How Cibelle Levi Became A World Renowned Photographer
My name is Cibelle Levi and I am 27 years old. I am a Los Angeles native world soul and I’m a photographer. I capture moments for a living and my subjects take those moments with them for the rest of their lives.
I was always a floater in middle school and high school. I never really had a set group of friends. Based on my mood or occasion I would find myself hanging out with various cliques. It’s not that I ever felt lost, I was just confused. Each group provided me with something that helped me grow and felt nice and at home, but none of them had it all. My goal was to find a group of friends, a home and a life for myself that really fulfilled me.
Growing up in LA, going to private school and being in the Persian community, which I am so grateful for, really caused me to wonder what life was like beyond that. I felt like my friends that went to Beverly Hills High School had a different mentality and that was interesting to me. They were exposed to more things and I think as a result they were stronger.
When I wanted to go away for college, my goal was to surround myself with the most diverse group of people that I could implant myself amongst. So I decided to apply to Boston University. I remember my family and friends were not so enthusiastic about me wanting to leave. All of my friends were going to SMC or applying to USC, UCLA, or UCSB. They would tell me, “You don’t know anyone in Boston.” And no one understood that was exactly why I wanted to go there.
I got accepted to Boston, and I remember it was one of the most incredible and scary feelings because I knew my family and friends wouldn’t understand my excitement. It just felt good and different.
So I went to Boston and soon after I arrived I learned that there's other people I knew from LA and they wanted to hang out. I decided that I didn’t want to do that. I had grown up always being a giver and I would flex myself for other people. I was always down to do what everyone else wanted to do, without really thinking much of it. I didn’t hate it at all actually, I loved it. Being flexible was very natural to me. Before college I was often indecisive about things and not strongly opinionated. My personality just flowed.
When I went to Boston I made a rule for myself - I don’t care if I know you and you’re in the same city as me, I will only befriend new people and I will not flex on that. My goal was to graduate college with a close group of friends that were diverse enough to go on a banner for the school. I envisioned it. Little did I know that’s exactly what would happen. I graduated with a close group of friends from all different backgrounds and that filled the void that I had in high school and middle school. One of my best friends was from Cairo. One was from Italy. One was from Trinidad and Tobago. One was from Venezuela. One grew up in Madagascar and had traveled the whole world.
So it wasn’t until I graduated that I learned what it means to manifest. Everyone throws the word “manifestation” around and I don’t think a lot of people really understand what it means. You don’t just say something you want and wait around for it to happen. If you want something with your whole heart, and are good intentioned about it and you have a strong will for it - then it will constantly circulate your life as a dream, as a crave, in your mind and in your actions. It has to be something that you want so badly that it consumes every behavior of your existence and as a result of your intentions it’s naturally fulfilled.
So when people say, “Oh, but I’ve been manifesting and I’ve been waiting for so long.” I challenge them to check themselves. Take a step back, in your own space and without the influence of other people and stimulation. Sit at home in silence and ask yourself what it is that you actually want? I come across so many people that just don’t know that.
I didn’t know what I wanted to do career wise. I knew I wanted to go to Boston and while I was there I studied business, finance and entrepreneurship. I do believe that having a business degree is a really good backbone for anything. Business schools, more so than most, provide you with an environment that teaches you how to work with people, how to respect your peers, and how to build off of an idea.
I never studied photography in school. I taught myself.
I always had a passion for photography. I thought the art of capturing was very beautiful. My dad bought me my first digital camera as a Hanukkah gift in December 2012. I remember keeping it in my bag and taking pictures of random things like a squirrel on the street or someone just standing at the bus stop. I’d zoom in and try to see what they were doing.
I remember the squirrel so vividly. JT was eating something and looking around so curiously - so pensive. I was intrigued by that. I didn’t do anything with those photos, I just enjoyed those moments.
Eventually, I met and started dating an Italian guy in college. He wanted to stay in the states after his visa expired and we learned one of the ways to do that was to invest in a company. So he invested money to get his visa and the company was to be a creative studio. At the time, we literally had no idea what we were going to do. We just knew we needed to create this company and that it needed to look solid enough when we pitched it to the government.
