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In its simplest form, a mask is another way of looking at a selection outline, but instead of seeing your full- color composition with a line of animated marching ants surrounding the selected area, your full-color composition goes away and you see a grayscale image in its place. In that grayscale image the selected area is white and the deselected area is black, which on the face of it is insane. What good is seeing your selection as a grayscale image and how in the world can you evaluate the accuracy of a selection, if you can't even see the thing you're trying to select.
Well, let's back up for a moment, imagine this simple scenario. Say you have a photograph of a light- skinned guy with light hair against a very dark background and you want to select him. If you have to rely on the selection tools then you'll spend a lot of time clicking with the Magic Wand, and dragging with the Quick Selection tool and maybe filling in some details with the Magnetic Lasso. And in the end even after applying the Refine Edge command, you may be disappointed by the results.
If you use a mask you are already done. Let me repeat that, the moment you start you are done and the mask is 100% accurate. See, the guy is light with light hair against a dark background, white means selected, black means deselected, so the guy is his own mask with each and every hair intact. And that's masking, the art of using the image to select itself. Not everyone is light-skinned with light hair against a dark background, so it's frequently more complex than that.
In fact, the subject of this chapter is light-skinned with dark hair against a gray background, but we'll still select the image using the image and here is how it works.
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