For the money, Your best bet would be the Panasonic DMC-FZ30. At 8 megapixils it is 12X. At 5 megapixils it is 15.1X. Focus is a ring adjustment and so is zoom. Don't pay any attention to the critics about noise.
I THINK I need a Mega Zoom
I'm looking at a very similar set of cameras:
Canon Powershot S2 IS
Canon PowerShot A85
http://www.viewscore.com/vsPP/3/1429 (ranked first in at;s category)
or possibly very similar models from Casio and Kodak (I've not researched the last two as carefully).
I've done some research and played with the S2 IS, but would still like advice since this is a big purchase for me and I'm a relative newbie (I don't think my Fuji 1mp point-and-shoot from 4 years ago is really "experience"!). However, I had a pretty great point-and-shoot style film camera a few years ago when I was doing a lot of travel and I loved the fairly generous zoom (porbably a 4x equivalent?)
I can stretch up to $600 or so,
assuming I'll need to spend another $150-$200 for basic accessories like a 512 or 1 gb memory card, case, rechargeable batteries (if applicable), etc. I'd be happier spending $400-$500, obviously.
Would like 5-8 mp, and would like advice on which end to go for.
* I would like a 10-12x optical zoom, flip out LCD, image stabilization, a good macro setting, plus other usual features at this price range. TIFF/RAW file formats and video recording are plusses, but not deal-breakers. All of these "requirements" are what I imagine I'll need in the next 3-5 years, however, not what I currently use.
* Image quality is probably an 8+ on a scale of 1-10 of importance.
I would like manual controls, as I'd like to grow into this camera, a bit. It seems like ring controls would be easier to use and more like a "real" SLR.
* This camera will be used for 1) photographing paintings/artwork for my portfolio (images will be printed at 8.5x11-11x14), including detail shots of surface textures, 2) travel photography, especially architectural detail shots, and 3) for general birthday/party/night-out blackmail shot photography and very basic portraiture. I don't often carry a camera, however, so it would be just fine if the camera was larger.
* Big prints of my photos? I think 8.5x11 is big, but maybe not?
Low light photos/indoor photos will be fairly common for me.
I will rarely shoot action/sporting photos.
I have no strong opinions on brands, but I've been swayed away from Nikon, Casio, and Sony products by friends and family.
Are there particular models you already have in mind? Powershot S2 IS, FZ 20 or 30. I almost bought the S2 IS last night! I did wish it had ring controls for the manual settings and wondering if they would come out with a 8mp model soon. The salesman said it wouldn't happen until next spring, and that it would probably be a more expensive model ($700).
Also, the flip LCD was great, but it seemed a bit small in comparison. Happily, the camera itself wasn't huge.
As I am planning to apply to grad school for architecture or interior design, I will need a camera with which I can document my work (architectural models, paintings, rooms and spaces) as well as a general-purpose camrea into which I can gow and learn. I would like manual controls and a ability to add accessory lenses and filters, down the line. I'd like this camera to carry me for the next 5 years or so, if possible.
I tend to use the zoom a LOT and also really compose a shot before shooting, since I'm more familiar with film cameras. I've little experience with photo editing software, so I have a hard time figuring out what flaws (noise, purcple fringing, sharpness problems) are "fixable" and therefore forgiveable.
Also, I am slightly confused about whether to go with a 5MP model or whether it really is necessary for me to get a 6-8MP model. I've heard conflicting advice on the matter.