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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/X, 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 and set its visibility to Unlisted. You can now freely work on your video without it popping up in search results or showing on your channel.
  2. Allow YouTube time to generate automatic 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 and select the video you’d like to caption. You’ll know when the automatic captions are ready to be edited because you’ll see a small pencil icon in the Subtitles column of the row containing your automatic captions.
  4. Once the automatic captions have been created by YouTube, click the aforementioned pencil icon. This will allow you to duplicate and edit them.
  5. Edit the automatic captions as needed. While YouTube’s auto-captioning technology is decent, it doesn’t normally include punctuation or capitalization and sometimes struggles with proper names. You should always edit automatic captions and never just publish them as-is.
  6. After you’re done editing, click the Publish button in the upper right.
  7. Delete the automatic captions for the video so that your edited captions are the only captions available for viewers.
  8. Switch the visibility 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 captions you want to download and a vertical line of three dots should appear next to the icons for edit and delete in the Subtitles column.
  5. Click the three dots and you’ll get the option to Unpublish, Download, or Rename your captions. Choose 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/X, 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.

Open Captions

Open captions are permanently embedded into a video during post-production and always visible. You cannot turn off, move, or resize open captions. They’re also known as burned and embedded captions.

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.

Because open captions are created during post-production using editing programs or captioning apps, you have more creative freedom with how they look. However, it’s best to keep the aesthetic and presentation of your open captions as simple and straightforward as possible to ensure they are accessible.

  • Use a clean sans serif font like Helvetica or Arial.
  • Make sure the captions are a readable font size and weight.
  • Do not put captions in ALL CAPS. Use normal sentence case.
  • Keep the size of your text uniform throughout the video.
  • Position captions clearly on the screen where a viewer can find them (preferably centered near the bottom of the screen when possible).
  • Place a block background behind the text to improve readability (like how YouTube captions are white text on a semi-transparent black background).
  • Stick to black and white for the color scheme of your captions.
  • Reduce any motion in your captions. They shouldn’t resemble karaoke lyrics or a sing-along video. Avoid excessive animation of any sort.
  • Make sure you allow time for viewers to easily read your captions. Don't rush them.

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 or if a platform’s automatic captions cannot be edited.

Watch the below video for an example of open captions. Jeep was praised for this 2022 commercial and its use of captions. They're creative, but still informative.

Accessibility marketing consultant Meryl K. Evans is an expert on proper captioning etiquette and practices. Her website is packed with useful information and tons of great resources including videos that show side-by-side comparisons of different captioning techniques and how they impact viewer experience and accessibility.

Additional Resources and Reading

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