I dropped out of school when I was obsessed enough with Max and render engines, spending 12-14 hours a day just testing every area. After some time I started getting contacts via the forums where I had posted my renderings to share with others.
My "secret" tool is Vray2SidedMtl. It's a cool way to create realistic leaves for vegetation and, in my opinion, it's better and also faster for rendering than using translucence map.
For achieving photorealistic results general taste in design is far more important than just a technical knowledge of the software.
The key for photorealistic vegetation, besides correct tools, is understanding how it behaves, what it does, what it smells like.
My way to achieve photorealism in lights and materials is always having good references and working strictly based on them.
Analyze distance to vegetation on your render and real necessity for detailed materials - this way you shorten rendering time.
I always try to tell a story. Could be some elements or a light hitting one spot in the scene.
Remember: although optimizing textures size, lights and "general rendering setting" speeds the work, overdoing it, can ruin the end result.
To set lighting in a scene, you need to know some photography basics to understand camera settings and white balance.
I prefer to spend less time in 3d-software and more in postproduction. For me Photoshop is the best render engine.
Start with a small scene and shoot it like a photographer, remember the composition - it considerably changes the image perception.
Photoimages serve as the basement for fixing materials and lights. Results in 3d strongly depend on the choice of references.