Captions vs. Subtitles: What is the Difference?

Posted by Anne Quach on October 08, 2021.

The two terms “captions” and “subtitles” are sometimes used or referred to interchangeably as they both relate to the text version of audio in a video. Although they overlap to some extent, captions and subtitles are two unique terms with many distinct features and serve different purposes.

So what are captions and subtitles? How are they different from each other? When to use captions and subtitles? You will find the answers to these questions in our today’s post.

What are Captions?

Captions are the text version of the original spoken dialogues and sound of a video. The caption supplements both dialogues and other relevant audio information including soundtracks, speakers’ names, sound effects, background noises, etc.

English captions for the Friends series

Although the initial purpose of captions is to aid the deaf and hard of hearing to get access to the content of a video, they are now used for many other situations including videos or media advertisements played in a noisy environment or social media videos which are mostly muted by users when being in public. In such circumstances, captions play the role of an added experience feature that helps viewers enjoy the video content without having to hear it.

Captions come in two forms: open or closed captions.

Open Captions

Open captions (also known as burn-in captions or hard-coded captions) are a permanent part of the video. Captions are rendered into the video in the form of pixels and become a feature of the video that cannot be switched off.

With open captions, you can easily choose and adjust the font colour, size, or style before they are embedded in the video. There are no worries about captions displayed improperly. What’s more, as open captions are permanently displayed in the video, you do not have to use decoders to make it work. All you have to do is to open the video and enjoy watching it with captions.

Some people, unfortunately, find captions distracting and prefer watching videos without them. However, this option is not possible for open captions.

Closed Captions

Closed captions [CC], on the other hand, can be turned on or off to your preference as they are published as a separate asset (in formats such as .srt, .sub, or .ssa) from the video. This type of caption is very familiar to Internet users as they are used for videos on famous platforms such as Youtube, Netflix, Hulu, etc.

Closed Captions

The biggest advantage of closed captions is their ability to switch on or off. If you cannot hear what the speakers are talking about, simply turn the captions on. Otherwise, if the captions distract you from the video content, chose to close it. In addition, videos with closed captions are easier to handle technically as you do not need to encode the captions into the video.

However, the captions only work on specific media players which support closed caption files (such as SRT, SCC, RT, WebVTT).


What are Subtitles?

Subtitles also display the text version of the video’s audio, but not in the source language. They are the translations of spoken dialogues and narration in a video.

English subtitles for a Korean movie
English subtitles for a Korean movie

Subtitle translation is powerful assistance to make your media content accessible to audiences who speak different languages from you. For example, a movie in Spanish can reach English-speaking viewers who do not know any Spanish words just by including English subtitles.

Additionally, search engines can not read a video. Thus, having a video with translations for title, description, and transcript gives you a higher chance of being clicked, boosting your company’s overall visibility in foreign markets.


What are the Differences Between Captions and Subtitles?

The table below summarizes all the basic information you need to know about captions and subtitles including their main differences and when to use them.

Criteria Captions Subtitles
Language Captions are the text version of the original spoken dialogues and sound of a video. Subtitles are the translated version of a video’s dialogues in a foreign language.
Features Captions contain:

  • Spoken dialogues;
  • Sound effects (footsteps, doors closing, cars driving by, etc.);
  • Background noises (forest sounds, the buzzing of lights, etc.);
  • Speakers’ names;
  • Other non-speech elements.
Features included in subtitles:

  • Dialogues;
  • Narration;
  • Other vocal participants (on-screen text, forced narrative, etc.)
Purposes Captioning is used to aid people who are deaf or hard of hearing or in situations where the sound can not be heard. Subtitles make your media products accessible to non-native speakers.
When to use?
  • Your media products are distributed in foreign markets.
  • Your target audience is both native speakers of the original language and people who do not speak the language.
  • Your videos are public multimedia.
  • You want people with hearing impairments to enjoy the video.
  • Your media is displayed in a sound-sensitive environment (hospitals) or noisy places (public transportation and crowded streets).
  • Your media is distributed on social media sites in default silent mode.

The rise of smartphones and social media has led to more people seeking out videos with captions or subtitles, whether it’s a Facebook ad, Youtube video, or movie. Thus, having captions or subtitles for your media products is needed more than ever to help you boost engagement from viewers.

If you are still unsure about whether to use captions or subtitles, leave a message and we will be in touch with a free consultation.

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