Ubuntu – How to make `less` output colors

command lineless

When I run a program (for example grep or ls) without a pager, its output is colored. However when I run it piping its output to less, no colors are shown.

For example, this command outputs colored output:

grep -r something

but this doesn't:

grep -r something | less

Why? How can I see colors through less?

Best Answer

There are two problems here:

  • Commands like ls —which auto-detect the colour support— don't find support from pipes
  • less is set to just display colour codes by default.

Both can be overcome but it's a bit clunky:

ls --color=always | less -R

This isn't ls specific. Many commands that support colour also have an override argument.

A slightly more in-depth answer is that ls is checking whether or not its STDOUT belongs to a real terminal or not. When you pipe things around, the STDOUT is set to the STDIN of the next command.

You can see this at work in the ls source code. It's using the isatty command (a core POSIX interface) to work out what the situation is:

  • Are colours on by default:

        print_with_color = (i == color_always
                            || (i == color_if_tty
                                && isatty (STDOUT_FILENO)));
  • Do we try to output in multiple columns:

    if (format == long_format)
      format = (isatty (STDOUT_FILENO) ? many_per_line : one_per_line);
    if (isatty (STDOUT_FILENO))
        format = many_per_line;
        set_quoting_style (NULL, shell_escape_quoting_style);
        qmark_funny_chars = true;
        format = one_per_line;
        qmark_funny_chars = false;

grep does a very similar thing, unless explicitly overridden, it'll detect colour support, with isatty:

color_option = isatty (STDOUT_FILENO) && should_colorize ();