Introduction to Captions

No matter where a video is posted, whether it’s on a website or social media, it should be captioned so that Deaf and hard-of-hearing users can access and enjoy the content. And someone doesn't need to experience hearing loss to benefit from captions. They can provide a better experience for a viewer with a learning disability, an attention deficit, or a cognitive disability, or if someone is autistic.

Captions are also helpful if:

  • you're in a noisy environment
  • a video has poor audio
  • a video is in a different language
  • a speaker is talking too fast
  • a speaker has an accent
  • you're trying not to disturb people around you

Captioning is also a good idea if you want to improve your marketing efforts. According to a 2019 study from Verizon Media and Publicis Media, 69 percent of people watch videos without sound in public places, and Facebook found that 85 percent of its users watch or begin watching videos with the sound off.

Captions are sometimes referred to as subtitles, but subtitles are actually language-specific captions intended for viewers who do not understand and/or speak the language being spoken in the media.

Subtitles can be closed or open depending on the production of the video, but it's important to note that subtitles do not include auditory information like music descriptions or sound effects because their primary function is the translation of language. Try to think of subtitles as a subcategory of captions.

Closed Captions

There are two types of captions, closed and open. Closed captions can be toggled on and off based on the preferences of the viewer. They can also be moved and resized. Closed captions are a common feature on platforms like YouTube and Vimeo, as well as streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and TikTok all have varying degrees of closed captioning capabilities for their video features.

An easy and free way to add closed captions to a video is through YouTube. Anyone with a Google account can create a YouTube channel for free. Even if you don’t intend on posting videos to your channel, it’s handy to have one if you want to caption a video. 

To caption a video using YouTube:

  1. Upload your video to your channel as unlisted. You can now freely work on your video without it appearing in search results or on your channel.
  2. Allow YouTube time to generate auto-captions for your video. How long this process takes will depend on the length of your video and how much dialogue it includes.
  3. After some time has passed, head to the Subtitles panel in YouTube Studio to check on the status of the auto-captions. You’ll know when the auto-captions are done because you’ll see the option to Duplicate and Edit them near the right side of the screen.
  4. Once the auto-captions have been created by YouTube, click Duplicate and Edit and revise the auto-captions as needed. While YouTube’s captioning technology is decent, it doesn’t include punctuation or capitalization and sometimes struggles with proper names, so you should always edit auto-captions and never just publish them as-is.
  5. After you’ve finished editing the auto-captions, click the Publish button in the upper right of the window. 
  6. Delete the auto-captions for the video so that your edited captions are the only available captions. 
  7. Switch the status of your video to public (if you want it to be public).

Another advantage to using YouTube to create your closed captions is that you can download your captions. To download your captions file from YouTube:

  1. Log into YouTube Studio for your channel.
  2. Navigate to the Subtitles tab along the left side of the screen.
  3. Select the video you'd like captions for.
  4. Hover over the row for the language you want to download and a vertical line of three dots should appear near the far right of the row under the Subtitles column.
  5. Click the three dots and you'll get the option to Unpublish, Download, Rename, or Delete your captions. Select Download.
  6. Once you've clicked Download, YouTube will give you the option to download your captions in their original format or as one of three file types: VTT, SRT, or SBV.

Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn all accept SRT subrip files to caption videos that you upload directly to the platforms. When uploading captions to Facebook, make sure to follow the correct naming convention for your file.

Some platforms will tout their ability to add auto-captions to your videos, but much like automatic alt text, auto-captions aren’t usually very good and should not be used for your final captions. Edit any auto-captions whenever possible.

YouTube and Facebook also allow you to write and sync your closed captions directly on the platforms. If you choose that option, just make sure to break up your captions at natural language breaks and allow time to read them. 

You should also identify when a new speaker starts talking if you have more than one person speaking on or off camera and caption any contextually important sounds like a phone ringing or someone knocking on a door. Jeep took that last tip to the creative extreme for its 2022 Super Bowl commercial. Watch the below video with the captions on.

Open Captions

Open captions are permanently embedded into a video during post-production and always visible. They cannot be turned off, moved, or resized by a viewer.

You’ll typically see open captions on a video when closed captions aren’t available. Some platforms still don’t offer captioning for all their features or users yet. TikTok started rolling out a closed captioning tool in April 2021 for select languages after Deaf and disabled users repeatedly pointed out that the app was inaccessible for them. 

Instagram followed shortly after in May 2021 with a captions sticker for Stories that adds open captions to your videos, and it later rolled out to Reels as well. But there’s still no in-app captioning option for basic feed videos that creators can edit, only auto-captions, so you’ll need to rely on external captioning apps if you want your captions to be accurate.

There are several great mobile apps available for creating open captions including:

  • AutoCap
  • MixCaptions
  • Clipomatic
  • Kapwing
  • Clips

All these apps make it easy and inexpensive to add open captions to your videos, and some of them even allow you to download your finished captions as an SRT file.

If you’re trying to decide between using closed or open captions, choose closed. They offer a more customizable experience for viewers in terms of visibility, position, and size, so they are the preferred option. Open captions should really only be used when closed captioning isn’t available.

Additional Resources and Reading

Want to learn a little more about captions? Check out the links below!