I have always been interested in photography but this grew quite massively when I blew my first bonus on a refurbished DSLR on ebay. I used it a lot but it was just me, my camera and friends and family for feedback. Imagine cooking a steak for Ronald McDonald; his point of reference for meat - as with your friends and family with photography - isn't really going to compare so your food/photography is impressive. Only since joining various photography communities in the past 3 or 4 years has my photography really taken off. I've found that seeing other people's images and the comments and critiques of these images really helps you grow as a photographer.
Commenting. Initially you're an observer; watching, listening, reading and learning. Impressed by the quality of images and the knowledge of others you fear that your work isn't up to scratch and your comments of little help to anyone. But everyone has to start somewhere, and everyone has a valid opinion - even if it is simply 'I like this one better than that one'.
We all like or dislike images without really appreciating why; 'hey, it just looks nice'. But the more you critique the more you start appreciating what it is that you like about an image and why it is that you like it. Seeing why other people like or dislike an image also helps you appreciate the nuances of a picture and notice things you yourself hadn't noticed.
Posting. Once you've started commenting on other people's images you soon build up the courage to post a few of your own shots and this is when things get really great. Getting feedback on your own work is a great way of learning. Appreciating why other people like or dislike the image in itself is nice but hearing what you could do next time certainly helps you improve. It's very easy to get distracted by the background of an image when looking at your own photos; where you took it, why you took it and what you felt at the time. You can 'see' an image with these factors included - for better or worse - and often family and friends were involved so also have this supporting material. But a photo must stand on it's own two feet without the back story so having feedback from fellow photographers helps you realise this.
Practising. So after a while in one of these communities you start to enter the odd monthly competition or take part in a community 'challenge'. These competitions and challenges are designed to help your own creativity and encourage you to shoot more. You can read every book there is, watch every video but the only way to learn how to take great photos is to get out there and practice. And it's surprising how often you walk out of the house without the camera when actually there's no good reason not to have it with you. in addition to the taking of images, commenting and critiquing on the work of others taking part in the challenge is also a vital element of the challenge (and the only way you can expect to receive feedback on your stuff too of course!).
I did my first challenge in October 2011; a challenge to go the whole month using only one lens at a fixed focal length (think your first film camera with no zoom) and take - and share - a photo every day. Along with 30 or so others, every day I did this lugging my camera into work and shooting at lunch or on my commute home. I's take an hour or so every day to review everyone else's uploads and try to give useful feedback. It was a great experience and so now 6 months on I'm starting the next one...
April Challenge. So my challenge; for the whole of April I will be taking a photo every day with a 16mm fisheye lens and sharing it with you here. I will also be sharing these with the photography community running this challenge and attempting to enjoy and comment on every other participant's work too. With 70+ people involved though the commenting alone is going to be a challenge in itself!
Wish me luck...
Notes: Photography communities I can recommend are:
www.dyxum.com - A community dedicated to those who use Minolta and Sony SLRs, DSLRs, SLTs and mirrorless cameras. By far the most friendly community I've been a member of that is moderated considerately treating everyone as human beings - a rarity in the age of online trolling. With a mixture of equipment talk and photograph sharing and critiquing, in my opinion the opportunity to be a member here is a reason in itself to get a Sony camera. Plus it's a great resource for lens reviews from users.
www.talkphotography.co.uk - UK based but with a very active community, there's always lots going on. They key to TP - like dyxum - is the polite and welcoming people on there. The moderators can be a little bit bossy but given it's size I think this is probably a necessity to keep any kind of order. Just don't take it to heart if you're on the receiving end.