Captions vs. Subtitles: What’s the difference between them?

Mike Falis
Jul 20, 2021
Captions vs. Subtitles: What’s the difference between them?
Captions vs. Subtitles: What’s the difference between them?

The words “captions” and “subtitles” are often used interchangeably to refer to the words that can appear along the bottom of your screen while watching a video. While quite similar, captions and subtitles are structured differently and cater to different audiences.

While the average person might not think much about these subtle differences, people who create and edit video content should know them well. Understanding the difference between these two and how to properly make use of both with the proper software can help you maximize your viewer base and connect with people around the world. Here is what else you should know:

What Are Captions?

Captions are an embedded transcript of all the audio contained in a video. They are meant for use by those who are hard of hearing or deaf and come in two varieties: open and closed.

Open captioning was developed first and is hardcoded into the video file or physical medium. Because of this, open captioning cannot be turned off or hidden and is always displayed on the screen. It was first introduced on public television, where special time slots were allotted for captioned programming.

Closed captioning, on the other hand, can be switched on or off at will. Closed captioning was developed for television beginning in the 1970s and later mandated for all public networks as part of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. Virtually all television stations today contain closed captions embedded in their broadcast signal. The advent of DVD and a branched media menu system in 1995 meant closed captioning also became the preferred system for all home media setups.

What Are Subtitles?

Subtitles are a visual transcript of all the dialogue (and sometimes other important text) in a video. Their purpose is to allow people who do not speak or are not fluent in the original language of a film to watch and understand it.

Subtitles were originally created to enable and encourage the viewing of foreign films. Today, they are also integral to the spread, popularity, and profitability of visual media platforms like Youtube, Twitch, TikTok, Instagram, and more. Subtitles allow a video’s reach and popularity to extend well beyond the confines of its country of origin.

Captions vs. Subtitles

Captions and subtitles both convert sound into text, but they do this in different ways.

Captions are meant for the deaf or hearing-impaired. As such, dialogue is only one of its facets. Sounds like dogs barking, a car crash, rainfall, or ambulance sirens are transcribed to inform the viewer of environmental cues which either affect the action or add to the ambiance of a scene. As well, nonverbal utterances like laughter, screaming, sighing, or crying are written out to give dialogue its proper emotional context. Sounds like these are usually displayed in brackets, parentheses, or italics to differentiate them from the dialogue.

Subtitles, on the other hand, are geared towards those who do not speak the language in which a video was recorded. Environmental and emotional sound cues are relatively universal, and as such, it isn’t necessary to display them. Dialogue is usually the only thing included in subtitles, but occasionally a sign or piece of writing shown on screen may be translated if important to the course of the plot in some way. Examples of this might include a sign which says “Bank” or a letter to one of the main characters. Original on-screen text informing the audience of settings or dates may also be included in subtitles.

In short, captioning is focused on the entire soundscape of a video. Subtitles relate primarily to speech or text in a foreign language.

Benefits of Captions

Including closed captions allows those with special auditory conditions and disabilities to engage with video content that would otherwise be inaccessible to them.

In the United States alone, as many as 11 million or 1 in 20 people experience some form of hearing disability. Captions not only provide fair access, they also can help content reach a significant portion of the population.

Captions also enable engagement with content in a greater variety of settings. Watching a video with sound can be impractical in loud places like a train or restaurant and quiet places like an office or around sleeping people. Captioning allows for full comprehension of videos in such circumstances and can help in any situation where one is without headphones.

Benefits of Subtitles

Subtitles erase linguistic barriers and allow consumption of any content by anyone anywhere in the world. This can be beneficial in a number of ways.

For one, videos posted on social media will have greater engagement and a higher probability of going viral if they are able to circulate within a variety of foreign communities. Drawing an international following is vital to establishing a fanbase and growing an online brand.

Subtitles can also be educational. A fun and easy way to learn a new language is to watch movies, television, and other kinds of programming in your target language. Watching a foreign program with subtitles in your native language can be a good challenge for beginners, and more experienced viewers might even switch to foreign subtitles.

Captioning on Youtube

Perhaps the most popular global video-sharing platform is Youtube. Knowing how to add captions and subtitles to a video can make a huge difference in the number of views it attracts.

1. Starting out on your channel’s home page, where you’re able to view all your videos, click on the one you want to edit.

2. The Youtube creative studio interface will then display itself. On the column of options on the left will be displayed the “subtitles” option.

3. Clicking this will take you to a list of subtitles/captions already attached to the video. Youtube has in-built AI software which can analyze and process the audio in a video and generate subtitles automatically. Unfortunately, it isn’t the most accurate software, and inputting it yourself is often a better option.

4. Each subtitle/caption set will have an option to edit or remove it, and below is a blue button with the option to “add language.”

5. Selecting “add language” will bring you into a video editor. On the bottom is an audio visualizer tool that can help you determine where a sound starts and stops. A time slider above this allows you to move through the video quickly, and a screen in the middle of the module displays the video footage itself.

6. When you find a place where text is necessary, you can click on the button in the top left that says “+ caption.” Now you can type in text and make it display when those words are spoken in the video. The new caption also shows up as a marker in the time slider, where you can shorten or lengthen the time that line of text is shown on screen.

7. You can then go through the whole video and add captions/subtitles for all the audio in the video and ensure they line up correctly. If you’re trying to add subtitles, just transcribe and translate the audio into your target language. If your goal is captioning, just type out the script as it is and add environmental and emotional sound cues when relevant.

Captioning on Facebook

Adding captions or subtitles to a video uploaded on Facebook is also relatively simple, but involves some knowledge of video editing techniques.

1. When uploading a video, mouse over the video thumbnail, and an “edit” option will appear in the top left.

2. Clicking on this takes you to another menu with options to change the video thumbnail and add captions. Captions can either be auto-generated using AI, as with Youtube, or added by the user.

3. Unlike Youtube, however, you don’t have the option to add the captions or subtitles on Facebook itself. Instead, you must upload a dedicated .srt file. A .srt file is a simple text document that contains encoded information about a subtitle or caption–the place in the video where it belongs and how long it should be displayed before disappearing.

Important note: .Srt files are extremely important in video editing, but you have to know how to construct one in order to add accurate captioning/subtitles to a video for Facebook.

Captioning on Instagram

Instagram has become another huge platform for video sharing, especially since the introduction of Instagram Reels.

1. When you’ve finished recording or uploading a reel, tap the sticker icon in the top center of your screen.

2. A sticker menu will appear with one of the options being “captions.” Tapping on this will add auto-generated captions to your video.

Important note: While font, size, and position can be changed, there is no way in the app itself to edit those captions/subtitles.

Using Maestra

Youtube, Facebook, and Instagram offer various ways of including captions/subtitles in videos, but each is limited and can be difficult to navigate. For those who make a living by producing video content or those just looking to save time on video editing, it may be more beneficial to make use of dedicated software instead. That’s where Maestra comes into play.

Here are the benefits offered:

Captions and subtitles perform different functions for consumers of visual media. Both of them, though, enable you to reach a larger audience and promote greater viewer engagement with your content, no matter what it is.

Maestra’s software suite is built to handle both sides and revolutionize your editing process. With it, communicating and connecting with viewers all over the globe has never been easier.

Ready to try it for yourself? Click here to add subtitles to video! Upload files and see Maestra in action right away!

Mike Falis
Jul 20, 2021

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