YOU KNOW YOU secretly want to be a National Geographic photographer. But it takes a lot more than hoping. Self-learning is fun and cheap, but takes discipline. Check out these nine steps and resources.

1. Study photo books.

Go to the public library or local book store and look at photo books while asking questions such as: “What makes this photo great?” “Why are these photos side by side?” “Why does this photographer only shoot B&W?” If you do this on a regular basis it can dramatically improve your photography and is enjoyable!

2. Take notes.

Self learning can lack focus unless you take notes so you can follow up on questions and ideas. I started with a list of specific things I wanted to learn about photography. “What is White Balance and how do I use it?” “How slow can I hand hold the camera without getting a blurry photo?” “What is the rule of 1/3?” etc. Many years later I’m still adding new questions to this same piece of paper.

3. Listen to podcasts

Check out Jeff Curto’s Camera Position Podcast and his History of Photography Podcast.

The Magnum Photo Essay Podcast is a cooperative of distinctive photographers worldwide. Click here for more of of the best photography podcasts.

5. iTunes U

Ever wanted to study “Photography as Inquiry” at MIT, or “Documentary Studies” at Duke, but don’t have the time, not to mention the money? With iTunes U you can put them on you laptop and study them at your leisure for free.

iTunes U is new and is adding courses all the time. Be be sure to search for “photography” and see what classes, guest speakers and MOMA events come up. If you have iTunes, you already have iTunes U, most people just don’t know it. These are real college classes and have a lot of good learning inside, but just like real college classes they aren’t always thrilling. Pick your classes and teachers carefully.

6. Self-critique

This is no doubt the hardest part of self learning. Self critique means many things. For example, when evaluating a specific photograph, asking “how could this be better?” can also be translated into “what have I learned in the last 6 months?” The nature of critique is that 2 ideas are better than one, and 3 better than 2. This is why no one is truly “self taught.” We need others’ ideas and opinions to grow.

7. Getting kind but critical opinions

Luckily there are good places to get feedback and opinions about your work outside of learning institutions. A good place to start is someone close to you, someone you trust to be honest and kind but also critical. Another good option is the internet. There are many photo-sharing communities, such as Earth Trek that offer quality and critical feedback for your photos for free. Another good option is posting your photos to a travel community such as the Matador Community and begin a dialog with other travel photographers whose work you admire. The best option is to find a professional who can give you personal attention. Try a local camera shop or even look in the phone book for photographers in your area.

8. Workshops as reinforcement

Nearly everyone who is serious about photography takes workshops from time to time. This includes top pros! There are only 2 ways to be finished learning about photography, give up or die. It’s this ongoing struggle that keeps us engaged and youthful and it’s never too soon nor too late to take a workshop.

9. Let the path be your guide Don’t wait till you are ready to start being a photographer. Let the path tell you when you are ready. Start showing your work in shows; start trying to get it published today. You will get rejections and make mistakes, but it is without a doubt the fastest way to learn.