The internet’s global reach is quickly increasing the demand for more accessibility, so it’s now more important than ever to make your videos watchable for all. Learning about subtitles vs captions and adding them to your videos can help you accomplish this. 

At Vimeo, we prioritize accessibility in all that we do, which is why we support captions in our video player and provide automated closed captions and subtitles on live streams for Premium and Enterprise users. And marketing professionals agree — 78% of video marketers use a combination of accessibility features in videos, including captions.

But contrary to popular belief, the two forms of video transcription are not the same. While both captions and subtitles can help your content reach a wider audience, there are nuances to each to consider before deciding on one or the other for your videos. Let’s break down closed captions vs subtitles in this quick and easy guide to help you make the best choice.

What are captions? 

Captions transcribe dialogue, but they do so in the same language as the video. Captions also contain some additional information that subtitles don’t, like descriptions of background noises and speaker identification. They don’t always appear at the bottom of the screen — sometimes, they’ll be shown in different locations to indicate the source of the audio in the scene.

Open captions vs closed captions

There are two types of captions: open and closed.

Open captions cannot be turned off and are “burned” into the video file itself. 

Closed captions can be turned on and off by the viewer and are typically found in a settings menu. There are two different types of closed captions:

  • 608 captions: Also called Line 21, CEA-608, or EIA-608 captions, these were the standard for analog TV. This type of captioning doesn’t support the customization or appearance options that 708 captions provide.
  • 708 captions: Also called CTA-708, CEA-708, or EIA-708 captions, these are the new standard for captioning digital TV. This type of captioning supports appearance customization but not on analog TVs.

Caption styles

There are three main display styles for captions: roll-up, pop-on, and paint-on.

  • Roll-up captions are used for live events and real-time programming.
  • Pop-on captions are used for pre-recorded content.
  • Paint-on captions are not typically found in modern captioning, but there are rare occasions they could be used — like for an initial caption of a pre-recorded video to avoid any slight pop-on caption delays or load times.

When to use captions

Captions are typically used to identify background sounds and music, speakers, and other audio cues. They’re designed for use by the d/Deaf communities and those with hearing impairments but are gaining popularity among all users. In fact, half of Americans say they watch content with subtitles “most of the time.”

Captions are also used to meet ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance requirements. Marketers aren’t always familiar with specific compliance laws — 50% don’t believe there’s a law requiring websites of government institutions to be accessible (there is; it’s known as Section 508). So, it’s in your best interest to default to adding captions.

32% of people think captioning should be the default content setting.

Source: Preply

How to add captions to video

There are several ways you can add video captions. You can use Vimeo to automatically or manually add captions to videos. For social media, you can add captions within TikTok, YouTube, Facebook (Meta), and other platforms.

One of our favorite ways to caption videos is by using Rev, a speech-to-text platform that’s now the sole provider of Vimeo’s automated captions. Rev provides users with both AI transcription and human-generated transcription options.

What are subtitles? 

Subtitles translate dialogue directly, typically into another language (though this isn’t a hard rule). The most popular example of this is shown in foreign films. Subtitles almost always appear at the bottom of a viewer’s screen.

Types of subtitles

There are three main types of subtitles: subtitles for the d/Deaf and hard of hearing (SDH), non-SDH, and forced narrative.

  • SDH: Designed for users who cannot hear the on-screen dialogue and audio cues. SDH subtitles include information about sound effects, music, and the like.
  • Non-SDH: Typically referred to as just “subtitles.” Non-SDH subtitles are designed for users who can hear, but not understand, the on-screen language and other audio cues.
  • Forced narrative (FN): FN subtitles are overlaid text subtitles that are used to clarify on-screen dialogue, graphics, or other information that isn’t fully explained. For example, if an American video shows an on-screen text message in Spanish, an FN subtitle would show its English translation.

When to use subtitles

When subtitles are used, the video producer and/or broadcaster traditionally assumes the viewer isn’t fluent in the language spoken in your video. Though, in some instances, the subtitles and the on-screen spoken language match.

There are a handful of key indicators of when to use subtitles:

  • When you want to improve accessibility
  • When you want to better match user preference — a majority of viewers watch videos with the sound off
  • When not everyone speaks the language spoken in your video
  • When you want to improve your video SEO — as video transcripts allow search engines to crawl the dialogue in your video

How to add subtitles to video

Add subtitles to your video the same way you add captions to videos. There are a variety of tools and platforms you can use, including:

  • Vimeo
  • Rev
  • Zubtitle
  • Subly
  • Amara
  • MixCaptions

Caption vs subtitle FAQs

Discover answers to frequently asked questions about captions vs subtitles.

Is a subtitle a caption?

In a “functionality” sense, yes. Most of the world uses subtitles vs captions interchangeably. However, in its technical subtitle definition vs caption definition? No. 

  • A subtitle is a translation of on-screen dialogue and spoken words from a foreign language to the viewer’s native language. It almost always appears at the bottom of a user’s screen. Types include subtitles for the d/Deaf and hard of hearing (SDH), non-SDH, and forced narrative subtitles.
  • A caption is a transcription of on-screen sound. Captions appear in the same language as what is spoken in the video. Captions also contain information like audio and musical cues. Types include open captions and closed captions.

Why are subtitles called closed captions?

Depending on where you’re accessing content from, subtitles may also be referred to as closed captions. This is because, like subtitles, closed captions (compared to open captions) can be toggled on and off.

Who writes subtitles?

Popular streaming services like Netflix typically employ professional closed captioners or subtitle writers to work on their content, but subtitles can be added to video by anyone who has access to the video file and transcription software or captioning services.

With Vimeo, adding automatic captions to video content is so easy, just about anyone can do it.

Stand out with video captions and subtitles

In addition to widening your video’s accessibility, captions and subtitles naturally help you generate better-performing content. In the age of social feeds cluttered with muted videos, viewers often rely on captions to determine whether or not your video is relevant and interesting to them. And, if they like your video’s message, they’ll stop scrolling (or whatever else they’re doing) and watch.

More Vimeo Video School lessons

Learn more about uploading your subtitles and captions to Vimeo in our Help Center. Art from Joseph Melhuish. Updated on May 16, 2023.