It has been years now since astronomers chucked their bulky photographic plates in favor of electronic sensors called charge-coupled devices (CCDs). Now, the technology that creates images captured by the Hubbell Space Telescope is coming to consumers in the form of digital cameras.

Don't throw your Instamatic away just yet. As a photographic tool, the best of the consumer units, the Kodak DC40, can't hold a candle to an inexpensive point-and-shoot camera. Eastman Kodak's digital camera is handicapped by a fixed-focus lens and a primitive flash. (For about $750 less, you could buy a 35mm camera with autofocus and a zoom lens.) The Kodak CCD's 380,000 pixels also produce a much coarser image than film's millions of grains of silver. And digital pictures are marred by "artifacts," strange aberrations at the edges of objects.

OFFICE HELPERS. Still, the one-pound DC40, the nearly identical Logitech PhotoMan Pixtura, and the slightly smaller, lower-resolution Apple QuickTake 150 can be useful--and, more to the point, fun. In business, the cameras, all of which are built around Kodak technology, would be handy for an operation--say, insurance claims adjustment--that needs a cheap and easy way to get pictures into a database. And you can use the pictures to liven up a newsletter or presentation without the expense and difficulty of working with a color scanner. However, I suspect that most of these cameras will be snapped up by amateur photographers and gadget lovers, often the same folks.

When you click the shutter, the image is captured by the CCD, then transferred to the camera's internal memory. The Kodak and Logitech units hold 48 shots at their highest resolution; the Apple unit, 16. When you get back to your PC, you hook up a special serial cable (or a standard printer cable to a Mac). Once you use the supplied software to copy the pictures on your hard disk, you can clear the camera's memory.

With the pictures in your computer, the real fun starts. For old-fashioned film, darkroom work requires claustrophobic labor with nasty chemicals. Digital editing, done with a few mouse clicks at the comfort of your desk, offers myriad levels of control and transformation not possible in any darkroom. Mistakes waste only your time, not costly paper or chemicals. The results can be displayed as slides on-screen or sent to a color printer.

Both the Kodak and Logitech cameras come with PictureWorks' PhotoEnhancer software (Windows or Macintosh for the Kodak, Windows only for Logitech). The program offers easy-to-use tools to manipulate the pictures' brightness, color, and focus.

If you use the SmartPix feature, the program takes its best guess at overall correction for the scene's lighting. But I usually got better results doing the corrections myself. The Apple QuickTake, which begins with lower picture quality, also comes with inadequately bundled software. Its PhotoFlash program (Mac or Windows) lacks a decent way of previewing the effect of any changes, making it hard to use.

Much better than either of these programs is Adobe Systems Inc.'s upcoming PhotoDeluxe. The $89 program, due for the Mac in late November and for Windows 95 sometime early next year, is a stripped-down and far more user-friendly version of Adobe's $500 professional image-editing package, PhotoShop.

I used a test version of PhotoDeluxe with the pictures on this page. I thought the original version of Andrew Jackson in Washington's Lafayette Park was too blue, too contrasty, and too dark. I used

PhotoDeluxe's choose-by-example feature, which lets you look at eight proposed changes and pick the one that looks best. The program also helps you create a variety of such special effects as instantly giving the image an antique sepia look, making it into a psychedelic poster, or altering facial features. Then you can turn your pictures into calendars, greeting cards, and other crafts projects.

Today, digital photography is more a curiosity than a real challenge to film technology. Even $20,000 professional digital cameras can't match the quality of film under most circumstances. With cheaper CCDs and better electronics, though, quality will improve, and prices will plunge. Add in some easy but powerful software programs, and amateur photographers will be able to salvage their botched shots--and put their pictures to uses that they can only dream of today.

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