I"m going to start out with a brief history of photography. Now, I don't completely think it's a requirement to improve one's skills, I do think it can benefit someone, knowing the advancements and limitations, the medium has gone through in it's fairly short lifetime.
In the beginning there was paint, pen, pencil, and any other drawing medium, and it was good. You see, photography as you and I know it, has only existed for about 200 years, the idea of capturing images with light though, has it's origins somewhere in the 5th century BC. The camera obscura was essentially a box with a small hole in it, light would enter through the hole and project whatever scene was in front of it onto either a wall, for audience or artist's viewing, or onto a small piece of ground glass, which an artist could then use to trace the scene. The camera obscura has become what we call pinhole cameras, with the film (or digital sensor) now recording the scene.
Up until the invention of the very first photographic process, the only way to document the scenes laid forth in front of the camera obscura was with the traditional mediums I've noted above, but then, in the 1830's, a French man by the name of Joseph Niepce recorded the first image on a pewter plate coated with bitumen. In the following years Niepce's experiments helped another Frenchman name Louis Daguerre develop a proper full photographic process call Dagguerreotypes. Dagguerreotypes were one off positive photographs, kind of like what a modern Polaroid or instead produces, but with many more tedious steps.
While amazing, and beautiful as a Dagguerreotype was, it could never be reproduced, you had one photograph and that was it until a rival, an Englishman named William Henry Fox Talbot invented his photographic process called Talbotype (yeah the early inventors of photography were narcissistic), later called Calotype. With Calotype, a negative image was formed that could be used to print an infinite amount of positive images from.
Since those monumental times, up until the invent of modern digital photography, the were advancements such as: roll film in 1889;
the first 35mm format cameras in the early 1900's;
the invention of Polaroid in 1948.
Then, in 1957, the biggest change to the photographic medium came to be that would rock the world.... 20 years later... Digital photography was born! Yes, that's right, 1957, not the 80's, or 90's, 1957...
Obviously, digital back then wasn't anything like it is now. The phone in your pocket produces images millions of times better and faster than the original (proto)digital devices, but it was good enough for NASA, and (proto)digital cameras actually traveled to Mars in the 70's. As a funny side note, most of the still images taken on and around the moon were actually shot on film cameras.
In 1986, Kodak scientists produced a 1.4 megapixel sensor, at the time, this was a huge advancement. Since that time, in little over 30 years we've gone from 1 megapixel to 50, 60, 100, and up megapixel cameras, and on top of that the size of cameras have shrunk down to almost nothing! In Dageurre's and Talbot's time, until the advent of roll film, cameras were huge boxes, that required not only an artist's vision to capture images, but a chemist's knowledge to fix and print those images, and now, you are either reading this with or have in your pocket a device that rivals those giant boxes. I'm talking about your phone.
Ok, now that I've caught you up on the history, let's dive into how to improve your skills, but in the back of your head, I want you to remember the challenges the photographers before you had to go through, because our history shapes our present, and our present builds our future.
1. Shoot! I don't care if you use a phone, a digital camera, a film camera, or a disposable camera, your skills will never improve if you don't take those pictures! Your equipment means nothing! Having that $2000 full frame DSLR, with all the bells and whistles, won't make you better, if you don't actually know how to properly use it, so don't worry about gear. Now, I come from an old school methodology of learning photography, one where a completely manual, film camera is placed in your hands, and you learn the exposure trinity along side developing your artistic vision, but as I grow older, and as technology advances I realize it isn't the only way to learn, that is why I say shoot, and see what you get first. This will hopefully help develop your artistic vision, a style, composition, and color theory, before you take the next step...
2. Learn the "rules". Now, I call them rules, but really they are more like baseline guides. Color theory; composition; zone theory; exposure trinity; the list could go on for quite a long time, but I don't think you want to read all of that, though if you are to this point, you should be reading or watching a video about these "rules".
3. Look at other photographer's images. Follow their Instagram, pick up a photography book, find images that you like, and draw inspiration from them. I personally pour over many photographers images almost daily, I look at their style, their subject matter, their composition, colors, and I use what I see to guide my own shooting style, which brings us to the next step...
4. Find your vision. It's been said, in fact by Ansel Adams, "The most important piece of gear a photographer has is the 12 inches behind the camera." He was, of course talking about the photographer's vision, and brain. Find what you like, develop a style that fits how you want to show the world around you, because that's the real essence of photography, it stops time, collecting and storing light of one moment. The camera doesn't care what you point it at, it will store that information like anything else in front of the lens, but once you find your vision, you learn how to twist and bend the reality in front of our eyes every day, and record the world in your own way. I can find beauty in a pile of garbage, in fact the first photograph I took in NYC was of a clay head thrown into a garbage can on the street. Hundreds, maybe thousands of people walked right past that clay head, not even giving it a second thought, but when I saw it, I saw a metaphor, a message that only I and my camera could convey. That's the power of the photographer's vision. You're probably thinking, great, that's it right? I've got my vision, now I'm a better photographer! Sorry bucko! Not that easy, there's one more step...
5. Do it all again! Go back to the first step, do not pass go, do not collect $200. Start anew, but don't forget what you've learned. You see, any artistic process is all about growth, learning, and improvement. Unless someone is too full of themselves, a photographer will never think they have completely mastered their medium, they know someone does something better, there's always something that can be learned, and tomorrow may bring challenges that, what they already know may not be enough to overcome.
Ok, so this wasn't an end all, be all guide to improving your skills, there are books upon books worth of information that you should devour in order to ultimately do that, but this is a good starting point, if you are actually going to hop down the rabbit hole and work at it.
In today's age, it is so much easier to actually learn and grow your skills, whether you want to be a professional photographer, instagram famous, or just express yourself artistically through photography. The tools are laid out in front of you, all you need to do is pick them up and use them. You will fail along the way, guaranteed, but that's how you grow, and if your resolve and passion are strong enough, you will overcome the failures and become better.
The way I learned photography was, quite frankly grueling. So many waisted rolls of film; notebooks filled with logs of settings; not knowing if the image came out until I processed the film; thinking I had taken a great shot only to find out it was shit. I look back at my earlier photographs, and I'm almost embarrassed by them, they look plebeian, lacking skill, lacking artistic merit, but you know what? That's good, because they are my personal proof that I have grown, they are my pathway markers, and while they may never see the light of day, they are still a documentation of the world in only a way I could capture it.