Canon (October 2022)
I would recommend the brand new Canon R7 for most birdwatchers who wants an affordable, all-round capable camera to photograph and film birds. It has amazing aufofocus speed with birds-eye tracking as well as a silent shooting option. If filming or low light photography are the main purposes for the camera then consider the more expensive Canon R5.
I recommend the Canon EF 100-500mm f/4.5-7.1L IS USM as the best all-round tele-zoom. Good at Birds in Flight (BIF) or portraits with the 1.4x extender. It has a close focus of only 119cm for insects and flora, and at 100mm wide enough for mammals. The biggest drawback is that it is very expensive compared to all other Zoom lenses.
Best Budget & Lightweight setup
I would not buy a DSLR today, but save up for the Canon R7 instead. I would use it with the ultralight Canon RF 100-400mm F5.6-8 IS USM if I wanted the cheapest or as a beginner setup. I would also suggest the lightweight and affordable Canon RF 800mm f/11 DO IS STM for those small and far away birds.
If you got a very good deal on a Canon EOS 90D (or Canon EOS 7D Mark II) then I would look for a used (they are too expensive new) Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM. I have used Tamron 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2 and the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM C, but I found them be too heavy and cumbersome and most of all loose too much in sharpness at 550-600mm. It could have been with not stopping down the aperture, AF issues etc. I preferred the Tamron over the Sigma, but I never found them reliable at the far end. It is difficult to remember this in the field so I sold them and stuck with the Canon 100-400mm zoom for a while instead. Note that you can add an Extender (1.4x) to the Canon Zoom, but I never got any good results with that combo! It is better to use it as it is and make use of the extra megapixels when you are cropping the images instead.
SonyThe last couple of years Sony has gotten many buyers of its Sony FE 200-600 F5.6-6.3 G OSS. I had it for a while together with the Sony a6600 (2625g incl. camera). It renders the best sharpness at 600mm (see above on Sigma/Tamron 150-600mm) for the price. The ultimate Sony camera with this lens is the very expensive Sony A1 as it has birds-eye autofocus. I find the Sony a6600 to be too small for this hefty lens. It becomes a bit cumbersome handheld. A good alternative would be a used A9 but then the price goes drastically up.
Note that this lens is not handholdable for longer periods of time, I used it mostly on a tripod/monopod. I finally sold this lens to get the Canon 100-500. It was mainly for the lighter weight, but also because I wanted better close focus for flowers and insects as well as the wider 100mm for mammals. I also wanted an affordable camera (Canon R7) with birds-eye autofocus, which my a6600 didn't have.
If you want to save some money on the lens and want better close focus of only 60cm then the Tamron 150-500mm f/5-6.7 Di III VXD G2 will be a great choice.
Fujifilm Best quality and reach for the price might just be the new (for 2022) Fujinon XF150-600mm F5.6-8 R LM OIS WR coupled with the Fujifilm X-H2S. I had previously the Sony 200-600 zoom as the "Best quality and reach for the price". But especially as the Fujinon is much more lightweight than the Sony lens, with a camera+lens total weight of only 2260g this is possibly the new leader in this category. I will however stick to my Canon 100-500 for now as I value the near focus of only 1194mm compared to the Sony and Fujinon lenses of 2800mm and 2400mm.
Nikon best new mirrorless is the Nikon Z9. The old Nikon D850 is still commonly used though still very expensive. Nikon has Z 100-400mm VR to compete with the Canon and Sony tele-zooms. They also have the old but very good AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR, but at 2300g it is on the heavy side. They have quite priceworthy new prime lenses which are light weight like the NIKKOR Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S and the AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR. Total weight with the 500mm: 2367g and the 35mm equivalent reach is 750mm (using the in camera DX crop).
OM SYSTEM (formerly Olympus) has the most lightweight F4 lens setup. Many switched to Olympus for this very reason. Those who got tired of lugging large lenses or needed the most compact form factor often went for the very good Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III + M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 300mm F4 IS PRO at only 1850g together. With the Micro Four Thirds-camera sensor this lens becomes a 600mmm in a 35mm equivalent (similar to the Canon 100-400mm). But as Olympus was sold and rebranded, the future is more uncertain and its popularity has started to fade.
The ultimate setupTo get the sharpest images with the most pleasing background blur then nothing beats a prime lens (one focal length) with a big aperture. If money and weight are of no concern, and you are a Canon shooter, then I would get the Canon 600mm f/4.0 IS III USM and the Canon R5 (Sony and Nikon also have equivalent 600mm primes and cameras). I would also add the Canon RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1 L IS USM for when the 600mm isn't practical, and couple it with the Canon R7 as the go-to walk-around combo. Most likely the latest big seller combo for birdphotographers world wide!
Workflow & image editing
The first thing is to learn your camera, set it up properly and to your liking. Often we simply use company presets, but soon you realize that you want to shoot RAW in order to edit your files, and maybe like me enable Large jpeg as well for fast sharing of files. I suggest purchasing CANON 90D: A Setup Guide
I have the gear ready, but how do I take "Good pictures"? I very much like this old Guidelines for Better Photographic Composition
Next is to find a workflow that works for you. Pictures often need improvements before you share or print them, such as sharpening, noise reduction, color, contrast, or light adjustments. You want to minimize the time spent doing this and then make sure you store them in a safe, smart way. There are many good tutorials out there. Begin by going to Glenn Bartley and his Post Processing Simplified. Do check out his YouTube: Bird Photography Show and I especially like his friends channel YouTube: Jan Wegener. I also recommend Jess Findlay's Post-Processing eBook
- Review images on the camera; Rate & Delete
- Download images to the laptop or a fast external SSD/HDD
- Review images on the computer; Rate & Delete using Adobe Bridge
- Edit in Adobe Photoshop CC;
- adjust white balance & exposure if needed
- crop & resize to 1500px wide and about 200kb large
- selectively modify background and object; Sharpening/noise reduction with Topaz DeNoise AI
- Save & organize images according to date + description on a duplicate set of LaCie d2 10TB