The production of topographic datasets is of increasing interest and application throughout the geomorphic sciences, and river science is no exception. Consequently, a wide range of topographic measurement methods have evolved. Despite the range of available methods, the production of high resolution, high quality digital elevation models (DEMs) requires a significant investment in personnel time, hardware and/or software. However, image-based methods such as digital photogrammetry have been decreasing in costs. Developed for the purpose of rapid, inexpensive and easy three-dimensional surveys of buildings or small objects, the ‘structure from motion’ photogrammetric approach (SfM) is an image-based method which could deliver a methodological leap if transferred to geomorphic applications, requires little training and is extremely inexpensive. Using an online SfM program, we created high-resolution digital elevation models of a river environment from ordinary photographs produced from a workflow that takes advantage of free and open source software. This process reconstructs real world scenes from SfM algorithms based on the derived positions of the photographs in three-dimensional space. The basic product of the SfM process is a point cloud of identifiable features present in the input photographs. This point cloud can be georeferenced from a small number of ground control points collected in the field or from measurements of camera positions at the time of image acquisition. The georeferenced point cloud can then be used to create a variety of digital elevation products. We examine the applicability of SfM in the Pedernales River in Texas (USA), where several hundred images taken from a hand-held helikite are used to produce DEMs of the fluvial topographic environment. This test shows that SfM and low-altitude platforms can produce point clouds with point densities comparable with airborne LiDAR, with horizontal and vertical precision in the centimeter range, and with very low capital and labor costs and low expertise levels. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.