Good question. One I couldn't answer with any degree of accuracy until about...yesterday.
I've been "into" photography for a long time. Studying it since 16 years ago. Properly doing it for 5 years and seriously for 3. In those last three my philosophy has been "Eat, drink, sleep" photography.
Now I'm full. You could say I've levelled up. I'm at the point where I know what I'm good (and bad) at. I have a path chosen and my sights are set on that spot THERE, just over the horizon.
I'm looking back over photos I shared on my Facebook page and website since I turned professional, perhaps prematurely in 2009. Here's the deal:
Most of them are rubbish. Really poor efforts.
Don't get me wrong. Taking those photos and more importantly, sharing them because I thought they were good was an incredibly important thing to do.
Summing up my approach to making a living from photography, it went something like this:
First of all, I awarded myself a degree for all the hard work I was going to do in the next three years. Then I actually did it. All the studying, relearning the basics, experimenting. Being bad, being good (occasionally), going off on tangents. Practising. But always doing, thinking, obsessing.
And I do feel like I have gone through the torture, the pain, the joy and the solid graft of a degree from 2009 to 2012. In fact, (see my previous post "I'll admit it, I'm lazy") I worked harder than I ever did at real university. Because it mattered. Because maybe too I'm the kind of self-learner that can't be sat down and taught. I'm not proud of that, I envy those who can simply open their minds and be taught.
There's another question in there isn't there?
When should I start charging money for my photography?
Ha! I'm not falling for that one. Google it if you like, I couldn't possibly hazard a guess. Perhaps I did it too soon, perhaps too late. I'm just glad I started and that, well, I can continue to do so. Perseverance, hard-nosed stubbornness and a well-fed savings account all played their part. I shall however, cue that one up as a future blog topic. I may even make this a meandering but meaningful attempt to cover what I feel are the important bits of being a photographer.
So back to the original question: you will have many portfolios as you develop as a photographer. Every time you make one that is better than the old one you will laugh (you will) and say something like, "Ha! Look how crap my old stuff was! Can you believe what a noob I was?"
I like photos like this, so I take photos like this.
Yes, I've done this several times over the past few years. And even as I sit here, happy with my latest portfolio -- http://perfectyellow.photoshelter.com if you're asking -- I know fully well that shortly, maybe in a month's time, maybe next week, maybe even...tonight (!) I'll do it all again.
A perfectionist will never be bored. There's a fine line between perfectionism and obsessiveness and one drives the other. It's fine. It's good. Apathy and a lack of drive in improving your own work are the death of creativity.
You might notice that the theme of that portfolio I describe as "my portfolio" doesn't even touch on many of the kinds of photography I've actually done professionally. Of course I have other portfolios. Right now, I do not have an up-to-date "master portfolio", you know, the 10 best, covering everything you do. It's taken me so long to put together that rather bloated landscape portfolio (which to be honest I couldn't whittle down to 10) that I fear it will take me a while to put together that holy grail of the versatile photographer. But damn it, those are the kind of pictures I love taking, the ones that I saw and in my heart knew, that one day I wanted to make.
I guess what I'm trying to say is, there is nothing wrong with looking at your own work and knowing what is bad about it. I had a book, a 50 page album. In it, I printed out my best work. When it got full, it got a bit like one of those reality shows: along came a contender and replaced a photo, any photo, that it was better than. Eventually, the album was full. I posted these all as prints for sale. But I saw weakness there. Most of them I spotted myself, a few deceitful individuals were yanked out by my wife. Eventually it stood at 31 images. By the evening that dropped to a round 30. These comprise all the photos in that album. I can stand by every one of them. There are flaws in my technique. There are weak contenders, yes.
But at this moment I can stand behind that body of work and say, "Look, I did this. I'm a photographer and I'd like to sell you a print or two."
It's not taken that long really, has it?