Setting Up OpenCV for C++ using CMake and VS Code on Mac OS

By Adam McQuistan in C++  03/30/2020 Comment


In this article I demonstrate how to install OpenCV for C++ from source using cmake. Following this I show how to configure my favorite code editor, Visual Studio Code (VS Code), along with the awesome Microsoft extensions CMake Tools and C/C++ IntelliSense which provides a fantastic, productivity boosting, development environment.

Installing XCode

In order to utilize the popular Mac OS clang compiler you should have XCode and the XCode tools installed. Since installing XCode is covered quite well by Apple Developer Support and a very common task among technologists utilizing Mac OS platforms I will simple link to Apple's docs for that part.

Installing Homebrew

Homebrew, aka brew, is a software package manager for the Mac OS platform that is heavily used among developers. To install Homebrew execute this command from your terminal.

$ /bin/bash -c "$(curl -fsSL"

Installing CMake

CMake is a cross platform build tool popular among native C/C++ developers. I use CMake in this tutorial to build and install OpenCV for C++ as well as run the demo project. CMake can be easily installed using brew as follows.

$ brew install cmake

Installing OpenCV from Source with CMake

Before I can build and install OpenCV I must clone its source repo from GitHub. In addition to the main source I will pull down the extra contribution modules for install as well. The extra modules are optional and contain experimental algorithms and features but in my opinion they are good to have for development purposes.

First make a top level opencv directory, change directories into it and clone the two repositories then checkout the most recent tagged release versions which are 4.2.0 as of the date of writing this article.

$ mkdir opencv
$ cd opencv
$ git clone
$ cd opencv
$ git checkout tags/4.2.0
$ cd ..
$ git clone
$ cd opencv_contrib 
$ git checkout tags/4.2.0
$ cd ..

I should now be in the top level opencv directory that contains the two aforementioned repositories. Next I create two more directories (i) an install directory which will be the target for my installation of OpenCV and, (ii) another named build_opencv for building the sources in.

$ mkdir install build_opencv
$ ls -l
total 0
drwxr-xr-x   2 adammcquistan  staff   64 Mar 29 21:45 build_opencv
drwxr-xr-x   2 adammcquistan  staff   64 Mar 29 21:45 install
drwxr-xr-x  21 adammcquistan  staff  672 Mar 29 21:35 opencv
drwxr-xr-x  13 adammcquistan  staff  416 Mar 29 21:36 opencv_contrib

Next I change directories into the build_opencv directory and configure CMake as shown below.

$ cd build_opencv
      -D CMAKE_INSTALL_PREFIX=../install \
      -D OPENCV_EXTRA_MODULES_PATH=../opencv_contrib/modules \
      -D BUILD_EXAMPLES=ON ../opencv

The last steps to install is to kick off the multithreaded build to compile the project followed by installing it into the install directory as seen below.

$ export CPUS=$(sysctl -n hw.physicalcpu)
$ make -j $CPUS
$ make install

Verify OpenCV Install with Simple Demo Project

Before moving on to the VS Code setup its a good idea to verify that OpenCV was properly built and installed using a simple demo project. To do this I change directories back to the top level opencv directory I created at the start of this tutorial (ie, the one that contains the directories opencv, opencv_contrib, build_opencv and install directories). Then I make a new directory called simple_demo and change directories into it.

$ cd ..
$ ls -l 
drwxr-xr-x   2 adammcquistan  staff   64 Mar 29 21:45 build_opencv
drwxr-xr-x   2 adammcquistan  staff   64 Mar 29 21:45 install
drwxr-xr-x  21 adammcquistan  staff  672 Mar 29 21:35 opencv
drwxr-xr-x  13 adammcquistan  staff  416 Mar 29 21:36 opencv_contrib
$ mkdir simple_demo && cd simple_demo

Inside the simple_demo directory I make a main.cpp file and fill it with the following code which includes the opencv.hpp and highgui.hpp headers as well as defines a main() method. The main method looks for a argument to be passed to the program representing the path to a image file to be read in and displayed using OpenCV.

// main.cpp

#include <iostream>
#include <opencv2/opencv.hpp>
#include <opencv2/highgui.hpp>

using std::cout;
using std::endl;

int main(int argc, char** argv) {

    if (argc != 2) {
        cout << "Expecting a image file to be passed to program" << endl;
        return -1;
    cv::Mat img = cv::imread(argv[1]);
    if (img.empty()) {
        cout << "Not a valid image file" << endl;
        return -1;
    cv::namedWindow("Simple Demo", cv::WINDOW_AUTOSIZE);
    cv::imshow("Simple Demo", img);

    return 0;

Additionally, inside the simple_demo directory I create a CMakeLists.txt file, which is essentially a CMake configuration script, and place the following in it.