For it to look solid we needed to have a workspace, equipment and team. So we found someone in the art school that did graphic design, I decided to be the photographer, and he was going to be the manager. It was cool and kind of like a gift. Here I was starting something that I was passionate about. There was this little idea, this thing called photography, with this thing called a camera that I would carry around with me. It was something that I really liked to do.
He bought laptops for everyone, a camera, backdrops, lights and everything. All the tools I needed were at my fingertips. There was really some incentive to actually make this business work. He bought me all these photography books. I loved reading them and watching YouTube videos and just being really hands on.
I went out into the field and just started playing around with the settings. I’d figure out what ISO works with what shutter speed, what level of gradients I liked, what sort of lighting. That’s all it was. I learned then that I really love photography.
I stayed in Boston for 6 months after I graduated. It was our company’s home base. I had a live/work space where we practiced branding, graphic design and photography. We would find companies in Boston who had great products with room to elevate their brand and reached out to those with opportunity for us to step in.
After a while we all decided to pick up and move to LA. I missed LA. Shortly after we all moved there it seemed like no one’s heart was fully in it so we decided to liquidate the company.
My heart was still really into photography, but I decided to start applying for jobs in marketing and advertising. 6 months went by and I got a few replies but I wasn’t getting any interviews. Nothing.
During this time I’m still thinking about photography and in December 2015 I made the decision that I was going to give my heart, soul and full time to learning photography and trying to get gigs. I was very practical about it. I told myself that if I didn’t achieve certain goals, or if there was not a receptiveness to my style, or if I wasn’t creating good relationships with the people I was working with, I’d go back to the books and apply for jobs again. But if there was ANY sign of opportunity and growth, then I would keep with it.
I remember my dad nervously saying, “You went to Boston and you studied business! What are you doing?!.” My friends said the same thing. My mom spoke differently. She’d say, “I love you, mommy joon. It's okay, just do it.”
So I decided to do it and I was persistent from the start. I really want to highlight the word “persistence.” You have to be persistent.
I gave myself a 5 year challenge. I told myself I would devote 5 years to this path before deciding to part ways with it. With it would come whatever challenges, but I would persevere for at least 5 years. No one was getting in my way. If you tried to step in, I wouldn’t want you in my life anymore. Photography was my priority.
I’d sit at coffee shops and one could say I shadily eavesdropped on conversations. I’d tap a shoulder or two and just kindly introduce myself. I’d be honest and just say, “Hey, my name is Cibelle. I’m just getting into photography and I overheard that you’re... blah, blah, blah.” and that was it. Some people would give me a go and I would do pro bono work, gig after gig after gig.
One thing that I noticed was clients wanted to hang out with me after the shoot or just schedule another time to chill. Everyone loved the executed work, and everyone in some form or another said that the time we spent shooting together was either refreshing or did not feel like work.That’s when I started to realize and really feel like I had something. It made me really happy and I think the people around me noticed. I remember my friends would ask me, “Who are you dating? Are you doing yoga? What’s your trick?”.
Photography was giving me an internal glow that exuded.
My strategy was to sit at coffee shops like Alfred’s or Verve and introduce myself to people. I was also adamant about shadowing another photographer so I could learn. Many of my early days consisted of sitting on my laptop, googling LA photographers, checking out their work, and seeing if I vibed with it. At the time I did not by any means have a “style”, but I had an idea of what I liked to do. I knew I liked people, portraits and anything that was moody with texture. I guess you could say that’s what my style of work is now.
So I’d email photographers and I’d say, “Hey, I’ve been following your work and I love it. I’m trying to become a photographer here in LA. You inspire me. I’d love to shadow you on set. If there’s at any point an opportunity for me to join and just watch and maybe ask a couple of questions, I’d be grateful.” I sent probably 70 emails to various photographers. I got 6 or 7 replies. Only one of them actually allowed me to shadow them. His name is Erik Umphery:
Erik invited me on set to shoot with him and he was incredible. He gave me much more than I expected. He was telling me everything he was doing as he was doing it. I was watching, learning and asking questions the whole time. What stood out to me was that he was just so kind. Not just with me but the whole team on set. I remember thinking how beautiful and refreshing it was to see that because that has always been my motto - kindness. And it’s so underrated. To see someone in this field and position I aspired to be in succeeding with kindness was very beautiful to me.
