February 28th, 2022

What is the difference between captions and subtitles?

Nathaniel Deshpande | Reading time: 3 Minutes

TL;DR Subtitles and closed captioning both appear as text versions of the audio over top of the video. Subtitles (pr Open Captions) are "burnt" into the video which means they can not be hidden. Closed captioning can be turned on and off by the viewer.

Closed Captioning vs Subtitles

Many people use the terms subtitles and closed captioning interchangeably but there is an important difference.

Subtitles and closed captioning both appear as text over top of video. They help viewers to comprehend what is happening in a scene by representing speech, and sounds as text. This means viewers can read what an actor/actress is saying, or be shown text describing sounds in the video (e.g. horn beeping, telephone ringing, person whispering, etc.).  

If they show similar information, then what is the difference? Great question. Subtitles are burnt into the video which means they become part of the video image and can not be hidden by the viewer. A good example of subtitles can be found on platforms such as TikTok, or Instagram. Videos will have subtitles to help boost engagement, and allow anyone who is not listening to the audio still understand what is happening in the video.

Closed captioning is included as a separate file or data track which allows for the user to decide whether they want to see the text or not. Good examples of closed captioning are found on platforms like YouTube, or Netflix. Users have control over whether they want to see the closed captioning or not. They can turn the service on and off. Users even have the option to select different languages if available.

When to choose closed captioning

Closed captioning should always be included whenever possible even if subtitles are already being displayed. Closed captioning gives users the option whether they wish to see captions or not. On platforms such as YouTube, multiple caption tracks can be uploaded representing different languages. This means that with one video you can serve a wider audience.  

Many television broadcasters will require closed captioning for programs being shown on air. In Canada and the U.S. it is common to have to include a sidecar closed caption file in either SCC, MCC, or TTML format. This allows broadcasters to meet FCC and CRTC regulations around accessibility.

We recommend always using closed captioning when publishing online. Subtitles are not search engine optimized (SEO), which means search engines, such as Google, will not be able to understand your video without closed captioning. If Google does not know what a video is about, it will not recommend it in search results. This is important to understand for marketing and sales teams.

When to choose subtitles

Subtitles should be included when publishing video to platforms where closed captioning is not supported, or it is common for your audience to be watching without audio. For example, on Facebook or Instagram, including subtitles can boost video engagement by up to 78%. 

Subtitles are also important when providing translations for dialogue that is not in the film's primary language.

When a film has parts with subtitle translations, closed captioning may not be required.

Common File Formats

Now that you understand the difference between subtitles and closed captioning it may be important to understand some of the many file formats you will encounter.

The most common subtitle and closed caption file formats you will encounter online include SubRip (SRT), and WebVTT files.  Both of these formats are human-readable which means you can open them in programs such as Notepad. SRT, and WebVTT files are very simple and include timestamps for the start and end of caption events, followed by the caption/subtitle text. 

When working in broadcast you may encounter SCC, MCC, and TTML files which are more complex and include information such as position, text formatting, and styling. If you ever need to edit or make changes to a SCC, or MCC file it will require closed captioning authoring software such as Closed Caption Creator, MacCaption, or Subtitle Edit.

File Conversion

Sometimes you may need to convert a subtitle or closed caption file in order for it to work with a specific software or platform. If you need to convert subtitles, and closed caption files we recommend using Closed Caption Converter.  Closed Caption Converter supports over 30 different subtitles and closed caption file formats.