talking about iPhone X or Pixel 2 or newer models, their resolution is still may not be enough for large group shots. Up to 10 people should be fine, but larger groups will produce images that may not show clear faces when enlarged above 8×10 inch size. It is better to take more of smaller portraits instead to maintain a reasonable quality of each image.

Okay, while a lot more can be said about group photos, for this article this should be enough to get decent photos even without professional experience. So let’s move on.

The Ceremony.

The most important part (yes, more important than portraits in my opinion) is an actual Ceremony. And it is tricky to photograph. First of all, the Ceremony is short and on average last 2-4 minutes depending on the judge. That may not give your inexperienced friend enough time to properly photograph it. So the first important thing will be organizing your guests and lining them up in the symmetric and proper order. Make sure they don’t hold their belongings but rather hide their stuff near the Rotunda or behind the statues. Make sure your guests are not standing too close to you as they will block the shots. Secondly, ask a permission to face each other from the beginning of the Ceremony. Finally, do not allow the marriage commissioner to start the Ceremony if another couple is still at the Rotunda! Some of them are in rush and having another bride near you is not something you want. If this happens, ask politely to wait until the other couple leaves.

The commissioners often will start a conversation with you and will require you to face them. This is not good for a photography as your friend will see your backs instead of your profiles. Instead, ask the commissioner to be facing each other.  Instruct your photographer friend to make a full 360 degrees circle around the rotunda while taking ceremony photos. This way he will capture not just two of you but the participants. Also, make sure he is ready for the first kiss after the rings exchange images. And finally, take your time on that first kiss. The deputy marriage commissioner may stay at the same spot at that moment or may move to the left or right. It’s hard to predict the exact move and reframe the image accordingly so the longer the first kiss, the more chances for a great shot.

The dark Rotunda.

An important note: Rotunda can be pretty dark especially on overcast days or during winter time. This means that smartphone will decrease a shutter speed which may results in blurrier photos even with image stabilization. Your friend’s phone will also switch to a higher ISO which will make photos noisier. And noise on top of blur is a bad combination for any photographer. Phones also tend to apply fixes to correct the situation which makes photos look unrealistic and sort of fake (aka iPhone XS beautygate). So make sure your friend has very steady hands, breathes slowly and doesn’t shoot on the move. Walk, stop, breathe, click x 5. Walk, stop, breathe, click x 5. That’s the routine.

During some sunny summer dates during specific hours, the Rotunda is beautifully lit from above, creating an amazing lighting effect but during these days it is important to manually reduce exposure on phone cameras as they may very well overexpose each and every ceremony image. These days are rare though.

Candid moments.

Okay. A ceremony is over. What’s next? Your friends and family will hug, kiss, and congratulate you. There may be crying people. 99.9% of your wedding participants don’t realize the importance of these moments and very likely your friend won’t either. And yet, these are the moments when powerful storytelling candid images can be taken. Make sure your friend is aware of and prepared for these moments. For best results, he may need to shoot from above by raising his hand and angling the phone down without looking at the screen. He needs to try this approach before to get comfortable. Steady hands during these moments are essential.

Let’s get back to taking portraits at City Hall and the first spot to consider will be the iconic Grand Staircase. If you feel you must have the portrait taken at the Grand Staircase, here are some tips. First of all get the correct spot on the staircase. That spot is the flat area located 10 or so steps up from the ground level. Get yourself in a classic “face each other” pose and ask your friend to step back for a wide shot. In order to capture natural looking photos during a posed session, you must interact with each other and change poses. If you have a long train, it can be beautifully arranged on the staircase.

One of my favorite photos will be an image of a couple walking up the stairs. You may also try sitting on the staircase. However, it is very likely that the Grand Staircase will be packed with tourists. In that case, you won’t get that “magical” image everyone else got but there is a decent solution. You can take angled images by simply asking your photographer to shoot diagonally and the chance of a clean image improves dramatically. If you dedicate enough time for it, the opportunity will come but don’t be overly obsessive with that shot, there are plenty of other spots.

 

The third floor is among these places. It has beautiful glass windows that unlike on the 4th or 2nd floor located very close to the ground. This allows amazing wide-angle silhouette images. Relatively easy to take and look gorgeous. Your photographer has to keep an eye on the geometrical lines and manually control the exposure.

 

 

There are other places to work with such as Mayors Balcony but that’s one of the darker spots so it may not be ideal for a smartphone on a regular day but once in a while and especially during the winter time, there are often beautiful sunspots which result in amazing images if your friend knows how to handle it. Shooting against the light or towards the sunspot while carefully posing the couple and controlling the phone exposure is a “must have” during these sunny winter days but again, it is not an easy job for a phone. This is one of those situations you may need a pro gear.

Details. Let’s not forget the bouquet, the rings, the flowers and the dress texture, the invitations, the vows. Many of these items will be gone so its not a bad idea to spend 10 minutes to photograph them. It may be useful down the road when you are building an album and these images make wonderful album backgrounds. The fourth floor is an ideal place for these images.

Don’t break the rules and be polite to others.

It may take much more time for your friend to get you a decent collection of photographs than to a professional wedding photographer. And that is fine. However, please remember that there are other photographers who might be on a tight schedule. Please do not block a certain area for a long time.

Here is a page that lists regulations as well as limits for photography at San Francisco City Hall and specifically at the County Clerk Office: https://sfgov.org/countyclerk/rules-photographers-office-county-clerk-and-city-hall – your friend photographer may mistakenly do things that may result in him being escorted out of the City hall so be careful.

I still encourage you to hire a pro for your City Hall wedding but if you absolutely can’t, I do hope this article will be useful and have opened some horizons on what needs to be done in order to get decent photos on your wedding day.

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