He was definitely a mentor for me. The next couple of months we’d be on the phone and email from time to time and he’d follow up with me. He’d teach me how to write contracts. I learned so much from him and the following month was when my career took off.
There was a moment in time when my career really started.
It makes me emotional because there was one person who catapulted my career and unfortunately is no longer part of my life. She was an influencer and she also became my best friend.
The first time I met her was at an event that I was invited to by someone I met at a coffee shop. I had been following her for a while and loved her. I remember thinking to myself that I wanted to approach her as a fan and ask to take a photo. Instead I gathered myself and mustered up the courage to walk up to her and say, “Hey, what’s up? Just wanted to introduce myself. I live in LA and I’ve been doing photography. I’d love to shoot you sometime.” She shows interest by saying, “I’d love to check out your work”. So I handed her my business card.
A couple of days go by and I get a text from her asking if I’m free for coffee. So I went to meet her and I took my camera with me. We talked for literally 4 hours at Le Pain Quotidien in Brentwood and we had the deepest conversation. I felt like I had finally met someone that had completely gotten me. I think that conversation was really why she gave me the time of day to shoot her and really grow my skill.
After we had our coffee I told her, “Hey, I have my camera by the way, do you mind?” and she said, “Let’s do it quick”. So I literally took 3 photos of her and one of them accidentally came out unbelievably. I had my shutter open a little too wide, which means that the photo would show some movement. She was standing completely still as an orange bus passed by and I took the picture. I was like, “Oh, my god what just happened?!”. It came out so perfectly, I edited it a little bit and she loved it.
At the time she had not seen a single photo I’d taken of a person. My instagram didn’t really have much, but she loved the photo and invited me to shoot her the following week where she really gave me the freedom to start directing. She would challenge me to be more specific about how I wanted the photos to be. My eyes started opening and I started learning angles and backgrounds on people.
I would shoot and she would edit because she had a system. I would watch how she liked to edit and I’d learn from her every day. I really liked how simple her edits were. I have this thing about simplicity. Everything in life should be simple.
She initially invited me to a gig in New York and eventually I found myself working with her in Paris and Italy. We were traveling the world and I was pretty much only shooting her for about a year. During this time, I started seeing a lot of familiar faces of people in the industry. I love getting to know people. I started building relationships with all these people and these brands and then I started getting inquiries from brands who wanted to hire me directly. I’d say my personality and just being genuine and kind helped me a lot.
I realized a couple of years ago for various reasons that this best friend who helped start my career could no longer be in my life. I realized this because I was giving too much. At a certain point I started to feel like I was holding her up. We were too connected. Looking back on it I should have handled it in a better way. It was a big life lesson for me. At the time, I just needed “cold turkey” space. It was something that I had let build up for so long until I had this “aha” moment where I needed to do what I had to do. Having been someone I have so much love and thanks for, it was very difficult to “x” her out.
If there was one thing I could tell her now, I want her to know that she’s one of the most important people in my life. I think about her all the time and to this day find myself in many situations where I ask myself how she would handle it.
I’m a very private person. People don’t know much about me - unless you’re one of my closest friends. But even though I’m a very private person, I feel that through my work and and all of my relationships I like to be the person that brings a sense of calmness and vulnerability to a person’s life. I think that can be seen through the way I capture moments in my photos.
I’ve been through a few 14 hour sets. Normally, you’d think the team would go home tired, drained and ready to pass out. And they do. But before that I’ve gotten hugs and people telling me it was one of the most refreshing days they’ve had in a long time.
Lastly, I like making my clients feel comfortable before I shoot them. If I need to make a fool of myself to break ice so that they loosen up for me, I’ll pull out an accent just to make them laugh. Or if I notice they had a really rough week or something happened that morning, I put business aside and I talk to them. We take a breather. We chat for a second. We connect. I give them my genuine love, time and energy. I think in turn that brings them to a sense of calm, which provides them with a space to find a sense of clarity. In a world like ours where we are constantly stimulated it makes me really happy when I’m able to bring that out in someone.
