No colored output in less for the ls command

If I run ls I get colored output which I find pretty handy for quickly getting a glance of the kind of file. When I try to pipe it to less even with the -r and -R flags the coloring always get lost. I am using zsh version 5.0.7. Any ideas? Thanks.

edit: I am on OS X.


Thank you for visiting the Q&A section on Magenaut. Please note that all the answers may not help you solve the issue immediately. So please treat them as advisements. If you found the post helpful (or not), leave a comment & I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.

Method 1

This is by design: programs that produce colored output typically do so only when their output goes to a terminal, not when it’s sent to a pipe or to a regular file. The reason is that data sent on a terminal is presumably read by a human, whereas data piped to a program or written to a file is likely to be parsed by some program, so it shouldn’t contain extraneous content like color-changing escape sequences.

GNU ls displays colored output on a terminal when you pass the option --color (or --color=auto). To force colored output regardless of the file type of the standard output, pass --color=always or --color=yes (they’re synonyms). This convention has been followed by other commands, like GNU grep, FreeBSD grep, git diff, etc.

ls --colors=yes -l | less

With the FreeBSD version of ls (also found on OSX, and available as the colorls port on OpenBSD and NetBSD), pass the option -G to display colors when the output is a terminal. Set the environment CLICOLOR_FORCE to display colors regardless of the output file type.
CLICOLOR_FORCE=1 ls -l | less

Method 2

The problem most probably is that your ls program has set option --color=auto which basically means that output should be coloured only if it is connected to terminal, otherwise (output connected to a pipe or a file) no colors are emitted.

If you want to have colors is such cases you should set --color option to always, so try

ls --color=always | less -R

If this behaviour is what you expect all the time then just create alias:
alias ls='ls --color=always'

Method 3

I can’t comment @jimmij ‘s answer, because I have less than 50 rep, but I would like to explain what worked for me in Bash.

If you run

$ man ls | grep color

you will see all the entries of the man-page for your specific shell environment (in our case bash).

For me the following adjustment did the trick:

$ alias ls='ls -G'

All methods was sourced from or, is licensed under cc by-sa 2.5, cc by-sa 3.0 and cc by-sa 4.0

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments