In digital holographic microscopy, shot noise is an intrinsic part of the recording process with the digital camera. We present a study based on simulations and real measurements describing the shot-noise influence in the quality of the reconstructed phase images. Different configurations of the reference wave and the object wave intensities will be discussed, illustrating the detection limit and the coherent amplification of the object wave. The signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) calculation of the reconstructed phase images based on the decision statistical theory is derived from a model for image quality estimation proposed by Wagner and Brown [Phys. Med. Biol. 30, 489 (1985)]. It will be shown that a phase image with a SNR above 10 can be obtained with a mean intensity lower than 10 photons per pixel and per hologram coming from the observed object. Experimental measurements on a glass-chrome probe will be presented to illustrate the main results of the simulations.