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As you've seen, masking relies on channels and compositing relies on layers. Of the two, channels are the older function. Channels and mask had been around since Photoshop 1, whereas layers were introduced in Photoshop 3. I mention this not to take you on a stroll down memory lane, but rather to make a point. Without masks, layers would not exist. See, every layer carries with it something called a transparency mask, which defines the boundaries of the layer, that is, which pixels are opaque, which are transparent, and which are somewhere in between.
You can load that transparency mask as a selection by Ctrl+Clicking, or on the Mac Command+Clicking, on a thumbnail in the Layers panel. But that's just the beginning. You also have pixel-based layer masks, which allow you to temporarily erase portions of a layer or control the area affected by an adjustment layer. You have vector masks, which let you scalp layers inside ultra-smooth path outlines, and you can modify these masks dynamically from the Masks panel.
As if that's not enough, you can use clipping masks to house the contents of one layer inside another, and you can use knockouts to bore temporary holes inside layers. Now, with the exception of the transparency mask, all layer-based masks are temporary, so you always have access to your original pixels. Layers and masks are the ultimate dynamic duo. Here, let me show you exactly how they work.
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