Many people attending the first-ever Microsoft Pro Photographers Summit in Bellevue, Wash., this week didn’t quite know what to expect. Billed as a gathering of industry thought leaders, attendees weren’t sure if they’d been summoned for a hard sell on Windows Vista or be baited into switching away from Apple.

Although expectations were low going in, the general consensus at the conclusion of the two-day conference was that Microsoft had hit one out of the park.

The key theme Microsoft pounded home again and again was not how great Vista will be – though the topic did come up more than once – but rather the computing giant’s willingness to engage in a dialogue with the professional photographer community.

The Pro Photographer Community team at Microsoft, which put on the summit, is charged with making sure the features that photographers want and need most, such as support for RAW file formats, make it into the Windows operating system. To that end, the conference was as much about hearing the issues photographers face as demoing the latest Microsoft inventions.

The panel discussions ranged from the highly technical — deliberations on the future of RAW file formats and color management and how to maximize metadata – to the somewhat more practical issues of digital photography workflow and reliable storage solutions. One panel was simply called “What Do Photographers Want?”

A good cross-section of industry leaders spoke on panels, including Adobe’s Thomas Knoll, Sports Illustrated director of photography Steve Fine, photographers Vincent Laforet, Jeff Schewe, Denis Regie, Colin Finlay, Chase Jarvis, and Adam Jones, and representatives from ACDSee, CameraBits, Extensis, Digital Railroad, iView, and Microsoft. (Several representatives from Apple were in attendance, but none spoke on the panels.)

One knock on the programming was that the major camera manufacturers were not represented on the panels. Their perspective would have likely proven useful during discussions on competing proprietary file formats for RAW.

In a morning keynote, Microsoft CTO David Vaskevitch explained how photography plays into the company’s future. The pervasive idea is that photographers, who spend more time in front of a computer than just about any other hobby or profession, are the ideal audience for Microsoft’s vast array of products.

“If you wanted to design a vocation, a hobby or profession that people do that uses computers, you couldn’t pick a better one than photography,” Vaskevitch said. “Photography is the first non-boring computer application.”

The Pro Photographer team at Microsoft clearly bristles at the common perception that the pro photographer community overwhelming use Macintosh systems. More than once company officials trumpeted an InfoTrends study from December that showed that 52% of professional photographers surveyed in North America used Windows.

Microsoft’s interest in the professional photography community has been building for several years, and now a coherent strategy is coming into focus. In addition to creating the Icons of Imaging program and the Future Pro Photographer contest, Microsoft recently purchased iView Multimedia, a provider of digital asset management software. The conference demo of Windows Vista showed off easy to use photo tagging and metadata support and an improved Windows Photo Gallery.

Microsoft also unveiled its upcoming Windows Media Photo, new file format and compression algorithm the company hopes will eventually replace the popular jpg standard. Microsoft is hoping Windows Media Photo achieves broad cross-platform adoption, and is granting royalty free licenses of the codec until 2010. (Find out more at Bill Crow‘s Windows Media Photo Blog.)

As for the Vista demo, the graphic interface, pervasive search and metadata support and color management offerings all seem like winners. But many of the features seem geared to the needs of the hobbyist photographer rather than the pro. Professionals will always have a need for specialized software applications to mange their digital photo workflow, but the underlying Vista operating system does look like a vast improvement over Windows XP.

After silently listening in during the two days of discussion, Dave Metz of Canon stood up after the closing dinner and thanked the Microsoft Pro Photo team for putting together the event.

His parting message: “We will be back next year.”