At Northwood High School, she became interested in various artistic endeavors, and began to write and play music. She attended the San Francisco Art Institute, where she studied painting. For several years, she continued to develop her photography skills while working various jobs, including a stint on a kibbutz in Amir, Israel, for several months in 1969.
Rolling Stone magazine
When Leibovitz returned to the United States in 1970, she started her career as staff photographer, working for the just launched Rolling Stone magazine. In 1973, publisher Jann Wenner named Leibovitz chief photographer of Rolling Stone, a job she would hold for 10 years. Leibovitz worked for the magazine until 1983, and her intimate photographs of celebrities helped define the Rolling Stone look. While working for Rolling Stone, Leibovitz became more aware of the other magazines. Richard Avedon's portraits were an important and powerful example in her life. She learned that she could work for magazines and still create personal work, which for her was the most important. She sought intimate moments with her subjects, who "open their hearts and souls and lives to you".  She was awarded The Royal Photographic Society's Centenary Medal and Honorary Fellowship (HonFRPS) in recognition of a sustained, significant contribution to the art of photography in 2009.
Photographers such as Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson influenced her during her time at the San Francisco Art Institute. "Their style of personal reportage—taken in a graphic way—was what we were taught to emulate."
In 1978 Leibovitz became the first woman to photograph Joan Armatrading for an album. She did the photography for Armatrading's fifth studio album To the Limit, spending four days at her house capturing the images. She also did the photography for Armatrading's 1979 live album, Steppin' Out.
On December 8, 1980, Leibovitz had a photo shoot with John Lennon for Rolling Stone, promising him that he would make the cover. She had initially tried to get a picture with just Lennon alone, which is what Rolling Stone wanted, but Lennon insisted that both he and Yoko Ono be on the cover. Leibovitz then tried to re-create something like the kissing scene from the Double Fantasy album cover, a picture that she loved. She had John remove his clothes and curl up next to Yoko on the floor. Leibovitz recalls, "What is interesting is she said she'd take her top off and I said, 'Leave everything on' — not really preconceiving the picture at all. Then he curled up next to her and it was very, very strong. You couldn't help but feel that he was cold and he looked like he was clinging on to her. I think it was amazing to look at the first Polaroid and they were both very excited. John said, 'You've captured our relationship exactly. Promise me it'll be on the cover.' I looked him in the eye and we shook on it." Leibovitz was the last person to professionally photograph Lennon—he was shot and killed five hours later.
In 1991, Leibovitz mounted an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. She was the second living portraitist and first woman to show there. Leibovitz had also been made Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Government.
A major retrospective of Leibovitz's work was held at the Brooklyn Museum, Oct. 2006 – Jan. 2007. The retrospective was based on her book, Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer's Life, 1990–2005, and included many of her professional (celebrity) photographs as well as numerous personal photographs of her family, children, and partner Susan Sontag. This show, which was expanded to include three of the official portraits of Queen Elizabeth II, then went on the road for seven stops. It was on display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., from October 2007 to January 2008, and at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco from March 2008 to May 2008. In February 2009 the exhibition was moved to Berlin, Germany. The show included 200 photographs. At the exhibition, Leibovitz said that she doesn't have two lives, career and personal, but has one where assignments and personal pictures are all part of her works. This exhibition and her talk focused on her personal photographs and life.
In 2007, The BBC misrepresented a portrait shooting by Leibovitz of Queen Elizabeth II to take the Queen's official picture for her state visit to Virginia. This was filmed for the BBC documentary A Year with the Queen. A promotional trailer for the film showed the Queen reacting angrily to Leibovitz's suggestion ("less dressy") that she remove her tiara, then a scene of the Queen walking down a corridor, telling an aide "I'm not changing anything. I've had enough dressing like this, thank you very much." The BBC later apologized and admitted that the sequence of events had been misrepresented, as the Queen was in fact walking to the sitting in the second scene. This led to a BBC scandal and a shake-up of ethics training.
Leibovitz claims she never liked the word "celebrity". "I've always been more interested in what they do than who they are, I hope that my photographs reflect that." She tries to receive a little piece of each subjects personality in the photos. 