The success of my business has been not handling it like one. What has worked well for me is just being genuine. I’m winning because I’m genuine. I don’t have representation or management because I don’t want it. I’m successful because I get very personal with my clients. I give them me. I give them my time. I’m the point of contact for everything and I think that’s so refreshing for the people I work with. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it. I don’t always have my stuff together, but that’s also okay.
So just being kind and personable, giving people my genuine time and energy.
I’ve learned what it means to have your boundaries challenged. I’ve learned what it means to put myself first and be selfish. I don’t think selfishness deserves a negative connotation. I think it’s beautiful to be selfish and put yourself first. I think if anyone were to take something away from this it’s that you have to be in a place of strength and wholeness before you can help someone else. I’m challenged with this on a daily basis. It’s not just career related - it’s with my community, it’s with friends and it’s with life. I’ve learned to give myself the dignity of respecting my own wishes so that I can be better to others.
There are so many incredible photographers out there. I think when it comes to my work I’m very quick. If I can get the shot in 3 frames and I think we’re done, then we’re done. I think I also just don’t really treat it like work. I’m not so specific with pen and paper art direction. If a client needs stone hard specifics with a shot-list, I kindly provide them with the information of another photographer that I think will fulfill the job. I have a fluid system and style that works for me, that keeps me happy, and there are many other photographers out there who are talented and can execute a by-the-book job like that for you.
If you want to work with me you need to know that I don’t handle my shoots with a crazy schedule and specific structure. We will always get the job done and we will always meet the deadline, but I make my shoots personal, emotional and it feels like family.
I’m really proud that I photographed Julia Dreyfus for the Emmys. It was a combination of things. It was the Emmys. Julia is an iconic actress with such a rich history in the world of film whom I respect. The brand I photographed her in was Oscar De La Renta, who has such a rich history as well. Lastly, the turnaround time was the craziest time constraint I’ve had for a job, so the challenge was fun.
I live for challenges. I think my mom would say it’s a little too much sometimes. I’m very hard on myself because I expect a lot from myself.
I probably had 5 minutes to turn the work around after shooting. It was such a big day for Julia. We all knew she was going to win, her family was all dressed up, and I overheard her saying how happy she was and how good her family looked. Even though it wasn’t part of the job I wanted to capture that for her, so I did.
The best photo ended up being random and not planned. As I was in the elevator with her I gave her some quick direction and I shot her as she was walking out, couple frames. That was the photo that everyone loved. It was posted everywhere - Vanity Fair, Oscar De LA Renta, everywhere. This is just a reminder that it’s okay to flex out of your structure to capture a moment.
I feel very humbled. I just moved into my own place. I have some upcoming projects that are very new to me. I have some opportunities to speak amongst large crowds about my career, which I’m very excited about. I have my few ride or die friends and family and that makes me feel so full and whole.
Outside of the world that I’ve built for myself, everything comes in and out with a grain of salt and with no weight. I invite anything my way and I will let go of anything that doesn’t serve me. I do all of it with a smile on my face. The irony of this conversation is that I believe it’s marking my next chapter. I had my startup chapter in my life and career - There were a lot of crazy weird turns and I think this is the beginning of the first chapter of my real mature adult years.
I plan to launch a coffee table book by the end of 2020. I’ll have a launch party in an intimate gallery setting.
My goal is to grow my career in the film and TV space and to have a stronger foot in the awards space. I would love to have a booth behind the stage where every winner comes through for final portraits. I want to capture their energy and get all the feels in a few monumental photos. We’d tone it down for a quick second and I get their eyes focused on me. Maybe the award is placed on the table or the prop next to them, maybe it’s out of the frame, but they’re not holding it. It’s me and my subject. I take a deep breath. I close my eyes. They’re invited to do the same. We get a few special portrait shots capturing the feeling, and they’re out.
Ultimately I’d like to touch anyone that crosses my path. Bring them into present time, give them a brief moment they’ll hold on for time.
