It is possible to control the query planner to some extent by using the explicit JOIN syntax. To see why this matters, we first need some background.
In a simple join query, such as
SELECT * FROM a, b, c WHERE a.id = b.id AND b.ref = c.id;
the planner is free to join the given tables in any order. For example, it could generate a query plan that joins A to B, using the WHERE condition a.id = b.id, and then joins C to this joined table, using the other WHERE condition. Or it could join B to C and then join A to that result. Or it could join A to C and then join them with B — but that would be inefficient, since the full Cartesian product of A and C would have to be formed, there being no applicable condition in the WHERE clause to allow optimization of the join. (All joins in the PostgreSQL executor happen between two input tables, so it's necessary to build up the result in one or another of these fashions.) The important point is that these different join possibilities give semantically equivalent results but may have hugely different execution costs. Therefore, the planner will explore all of them to try to find the most efficient query plan.
When a query only involves two or three tables, there aren't many join orders to worry about. But the number of possible join orders grows exponentially as the number of tables expands. Beyond ten or so input tables it's no longer practical to do an exhaustive search of all the possibilities, and even for six or seven tables planning may take an annoyingly long time. When there are too many input tables, the PostgreSQL planner will switch from exhaustive search to a genetic probabilistic search through a limited number of possibilities. (The switch-over threshold is set by the geqo_threshold run-time parameter.) The genetic search takes less time, but it won't necessarily find the best possible plan.
When the query involves outer joins, the planner has much less freedom than it does for plain (inner) joins. For example, consider
SELECT * FROM a LEFT JOIN (b JOIN c ON (b.ref = c.id)) ON (a.id = b.id);
Although this query's restrictions are superficially similar to the previous example, the semantics are different because a row must be emitted for each row of A that has no matching row in the join of B and C. Therefore the planner has no choice of join order here: it must join B to C and then join A to that result. Accordingly, this query takes less time to plan than the previous query.
Explicit inner join syntax (INNER JOIN, CROSS JOIN, or unadorned JOIN) is semantically the same as listing the input relations in FROM, so it does not need to constrain the join order. But it is possible to instruct the PostgreSQL query planner to treat explicit inner JOINs as constraining the join order anyway. For example, these three queries are logically equivalent:
SELECT * FROM a, b, c WHERE a.id = b.id AND b.ref = c.id;
SELECT * FROM a CROSS JOIN b CROSS JOIN c WHERE a.id = b.id AND b.ref = c.id;
SELECT * FROM a JOIN (b JOIN c ON (b.ref = c.id)) ON (a.id = b.id);
But if we tell the planner to honor the JOIN order, the second and third take less time to plan than the first. This effect is not worth worrying about for only three tables, but it can be a lifesaver with many tables.
To force the planner to follow the JOIN order for inner joins, set the join_collapse_limit run-time parameter to 1. (Other possible values are discussed below.)
You do not need to constrain the join order completely in order to cut search time, because it's OK to use JOIN operators within items of a plain FROM list. For example, consider
SELECT * FROM a CROSS JOIN b, c, d, e WHERE ...;
With join_collapse_limit = 1, this forces the planner to join A to B before joining them to other tables, but doesn't constrain its choices otherwise. In this example, the number of possible join orders is reduced by a factor of 5.
Constraining the planner's search in this way is a useful technique both for reducing planning time and for directing the planner to a good query plan. If the planner chooses a bad join order by default, you can force it to choose a better order via JOIN syntax — assuming that you know of a better order, that is. Experimentation is recommended.
A closely related issue that affects planning time is collapsing of subqueries into their parent query. For example, consider
FROM x, y,
(SELECT * FROM a, b, c WHERE something) AS ss
This situation might arise from use of a view that contains a join; the view's SELECT rule will be inserted in place of the view reference, yielding a query much like the above. Normally, the planner will try to collapse the subquery into the parent, yielding
SELECT * FROM x, y, a, b, c WHERE something AND somethingelse;
This usually results in a better plan than planning the subquery separately. (For example, the outer WHERE conditions might be such that joining X to A first eliminates many rows of A, thus avoiding the need to form the full logical output of the subquery.) But at the same time, we have increased the planning time; here, we have a five-way join problem replacing two separate three-way join problems. Because of the exponential growth of the number of possibilities, this makes a big difference. The planner tries to avoid getting stuck in huge join search problems by not collapsing a subquery if more than from_collapse_limit FROM items would result in the parent query. You can trade off planning time against quality of plan by adjusting this run-time parameter up or down.
from_collapse_limit and join_collapse_limit are similarly named because they do almost the same thing: one controls when the planner will "flatten out" subselects, and the other controls when it will flatten out explicit inner joins. Typically you would either set join_collapse_limit equal to from_collapse_limit (so that explicit joins and subselects act similarly) or set join_collapse_limit to 1 (if you want to control join order with explicit joins). But you might set them differently if you are trying to fine-tune the trade off between planning time and run time.