Shooting assignments for National Geographic is as exciting as it sounds, according to James Balog.
"An ordinary year for me is like 10 to 20 years or so, or a lifetime, of adventures for people less fortunate," he said. "I am truly blessed."
But the Boulder, Colo., photographer says most people wouldn't want the professional and economic hardships that come with the career.
"I'm so full of ideas now, but it hasn't always been like this," he said. "Usually, you're flailing around, having to come up with good ideas, and until you do so, you don't have any currency to trade in."
And then there's the physical hardship. Taking photos of glaciers, Balog has traveled by dog sled, camping in temperatures of 25 degrees below zero. In some ways, he says, a 36-degree day with rain is worse.
"We would spend the whole day soaking wet and frozen to the bone," he said. "You're so cold you don't want to eat dinner, so you climb into the tent, change into dry clothing, get in your sleeping bag and try to feel human again."
And climbing glaciers is dangerous.
"There's always the worry about falling into a crevasse, which is not a minor detail," said Balog.
Getting to a photo site by helicopter can be scary, too.
"I have an ever-present anxiety about whether the helicopter engine is going to fail and I'm going to crash," he said.
He actually had a close call in Iceland.
"I've spent hundreds of hours in helicopters in the course of my career, and they've always been single-engine aircraft. This one time, thanks be to the powers above, it was a twin engine," he said.
One of the engines failed, and the second was struggling.
"We skidded down the runway like a plane, because we didn't have enough power to hover. ... Sparks were flying and it was quite exciting."
But Balog says it's worth it to see the soaring mountains and fjords.
"At 1 in the morning, when it's twilight in Alaska, there's a hush and the colors go to pastel, and you feel the incredible immensity of space and time around you, and you really know you're floating on a stone in the solar system," he said. "It beats the hell out of the 300 best days I ever had in the office."
The art of photography
Balog is basically a self-taught photographer. His university degree is in geomorphology -- the study of landscapes and the processes that shape them.
"I decided, as I finished graduate school, that a better way to express my enthusiasm for nature was through photographing it and traveling the world, as opposed to measuring it as a scientist," he said. "It became clear after a little bit of time that these major currents of my life had come full circle back together."
Balgo says he's had a grand total of two weeks in photographic training, but he did take a filmmaking course as a college sophomore.
"And I was married to an artist, a painter, and learned a great deal from hanging around with her, and traveling with her to art museums, and keeping my heart and mind open."
He offers this advice to other photographers:
"Number one, it's not about the camera -- which is what all amateur photographers assume. ... It's about what you're trying to say, and how you're approaching the subject matter," he said. "Number two, it's about exploration, and keeping your heart and mind open to the situation, and following serendipity. The corollary and companion to that is to be open and receptive to what an art professor I knew calls 'happy accidents.' "