I started with a Nikon D610 back during the creative studio days in Boston. From there I moved to a Nikon D7000 because the quality was a little bit better. Today I’m using a Sony A7Riii and I switch between 35 mm and 85 mm. I also use my 24-105mm, which is a zoom lens. It’s all about simplicity for me. If I want a tight shot with some bokeh (blur), I can get that on 85mm to 105mm… I also love my zoom lens at its widest, 24mm, because I can play with perspective. Aside from my Sony and a couple lenses, I really don’t travel with much equipment. I carry a bounce reflector with me, sometimes a flash, and I’m always with my laptop.
I think to succeed in anything you have to be organized. My place is always organized, my mind is always organized and my computer I keep extremely organized. I use the Adobe Creative Cloud, which I have a yearly subscription for. It allows me to install all the apps that I use regularly (Photoshop, Lightroom, Bridge and Illustrator) and it constantly upgrades the software..
Adobe Bridge is like the finder tab on your Mac. It pulls up your entire photo library and allows you to access and make quick edits to your photos. So within “Pictures” folder, you click command “r” on a said photo and you basically get a simplified Photoshop with your color adjustments, vignettes, clarity, spot retouching and other small edits. From there I open the image in Photoshop - pretty much only use Photoshop for some skin retouching using the clone tool. People ask me all the time how I edit my photos and I really don’t do any of the fancy stuff.
I use Lightroom for my various color and light presets. I’ve saved many presets for clients. Be it for their website or whatever platform, these clients prefer the visual consistency. From there I will also take a photo into Photoshop if needed for skin retouching.
If software can drastically speed up my current process I’ll learn it, but if it’s just a little better I don’t care. My time is worth more to me than learning a fractionally better new system and moving away from something I’m comfortable with.
If you’re in my field then you have to learn Photoshop and Lightroom. It’s a must. Lightroom is really user friendly if you want to make color adjustments and Photoshop is great for skin. You don’t need to get fancy or overwhelmed with all the tools. You’ll use 2 or 3 of them and that will be enough.
I don’t have an answer for this question. I think what exists is enough. I think it’s more important to develop your eye than expect a piece of software or a tool to do it for you.
A lot of people are shocked when I share the camera model and lenses I use. They think it’s some sort of secret. It’s funny seeing photographers during Fashion Week running around with their cameras, literally covering the brand and model with black tape. I think it’s ridiculous. Your style and your success should have nothing to do with the tools at your hand. If you have a vision to achieve something, a vision to be someone, and you’re serious about it, you are going to make it work.
When I rent studio lights I always go with ProPhoto. That’s my favorite brand for studio lights. B1 500 Air TTL Moonlight, an air-remote, and umbrella is my go-to.
I use my iPhone’s Notes app for my to do list.
I organize my calendar with emojis. For shoots I use the camera emoji. If I have an errand, I use the guy running emoji. If I have an edit it’s a pencil emoji. These really helps me visually organize my tasks.
If a software is tedious to use, but in the long run will save me more time, I’ll stick with it. I know what my time is worth monetarily. I’ve actually sat down and calculated my rates, expenses, the life I want to live etc (something my accountability partner did with me… I’ll get to that later). I make certain decisions based on what’s worth my time. That’s why I don’t move around a lot between programs, tools or new gear. I have a system that works and that’s really all I need.
Books: The Voice of Your Soul by Laine Garcia Calvo. It can apply to every single aspect of your life because it teaches us how to connect to the energy we live in and how to listen to ourselves. It teaches us how to find and listen to that inner voice that talks to us and how to evaluate and recreate our conditioning. What I mean by that is we all have beliefs, and those beliefs exist as a result of our experiences in life, which are provided to us in the first place as a result of how we are raised and in what environment we are raised in (conditioned). Aka the way we were conditioned provided us with various experiences, from which we have generated our opinions, hence our beliefs. This book challenges us to recognize that our beliefs can change. It teaches us to recondition ourselves by stepping out of our current beliefs and decide what it is we want, how we want to live and who it is we want to be. I think it’s incredible and everyone should read it. It’s one of those books you should have a pen and highlighter for so you can go back to it constantly. If you’re struggling in a part of your life or your dealing with anything, as we all are, it’s an amazing book to reference to get yourself on the right track.
