For small projects, people tend to directly invoke the compiler with the suitable options to build the program. While it is feasible, it is tedious to type those compilation options and flags. For projects with multiple source files and header files, it becomes inefficient to build by hand. On Linux, people may write Makefile and build with make. On Windows, people may use Visual Studio for writing and build their project.

CMake is a meta build tool. It can generate build files for various build tools such as make, Ninja, Visual Studio. So using CMake is way to make sure that our programs can build across platforms and build tools. Some famous open source projects choose CMake as their build tools. These projects include Neovim, OpenCV, MySQL.

In post, I will share how to build a simple C++ program using CMake.

The source file

First, create a project directory, add the following source file It uses the OpenCV library to read an image, write some text to image and save it on the disk.

#include "opencv2/opencv.hpp"

int main() {

    cv::Mat img = cv::imread("wind-turbine.jpg", cv::IMREAD_COLOR);
    cv::putText(img, "Test text", cv::Point(100, 100), cv::FONT_ITALIC, 2.0,
                cv::Scalar(0, 0, 255), 2);
    cv::imwrite("text_img.jpg", img);

    return 0;

Create Cmake file CMakeLists.txt

Under project root, create a file named CMakeLists.txt. This file describes how we want to build our project in the language of CMake. The content of is:

cmake_minimum_required(VERSION 3.10)



set(OPENCV_INCLUDE_DIR /home/jdhao/local/include/opencv4/)
set(OPENCV_LIB_DIR /home/jdhao/local/lib/)

message(STATUS "OpenCV library path: ${OPENCV_LIB_DIR}")

# set include directory
target_include_directories(write_text PUBLIC "${OPENCV_INCLUDE_DIR}")

# set library directory
target_link_directories(write_text PUBLIC "${OPENCV_LIB_DIR}")

# link specific object files we need
target_link_libraries(write_text opencv_imgcodecs opencv_core opencv_imgproc)

Build the Project

It is best to create a build directory for building the project so that we do not pollute the source directory.

mkdir build
# use the following command to build if you are in project root
cmake -Bbuild -DCMAKE_BUILD_TYPE=Release

# or use the following command if you are in build directory
# cmake ../ -DCMAKE_BUILD_TYPE=Release

By default, cmake will generate a build file for make on Linux systems. If you want to generate build file for other tools such as ninja, you can use -G. For example, to generate build file for ninja, use the following command:

mkdir build_ninja
cmake -Bbuild_ninja -G "Ninja"

The option -DCMAKE_BUILD_TYPE=Release specify the build type. We can also use Debug or RelWithDebInfo etc.

To build the project, we can use cmake --build build if we are in project root or cmake --build . if we are in directory build. If you generate Makefile for make, you can also use make -C build to build the project directly, or use ninja -C build_ninja if you generate the build file for ninja. The advantage of using command cmake --build is consistency. You do not need to worry which specific build tool to invoke. CMake will figure it out for you.

Generate complilation databases

If you happen to use ccls for code completion, you can also generate a compilation databases file named compile_commands.json for ccls to use, with the help of cmake. With the help of this file, ccls can provide code completion and code analysis for your project.

To produce this file, use the following comamnd:

ln -s build/compile_commands .