Born in Waterbury, Connecticut, on October 2, 1949, Leibovitz is the third of six children. She is a third-generation American whose great-grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe. Her father's parents had emigrated from Romania. Her mother, Marilyn Edith, née Heit, was a modern dance instructor of Estonian Jewish heritage; her father, Samuel Leibovitz, was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force. The family moved frequently with her father's duty assignments, and she took her first pictures when he was stationed in the Philippines during the Vietnam War.
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