Thanks for the replies. Let me try to do a better job explaining what I have happening.
I have a 13x19 canvas as a background layer. The final print is display print / page layout.
A text layer.
Roughly 30 +- files placed on the the canvas, each photo on its own layer, in effect a manual picture package. I can move the photos, change size (maintaining proportion) with edit>transform.
If I go on one of these layers with the crop tool to crop the layer's photo, it crops everything outside the crop out to the edges of the 13x19 canvas. All that is left is what is inside the crop, everything else is gone.
Is there a layer setting to isolate the layer to keep it independent of the background? What I was hoping would be that each layer would act the one file acts cropped preserving pixels.
Is a layer mask the only solution? I tried open file as smart object, that didn't seem to help, but sounded good.
All help is appreciated.