My second book would be How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. The title sounds more aggressive than what it is. My key takeaway was learning how to be aware of my surroundings and adjust my behavior given different situations. It teaches us how to win by putting others first, which is ironic because we were just talking about how important it is to be selfish and put ourselves first. But, there is still something to be said about living a balanced life, and to ultimately win and succeed it’s not always about you.
A third book I’d recommend would be Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. It teaches you to listen to your gut and your instincts.
Podcasts: I currently don’t listen to podcasts. I would love to make time to, but currently I’m using the times I could be listening to podcasts to instead experience some silence. We are always very, very stimulated. Whether it’s by work, family and friends, news, or whatever else, There’s just always so much going on. So when I’m driving in the car or I’m at the gym it’s kind of just my me time. I like to have my silence.. or jazz music.
Resources: YouTube and google.
I also have a life coach/accountability partner. We are in completely different fields. He’s in Real Estate and I’m in photography, but he really helps me keep myself accountable and I’ve learned so much from him. For example, I will tell him my goals for the coming months and he follows up with me. If I'm struggling with something, he’s that person I can call and depend on for advice. To have an accountability partner means to have someone who not only cares about you deeply enough to want to be involved in your life, but also will know enough about your life to provide the proper advice. My accountability partner was initially an acquaintance, he grew into a close friend and has now become my accountability partner.
I think there’s a negative connotation with that term (life coach), but many of the most successful people in the world have one, if not multiple coaches checking on them, or at their side on the daily. Life is so overwhelming and to put all that weight on yourself is difficult. He helps me break things down and we go through issues together to find the “there’s always a solution” to my problems.
I challenge everyone to take a moment to analyze the people in their lives and the conversations you have with them. Determine if maybe one of them can be that for you.
I vividly remember all of the lessons I learned in my Organizational Behavior Class in business school. I highly recommend taking one or reading a book about it.
I would challenge aspiring photographers to use their cameras every single day and outside of your home. Learn the ins and outs of your camera. It doesn’t even have to be a good one. If you learn the ins and outs of what you have at your disposal you’ll eventually hit a point where you're ready to grow and take that next step. Make the most of what you have and the rest will come.
The next thing I’d say is you need to be comfortable with people. You need to get outside of your comfort zone. Growth is going to hurt and you got to think of it like an actual growth spurt. It hurts, but I believe if you’re not experiencing pain or discomfort or frustration with what you’re doing I wouldn’t consider that as growth. You have to put in the work… and the work will do the rest for you.
I’m a very active listener. I would almost say I’m an analytical listener. Listening to others, watching them.. I’m most always in case study mode. I listen to friends, to family, to clients, and how they communicate or behave with others. I analyze how the receiving party responds or reacts to them. Patterns arise… I note down the healthy, positive patterns and I apply them in my own life. With business and outside of it.
I practice self-growth and self-awareness on the daily. It’s another full time job. I catch myself when I’m getting too deep in my thoughts and I stop myself. I catch myself when I’m feeling overworked or I’m overdelivering for others, and I pause from my activities and re-organize my schedule to give myself me-time. I literally with add “me-time” to my schedule… I make an appointment with myself. I take it seriously, and just as I won’t cancel on others unless there’s something of higher priority, I will not cancel on myself.
As of recent, I learn a fact a day. I also journal at least 4x a week… word vomit my thoughts and feelings, verbatim anything top of mind, to just release, get the weight out from my head, give it another home on paper. I’ve been feeling physically lighter since starting this on a yoga retreat I attended in Ojai, CA last September.
Two words - persistence and focus. F-follow O-own C-course U-until S-successful. Don’t spread yourself too thin and be in touch with yourself and your direction. Check in on your current activities and ask yourself if they align with your business goals, and if they align with the future you. Be persistent. Decide what is it you want to achieve and who it is you want to be, and apply every day. Every day.
I’ll leave you with a quote I have taped next to my bed, “If you give up today in five or ten years, reality will find you and introduce you to someone who became who you could have become, but didn’t because you lacked the courage to be seen failing over and over until success.” Don’t be that person. Decide what your goal is, lay out your intentions and practice them every day with persistence and focus.