Hack #1: Lightation. Lightation. Lightation
Ok, so lightation is obviously a word that I made up, but if photography were real estate, it would be the three-word refrain emphasised by sweaty-palmed auctioneers every Saturday morning. And depending on the kind of photograph I was interested in taking, I'd be very careful to see what kind of light it had before bidding.
What I'm getting at is that the quality of light in a photo is one of its principal determinates of aesthetic value. And in the majority of situations (i.e. shooting outdoors, relying on sunlight), it sucks. It can vary a lot depending on your latitude, time of year and atmospheric conditions (weather, smog etc.), but in general the middle hours of the day is a time of sunlight so harsh, and at such vertical angle, that colour and contrast rarely come out well.
Related story: Travel diary: 4 days of cycling in Copenhagen
Because of this, many photographers suffer the penance of getting up at the crack for the dawn's virgin rays. They famously call it - pause for effect - the 'Golden Hour' (for those of us more inclined to sleep in, it also applies to the hour before sunset). This time of day provides a much softer, warmer light than usual (hence it's also staple harvest for Hollywood cinematographers) - but there's little more I could say that a Google image search won't illustrate a bazillion times better.
Related story: Travel diary: discovering the Kreol Festival of Mauritius
Less celebrated is another time that I love shooting in: the hour just after or before the Golden Hour. If the sun's out then it's not nearly as brutal as high noon, and shadows get enough good angle to shape around things you might want to point your camera at. I took the street photographs illustrating Hack #1 around Melbourne while road-testing the new Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II at exactly these times of day.
Related story: Travel diary: the people and culture of Ghana
Search hard enough for the right light (especially around large buildings) and you'll find just the place where shadows can become canvases to isolate your subjects. Try enhancing the darkness of those shadows by exposing only for elements catching direct sunlight (on the Olympus I pushed the live histogram more to the left).
If you're struggling, range further afield. I find getting around by bike an awesome medium between mobility (to explore plenty of terrain, i.e. much more than walking) and the flexibility to stop wherever you want (unlike fixed route public transport, or having to park a car). Being lightweight and compact, the Olympus was a relief compared to many DSLRs (tip: tuck your camera strap behind a hood or collar for max comfort).
Related story: Buro city guide: Bali
Bottom line: persist long enough and just the right shadows, colours, patterns, people and moments will eventually show up - but first, look to the light.
Cam Cope was awarded Travel Photographer of the Year 2014 by the Australian Society of Travel Writers, and teaches short courses in Contemporary Travel Photography at RMIT University in Melbourne.