Surfer and surf photographer Al Mackinnon has made a name for himself shooting the hottest waves in the world’s coldest water.


The Green Goblin storm surfing in Scotland, Marlon Lipke showing his class on a windswept Scottish pointbreak. Al was shooting through a midwinter storm when the sun poked through for a few minutes producing this rare brown/orange effect as the light passed through the falling hailstones.

The water is usually around 4 to 6 degrees C when Thurso East is at its best. Located on the NE coast of Scotland, this surfing reef can transform the heavy North Atlantic winter swell into a wave that is as perfectly formed as any on the planet.


Empty Bomb. Al was the first photographer to swim out and shoot this Scottish monster and the location of it remained a well kept secret for some years.

In 2006, wetsuit company O’Neill underwrote the first international surfing competition at Thurso East. ‘The head of events at O’Neill had stumbled across an old lineup shot of mine showing Thurso East with the castle in the foreground and loved it so much they used it as the event advert and poster,’ said photographer Al Mackinnon.

‘I’ve spent more time in the barrel there than anywhere else. It’s a wonderful… just a special, special wave.’

So, when O’Neill decided to hold the event, they approached Al. ‘They wanted a guy who was happy to swim eight hours a day in Scotland and who knew the area.’ And, it might be added, they obviously knew a photographic talent when they saw one.

His father, whose lineage is Scottish, is an art dealer and as a consequence Al said that growing up between the Channel Islands and the mainland, ‘we always had art around the place – paintings and so on. In fact my thing was drawing, draftsmanship really. I was 16 when I got an offer to go to art college, but at the time I’d had enough of school. I just knew I wouldn’t make the most of any further education at that stage.’

Instead he did what many a 16-year-old would do following years of formal education; he partied hard for some time while working odd jobs. Eventually though, he realised he’d had enough and got back to surfing.

‘I started doing surf trips to some islands off of Scotland. I was living down in the South West of the UK, in Cornwall – which obviously has a big surf scene – but I was coming across waves in Scotland which were better than anything in Cornwall and with the added bonus of no one around. I just wanted, I suppose, to preserve those special times, to take photographs and be able to show people.

‘There was a surf magazine which I’d read since I was at school, called The Surfer’s Path; they had a section for people to submit photographs called “Readers’ Waves” and if they printed one of your photographs, you got a free subscription. So I thought, I’ll just have a punt and send in a couple [of] photos from Scotland.’

The magazine ended up publishing one of his pictures and he got the subscription. A year later, when the subscription expired, he submitted another batch of images.

‘Lo and behold, they printed another picture, so I got another free subscription. Another year went by and I thought I’d have another go and when I got a third year’s subscription, I thought, “maybe there’s something in this…”

‘By this stage I was at school and studying photography. I became totally fascinated with black and white and I was shooting almost exclusively black and white surf shots. I was also shooting a bit of trannie as well. I think there was something about seeing a transparency on a light box which was quite magical. But I just loved the darkroom and I would go through these phases of literally losing hours of my life in the darkroom.’

Although his first published pictures were taken in Scotland, the first shot he was paid for happened to be one he’d taken at Malibu – the iconic Californian surf break.

‘I’ve always said that it wasn’t that I had a fetish for being cold. I wasn’t excited about being cold, I was excited by the fact that there weren’t many people around and the waves were truly epic. The [Scottish coastal] landscape, the whole experience was beautiful and different.

‘And I’d always had this affinity for Scotland through my family. There was a sort of camaraderie as well. It was like, I imagine, those early days on the north shore of Hawaii where there was a bunch of guys who shared in a golden age, a beautiful thing and they all knew each other. You’d go along the Kam Highway and you’d sort of toot the guy going past…

‘It was all pretty friendly and that was how it was in Scotland. It was quite a strange thing, if you were in the water and someone you didn’t know paddled out, it was kind of a cool thing. It was almost a case if you surfed with someone, you became friends with them. And there were not many places in the world in the early 2000s where that was still happening.

‘Nowadays the wetsuits have got so much better. It’s incredible what’s happened in the space of the last 10 years. But it’s become very cool to do coldwater [surf photography]. In fact some of the stuff – it’s difficult because I’m inside the industry – to me, well, I think these staged pictures of guys walking across icebergs are almost becoming formulaic.’

While modern wetsuit technology was making even the bone-chilling cold of a Thurso East (slightly) more accessible to a shooter like Al Mackinnon, the arrival of high frame-rate, professional quality digital cameras was playing a role too. The tiny, ultra-competitive world of surf photography was comparatively slow to go digital. But by the time Al was establishing himself as the go-to guy for exotic coldwater surf shots, his competitors were giving up film and the equation was changing.

‘I’m not one of these “death before digital guys”, Al said. ‘In the work I do now, I use predominantly digital. I shoot film from time to time but I suppose on one level it’s sort of crazy to think of the amount of time and money spent mastering film… and then digital came along and presented new challenges. Still, it wasn’t as if the time spent in gaining specific skills with film [was wasted], it definitely helps, I think.’

‘One of the things I hear a lot from editors is they like to work with me because generally when I send in a submission for an article it’ll probably be somewhere between 10 and 30 images. But with the majority of other photographers they work with, it’ll be 300 or 600 and these photo editors will have to sit there and sift through [all these] high frame [count] sequences.

‘It’s easy to slip into the digital thing, knowing you’re not paying for film, to just snap away and make pictures with minute differences. And then you’re in the situation where it’s like “oh, is that slightly better?” and it’s difficult to edit.

‘I don’t want to deluge photo editors. I know if I was in their position I wouldn’t have hours to look through reams and reams of images. And I think with a story, you have a pretty good idea. You were there, so you just select the cream and don’t waste their time,’ he laughed.

‘I don’t shoot sequences that often. I’m not really sure what the reason for that is but for me photography is a moment. If you’re shooting lots and lots of sequences, you might as well be shooting video. This might sound dramatic, but it’s almost like it’s pornographic because in a way you’re showing everything, where with a single image it’s leaving a lot to the mind of the viewer. It’s almost like some of the clothes are still on.

‘I wouldn’t say that I never shoot sequences,’ he added. ‘Once you become a professional photographer and it’s not just a hobby, it’s one of those things that changes. Don’t get me wrong, I still compose pictures how I want to compose them, how it appears right at the time.’

However there are times when commercial considerations have to come into the calculation. ‘How can this best be laid out in terms of an ad, or a cover, in a double page spread… is there somewhere text can be dropped in….this kind of stuff starts to inform your photography.

‘Sometimes you think “well a magazine’s going to want a sequence of this [particular wave]…” I’m sure you’ve seen in magazines they have technique things where they want to maybe show how to do an aerial. And then there’s the moments when you think “this is just such a huge, huge thing that’s happening in front of me that I can’t afford to miss a split second.”

Asked where he sees his photography going in an era of diminishing budgets and ever more well-equipped enthusiast photographers, Al said,’I’ve been pretty fortunate to work with some of the top guys and I intend to carry on doing that. But I know that somewhere down the line I’m not going to be able to take the beatings any more, I’m not going to be able to swim out there and take waves on the head the way I do now.

‘Photography is still a passion for me. I love photography in spite of it being my work because it presents different challenges all the time; my role in surf photography also involves continually researching locations, bathymetry and weather – and making sure all goes smoothly on the road. I’m the type of guy that gets bored pretty easily, if I’m honest. I can concentrate, but I need to be stimulated, and I will take pictures of whatever is interesting to me.

‘I can’t imagine life without it, I seriously cannot imagine life after photography. I think that’s one of the wonderful things about photography. You can just do it until you keel over.’


I met Julian, a local fisherman on a trip to a rarely photographed region of Costa Rica. He could be the old man from Hemingway’s ‘Old Man and The Sea’. His life has been one of ups and downs and when prompted he was happy to share sage suggestions and stories that kept our crew rapt. His advice on where to spear fish doubtless saved us from ciguatera poisoning ““ thank you Julian!


Alex Botelho was the only surfer to join Al on a last minute trip to an obscure point in the Caribbean during Hurricane Sandy. Al had spent much time researching this location and the so called ‘once in 50 year swell’ generated by the devastating hurricane Sandy in late autumn 2012 ended up providing epic surf. With just one surfer riding barrels for upwards of twenty seconds and Al being the sole photographer in situ he described it as “the most perfect waves I’ve ever seen – the best trip of my life!”

Chasing Sandy  

As Hurricane Sandy ripped through the Caribbean toward its fateful rendezvous with the east coast of the USA, it left some extraordinary surf in its wake. Al Mackinnon managed to find and shoot some of those waves. He emailed a selection of images along with the following note (sorry about the surf lingo, but you can probably get the gist easily enough.

‘Suffice to say, the best waves I’ve ever seen. They peaked at around double overhead, perhaps a couple of bigger ones. Really heavy, airdrops and the longest slabbing barrels I’ve ever seen (on video or in real life). No exaggeration, one of the barrels Alex got was twenty to twenty five seconds! Think Namibia reversed in boardies with white sand and turquoise water – Oh and it was just he and I. We didn’t see another white person, let alone a surfer, for five days.

‘Incredibly challenging to swim, very strong currents and waves so long that positioning was difficult. It all came together despite a last minute booking, near missed flights, floods, almost losing our car, gnarliest insects ever… essentially heaps of luck got us through.

‘Poor Alex, at 22 he has probably experienced the best waves of his life. He rang me after returning home, saying his local spot was pumping and though he’d normally think it was excellent surf he now just can’t help comparing it to what we just had – and the comparison was not favourable.

Best trip of my life.’


A surfer’s eye’s view of one of the infinite vorticies generated by hurricane Sandy in late 2012. ‘The waves were lurching out of deep water onto a shallow sand bar before reeling at high speed for hundreds of yards requiring top-notch surfing from Alex Botelho’ says Al ‘the sheer volume of water pouring down the point meant staying in position was impossible and my legs were like jelly from fighting the rip all day long, but we got some decent pictures that trip, I was stoked.’


Instagram al_mackinnon


Story by Don Norris

First published (with additional images) in Photo Review Magazine Issue 55  

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