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In Magento 2 I see that the REST API only provides the path to the originally uploaded images. I would like to be able to use Magento's scaled thumbnails directly in my headless store front.

Ideally I want to modify the API so I get a path to the cached, scaled version of the thumbnail in addition to the original image. If the image is not already scaled, I would like it to happen automatically. I wonder if anyone has done anything like this before?

I don't really understand why this isn't a part of the API. Do people usually download the original image and scale/cache it in the front end system?

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Magento's API provides access to the non-formatted / almost-raw data and functionalities. It's up to you how you'll use it to solve your puzzle. More information about that topic:

Magento 2 as Headless solution

If you want to make API call and fetch Magento's cached image, take a look here:

Magento 2 REST API Get Thumbnail image

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