# CMakeLists.txt

# Older versions of CMake are likely to work just fine but, since
# I don't know where to cut off I just use the version I'm using
cmake_minimum_required(VERSION "3.17")

# name of this example project

# set OpenCV_DIR variable equal to the path to the cmake
# files within the previously installed opencv program
set(OpenCV_DIR /Users/adammcquistan/code/c++/opencv/install/lib/cmake/opencv4)

# Tell compiler to use C++ 14 features which is needed because
# Clang version is often behind in the XCode installation

# configure the necessary common CMake environment variables
# needed to include and link the OpenCV program into this
# demo project, namely OpenCV_INCLUDE_DIRS and OpenCV_LIBS
find_package( OpenCV REQUIRED )

# tell the build to include the headers from OpenCV
include_directories( ${OpenCV_INCLUDE_DIRS} )

# specify the executable target to be built
add_executable(simple-demo main.cpp)

# tell it to link the executable target against OpenCV
target_link_libraries(simple-demo ${OpenCV_LIBS} )

Almost there!

Now I create a build directory within the simple_demo directory containing the CMakeLists.txt and main.cpp files then configure and build the demo project as shown below.

$ mkdir build && cd build
$ cmake ..
$ make

And finally, I execute the program passing it a path to an image file, the TCI logo in this example, and watch the HighGUI window display the image.

$ ./simple-demo /path/to/tci-logo.png

opencv C++ demo output

Before moving on I delete all the contents inside the build directory because I will use the CMake Tools extension in VS Code to regenerate its contents.

$ ls -l
total 280
-rw-r--r--   1 adammcquistan  staff   14428 Mar 30 07:47 CMakeCache.txt
drwxr-xr-x  12 adammcquistan  staff     384 Mar 30 07:48 CMakeFiles
-rw-r--r--   1 adammcquistan  staff    5210 Mar 30 07:47 Makefile
-rw-r--r--   1 adammcquistan  staff    1409 Mar 30 07:47 cmake_install.cmake
-rwxr-xr-x   1 adammcquistan  staff  111568 Mar 30 07:48 simple-demo
$ rm -ifr *

Installing VS Code

If you don't already have Microsoft's VS Code editor installed please do so from here. I really love using VS Code and I'm confident you will enjoy using it too in just about any language.

First off I open the editor in the simple_demo directory as shown below. Next I click on the Extensions Tab, expand the recommended submenu (or search for using the search bar) and install C/C++ IntelliSense as well as CMake Tools by Microsoft.

VS Code Extensions

After installing the C/C++ IntelliSense and CMake Tools extensions a new CMake Tools tab within the left toolbar is added. I click on the CMake tab and then click on the Configure action button.

VS Code CMake Tools tab

The command menu will open with a dropdown and I select the Clang compiler.

VS Code CMake Tools Kit Selection

This will result in a list of build targets being displayed in the CMake tab.

Shortly after this VS Code will prompt you to ask if CMake Tools can configure IntelliSense for the project. Click Allow.

VS Code CMake Tools IntelliSense

If for some reason this prompt does not appear or you accidientially close it then create a directory named .vscode directly under the simple_demo directory (it may already exist) and create a settings.json file within it and place the following in it.

// settings.json
    "C_Cpp.default.configurationProvider": "vector-of-bool.cmake-tools"

Back in the CMake Tools tab I click the build action button next to the simple-demo target to build it.

VS Code CMake Tools Build

Then in the terminal I issue the same command shown earlier to test the newly built executable in the build directory.

$ ./simple-demo /path/to/tci-logo.png

Configuring and Using VS Code Debugging Tools

Ok so thats great but, there are two hugely beneficial things that I'm leaving out (i) IntelliSense and (ii) debugging which are both for helping to write and inspect your C++ code. The IntelliSense part is actually ready to go already.

At this point I can open my main.cpp file in the editor and immediately see the amazing IntelliSense as shown below when I hover my mouse over the cv::imread(...) function.

VS Code IntelliSense

In order to enable the VS Code debugging tools I must create another configuration file within the .vscode directory named launch.json and place the following in it.

// launch.json
    "version": "0.2.0",
    "configurations": [
            "name": "(lldb) Debugger",
            "type": "cppdbg",
            "request": "launch",
            "program": "build/simple-demo",
            "args": ["/path/to/tci-logo.png"],
            "stopAtEntry": true,
            "cwd": "${workspaceFolder}",
            "environment": [],
            "externalConsole": true,
            "MIMode": "lldb"

This config file says to use the cppdbg debugger, to pass in a path to an image file to display, pause execution at the start of the main() method and to lauch a separate terminal for executing the program.

In order to launch the debugger I click on the Debugger tab then click the debug action button as shown below.

VS Code Debug Tab

What occurs next is the debugger shows the program paused at the first line of the main() method and the debug tab menu shows the program variables as well as buttons for controlling the execution of the program.

VS Code Active Debugging

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In this article I have demonstrated how to install OpenCV for C++ plus how to utilize VS Code along with CMake Tools and C/C++ IntelliSense extensions for a professional level, high productivity, development environment.

As always, I thank you for reading and please feel free to ask questions or critique in the comments section below.

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