Topographic measurements are essential for the study of earth surface processes. Three-dimensional data have been conventionally obtained through terrestrial laser scanning or photogrammetric methods. However, particularly in steep and rough terrain, high-resolution field measurements remain challenging and often require new creative approaches. In this paper, range imaging is evaluated as an alternative method for obtaining surface data in such complex environments. Range imaging is an emerging time-of-flight technology, using phase shift measurements on a multi-pixel sensor to generate a distance image of a surface. Its suitability for field measurements has yet not been tested. We found ambient light and surface reflectivity to be the main factors affecting error in distance measurements. Low-reflectivity surfaces and strong illumination contrasts under direct exposure to sunlight lead to noisy distance measurements. However, regardless of lighting conditions, the accuracy of range imaging was markedly improved by averaging multiple images of the same scene. For medium ambient lighting (shade) and a light-coloured surface the measurement uncertainty was approximately 9 mm. To further test the suitability of range imaging for field applications we measured a reach of a steep mountain stream with a horizontal resolution of approximately 1 cm (in the focal plane of the camera), allowing for the interpolation of a digital elevation model on a 2 cm grid. Comparison with an elevation model obtained from terrestrial laser scanning for the same site revealed that both models show similar degrees of topographic detail. Despite limitations in measurement range and accuracy, particularly at bright ambient lighting, range imaging offers three-dimensional data in real time and video mode without the need of post-processing. Therefore, range imaging is a useful complement or alternative to existing methods for high-resolution measurements in small- to medium-scale field sites. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.