Subtitles vs. Captions: Understanding the Difference and Importance

Nov 28 2023 VITAC
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In today’s globalized world, video content has become more popular than ever. What started as merely an entertainment-focused medium has rapidly evolved to play an integral role in professional and educational environments and just about everywhere in between. While the evolution of digital video has made information more readily available to diverse audiences, not all viewers are able to engage equitably with video content.

That’s where subtitles and captions come in. Each of these tools can be used to provide more accessible and inclusive viewing experiences to audience members of diverse backgrounds and abilities. While at first blush captions and subtitles may seem similar, there are important differences between these two accessibility solutions. Let’s take a closer look at subtitles and captions and discuss the appropriate use cases for each tool.

Captions: The Basics

Captioning refers to the process of converting audio to on-screen text that plays in sync with a corresponding video. Captions are used to provide a readable version of a video’s audio track to support viewers with disabilities or other extenuating circumstances. Captions are a particularly valuable accessibility tool for individuals who are Deaf or hard of hearing and subsequently need additional support to engage fully and equally with audio and video content.

The two primary styles of captioning are known as open and closed captioning. Open captions are designed to remain permanently visible within a video’s viewing window, while closed captions can be turned on and off as viewers see fit. In addition to supporting viewers with disabilities, each of these captioning styles can be used to make videos more effective and engaging for audience members tuning in from noisy environments. Captions can also help to clarify messaging for viewers contending with low-quality audio tracks or poor internet connectivity.

In order to serve their purpose as an accessibility resource, it is important that captions deliver an accurate and comprehensive representation of information being shared via audio or video. This means that captions must depict all audio elements present in a piece of video content including things like grammatical errors, pauses, sound effects, unintelligent speech, and more. If captions do not include all these audio elements, they do not provide an equitable viewing experience to those who are unable to fully engage with the audio and video in its original format.

A man sit on a bright blue couch, his back toward the viewer, and watches television

Subtitles

When comparing and contrasting subtitles and captions, it’s important to understand that subtitling is actually a specific form of captioning. Subsequently, these two solutions have much in common but remain distinct from one another. As with other types of captions, subtitles provide an on-screen representation of a video’s audio track. However, subtitles specifically provide visual representations of the spoken text of a video and generally do not depict any non-speech audio elements.

For this reason, subtitles are primarily used as a means of providing on-screen translations for viewers consuming video content in a non-native language. For example, if a viewer is watching a foreign-language film, they may choose to enable subtitles on their streaming platform or device in order to follow the movie’s plot. In some cases, however, subtitles will be displayed as open captions that are visible to all viewers 100% of the time. This situation is most likely to occur in cases where a foreign-language film is being shown in a movie theater in a region where most audience members are unlikely to speak or understand the film’s original language.

Because subtitles do not include all audio elements of a video and only feature the actual spoken text, subtitles are not generally recognized as an accessibility tool. In order to support accessibility guidelines like the ADA and WCAG, captions must achieve exceptionally high rates of accuracy and include depictions of all original audio elements. Subsequently, subtitles should not be used for any project where accessibility is the primary concern. Instead, creators should stick to using comprehensive captions to make their content accessible and rely on subtitles only in situations where they need to provide on-screen translations.

A man sits a desk in front of an open laptop. He is wearing headphones and widely smiling, enjoying content on his screen

The Importance of Subtitles and Captions

As we’ve already discussed, properly formatted captions are an invaluable tool for making audio and video content more accessible to individuals with disabilities. Proactively providing accurate captions for digital videos can help make your content more readily accessible and help to build public confidence in your brand. Accurate captions can offer more equitable viewing experiences to audience members who:

  • Are Deaf or hard of hearing
  • Have auditory processing disorders
  • Have ADHD or specific learning needs
  • Have neurodivergent conditions like autism spectrum disorder

In addition to supporting those with disabilities, captioning video content and communications can help to ensure all viewers receive equitable messaging regardless of where and when they’re tuning in. Captioning Zoom calls, for example, can help to safeguard against common distractions encountered by remote and hybrid employees. Captions can also be converted into written transcripts that employees or students can use as reference and study tools.

One little-known benefit of captioning video content is that adding captions and subtitles to videos can actually improve a brand’s SEO ranking. Search engines are unable to “crawl” audio and video content, but captions can be discovered by search engines and incorporated into their SEO algorithms. As a result, captioning your content can help you enhance your brand’s visibility and increase your ROI on content creation.

An older woman is talking with a younger woman and pointing to information on a computer screen

Best Practices for Adding Subtitles and Captions

When it comes time to add captions or subtitles to your digital media, the first thing you must decide is which captioning style is right for your project. If the intent behind captioning your content is enhancing accessibility, you will want to invest in captions, rather than subtitles. However, if you are seeking to provide an on-screen translation of your video content, subtitles may be sufficient for your project.

In addition to selecting the right captioning style for your media, you must also take steps to ensure your captions are as accurate as possible. Modern accessibility requirements dictate that captions must be extremely accurate to provide adequate support for viewers with disabilities. Providing captions that contain a substantial number of transcription errors can not only open your brand up to ADA compliance issues but can negatively impact the public’s perception of your company.

For this reason, it is recommended that content creators and other professionals partner with a professional captioning provider like VITAC for their captioning projects. VITAC’s captions are meticulously reviewed and edited by team members to ensure maximum accuracy and are formatted according to best practices to further support the needs of diverse audience members. VITAC also offers live captioning capabilities that users can employ for both in-person and virtual events and communications, so nobody has to miss a moment of the conversation.

Close up of a hand holding a television remote control. In the background is a blurred television screen

Enhance All Your Content

Captions and subtitles can enhance your video content and support the diverse needs of modern audience members. Choosing the right solution for your project, however, is vitally important to ensure your messaging is equitable and engaging for all. Understanding the differences between subtitles and captions is a great place to start prior to seeking out any specific captioning solution.

If you’re looking for a comprehensive and accurate captioning solution, VITAC offers a variety of tools that can support content and communications across a wide range of industries. VITAC’s captioning platform is fast, secure, and cost-efficient and offers accuracy rates capable of supporting critical accessibility standards and guidelines. If you’re interested in learning more about VITAC’s captioning capabilities or need help deciding whether captions or subtitles are right for you, reach out today to speak to a member of our team.