On April 25, 2008, the televised entertainment program Entertainment Tonight reported that 15-year-old Miley Cyrus had posed topless for a photo shoot with Vanity Fair. The photograph, and subsequently released behind-the-scenes photographs, show Cyrus without a top, her bare back exposed but her front covered with a bedsheet. The photo was taken by Leibovitz. The full photograph was published with an accompanying story on The New York Times' website on April 27, 2008. On April 29, 2008, The New York Times clarified that though the pictures left an impression that she was bare-breasted, Cyrus was wrapped in a bedsheet and was actually not topless. Some parents expressed outrage at the nature of the photograph, which a Disney spokesperson described as "a situation [that] was created to deliberately manipulate a 15-year-old in order to sell magazines".
In response to the Internet circulation of the photo and ensuing media attention, Cyrus released a statement of apology on April 27:
"I took part in a photo shoot that was supposed to be 'artistic' and now, seeing the photographs and reading the story, I feel so embarrassed. I never intended for any of this to happen and I apologize to my fans who I care so deeply about."
Leibovitz also released a statement saying:
"I'm sorry that my portrait of Miley has been misinterpreted," Leibovitz said. "The photograph is a simple, classic portrait, shot with very little makeup, and I think it is very beautiful."
In October, 2011, Leibovitz had an exhibit in Moscow. In an interview with Rossiya 24, she explained her photography style.
Leibovitz had a close relationship with writer and essayist Susan Sontag from 1989, until Sontag's death in 2004. During Sontag's lifetime, neither woman publicly disclosed whether the relationship was a friendship or romantic in nature. Newsweek in 2006 made reference to Leibovitz's decade-plus relationship with Sontag, stating, "The two first met in the late '80s, when Leibovitz photographed her for a book jacket. They never lived together, though they each had an apartment within view of the other's." Leibovitz, when interviewed for her 2006 book A Photographer's Life: 1990-2005, said the book told a number of stories, and that "with Susan, it was a love story." While The New York Times in 2009 referred to Sontag as Leibovitz's "companion", Leibovitz wrote in A Photographer's Life that, "Words like 'companion' and 'partner' were not in our vocabulary. We were two people who helped each other through our lives. The closest word is still 'friend.'"  That same year, Leibovitz said the descriptor "lover" was accurate. She later reiterated, "Call us 'lovers'. I like 'lovers.' You know, 'lovers' sounds romantic. I mean, I want to be perfectly clear. I love Susan."
Leibovitz is Jewish and nonobservant. Asked if being Jewish is important to her, Leibovitz replied, "I'm not a practicing Jew, but I feel very Jewish."
Leibovitz has three children. Her daughter Sarah Cameron Leibovitz was born in October 2001 when Leibovitz was 52 years old. Her twins (two girls) Susan and Samuelle were born to a surrogate mother in May 2005.
In February 2009, Leibovitz borrowed $15.5 million, after having experienced financial challenges, putting up several houses as well as the rights to all of her photographs as collateral.The New York Times noted that "one of the world's most successful photographers essentially pawned every snap of the shutter she had made or will make until the loans are paid off," and that despite a $50 million archive, Leibovitz had a "long history of less than careful financial dealings" and "a recent series of personal issues" including the loss of her parents and the 2004 death of Sontag, as well as the addition of two children to her family, and controversial renovation of three Greenwich Village properties.
In July 2009, the Art Capital Group filed a breach of contract lawsuit against Leibovitz for $24 million regarding repayment of these loans. In a follow-up article, In early September 2009, an Associated Press story quoted legal experts as saying that filing for bankruptcy reorganization might offer Leibovitz her best chance to control and direct the disposition of her assets to satisfy debts. On September 11, Art Capital Group withdrew its lawsuit against Leibovitz, and extended the due date for repayment of the $24 million loan. Under the agreement, Leibovitz retains control over her work, and will be the "exclusive agent in the sale of her real property (land) and copyrights".
In March, 2010, Colony Capital concluded a new financing and marketing agreement with Leibovitz, paying off Art Capital and removing or reducing the risks of Leibovitz losing her artistic and real estate. The following month, Brunswick Capital Partners sued Leibovitz, claiming that it is owed several hundred thousand dollars for helping her restructure her debt. That December 2012, Leibovitz listed her West Village townhouse for sale at $33 million, stating she wanted to move closer to her daughter.
Linda Ronstadt in a red slip, on her bed, reaching for a glass of water in a 1976 cover story for Rolling Stone magazine.
Demi Moore has been the subject of two highly publicized Vanity Fair covers taken by Leibovitz: More Demi Moore (Aug. 1991) featuring Moore pregnant and nude, and Demi's Birthday Suit (Aug 1992), showing Moore nude with a suit painted on her body.